My hometown is a little nutty about their history. Freeport, Illinois was the site of one of the eight Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858. Something the town makes sure no one forgets. There is an elementary school named Lincoln Douglas. The local ice cream shop frequently has punny flavors in commemoration, including the delicious but unfortunately named Lickin’ Douglas. And they have a pair of nationally recognized re-enactors (pictured above).
Last weekend I happened to catch a presentation they gave in costume at the Debate Square site. And it got me thinking. But before I get into my thoughts, a little history.
In 1858, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas were both campaigning for one of the Illinois Senate seats. When Lincoln kept showing up in the same locations as Douglas, they decided to a series of scheduled debates. One in each congressional district.
During the debate in Freeport, Douglas, incumbent Senator, in reply to a question from Lincoln, responded that he didn’t think that, legally speaking, new states could choose to become slave states or not. This sentiment was in direct opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act that had recently been passed by Congress. That statement became known as the Freeport Doctrine. While Douglas won the Senate race, he was dogged in his 1860 pursuit of the presidency by these remarks. His Democratic party split into two, with southerners backing a pro-slavery candidate. Lincoln won the presidency with a plurality but not a majority of the vote.
Within a few weeks of the election, South Carolina seceded from the Union prompting the Civil War. From the moment Abraham Lincoln was sworn in, he was under threat. Pinkerton agents protected him on his way to Washington. And Stephen Douglas was at the train station to meet him, the only person who knew when and where the president-elect would be.
Even though they disagreed extensively and had only recently fought through two contentious elections, Douglas was one of Lincoln’s most fervent supporters. He stood up to his party and went on a tour of the South trying to keep the Union intact. He put the good of his country ahead of his ambitions and wounded feelings.
1860 was a long time ago. A different time and a different political climate. And yet, I can’t help but wonder if we couldn’t use a Stephen Douglas today. A person who is willing to put the past aside, to stand up to party and country and defend someone whose political opinions don’t align with their own. Someone to raise their voice in support of what’s right, even if it costs them an election.
John McCain is one who comes to mind. He, in my opinion too infrequently, made bold and decisive action that disagreed with party leadership. There are others that posture as though they have it in them but fail to follow through.
Stephen A. Douglas was not an exemplary personage, in many respects. He had opinions on race that today are problematic. There were numerous instances of mild corruption in his past. All in all, leading up to 1860, he was the slimy stereotype of a politician. But when it came down to it, when the country hinged on the brink of catastrophe, he stepped up to the plate. He did what he believed to be right, even to his detriment. And I think we could all take a lesson from that.
“There are only two sides to this question. Every man must be for the United States or against it. There can be no neutrals in this war; only patriots and traitors.” – Stephen A. Douglas (May 1, 1861)