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Stephen A. Douglas and Antebellum Democracy By Martin H. Quitt (review)
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Robert W. Johannsen’s fine 1973 biography, Stephen A. Douglas, has cast a long shadow over Stephen Douglas studies. Johannsen’s biography and subsequent works offer a comprehensive and readable interpretation of Douglas’s life. Recently, however, scholars such as James Huston and Yonathan Eyal have supplemented Johannsen’s picture of Douglas in productive ways. Now Martin Quitt enters the field with what he calls “a thematic biography,” which investigates selected aspects of Douglas’s life. While Quitt is not a traditional biographer in the sense of telling all of Douglas’s story, he develops a compelling sense of Douglas by pursuing diverse aspects of his life.

Quitt starts with four chapters on Douglas’s early life in Vermont and his first few years in Illinois, where he got his feet wet in the law and politics of the frontier. Quitt argues, in part on the basis of new evidence, that Douglas felt stymied and unhappy in Vermont (and briefly in New York), where legal training was lengthy and physical weakness barred him from skilled manual trades. Once he moved west, however, Douglas found a home (even if away from his relatives, who never joined him) as he easily became a member of the bar and soon leapt to the forefront of the Illinois Democratic Party. According to Quitt, Douglas learned from his early experiences that every region of the country was different and that this was good because he had benefitted from this diversity. This sounds plausible, and throughout the book Quitt’s judgments are sustained by his mastery of secondary literature, in this case in masculinity and family history. The openness, vitality, and masculinity of frontier democracy practically leaps off the page.

The next two chapters concentrate on Douglas’s readings of the U.S. Constitution. Throughout, Quitt states that Douglas took political stands based on his constitutional beliefs, which he treated seriously and acted on consistently, even when it was not politically expedient to do so. In the first chapter, Quitt argues that Douglas based his opinions on noncitizen voting, apportionment, and internal improvements on a consistent belief that territories and states held an equal footing, and that each must be allowed to make decisions for itself. In the second constitutional chapter, on slavery and the territories, Quitt adopts a similar theme, based on the idea that Douglas’s politics were rooted in the independence he had gained by moving to Illinois, which had formed its laws free from eastern interference. The idea that politicians of the period took their constitutional beliefs seriously flies in the face of much recent scholarship, which argues that both proslavery and antislavery politicians used whatever constitutional arguments suited their immediate needs. Scholars should read Quitt’s chapters here with due caution, though there is no denying that Douglas Democrats expressed deep faith in the Constitution both before and during the Civil War.

Quitt concludes with three strong chapters, one each on Douglas’s decision to actively campaign for the presidency in 1860, on Douglas’s hard choices and depression during the secession winter, and on his management of a Mississippi plantation late in his life. Quitt walks us through the 1860 election, literally telling us where Douglas went and for how long as the 1860 campaign progressed. This may sound dull, but Quitt writes briskly about how novel Douglas’s approach was and about its surprisingly negligible effect on the voting. The later chapters again show Quitt coming to new conclusions about Douglas’s role as a slaveholder and about how hard he was hit by losing the 1860 election and by the resulting secessions. Depressed by the prospect of disunion, Douglas even flirted with abandoning some of his long-held constitutional beliefs in an attempt to keep the United States together.

Martin Quitt’s book is solid proof that there is life again for Stephen Douglas scholars. Quitt makes good use of new ideas from psychology and gender studies, as well as new evidence, to enliven and sharpen our understanding of the Little Giant.

Michael D. Pierson  

Michael D. Pierson is a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. He has written two books, Mutiny at Fort Jackson: The Untold...



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