Stephen A. Douglas and Antebellum Democracy by Martin H. Quitt (review)
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Stephen A. Douglas, Illinois, Popular sovereignty, Adele Cutts, James Buchanan

Stephen A. Douglas and Antebellum Democracy. By Martin H. Quitt. (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2012. Pp. 210. Paper, $20.00.)

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.

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