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Year of meteors : Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the election that brought on the Civil War PDF

307 Pages·2011·2.96 MB·English
by  Douglas
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Contents Prologue “Let Us Press On”: April–June, 1861 Chapter 1 A Nation with Its “Hands Full”: The Republic on the Eve of 1860 Chapter 2 “Douglas or Nobody”: The Democrats Chapter 3 Principles and the “Duty to Recognize” None: The Constitutional Union and Liberty Parties Chapter 4 “Moving Heaven and Earth”: The Republicans Chapter 5 “Beyond the Power of Surgery”: The Democrats, Again Chapter 6 “Lincoln Is the Next President. I Will Go South”: The Campaigns Chapter 7 “The Union Is Dissolved”: The Lower South Secedes Chapter 8 “Others to Share the Burden”: Two Governments Prepare Chapter 9 “All Our Labor Is Lost”: Compromise Committees and the Washington Peace Conference Epilogue “To Act the Part of a Patriot”: March–April, 1861 Acknowledgments Notes Appendix 1860 Election Scenarios and Possible Outcomes Footnotes A Note on the Author By the Same Author For my daughters Kearney and Hannah, who always make me smile Year of meteors! brooding year! I would bind in words retrospective, some of your deeds and signs; I would sing your contest for the 19th Presidentiad; I would sing how an old man, tall, with white hair, mounted the scaffold in Virginia; (I was at hand—silent I stood, with teeth shut close—I watch’d; I stood very near you, old man, when cool and indifferent, but trembling with age and your unheal’d wounds, you mounted the scaffold;) I would sing in my copious song your census returns of The States, The tables of population and products—I would sing of your ships and their cargoes, The proud black ships of Manhattan, arriving, some fill’d with immigrants, some from the isthmus with cargoes of gold; Songs thereof would I sing—to all that hitherward comes would I welcome give; And you would I sing, fair stripling! welcome to you from me, sweet boy of England! Remember you surging Manhattan’s crowds, as you pass’d with your cortege of nobles? There in the crowds stood I, and singled you out with attachment; There in the crowds stood I, and singled you out with attachment; Nor forget I to sing of the wonder, the ship as she swam up my bay, Well-shaped and stately the Great Eastern swam up my bay, she was 600 feet long, Her, moving swiftly, surrounded by myriads of small craft, I forget not to sing; Nor the comet that came unannounced out of the north, flaring in heaven; Nor the strange huge meteor procession, dazzling and clear, shooting over our heads, (A moment, a moment long, it sail’d its balls of unearthly light over our heads, Then departed, dropt in the night, and was gone;) Of such, and fitful as they, I sing—with gleams from them would I gleam and patch these chants; Your chants, O year all mottled with evil and good! year of forebodings! Year of comets and meteors transient and strange! lo— even here one transient and strange! As I flit through you hastily, soon to fall and be gone, what is this chant, What am I myself but one of your meteors? —WALT WHITMAN, 1859–1860 Prologue “Let Us Press On” April–June, 1861 R llinois as Little Egypt, not only because the flat terrain ESIDENTS DUBBED SOUTHERN I resembled the Nile delta but also because the region exhibited the proslavery attitudes of its ancient namesake. Although the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 allowed “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude” in the region, settlers who had carried their slaves into the territory before the ordinance were permitted to retain their unwaged laborers. A resident of the aptly named Cairo could gaze east across the Ohio River into Kentucky, while another might face west and spy Missouri. Boatmen sailing down the Mississippi River reached the Tennessee border after forty-three miles. So it was no surprise that public opinion in lower Illinois was bitterly divided following the Confederate bombardment of Fort Sumter on the morning of April 12, 1861. The Golconda Weekly Herald warned residents to arm themselves against “black Republican” armies, and several city leaders in Cairo threatened to turn the town into an independent city-state. “Many who profess to be Union men,” fretted one Democrat, “hesitate about coming out boldly against treason, fearing hereafter to be classed as Republicans.” The state assembly was preparing to go into special session on April 23, and worried legislators peppered Stephen A. Douglas, the state’s Democratic senior senator, with urgent requests to “stand by our Government, and sink party feeling for the present.” Douglas’s health, damaged by a lifetime’s fondness for whiskey and cigars, had yet to recover from the grueling fall campaign and a bruising winter legislative session in Washington. But vowing, “Let us press on,” he resolved to “come home to arouse the people in favor of the Union.”1 On April 20, Douglas and his second wife, Adele, left the besieged national capital by rail; across the river in Virginia, the Stars and Bars, the first of several Confederate flags, flapped in the spring breeze. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad passed through portions of western Virginia, and when his train reached the arsenal town of Harpers Ferry, southern militiamen boarded the car and threatened to arrest the senator as a prisoner of war. With more courage than realism, the diminutive Little Giant, as the senator was known, warned the soldiers that if they did so, they would have to answer to the “largest army” that Virginia had yet seen. Cooler heads prevailed, and the senator was sent on his way. On the morning of April 25, Douglas’s party pulled into Springfield, the Illinois state capital. Although exhausted from his journey, Douglas promptly met with Governor Richard Yates, Republican Illinois senator Lyman Trumbull, and Orville Hickman Browning, a former Whig whom Douglas had bested in an 1843 congressional race. The time for partisanship had passed, Douglas insisted, and together the group forged “an understanding” regarding the various militia bills pending in the state assembly.2 That evening, as legislators and curious residents of the city shoved their way into the packed statehouse, Douglas delivered one of the most important speeches of his career. Once capable of speaking for hours, the weary senator kept his remarks short. But his words were both blunt and emotional, and as he spoke, some in the audience began to weep openly. Uncharacteristically, Douglas began by confessing an error. He had devoted his career to compromise and sectional reconciliation, he admitted, and had “lean[ed] too far to the southern section of the Union against my own.” As had many northern Democrats, Douglas had once believed that appeasement was the wisest response to southern demands regarding slavery in the western territories. But the fruits of his munificence, he fumed, were a “piratical flag” unfurled near the White House and the obstruction of Illinois’s commerce along “our great river.” A “wide-spread conspiracy exists to destroy the best government the sun of heaven ever shed its rays upon,” Douglas shouted, for a “war of aggression and extermination [was] being waged” against the republic by proslavery forces. As Douglas paused to catch his breath, somebody entered the rear of the chamber waving an American flag, and the tears in the hall transformed into cheers and applause.3 On May 1, Douglas reached Chicago. Journalists waiting at the depot marveled at the crowd of thousands that met his car with a resounding roar. Judging from the throng, one might never have known that the politician returning home had finished fourth in the Electoral College during the previous November’s presidential election. An impromptu parade escorted Douglas through the streets toward the Wigwam, the cavernous pine auditorium constructed only the preceding year to house the Republican National Convention. According to one reporter, Douglas’s “words rolled out in unbroken cadences of patriotic devotion as they never rolled before.” Clutching the podium unsteadily, Douglas assured the “ten thousand persons” who had elbowed their way into the hall that the election of Abraham Lincoln was merely the excuse for secession. Returning to the theme he had first advanced in Springfield, Douglas charged that the Confederacy was the product of “an enormous conspiracy” devised months before the fall election. “There are only two sides to the question,” Douglas thundered in conclusion. “Every man must be for the United States or against it. There can be no neutrals in this war, only patriots—or traitors.” It was to be his last speech.4 For the past eighteen years, Douglas had called Washington his home, and he owned no house in Illinois. He and Adele checked in to the Tremont House, on East Chestnut, Chicago’s finest hotel. For the next few days, the senator continued to receive visitors, and despite Adele’s concerns, Douglas and his guests habitually washed down their conversations with copious amounts of whiskey. By May 4, what he described as a “slight cold” had settled into a low fever. The senator sent for several doctors, who pronounced his illness to be “acute rheumatism” of a “typhoid character” complicated by “an ulcerated sore throat.” Within days, Douglas could not use his arms, but he continued to dictate letters denouncing “the Cotton States” and calling on Democrats to “rally to the support of our common country.” Determined to continue his efforts on behalf of his longtime foe who now served as president, Douglas insisted that he be carried outside “into open air,” and by May 19 his doctors were hoping for a complete recovery. But three days later, his “torpor of the liver”—that is, cirrhosis—worsened, and the physicians warned Adele that he “could not recover.”5 Adele sent for their young sons, Robert and Stephen Jr., who attended a private school in the Georgetown section of Washington, and she was joined by her brother, James Madison Cutts Jr. A devout Catholic, Adele brought in Bishop James Duggan, who attempted to perform a long-overdue baptism and administer last rites. Douglas declined both offers, and when a stunned Duggan raised the issue a second time, the senator roused himself to bark in a “strong, full voice” that the bishop “perhaps, did not understand me,” adding that when he “desire[d] it,” he would “communicate with [Duggan] freely.” When Douglas continued to deteriorate, Duggan returned the following day with an offer of extreme unction, only to be rebuffed again by the senator, who snapped that he had “no time to discuss these things now.”6 The senator began to sink “rapidly” just before dawn on Monday, June 3. Lying with his eyes partially closed, Douglas slowly muttered, “Death! Death! Death!” Adele asked if he had any messages for their sons, who had yet to arrive in Chicago. A politician even in the shades, Douglas replied, “Tell them to obey the laws and support the Constitution of the United States.” For the next several hours, he slept quietly and said nothing more. As morning broke, Adele leaned across the bed and said, “Husband, do you know me? Will you kiss me?” Douglas opened his eyes and smiled, and the muscles of his mouth twitched as if in an attempt to comply. According to his doctors, Douglas gave one final “quick, convulsive shudder.” They pronounced him dead “at ten minutes past nine o’clock.” Douglas was forty-eight years old.7 Chicago plunged into “the deepest sorrow” at the news of Douglas’s death. Although word had spread that the senator was gravely ill, city residents had prayed that he would rally, and when his doctors emerged from the Tremont to announce his passing, the several hundred people waiting at the hotel “bowed in awe and sorrow.” Once-hostile reporters were equally stunned. As is often the case, editors “forgot past differences and spoke only of his many virtues.” Yet for once, such journalistic postmortems were more than polite embellishment. Since Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration three months before, Douglas had ceased to be the bitter partisan as he had labored to rally his party and the nation behind the new Republican administration. The mayor of the city ordered that flags be lowered to half-mast and public buildings be “draped in mourning.” The city’s board of trade adjourned when its members heard the news, and most banks closed their doors as well. The Masonic fraternity quickly organized a procession to Bryan Hall, where “their departed member” was to lie in state for the next two days.8 At the offices of the Magnetic Telegraph Company, R. J. Mernick tapped the news along to President Lincoln and to the Capitol. A stunned Lincoln instructed Secretary of State William Henry Seward to drape the White House and the State Department in black crepe. The following day, Secretary of War Simon Cameron—like Seward and Douglas, an unsuccessful contender for the presidency just months before—ordered “the Colonels of the different Regiments” to likewise drape their colors in mourning. Douglas was “a Senator who forgot all prejudices in an earnest desire to serve the Republic,” Cameron wrote, a man “whose last mission on earth was that of rallying the people of his own State of Illinois” to the cause “of the Union.”9 Although Lincoln was well aware of Douglas’s injurious personal habits, he was staggered by the news. Several years before, Lincoln had been asked when he and Douglas had first met, and it had been such a distant memory that he had only been able to guess at 1834. Lincoln had been twenty-five at the time, and the younger Douglas but twenty-one. For nearly three decades the two attorneys had been rivals, first in Illinois law and politics and then on the national stage. But each had respected the other’s considerable talents, and even when locked in bitter contests in 1858 and 1860, Lincoln and Douglas had rarely engaged in personal barbs but had kept the focus on their ideological differences. Douglas had often praised Lincoln during the final days of the 1860 campaign, and since Inaugural Day the two had spent long hours discussing secession and the war. If sometimes given to severe bouts of melancholia that were obvious to all, Lincoln generally preferred to keep his inner thoughts private, and he said almost nothing about the death of his longtime adversary. The fact that Lincoln put even fewer words to paper about Douglas’s decease suggests the depth of the president’s sorrow, as does the fact that he remained solicitous about Adele and the senator’s children.10 This brief telegram, sent from Chicago and dated June 3, 1861, informed a stunned President Abraham Lincoln of the death of his longtime rival and recent supporter. Courtesy Library of Congress. Adele Douglas wished her husband to be buried in Washington alongside their previously deceased infant daughter. Governor Yates and Senator Trumbull, however, urged her to reconsider in hope of preserving the symbolism of Douglas’s last crusade. Concerned that the unionist sentiments of Illinois Democrats might perish along with their leader, Yates cabled Adele that he and Trumbull were “unwilling that one whose life has been closely identified with the interests of the state should in death be separated from it.” Adele gave way on this point, but not on another. Although the senator had never revealed any interest in “any particular faith,” Adele was determined that he would be interred a Catholic, and Bishop Duggan, twice rebuffed by the dying Douglas, was invited to speak at the funeral. For once, the pugnacious Douglas did not have the last word.11 The senator was not mourned everywhere. When told the news, black abolitionist Frederick Douglass bluntly observed that “in the death of Stephen A. Douglas, a most dangerous man has been removed. No man of his time has done more to intensify hatred of the negro.” And if northern activists could not forgive Douglas’s racist past, white southerners detested his staunch unionism. The senator’s first wife, Martha Denny Martin of North Carolina, had brought to her

In early 1860, pundits across America confidently predicted the election of Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas in the coming presidential race. Douglas, after all, led the only party that bridged North and South. But the Democrats would split over the issue ofslavery, leading Southerners in the par
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