“Lincoln Hoss and Stephen A.”


"There's an old plow 'hoss' whose name is 'Dug,' Doo-dah, doo-dah, He's short and thick, a regular plug... We're bound to work all night... I'll bet my money on the 'Lincoln Hoss,' Who bets on Stephen A.?" Douglas's political problems are parodied


In addition to having been a moderate on slavery issues, Stephen A. Douglas was a short, stout man. Hence this vicious satire on a man who, though he was not a strong opponent of slavery, was in every other way an honest and generous politician. - RBW

Oh, I don't know about that. James McPherson's _Battle Cry of Freedom_ offers evidence that Douglas took pro-slavery positions to win the support of southern politicians for his attempts to obtain railroad concessions. His record, at least as detailed in that book, is considerably less than honorable. - PJS

Paul is right; McPherson, pp. 121-122, reports that Douglas was "a large investor in Chicago real estate" who "had enhanced the value of his property by securing a federal land grant for a railroad from that city to Mobile. Perhaps hopingto repeat the scenario from Chicago to San Francisco, Douglas and [William A.] Richardson in 1853 reported bills to organize Nebraska territory." But even McPherson admits his view is controversial.

Allan Nevins, _Ordeal of the Union: A House Dividing 1852-1857_ [volume II of _The Ordeal of the Union_], pp. 9, admits that he was a favorite of "an industrious bevy of lobbyists and privilege-hunters" and that he "had made a good deal of money in real estate [and] was something of a Western land speculator himself."

Great care must be taken not to see the men of 1860 in the light of today. If Douglas were alive today, we would consider him utterly vile -- it should be remembered that Douglas did not wish to destroy slavery. But it was an attitude of the time. Similarly, that was the era of the spoils system. Few people could make a career of politics, and elected officials weren't paid very well; naturally they tried to take advantage. Today, he would be in trouble with the Ethics Committee. But the rules were very different then -- and at least Douglas lived at a time when incumbents could be voted out of office!

In his defence, we note that J. G. Randall's _The Civil War and Reconstruction_ (second edition by David Donald, Heath, 1961), p. 93, says that "His forthrightness, vigor, and aggressiveness, his force as a debater and talent as a political strategist, had made a deep impression; and the breadth of his natinal vision had given him a peculiar distinction in an age when the sectionalism of many of the nation's leaders was all too evident."

The real complaint against Douglas is that he destroyed the Compromise of 1850. Yes, he did, and he did it over Kansas. But the Compromise was doomed anyway. If it hadn't been for Kansas, it would have been Dred Scott, or the Wilmot Proviso (which hadn't been settled, merely buried) or the Mormons, or Cuba, or something; the Whig party, we must remember, was *already* dying over the Slavery issue in 1852, before the first drop of blood was shed in Kansas. And Douglas notably opposed the fraudulent Lecompton constitution for Kansas.

The majority of historians I've consulted consider Douglas as basically honest, though he certainly resorted to a lot of politicians' tricks. And when it came down to the breach during the election of 1860, Douglas -- and only Douglas -- went all-out, campaigning to save the Union. In the process, he did such harm to his health that he died soon afterward.

According to William and Bruce Catton, _Two Roads to Sumter_, p. 233, after it became clear that the parties were split in 1860, and that diaster loomed, it was Douglas, and Douglas alone, who gave his all to try to prevent the war: "The final months of his life were a blaze of glory for the Little Giant, and the greatness that had always hovered above his dogged trail descended fully upon him at the last. Of all the varied courses pursued by America's leaders in the loud, uneasy campaign of 1860, his alone was that of the statesman. Not only grasping but squarely confronting the probably course of events that would follow a Republican victory, Douglas made the Union his sole platform.

"His purpose was simply to remind the electorate, and especially the Democrats, that defeat at the polls in a fair election was no valid cause for destroying the government.... Douglas even carried his message to the deep South, where it took real courage to glorify the Union and repudiate secession at this late date. Abuse, rotten eggs, and detailed threats of physical force attended his swing through the cotton states...."

Nevins, _The Emergence of Lincoln: Prologue to Civil War 1859-1861_ [volume IV of _The Ordeal of the Union_], p. 293, says that Douglas even feared a sort of sourthern coup d'etat if southern Democratic candidate and vice president Breckinridge won the border states, and that he campaigned heavily there to prevent it. The coup was probably just a daydream, but Douglas accomplished his ends, more or less: He took Missourri, John Bell won Virginia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, and Breckinridge's margin in Maryland was too small to allow any such games.

Elections at this time were conducted over an extended period; Pennsylvania and Indiana voted before the rest of the North. When Pennsylvania went Republican, Douglas declared, "Mr. Lincoln is the next President. We must try to save the Union. I will go south" (Nevins1859, p. 295).

Another measure of Douglas's character is that Alexander Stephens, the future Confederate Vice President who was also perhaps the most realistic man in the South, and one who knew Douglas, openly declared that he admired the man (Nevins, p. 296).

I guess I would sum it up this way: No man in the United States loved the Union more than Douglas. Was this a crime? Lincoln fought the Civil War to preserve the Union. The difference between the two is that Douglas loved the Union as it was; Lincoln loved it as it should have been. Certainly LIncoln's was a better Union -- but not a good one; Lincoln, for instance, had no use at all for indepenent women -- when Jesse Benton Fremont visited him in the White House, he brushed her off as a "female politician" (Allan Nevins, _The War for the Union: The Improvised War 1861-1862_, p.338). Lincoln had reason to be irritated with her, but the remark shows that he too had a lot to learn. Lincoln was more right than Douglas on one specific issue. It was enough to make him President. But it doesn't prove that he was actually a much greater man.

Really, Douglas is one of the hardest characters in American history to grasp. The disagreement with Paul rather shows the point: Could Douglas be great without being good? He made things happen, but sometimes it almost seemed as if he was stirring things up just to see if he could enjoy the chaos. On the whole, he reminds me more of Theodore Roosevelt than almost any other American politician. (Which, I am sure, will draw more protests. But, of course, opinions of TR were also very mixed.)

For more background on the Lincoln/Douglas situation, see the notes to "Lincoln and Liberty." - RBW

Historical references

  • 1847 - Stephen A. Douglas (1813-1861) of Illinois elected Senator
  • 1854 - In response to the Kansas slavery question, Douglas proposes "popular sovereignty"
  • 1858 - Abraham Lincoln runs for Senator from Illinois against Douglas. Douglas wins the election, but is forced to declare moderate positions that cause extremists on both sides of the slavery question to oppose him.
  • 1860 - A four-way race pits Lincoln (Republican) against Douglas, the southern Democrat Breckinridge, and the "Constitutional Unionist" John Bell. In a bitter campaign over slavery, Douglas is lampooned by both sides. Lincoln earns 40% of the vote and is elected President; Douglas earns 29%
  • 1861 - Douglas dies after strenuous attempts to save the Union and, failing that, to support Lincoln's positions

Cross references


  1. Spaeth-ReadWeep, pp. 42-43, "'Lincoln Hoss' and Stephen A." (1 text, tune referenced)
  2. BI, SRW042


Author: unknown