Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Book Reviews: From political histories to bad comics, to bad comics of political histories. And the occasional rant about fiction and writing.

Mimsy Review: The Life of Stephen A. Douglas

Reviewed by Jerry Stratton, September 29, 2021

It is due to candor to state that these pages have been prepared without having been submitted to Mr. Douglas, who, if he read them at all, will do so for the first time after the issue of the book. They have been written by one who agrees fully with Mr. Douglas in political views, and who, since the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, has been engaged in maintaining before the people of Illinois the wisdom, justice, and expediency of the policy of the Democratic party upon the question of Slavery in the Territories.

Where Abraham Lincoln’s conservative principles made a flawed man better, Stephen A. Douglas’s belief in the responsibility of government elites for managing lesser men made him far worse.

RecommendationSpecial Interests Only
Year1860
Length564 kilobytes
Book Rating4
Stephen Douglas campaign

Materials from Douglas’s 1860 campaign. The note underneath Douglas’s photo was a lie to undermine Lincoln’s legitimacy. Lincoln won by enough to have won even with a unified opponent.

Throughout President Lincoln’s life, Stephen A. Douglas appears as a sort of master villain. After reading Lincoln’s Life and Writings it seemed like a good idea to read about Douglas. James Washington Sheahan considered him a great man and a hero. Sheahan wrote The Life of Stephen A. Douglas on the eve of the 1860 election season, ending with the assumption that Douglas would be the next president:

At this day he [Douglas] occupies the most extraordinary position of being the only man in his own party whose nomination for the Presidency is deemed equivalent to an election. Friends of other statesmen claim that other men, if nominated, may be elected—a claim that admits of strong and well supported controversy; but friend and foe—all Democrats, unite in the opinion that Douglas’ nomination will place success beyond all doubt.

Not only did this not work out in the general election, but Douglas had a hell of a time even getting the nomination. As they do today, Democrats had a more stringent primary process than Republicans, one designed to keep insiders in control. In 1860, they required a two-thirds majority to nominate a candidate. While it was standard practice for a candidate who received majority support to get further support in subsequent rounds, slave states were so strongly against Douglas that they did not do this. Douglas continued to get the majority, but never two-thirds.

The reason slave states were against Douglas is not because he opposed slavery, but because he didn’t support it enough. He supported allowing slavery to spread into new territories and states, but did not support forcing slavery into new territories and states.

Anyone thinking that slavery was not the major reason for slave states seceding after Lincoln’s election would do well to read this biography. Once past Douglas’s young life and into his political life it is almost entirely filled with Douglas’s arguments in favor of allowing slavery. There are a few sections about how railroads and ports should be funded but by far the major portion is about the spread of slavery into new territories and states.

Even when Douglas appears to be talking about crimes against property, he is talking about slavery:

The government contended for authorizes them to protect property in horses, in cattle, in merchandise, and property of every kind and description, real and personal; but the senator from Mississippi says that you must exclude African slavery.

There is nothing here that changes the picture I’d made of Douglas from Lincoln’s quoting of him. If anything, Douglas fares worse in this very friendly treatment. Lincoln characterizes Douglas’s policy as that “if any one man choose to enslave another, no third man shall be allowed to object.” Douglas never addresses this argument; it seems alien to him that anyone would even think that a slave should be considered as anything other than property. At one point he claimed to have addressed the question:

I answer the question of the senator from Wisconsin, that I am willing that a territory settled by white men shall have negroes, free or slave, just as the white men shall determine, but not as the negro shall prescribe.

But he answered it only in the sense of saying that he agrees with it.

…in my opinion, this government… should be administered by white men, and by none other whatsoever… I am in favor of throwing the territories open to all the white men, and all the negroes, too, that choose to go, and then allow the white man to govern the territory.

Throughout this book, in quotes from Douglas’s speeches in public and as a Senator, he continually argues in favor of what he calls “popular sovereignty” or “self-government”, which he defines as “the right of the people to form for themselves such a government as they may choose… to form their own institutions, to establish free states or slave states as they chose…” But this right always presupposes the right of people like Douglas to manage people of lesser intelligence.

Are not the people of the Territories capable of self-government? If not, why give them a Legislature at all—why allow them to make laws upon any subject? If they are capable of self-government, does it require any higher degree of intelligence to legislate for the negro than for the white man, or to prescribe the relations of master and servant than those of husband and wife, and parent and child?

He sees the relationship between married couples and families as just as amenable to legislation as slavery. But he goes even further.

We agree that the people shall decide for themselves what kind of a judiciary system they will have; we agree that the people shall decide what kind of a school system they will establish; we agree that the people shall determine for themselves what kind of a banking system they will have, or whether they will have any banks at all; we agree that the people may decide for themselves what shall be the elective franchise in their respective states; they shall decide for themselves what shall be the rule of taxation and the principles upon which their finance shall be regulated; we agree that they may decide for themselves the relations between husband and wife, parent and child, guardian and ward; and why should we not then allow them to decide for themselves the relations between master and servant? Why make an exception of the Slavery question, by taking it out of that great rule of self-government which applies to all the other relations of life?

“Why make an exception…” is a very common phrasing of his; he lists things that are very unlike slavery and then asks, why make an exception for slavery? But all of the other things he mentions are things men decide for themselves. The final argues, as Lincoln accusation said, that for Douglas some men have the right to choose to enslave other men.

Douglas’s “some men” were an enlightened elite. It was the responsibility of the enlightened to manage those lesser men. He included slaves among them, but as the quote above shows, did not limit his Democrats’ burden to just slaves.

Douglas explicitly considered slavery an enlightened policy. In his era, Mormons still practiced polygamy, and Douglas took issue when Republicans attacked both polygamy and slavery as “twin relics of barbarism”. Polygamy, in his view, really was barbaric.

He is a very smooth-tongued orator, a model of the old-school senator, and often seems to switch argument halfway through a thought. When justifying slavery based on the history of the United States, he used several examples of states when still under control of England complaining to the king about slavery. In every example, the states were complaining that the king was forcing slavery upon them—even in places like Virginia and Georgia. This, to Douglas, was an argument for allowing slavery in new territories, because part of the reason for revolting against England was that these states wanted to choose against slavery and were forbidden to do so.

Stephen A. Douglas

Sir, what would this boasted principle of popular sovereignty have been worth if it applied only to the negro, and did not extend to the white man? Do you think we could have aroused the sympathies and the patriotism of this broad republic, and have carried the presidential election last year, in the face of a tremendous opposition, on the principle of extending the right of self-government to the Negro question, but denying it as to all the relations affecting white men? No, sir. We aroused the patriotism of the country, and carried the election in defense of that great principle which allowed all white men to form and regulate their domestic institutions to suit themselves—institutions applicable to white men as well as to black men—institutions applicable to freemen as well as to slaves—institutions concerning all the relations of life, and not the mere paltry exception of the Slavery question.

If it begins to sound like modern moral equivalence, that’s because it is:

The great principle is the right of every community to judge and decide for itself whether a thing is right or wrong, whether it would be good or evil for them to adopt it; and the right of free action, the right of free thought, the right of free judgment upon the question is dearer to every true American than any other under a free government.

From the beginning Democrats have used opposite words. To Douglas the right of the people to decide for themselves excludes the people who would be enslaved. Douglas’s version of states’ rights meant Democrats deciding who had the right to vote in the states. And freedom of speech still depends on who defines what is or is not valid speech. Hate speech need not apply! Stephen Douglas considered anti-slavery speech as hate speech; modern Democrats claim that holding everyone to equal standards is hate speech.

The platform of the Illinois Democrats as summarized by Douglas included:

That while negroes are not citizens of the United States, and hence not entitled to political equality with whites, they should enjoy all the rights, privileges, and immunities which they are capable of exercising, consistent with the safety and welfare of the community where they live.

Of course, Douglas reserved for himself the power to decide what rights “they are capable of exercising”. Some things never change.

Douglas used “popular sovereignty” as an opposite phrase. By “popular” he meant “by an elite”, an elite chosen for their fealty to the principles of Democrats. Republicans need not apply.

He criticized a Senator Wade from Ohio1 for saying that “a negro was as good as a white man; with the avowal that he did not consider himself any better than a free negro.” Douglas often prefaced the word “Black” when referring to the Republican party, that is, “the Black Republican party, whose whole creed is subversive of the Constitution and destructive of the Union”

Efforts are now being made to organize a new party—a great Northern, sectional party—upon the abolition platform, and carry on an offensive war against the local and domestic institutions of one half of the states of the Union, under a banner which shall proclaim to the world that they claim for themselves the protection of the Constitution which they deny to those upon whose rights they make war—that the Constitution is binding upon their opponents, but not upon themselves—and that they hold themselves at liberty at all times to obey or resist it, as may best suit their purposes. Whatever name shall be given to this new political organization—whether it shall be called Whig, Abolition, Free-soil, or Know-nothing—it will still be the antagonism of the Democratic party.

There’s a bit of verbal trickery going on in there, ending on associating Republicans with the anti-Catholic Know-nothing party. Those who oppose slavery are hatemongers, “comparatively few in number, and should be left to the task of nourishing a hatred in which no Democrat has any participation.” The Harper’s Ferry attack “was the natural consequence and logical result of the doctrines and teachings of the Republican party”.

The relationship between Democrats and Republicans hasn’t changed a lot since Douglas’s time. Democrats have been stigmatizing Republicans since the start of the Republican Party, and with the same tactics, associating them with with racists while being over the top racists themselves.

Republican hate speech was so bad, said Douglas, that it required federal action “for the suppression and punishment of conspiracies or combinations in any state or territory with intent to invade, assail, or molest the government, inhabitants, property, or institutions of any state or territory of the Union.”

To avoid this punishment, Republicans must disavow not just violence, but the hate speech that says slavery is an evil:

It is true that most of its representatives here disavow the acts of John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. [But] it is not sufficient that they disavow the act, unless they also repudiate and denounce the doctrines and teachings which produced the act.

The language is archaic, but the meaning is very familiar. Douglas calls for unity, but only if the demands of Democrats are met:

…the mode of preserving peace is plain. This system of sectional warfare must cease. The Constitution has given the power, and all we ask of Congress is to give the means, and we, by indictments and convictions in the Federal courts of our several states, will make such examples of the leaders of these conspiracies as will strike terror into the hearts of the others, and there will be an end of this crusade. Sir, you must check it by crushing out the conspiracy, the combination, and then there can be safety. Then we shall be able to restore that spirit of fraternity which inspired our revolutionary fathers upon every battle-field…

As I write this, the Biden administration says the same thing: admit that the January 6 protests were an insurrection and that conservatives should be jailed for dissent, and we can have peace.

I began my post on Lincoln’s Life and Writings by quoting George Eliot about history repeating with only a change of costume. Reading this story of Stephen A. Douglas and his life-long fight against the hate-filled opponents of the freedom to enslave others, I had the feeling that sometimes even the costume barely changes.

In response to The Life and Writings of Abraham Lincoln: As the founding president of the Republican Party and the man who guided the United States through the incredible sacrifices of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, Abraham Lincoln deserves more than adulation. He deserves to be read.

  1. “Senator Wade from Ohio” was probably Republican Benjamin Wade.

The Life of Stephen A. Douglas

Recommendation: Special Interests Only

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