Michael E. Woods: Remembering the Davis-Douglas Debates

Today we welcome a guest post from Michael E. Woods, author of Arguing Until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy, out now from UNC Press.

As the sectional crisis gripped the United States, the rancor increasingly spread to the halls of Congress. Preston Brooks’s frenzied assault on Charles Sumner was perhaps the most notorious evidence of the dangerous divide between proslavery Democrats and the new antislavery Republican Party. But as disunion loomed, rifts within the majority Democratic Party were every bit as consequential. And nowhere was the fracture more apparent than in the raging debates between Illinois’s Stephen Douglas and Mississippi’s Jefferson Davis. As leaders of the Democrats’ northern and southern factions before the Civil War, their passionate conflict of words and ideas has been overshadowed by their opposition to Abraham Lincoln. But here, weaving together biography and political history, Michael E. Woods restores Davis and Douglas’s fatefully entwined lives and careers to the center of the Civil War era.

In this post, Woods writes about the significance of the May 1860 clash between Democratic senators Jefferson Davis and Stephen A. Douglas.

Arguing Until Doomsday is now available in hardcover and ebook editions.


Remembering the Davis-Douglas Debates

After nearly half a century, C.S. Wooten vividly recalled one of antebellum America’s most momentous political debates. In a long article penned for a local newspaper, the North Carolinian described the “two great combatants” whose rhetorical duel had captivated their badly divided country. One was “short and fat,” but also “active, quick, sprightly in his movements, and a man of wonderful magnetism” whose oratorical prowess “could fascinate men and hold them under his magic spell.” The other was tall, lean, and projected “a stateliness and majesty of bearing, a loftiness of dignity, a certain hauteur of spirit that indicated a man accustomed to authority.” Erupting just months before the pivotal 1860 presidential election, these skilled debaters’ noisy clash over slavery’s westward expansion riled up northerners and southerners alike. As an eighteen-year-old, Wooten was too young to vote in that contest, but he recognized the massive stakes involved in what he called “The Davis-Douglas Debate.”[1]

Modern Americans are far more familiar with the 1858 debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas, and historians have profitably compared and contrasted the lives of Lincoln and Jefferson Davis, the executives who squared off in the Civil War. But Wooten’s article reminds us of what antebellum Americans understood quite clearly: the May 1860 clash between Senator Douglas of Illinois and Senator Davis of Mississippi was profoundly important and ominously divisive. Northerners and southerners followed the Congressional slugfest with rapt attention and responded with their own fiery rhetoric. A Georgian cheered on Davis and accused Douglas of making a “declaration of war against the South,” while from Maine came praise for Douglas’s “last great effort” which had “almost annihilated the Mississippian.”[2] Journalist Murat Halstead, who was scrambling from one city to the next to cover the ongoing presidential nominating conventions, stopped in Washington to watch part of the Davis-Douglas showdown, a highly anticipated event that filled the Senate galleries with eager spectators. And whether they watched in person or followed the debates through the newspapers, onlookers recognized the gravity of the rhetorical duel between two of the country’s most powerful senators. The debate portended both a rupture in their Democratic Party and trouble for the Union. As Davis himself predicted in early 1860, “a division of the Democracy must be the forerunner of a division of the States.”[3]

“Prominent Candidates for the Democratic Nomination at Charleston, South Caroilna,” Harper’s Weekly, April 21, 1860, 248-49.


How had American politics reached a point where a clash between leaders of the same party threatened the future of the country? After all, Davis and Douglas had much in common. Both were devout Democrats who had risen rapidly through the party ranks after seeking their fortunes in the great valley of the Mississippi River. Devoted to westward expansion, white supremacy, and anti-abolitionism, they both regarded Lincoln’s burgeoning Republican Party as a menace to the Union. Yet they offered each other no quarter in the spring of 1860, staking out positions from which they would not retreat—even at the risk of dividing the party, losing the presidential contest, and fostering disunion. Why?

My book, Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy, traces the long road that led Davis, Douglas, and their Democratic Party to the fateful 1860 rupture that hastened disunion and ultimately positioned the two political titans on opposite sides of the Civil War. I argue that the roots of the dramatic May 1860 debate extended back to the 1830s and 1840s, when Davis and Douglas entered politics in two states that were diverging rapidly in terms of economic interests and political commitments. Davis’s Mississippi constituents demanded the active defense of slaveholders’ property rights throughout an expanding western empire. Douglas’s Illinois supporters expected him to promote white men’s self-government and majority rule across the same domain. Ultimately, Davis and Douglas’s shared racism, expansionism, and partisan loyalty could not paper over the conflict between property rights and democracy that had long festered within their party before reaching a crisis in 1860.

[1] C.S. Wooten, “The Davis-Douglas Debate,” Charlotte Observer, reprinted in LaGrange (NC) Sentinel, November 2, 1906.

[2] Damon Wells, Stephen Douglas: The Last Years, 1857-1861 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), 232; Calvin Record to Stephen A. Douglas, May 17, 1860, Box 33, Folder 15, Stephen A. Douglas Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL.

[3] Jefferson Davis to Sidney Webster, January 9, 1860, Papers of Jefferson Davis, Woodson Research Center, Fondren Library, Rice University, Houston, TX.


Photo by Rick Haye/Marshall University

Michael E. Woods is associate professor of history at the University of Tennessee and director of the Papers of Andrew Jackson project.