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He was too good a politician to yield, even if there had been no other reason to stand firm, but continued to defend the only doctrine on which there was the slightest chance of beating the Republicans in the approaching election. One method he took to defend it was novel, but he has had many imitators among public men of a later day. He wrote out his argument for "Harper's," the most popular magazine of the day. The article is not nearly so good reading as his speeches, but it was widely read. Judge Jeremiah Black, the Attorney-General of Buchanan's cabinet, made a reply to it, and Douglas rejoined; but little of value was added to the discussions in Congress and on the stump. The Southerners, however, would not take warning. As they saw their long ascendency in the government coming to an end, their demands rose higher. Some of them actually began to agitate for a revival of the African slave trade; and this also Douglas had to oppose. His following in the Senate was now reduced to two or three, and one of these, Broderick, of California, a brave and steadfast man, was first defeated by the Southern interest, and then slain in a duel. John Brown's invasion of Virginia somewhat offset the aggressions of the South; but that, too, might have gone for a warning. The elections in the autumn of 1859 were enough to show that the North was no longer disposed to forbearance with slavery. Douglas went as far as any man in reason could go in denouncing John Brown and those who were thought to have set him on; and he supported a new plan for getting Cuba. But Davis, on the very eve of the Democratic convention at Charleston, was pressing upon the Senate a series of resolutions setting forth the extreme demand of the South concerning the Territories. He was as bitter toward Douglas as he was toward the Republicans. At Charleston, Yancey took the same tone with the convention.
Practically the whole mass of the Northern Democrats were for Douglas now, and the mass of Southern Democrats were against him. The party was divided, as the whole country was, by a line that ran from East to West.
Yet it was felt that nothing but the success of that party would avert the danger of disunion, and the best judges were of opinion that it could not succeed with any other candidate than Douglas or any other platform than popular sovereignty. His managers at Charleston offered the Cincinnati platform of 1856, with the addition of a demand for Cuba and an indorsement of the Dred Scott decision and of any future decisions of the Supreme Court on slavery in the Territories. But the Southerners would not yield a hair's breadth. Yancey, their orator, upbraided Douglas and his followers with cowardice because they did not dare to tell the North that slavery was right. In that strange way the question of right and wrong was forced again upon the man who strove to ignore it. Senator Pugh, of Ohio, spokesman for Douglas, answered the fire-eaters. "Gentlemen of the South," he cried, "you mistake us! You mistake us! We will not do it." The Douglas platform was adopted, and the men of the cotton States withdrew. On ballot after ballot, a majority of those who remained, and a majority of the whole convention, stood firm for Douglas, but it was decided that two thirds of the whole convention was required to nominate. Men who had followed his fortunes until his ambition was become their hope in life, wearied out with the long deferment, broke down and wept. Finally, it was voted to adjourn to Baltimore. In the interval, Davis and Douglas fell once more into their bitter controversy in the Senate.
At Baltimore, a new set of delegates from the cotton States appeared in place of the seceders, but they were no sooner admitted than another group withdrew, and even Cushing, the chairman, left his seat and followed them. Douglas telegraphed his friends to sacrifice him if it were necessary to save his platform, but the rump convention adopted the platform and nominated him. The two groups of seceders united on the Yancey platform and on Breckinridge, of Kentucky, for a candidate. A new party of sincere but unpractical Union-savers took the field with John Bell, an old Whig, for a candidate, and a platform of patriotic platitudes. The Republicans, guided in ways they themselves did not understand, had put aside Seward and taken Lincoln to be their leader.
The rivals were again confronted, but on cruelly unequal terms. From the first, it was clear that nearly the whole North was going Republican, and that the cotton States were for Breckinridge or disunion. Whatever chance Douglas had in the border States and in the Democratic States of the North was destroyed by the new party. But he knew he was at the head of the true party of Jefferson, he felt that the old Union would not stand if he was beaten. He was the leader of a forlorn hope, but he led it superbly well. He undertook a canvass of the country the like of which no candidate had ever made before. At the very outset of it he was called upon to show his colors in the greater strife that was to follow.
At Norfolk, in Virginia, it was demanded of him to say whether the election of a Black Republican President would justify the Southern States in seceding. He answered, no. Pennsylvania was again the pivotal State, and at an election in October the Republicans carried it over all their opponents combined. Douglas was in Iowa when he heard the news. He said calmly to his companions: "Lincoln is the next President. I have no hope and no destiny before me but to do my best to save the Union from overthrow. Now let us turn our course to the South"--and he proceeded through the border States straight to the heart of the kingdom of slavery and cotton. The day before the election, he spoke at Montgomery, Yancey's home; that night, he slept at Mobile. If in 1858 he was like Napoleon the afternoon of Marengo, now he was like Napoleon struggling backward in the darkness toward the lost field of Waterloo.
There was a true dignity and a true patriotism in his appeal to his maddened countrymen not to lift their hands against the Union their fathers made:--
"Woodman, spare that tree!
Touch not a single bough."
An old soldier of the Confederacy, scarred with the wounds he took at Bull Run, looking back over a wasted life to the youth he sacrificed in that ill-starred cause, remembers now as he remembers nothing else of the whole year of revolution the last plea of Douglas for the old party, the old Constitution, the old Union.
He carried but one State outright, and got but twelve votes in the electoral college. Lincoln swept the North, Breckinridge the South, and Bell the border States. Nevertheless, in the popular vote, hopeless candidate that he was, he stood next to Lincoln, and none of his competitors had a following so evenly distributed throughout the whole country.
When all was over, he could not rest, for he was still the first man in Congress, but hurried back to Washington and joined in the anxious conferences of such as were striving for a peaceable settlement. When South Carolina seceded, he announced plainly enough that he did not believe in the right of secession or consider that there was any grievance sufficient to justify the act. But he was for concessions if they would save the country from civil war. Crittenden, of Kentucky, coming forward after the manner of Clay with a series of amendments to the Constitution, and another Committee of Thirteen being named, Douglas was ready to play the same part he had played in 1850. But the plan could not pass the Senate, and one after another the cotton States followed South Carolina. Then he labored with the men of the border States, and broke his last lance with Breckinridge, who, when he ceased to be Vice-President, came down for a little while upon the floor as a senator to defend the men whom he was about to join in arms against their country. Douglas engaged him with all the old fire and force, and worsted him in the debate.
His bearing toward Lincoln was generous and manly. When Lincoln, rising to pronounce his first inaugural address, looked awkwardly about him for a place to bestow his hat that he might adjust his glasses to read those noble paragraphs, Douglas came forward and took it from his hand. The graceful courtesy won him praise; and that was his attitude toward the new administration. The day Sumter was fired on, he went to the President to offer his help and counsel. There is reason to believe that during those fearful early days of power and trial Lincoln came into a better opinion of his rival.
The help of Douglas was of moment, for he had the right to speak for the Democrats of the North. On his way homeward, he was everywhere besought to speak. Once, he was aroused from sleep to address an Ohio regiment marching to the front, and his great voice rolled down upon them, aligned beneath him in the darkness, a word of loyalty and courage. At Chicago he spoke firmly and finally, for himself and for his party. While the hope of compromise lingered, he had gone to the extreme of magnanimity, but the time for conciliation was past. "There can be no neutrals in this war," he said: "only patriots and traitors." They were the best words he could have spoken. They were the last he ever spoke to his countrymen, for at once he was stricken down with a swift and mortal illness and hurried to his end. A little while before the end, his wife bent over him for a message to his sons. He roused himself, and said: "Tell them to obey the laws and support the Constitution of the United States." He died on June 11, 1861, in the forty-ninth year of his age.
It was a hard time to die. War was at hand, and his strong nature stirred at the call. Plunged in his youth into affairs, and wonted all his life to action, he had played a man's part in great events, and greater were impending. He had taken many blows of men and circumstance, and stormy times might bring redress. He was a leader, and for want of him a great party must go leaderless and stumbling to a long series of defeats. He was a true American, and his country was in danger. He was ambitious, and his career was not rightly finished. He was the second man in the Republic, and he might yet be the first.
But first he never could have been while Lincoln lived, nor ever could have got a hold like Lincoln's on his kind. His place is secure among the venturesome, strong, self-reliant men who in various ages and countries have for a time hastened, or stayed, or diverted from its natural channel the great stream of affairs. The sin of his ambition is forgiven him for the good end he made. But for all his splendid energy and his brilliant parts, for all the charm of his bold assault on fortune and his dauntless bearing in adversity, we cannot turn from him to his rival but with changed and softened eyes. For Lincoln, indeed, is one of the few men eminent in politics whom we admit into the hidden places of our thought; and there, released from that coarse clay which prisoned him, we companion him forever with the gentle and heroic of older lands. Douglas abides without.
The Riverside Biographical Series
1. ANDREW JACKSON, by W.G. BROWN.
2. JAMES B. EADS, by LOUIS HOW.
3. BENJAMIN FRANKLIN, by PAUL E. MORE.
4. PETER COOPER, by R.W. RAYMOND.
5. THOMAS JEFFERSON, by H.C. MERWIN.
6. WILLIAM PENN, by GEORGE HODGES.
7. GENERAL GRANT, by WALTER ALLEN.
8. LEWIS AND CLARK, by WILLIAM R. LIGHTON.
9. JOHN MARSHALL, by JAMES B. THAYER.
10. ALEXANDER HAMILTON, by CHAS. A. CONANT.
11. WASHINGTON IRVING, by H.W. BOYNTON.
12. PAUL JONES, by HUTCHINS HAPGOOD.
13. STEPHEN A. DOUGLAS, by W.G. BROWN.
14. SAMUEL DE CHAMPLAIN, by H.D. SEDGWICK, Jr.