There can be no compromises with moral corruption. Cicero’s warning that those who are willing to compromise with corruption in favor of expediency are only chasing an illusion which will one day bring them down. This warning paints a perfect picture of antebellum America and one of its leading men in particular. Stephen A. Douglas was poised to take the country’s wheel in the wake of the fading generation of Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, but it was not to be. Worse, Stephen A. Douglas is now remembered unfavorably, always in negative comparison with his great rival, Abraham Lincoln. Why did this come to pass? Because Stephen A. Douglas failed to recognize the great moral corruption of his time and was in fact willing to make deals with it to advance himself. This is the (brief) story of how slavery brought Stephen Douglas down.
This post ties into my origins of the Civil War study guide. If you’re a student and need some sources on the topic, it’s ideal for you. It’s also ideal if you need sources for content creation. The footnotes alone will provide you with dozens. You can read that guide for free below:
Other guides will be coming to Patreon at the $5 tier. The next one will be about the Roman Republic.
But back to the story of the day.
Setting the Stage
America’s victory in its war with Mexico greatly upset the sectional balance of power between the free North and slave South. The 1820 Missouri Compromise had formally divided the country into free and slave states. Any territory north of the line would be free. Slavery would be permitted in any territory south of the line. Many of America’s current states got their shapes because of the Missouri Compromise.
The Compromise was successful in confining slavery’s role in national politics. Nobody was in love with it, but it kept the peace for a generation. Victory over Mexico upset that balance as vast new lands stretching to the Pacific Ocean now became American territories, territories not subject to the Compromise.
Would they have slavery or not have slavery? The answer to this question would decide America’s future, as the eventual new states would tip the scales in the sectional balance of power in Congress. North and South alike knew it and took steps to ensure they would prevail.
Stephen Douglas looked to make a name for himself by stepping into this debate and providing solutions that everyone could live with.
Stephen Douglas’ Motivations
Douglas’ personal feelings on slavery are an enigma. He strayed toward the “moderate” Northern Democratic viewpoint. In his debates with Lincoln, he expressed belief that the institution was dying and would die on its own, naively hoping it would just fade away. He also believed that blacks should not be citizens of the United States, as the previous year’s Dred Scott decision opined. Stephen Douglas himself owned slaves as a result of his first marriage and used some of the money they created to advance his political career.
However, he believed in the idea of popular sovereignty. Let the people decide slavery’s fate in the territories. It all sounded so simple. This calculation was the basis behind the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which he championed. The Act repealed the Missouri Compromise and left slavery in those territories in the hands of the people.
Douglas saw the Kansas-Nebraska Act not only as the way to end the controversies over slavery, but as useful in his goal of securing a transcontinental railroad that went through Chicago. Regardless of his other opinions about slavery, we see here his willingness to cooperate with it if he thought it secured his interests. Unfortunately for him, the Kansas-Nebraska Act would prove the height of his career. He may have defeated his rival Abraham Lincoln in 1858, but another crisis brewed which would prove fatal to his later aspirations, one of his own making.
Stephen Douglas’ Folly
Unfortunately, the Kansas-Nebraska Act promptly led to “Bleeding Kansas,” where pro and anti-slavery settlers resorted to force of arms to get their way. The pro-slavers were outnumbered, though, which meant they were unlikely to prevail under the popular sovereignty doctrine. All was going as it should, in that regard.
Also unfortunately, Stephen Douglas found out the hard way that notions of fairness, like his popular sovereignty idea, too easily fall by the wayside when powerful interests get involved. He should not have been surprised when pro-slavery interests tried to force a pro-slavery constitution onto Kansas regardless of what the people there actually wanted. This was the Lecompton Constitution, which President Buchanan ardently supported. Douglas broke from his party and opposed it, joining the new, anti-slavery Republican Party to do so. This took great courage and he would eventually prevail, but he had severely depleted his political capital within the Democratic Party for going rogue. As he had previously aligned with pro-slavery interests, they would now demand their pound of flesh.
In the 1860 election, Stephen Douglas should have been the overwhelming favorite for the Democratic Party’s nomination. His opposition to the Lecompton Constitution cost him, though. Staunchly pro-slavery Southern Democrats demanded measures that would prevent such a thing from happening again, but he refused them. As a result, the party split, with the rebels nominating the incumbent Vice President, John C. Breckinridge.
The result was that the man supposedly poised to be America’s foremost statesman among its next generation of leaders wound up finishing in an embarrassing fourth place in 1860, winning only Missouri. He finished second in the popular vote, but when did that ever matter?
Stephen Douglas returned to Washington and tried his best to help the country avoid civil war, but it was futile. He died of a sudden illness just as the fighting began, a relatively obscure figure. It was a pathetic end to such a promising leader.
We see in the life of Stephen A. Douglas that it is possible to profit from moral corruption, or assisting moral corruption – but only in the short term. Douglas’ reckoning came rather quickly. He was trying to cooperate and compromise with a system that was rapidly demanding resolution and he found himself on the wrong side of it. There was simply no solution to slavery other than abolishing it. Douglas’ failure to recognize this led to his fall.
Meanwhile, his great rival, Abraham Lincoln became one of the most revered figures in American history, securing eternal glory. Lincoln was no great emancipator at the start of his career, but his revulsion of slavery and unwillingness to assist its further entrenchment positioned him to become the man that he became.
There is no bargain with moral corruption. Remember the career trajectories of Lincoln and Douglas when you assess the choices before you. You can read much more about this period in my study guide free at Patreon:
Many more examples abound throughout history in Lives of the Luminaries.