- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 16, 2008


ByAllen C. Guelzo

Simon & Schuster, $26, 416 pages, illus.


The 1858 Senate race in Illinois featured two very different cuts of men: Stephen Douglas, a powerful, well-connected incumbent, who was a major figure in the nation’s capital, and Abraham Lincoln, a well respected local lawyer who had compiled a long list of electoral defeats.

Lincoln was denied the 1854 election to the Senate which seemed rightfully his, and he was forced to throw his support to the anti-slavery Democratic candidate Lyman Trumbull who eventually won the seat.

Thus, the new Republican Party reluctantly had to pay a debt it owed to the former Whig politician, and Lincoln got his chance. Unfortunately, he had to go up against the popular Stephen Douglas. But Douglas did not underestimate Lincoln, calling him an able, articulate and honorable foe.

After having given up political ambitions in the late 1840s, Lincoln came back into the arena after Douglas’ attempt to pass the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 which would have opened up more territories to the probability of slave-holding in the territorial states. Lincoln had argued for years that slavery was a moral wrong, protected by the Constitution, which would eventually wither up. Now that view was no longer likely.

Then in 1856, the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott case held that no state could prohibit the right of a slave-owner to settle in any area of the nation. Slaves were property and had no more rights than pigs or cows. Douglas had argued that popular sovereignty or majority democratic rule, should govern which territories became slave and which would be free. But Dred Scott trumped popular sovereignty.

To Lincoln it was a conspiracy of Chief Justice Roger Taney, President James Buchanan and Stephen Douglas to allow the unbridled expansion of slavery everywhere in the United States. In accepting the nomination for the Senate, Lincoln made the inflammatory statement that a “house divided against itself can not stand” — the nation will be either totally slave or free, a quote from the Bible which he had used before as early as 1843.

It was a powerful moral challenge and surely reflected his deepest sentiments. But it gave his opponents in the campaign a major issue to attack him relentlessly. Douglas was substantially ahead in his campaign for re-election.

In those days, U.S. senators were chosen by the state legislatures not by direct popular vote. So the composition of the legislature was critical, and apportionment or malapportionment was a major determinant in victory. Lincoln’s handlers found that his House Divided speech would harm him, especially in the middle section of Illinois where old time Whig voters were predominant.

Lincoln, who was an old line Whig all of his adult life, was now branded as a radical and an abolitionist interested in racial assimilation. Almost out of despair, the Republican leaders got Douglas to agree to seven debates across the state. More out of arrogance than calculation, Douglas concurred and chose the sites, but he was aware that Lincoln was no pushover.

In addition, Douglas was having financial troubles in funding his campaign and relied on money from the East and from his real estate investments. Most importantly, he had major opposition from the Buchanan wing of the party in Washington D.C. which led to problems back home.

Lincoln faced his own difficulties with the opposition of publisher Horace Greeley and old Henry Clay adherents, especially Sen. John Crittenden of Kentucky, who took the occasion to support Douglas publicly. His letter probably hurt Lincoln extensively especially the middle of the state.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates featured an opening statement of one hour; a rejoinder from the second candidate one and a half hours and then a final response by the first candidate for a half hour. The debates took on a carnival atmosphere. Douglas was at his racist best; Lincoln especially in the southern part of the state equivocated on his House Divided sentiments and upheld the superiority of the white race and opposed including blacks in civil affairs.

At times Lincoln seemed almost embarrassed by his own racial remarks. But it was at Freeport that he tried to show that Douglas could not support Dred Scot and also popular sovereignty. Douglas insisted that any importation of slavery would depend on congenial local laws and admission, but Lincoln hammered away at the contradictions. And Southerners saw Douglas as trying to undo the pro-slavery policies of Buchanan and the Supreme Court in Dred Scott.

According to Mr. Guelzo, a professor at Gettysburg College, Douglas saw the debate as a performance art. Lincoln however stressed the impact of those speeches in print for the larger audience. For Douglas democracy was process, but for Lincoln it had a moral dimension. The old Whigs and the Southerners were correct—Lincoln struck deep into the moral rottenness of their “domestic intuition.” If slavery was not wrong, he insisted, then nothing was wrong.

Mr. Guelzo insists that Lincoln won the popular vote, and he produces all sorts of ingenuous charts to prove his point. But Lincoln lost the seat due to a malapportioned legislature.

And Lincoln lost because he insisted that slavery was so inherently immoral that the American experience would not endure, regardless of what the first Founding Fathers said. So he lost, and remarked that he was too sad to laugh and too old to cry. But soon his message spread to the East. He was invited to speak in New York City, and at Cooper’s Institute he delivered the speech that made him president.

Michael P. Riccards is the author of the two volume history of the presidency, “Ferocious Engine of Democracy.”

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