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29 2 The 1860 Southern Sojourns of Stephen A. Douglas and the Irrepressible Separation James L. Huston On the evening of Saturday, August 25, 1860, a crowd numbering between four and six thousand people gathered before the steps of the Court House in Norfolk, Virginia. Standing before them, the Little Giant of Illinois, the first presidential candidate in American history to stump personally for elevation to the chief magistracy, defended the idea of popular sovereignty as a means of overcoming the sectional division that was threatening to rip the nation into two countries. Already Stephen A. Douglas had toured the New England states and New Jersey, giving speeches almost daily, all of them concentrating on his vision of the policy of popular sovereignty in the territories—letting the residents of a territory determine the existence of slavery for themselves and mandating that Congress should have no say in the subject, a course of action most often referred to as nonintervention . The five-foot, four-inch Douglas tore into his subject in his usual style: punctuating his points with sweeping gestures and radiating an intensity that swept audiences into his grasp. After one hour, he was interrupted by William Lamb, the editor of the Norfolk Southern Argus and a supporter of the Southern Democratic nominee, John C. Breckinridge; he gave Douglas a note with two questions . Then came one of the most famous moments in the campaign of 1860, as Douglas read the note and then told the crowd: I am not in the habit of answering questions propounded to me in the course of an address, but on this occasion I will comply with the request and respond very frankly and unequivocally to these two questions. Fuller text.indb 29 1/15/13 2:55 PM 30 · The Election of 1860 Reconsidered The first question is, if Abraham Lincoln be elected President of the United States will the Southern States be justified in seceding from the Union? To this I emphatically answer no. (Great applause.) The election of a man to the Presidency by the American people, in conformity with the Constitution of the United States, would not justify any attempt at dissolving this glorious confederacy. (Applause.) Now I will read to you the next question and, and [sic] then answer it. Question—If they, the Southern States, secede from the Union upon the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln, before he commits an overt act against their constitutional rights, will you advise or vindicate resistance by force to their secession? Mr. Douglas.—I answer emphatically that it is the duty of the President of the United States and all others in authority under him, to enforce the laws of the United States as passed by Congress and as the courts expound them. (Cheers.)1 Douglas’s response was a stunner, but historians have not drawn out of Douglas’s 1860 Southern sojourns all the interpretive weight they possess. General histories of the antebellum decade make reference to the Douglas trips—the excursion into Virginia and North Carolina in August and then his last one in late October and early November through Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia, and Alabama—and authors praise Douglas for his valiant attempt to dilute the secessionist fervor gripping the slaveholding states.2 Historians of the South, however, have not dealt with Douglas’s Southern invasions at any great length; Lincoln’s biographers have ignored it entirely.3 More can be gleaned from Douglas’s 1860 forays into the South than from his attempt to discredit secession. Douglas’s speeches demonstrated that the expansion issue was still alive and productive of sectional ill will. The response of Northerners to Douglas’s remarks also point to a failure encountered historically in electioneering: electoral strategy in 1860 stifled serious debate on the question of secession. Moreover, Douglas’s comments in Virginia and North Carolina were sufficiently pointed that Southerners should have realized that the North would unite against secession; thus, secession was likely to lead to war. A close look at Northern Democratic opinion indicates that on the question of the Union and the right to revolution, Republicans and Northern Democrats were strikingly similar. Finally, an analysis of the way Douglas changed his set speech on popular Fuller text.indb 30 1/15/13 2:55 PM The 1860 Southern Sojourns of Stephen A. Douglas · 31 sovereignty as he went from one region to another reveals that the division of the nation over the extension of slavery was ultimately grounded in a...


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