Stephen A. Douglas and Antebellum Democracy by Martin H. Quitt
Stephen A. Douglas, Illinois, Popular sovereignty, Adele Cutts, James Buchanan
Not many scholars today would write about Stephen A. Douglas that “I was in awe of him” (xiii), but Martin H. Quitt has in this revealing work. [End Page 803] For antebellum political researchers and biographers this book will be a welcome addition because it helps to explain much about Douglas’s upbringing, the Illinois political environment, and constitutional issues concerning state–federal authority. Quitt engages openly in psychological speculation about Douglas’s family life and eros in the early republic. In terms of research, the book is marvelous; the author’s intensive labor in secondary sources is awe-inspiring, and he has found new primary sources concerning Douglas’s education, family, and marriage to Adele Cutts. However, this is not a traditional biography. Quitt approaches Douglas thematically, albeit in a general narrative scheme, but he made the decision not to repeat the areas of Douglas’s life already extensively handled: to wit, Douglas’s Illinois political machinations, his actions as an Illinois legislator, and his feud with James Buchanan.
Quitt’s analysis of Douglas’s early years is now the fullest exposition in print. He holds that Douglas had a series of adolescent crises that, extrapolating a little, propelled him to question authority. Fatherless, he was under the direction of a hard-nosed uncle, his mother encouraged self-assertiveness, and when he discovered he was not going to get the inheritance he believed was his rightful due, he rebelled and tried to become an independent artisan. When he went west, he suffered an illness that nearly took his life. Quitt argues that Douglas learned from this episode that family could not necessarily be trusted (no one went to his aid), but that strangers and neighbors could (his landlady nursed him to health.) Out of these experiences came a self-confident, independent individual who had, as well, oratorical prowess; he would not hesitate to thrust himself into positions of responsibility.
Opportunities arose in Illinois. Quitt provides a compelling portrait of Illinois political culture, explaining why Douglas moved so successfully in it. Young bachelors dominated Illinois, all seeking to find their ultimate position in life; it was a place of masculine temperament where openness and affability were expected because no established clique prevailed. Douglas fit this society well and rose spectacularly in it because of his oratorical gifts, his genuine friendliness, and his self-confidence. It is within this chapter that Quitt handles the question of homosexuality, as men commonly shared the same bed. Quitt, intelligently I believe, ascribes this to a demonstration of equality among males; for a person to refuse to be next to another male revealed aristocratic attitudes of superiority. Quitt summarizes that the Illinois Democratic Party was the perfect fit for Douglas. [End Page 804]
Two chapters are devoted to Douglas’s constitutionalism, specifically Douglas’s belief that diversity among the states was a blessing, that a strong federal government would ruin this blessing, and that most governance had to reside at the state level. Quitt provides superior analyses of Douglas’s ideas on the issues of alien suffrage in Illinois and the apportionment battle he got involved in during his first year as a congressman. Quitt insists that Douglas was a conscientious and consistent interpreter of the Constitution—although some contemporary South Carolinians would have disagreed with this assessment.
The vantage point of these chapters is to persuade the reader that Douglas’s doctrine of popular sovereignty was consistent with his lifelong reading of the Constitution. In completing Douglas’s political life, Quitt gives the most intensive examination of Douglas’s 1860 election tour in print, and in it he offers an interesting discussion of Adele Cutts’s political savvy. In a short chapter, Quitt then discusses Douglas’s agony during the secession winter and the firing on Fort Sumter, explaining that the Little Giant supported Lincoln’s call for troops because the states that formed the Confederacy had violated the Constitution and deserved to be punished.
Within the topics that Quitt has chosen to investigate, his arguments are well grounded and persuasive, though speculative. Douglas’s relation with his mother, for example, will never be understood, simply because there is not the material to establish it. Beyond the matter of speculation, however, are the areas Quitt did not look into. Religion—except for Adele Cutts’s Catholicism—plays next to no role in this biographical treatment. And then there is the matter of culture, overall. Douglas almost represents an “anti-New England” culture. The historiography of the Great Lakes states is replete with accounts of the frictions between upland southerners and Yankees. Yet Douglas, from the absurdly Whig state of Vermont, moved into Jacksonville, Illinois, and instantly adopted an upland southerner culture. How and why Douglas could make this leap demands explanation; one might take from Douglas’s cultural adaptation that there were other currents in New England than the stereotype of the closed-mouth, squinty-eyed, parsimonious, hard-dealing, moral-imperialist Yankee.
The major disappointment of the book is that Quitt does not really delve into Douglas’s racism and his acceptance of slavery as a legitimate state institution. He does deal with the issue: “Douglas’s neutrality on slavery is the most off-putting facet of his career” (4). His concluding [End Page 805] chapter deals with Douglas’s inheritance of slaves from his marriage to North Carolinian Martha Martin, and Quitt realizes that Douglas was pulled into the system on the basis of having engaged in self-deception about it. That Quitt decided not to waste any more natural resources on the Douglas–Buchanan feud seems reasonable, yet the origins of Douglas’s racism are baffling, and his nonchalant, almost flippant attitude toward the peculiar institution merits scrutiny—not only for Douglas but the entire northern democracy.
More than a few scholars have noted the similarities between Lincoln and Douglas during their 1858 debates, but on one question they were poles apart, mirroring the difference between Republicans and northern Democrats. Lincoln feared slavery and was convinced if it continued and expanded the nation would lose its foundations of democracy and egalitarianism; Douglas and his party harbored exactly the opposite opinion: Slavery was not going to affect northern white society one whit. These subjects deserve more attention and analysis, and it is hoped that Quitt in the future may shed some light on them. [End Page 806]
James L. Huston, Regents Distinguished Professor of History at Oklahoma State University, is the author of Stephen A. Douglas and the Dilemmas of Democratic Equality (Lanham, MD, 2007). He is currently working on the subject of American agriculture and sectional animosities.