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- The Life of Stephen A. Douglas - 1/29 -

The Life of Stephen A. Douglas

by William Gardner


De mortuis nil nisi bonum, (of the dead speak nothing but good), is the rule which governed the friends of Stephen A. Douglas after his death. "Of political foes speak nothing but ill," is the rule which has guided much of our discussion of him for forty years. The time has now arrived when we can study him dispassionately and judge him justly, when we can take his measure, if not with scientific accuracy, at least with fairness and honesty.

Where party spirit is as despotic as it is among us, it is difficult for any man who spends his life amid the storms of politics to get justice until the passions of his generation have been forgotten. Even then he is generally misjudged--canonized as a saint, with extravagant eulogy, by those who inherit his party name, and branded as a traitor or a demagogue by those who wear the livery of opposition.

Douglas has perhaps suffered more from this method of dealing with our political heroes than any other American statesman of the first class. He died at the opening of the Civil War. It proved to be a revolution which wrought deep changes in the character of the people. It was the beginning of a new era in our national life. We are in constant danger of missing the real worth of men in these ante-bellum years because their modes of thought and feeling were not those of this generation.

The Civil War, with its storm of passion, banished from our minds the great men and gigantic struggles of the preceding decade. We turned with scornful impatience from the pitiful and abortive compromises of those times, the puerile attempts to cure by futile plasters the cancer that was eating the vitals of the nation. We hastily concluded that men who belonged to the party of Jefferson Davis and Judah P. Benjamin during those critical years were of doubtful loyalty and questionable patriotism, that men who battled with Lincoln, Seward and Chase could hardly be true-hearted lovers of their country. Douglas died too soon to make clear to a passion-stirred world that he was as warmly attached to the Union, as intensely loyal, as devotedly patriotic, as Lincoln himself.

The grave questions arising from the War, which disturbed our politics for twenty years, the great economic questions which have agitated us for the past fifteen years, bear slight relation to those dark problems with which Douglas and his contemporaries grappled. He was on the wrong side of many struggles preliminary to the War. He was not a profound student of political economy, hence is not an authority for any party in the perplexing questions of recent times. The result is that the greatest political leader of the most momentous decade of our history is less known to us than any second-rate hero of the Revolution.

It is not of much importance now to any one whether Douglas is loved or hated, admired or despised. It is of some importance that he be understood.

I have derived this narrative mainly from original sources. The biography written during his life-time by his friend Sheahan, and that published two years after his death by his admirer, Flint, are chiefly drawn on for the brief account of his early life. The history of his career in Congress has been gathered from the Congressional record; the account of Conventions from contemporary reports, and the Debates with Lincoln from the authorized publication.

I have not consciously taken any liberty with any text quoted, except to omit superfluous words, which omissions are indicated by asterisks. I have not attempted to pronounce judgement on Douglas or his contemporaries, but to submit the evidence. Not those who write, but those who read, pass final judgement on the heroes of biography.

Chapter I. Youth.

Stephen Arnold Douglas was born at Brandon, Vermont, on the 23rd of April, 1813. His father was a physician, descended from Scotch ancestors, who had settled in Connecticut before the Revolution. his mother was the daughter of a prosperous Vermont farmer. Before he was three months old his father, whose only fortune was his practice, suddenly died. A bachelor brother of the widow took the family to his home near Brandon, where they lived for fifteen years. When not needed at more important work Stephen attended the common school. but the serious business of life was tilling his uncle's fields.

At fifteen he sought help to prepare for college. His uncle declined to assume the burden of his education and advised him to shun the perils of professional life and adopt the safe and honorable career of a farmer. The advice was rejected and he obtained permission to earn his way and shape his future. He walked to Middlebury, a distance of fourteen miles, and apprenticed himself to a cabinet maker. He worked with energy and enthusiasm, became a good mechanic and bade fair to win success at his trade, but owning to delicate health he abandoned the shop after less than two years' service, and entered the academy at Brandon, where he pursued his studies for about a year, when his mother married again and moved to Canandiagua, New York. He there entered an academy and continued an industrious student for nearly three years, devoting part of his time to law study. This ended his preliminary training. He quit the schools and applied himself to the work of practical life.

In June, 1833, he left home to push his fortune in the West. His health was delicate, his stock of money scant. He went to Cleveland, Ohio, where he became acquainted with a lawyer named Andrews, who, pleased with the appearance of the youth, invited him to share his office and use his library, with the promise of a partnership when admitted to the bar. The offer was accepted and he began his duties as law clerk. A week later he was taken seriously sick, and at the end of his long illness the doctors advised him to return home. He rejected the advice and in October took passage on a canal boat for Portsmouth, on the Ohio river, and went thence to Cincinnati. For a week he sought employment. Unable to find it he went to Louisville, where another week was spent in vain quest of work. He continued his journey to St. Louis, where he landed in the late autumn. An eminent lawyer offered him free use of his library, but an empty purse compelled him to decline the offer and seek immediate work. He went to Jacksonville, Illinois, arriving late in November, and addressed himself to the pressing problem of self-support. The remnant of his cash amount to thirty-seven cents.

Chapter II. Apprenticeship.

In those days Illinois was a frontier State with about 200,000 population, chiefly settled in its southern half. A large part of the people were from the South and, in defiance of the law, owned many negro slaves. The Capital was at Vandalia, although Jacksonville and Springfield were the towns of highest promise and brightest prospects. Chicago contained a few score of people to whom the Indians were still uncomfortably close neighbors. Railroads and canals were beginning to be built, with promise of closer relations between the villages and settlements theretofore lost in the solitudes.

Finding no employment at Jacksonville, he sold his few books to keep off hunger and walked to Winchester. On the morning after his arrival he found a crowd assembled on the street where a public sale was about to open. Delay was occasioned by the want of a competent clerk and he was hired for two dollars a day to keep the record of the sale. He was then employed to teach a private school in the town at a salary of forty dollars a month. Besides teaching he found time to read a few borrowed law books and try an occasional case before the village justice.

Having been admitted to the bar in March, 1834, he opened a law office at Jacksonville. His professional career, though successful, was so completely eclipsed by the brilliancy of his political achievements that it need not detain us. The readiness and agility of his mind; the adaptability of his convictions to the demands of the hour; his self-confident energy, were such that he speedily developed into a good trial lawyer and won high standing at the bar. That the profession was not then as lucrative as it has since become, is evidenced by the fact that he traveled from Springfield to Bloomington and argued a case for a fee of five dollars.

But his time and energy were devoted to politics rather than law. The strategy of parties interested him more than Coke or Justinian. Jacksonville was a conservative, religious town, whose population consisted chiefly of New England Puritans and Whigs. But the prairies were settled by a race of thoroughly Democratic pioneers to whom the rough victor at New Orleans was a hero in war and a master in statecraft.

Douglas was an enthusiastic Democrat and an ardent admirer of President Jackson. The favorite occupation of the young lawyer, not yet harassed by clients, was to talk politics to the farmers, or gather them into his half furnished office and discuss more gravely the questions of party management.

A few days after his arrival the opportunity came to distinguish himself in the field of his future achievements. A mass meeting was called at the court house for the purpose of endorsing the policy of the President in removing the deposits of public money from the United States bank and vetoing the bill for its recharter. The opposition was bitter. In the state of public temper it was a delicate task to present the resolutions. The man who had undertaken it lost courage at the sight of the multitude and handed them to Douglas, and the crowd looked with amused surprise when the young stranger, who was only five feet tall, appeared on the platform. He

The Life of Stephen A. Douglas - 1/29

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