A parable: Joke-telling Abraham Lincoln (Republican) in a stovepipe hat; sober-minded Jefferson Davis (Ultra-secessionist Democrat); and diminutive Stephen A. Douglas (national Democrat) stood at the top of a cliff. Davis threatened to jump off the cliff, and Lincoln scoffed at that absurd notion.
Stephen A. Douglas believed Davis and knew that if Davis jumped, he would drag Lincoln and Douglas with him in a horrible, bloody crash. Douglas believed that only he could stop Davis from jumping.
Historian George Fort Milton describes the lead-up to the Civil War in The Eve of Conflict: Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless War. Weighing in at almost 600 pages, and published in 1934, this book has forever changed how I look at the causes of the war.
Prior to reading this book, I thought that the war basically occurred because of disagreements between Republicans (led by Lincoln) and Ultra-Secessionists (led by Jefferson Davis). Author Milton demonstrates that the national Democratic party, led by Senator Stephen A. Douglas, had a reasonable chance of holding the country together as late as March 1860 (about a year before Fort Sumter).
Milton describes how the Buchanan administration mortally opposed Stephen A. Douglas and the national Democrats. The Buchanan machine naturally allied with the Ultra-Secessionist Democrats to defeat Douglas, thereby allowing Lincoln to be elected president.
The author describes the political strategies of all three groups as they engaged in hardball. In retrospect, the gamesmanship was breathtaking.
Clash of Ideas
Lincoln had stated in his “House Divided” speech:
…A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot permanently endure half slave and half free … It will become all one thing, or all the other.
Douglas responded that Lincoln actually predicted the following:
A war of sections, a war of North against the South, of the Free States against the Slave States – a war of extermination to be continued relentlessly until the one or the other shall be subdued and all States shall either become free or become slave.
Lincoln rejected Douglas’s claim and said:
There is no danger that the people of Kentucky will shoulder their muskets, and, with a young nigger stuck on every bayonet, march into Illinois and force them upon us. There is no danger of our going over there and making war upon them.
With hindsight, we see that Lincoln’s remark was recklessly confident.
A different view of “Honest Abe”
Douglas experienced Lincoln as a shrewd debater when they competed for a U.S. Senate seat. This experience enabled Douglas to say the following:
When I make a mistake, as an honest man I correct it without being asked to, but when he, Lincoln, makes a false charge, he sticks to it and never corrects it.
A fresh look
In The Eve of Conflict, we see Douglas step out the shadows as a living, breathing, witty politician. By the end of the book, Douglas has become a statesman, and I share Milton’s admiration of Douglas.
I found the over-arching sense of story, the quotations, the insights, and the analysis to be very compelling. I highly recommend this book.
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