Confederates from Iowa:

Not to Defend, but to Understand

Tiptoe on the edge of an abyss: A review of The Eve of Conflict: Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless War

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.

Thought-provoking

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).

Bitter enmity

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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6 Comments

  1. “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.” – Douglas

    This quote rings true in our current political climate. I suppose that nearly all politicians could say this of their opponent.

    • David Connon

      Hi, Pastor Dave. You make a good point. It reminds me that public discourse suffers when politicians make false charges, and especially when they don’t admit making a mistake. Thank you for reading my blog!

  2. Kathleen Parsons

    Thanks for your book review, Dave. Although I am still catching up with many other reading projects, so this will be absent from it for a good while, it is good to read a concise synopsis of an excellent book with many parallels to present-day politics.

    • David Connon

      Hi, Kathy. Thank you for your kind comments. I agree: There are parallels between present-day politics and the lead-up to the Civil War.

  3. I was unaware of this defense of Stephen Douglas; sounds like an interesting work, I’ll put it on my “to read” list. While I regard Lincoln as one of our greatest Presidents, unlike many historians, I don’t put him on a pedestal. There are many aspects of the man and his presidency that have been deliberately suppressed by generations of hagiographers. His belief in the paranormal, for example, was suppressed in order to make him into a quasi-Christian saint; his connection with Socialism and Socialists is also well documented, but scarcely mentioned by most historians. In the late 1800’s, his surviving son Robert had a weekend long “bonfire” in his home, Hildene, burning thousands of documents which he thought might cast a shadow on his father’s memory. What these documents may have contained, good or bad, we shall never know. Perhaps they would have simply portrayed Lincoln as merely a mortal man, imperfect and fallible, and not the plaster saint that we have been given by writers for generations. Anyway, I find your take on northern sympathizers and pro-Confederates quite interesting. Keep up the good work.

    • David Connon

      Hi, Christopher. Thank you for your kind comments. I hadn’t read about Robert Lincoln destroying any of his father’s documents. It’s interesting that there is a dearth of Abraham Lincoln’s own letters, expressing his innermost thoughts and feelings. Some historians conclude that Lincoln simply was a man who rarely shared those thoughts and feelings with others. I’m not so sure.

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