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 recounts the 1858 Illinois senate contest between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas and highlights a lesser-known third candidate in the race. Today marks the anniversary of the first Lincoln–Douglas debate, held on August 21, 1858.
Arguing Until Doomsday is now available in hardcover and ebook editions.
Unique among nineteenth-century state elections, the 1858 Illinois senate contest between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas remains widely familiar and immensely compelling. The story seems simple: Lincoln, who ran best in heavily Republican northern Illinois, demanded slavery’s prohibition from all federal territories and denounced Douglas for catering to slaveholders. Douglas, strongest in devoutly Democratic southern Illinois, championed local decision-making on slavery, labeled Lincoln an abolitionist, and unleashed a torrent of racist rhetoric. Ultimately, pro-Lincoln candidates for the state legislature outpolled pro-Douglas candidates, but malapportionment enabled Democrats to retain a majority and return Douglas the Senate. Lincoln, of course, would recover to beat Douglas and two other rivals in the fateful presidential election of 1860.
This account contains considerable truth—and leaves out an awful lot. Notably, it omits a third candidate who is often neglected because he missed Lincoln and Douglas’s seven renowned debates. Attending to this shadowy figure can illuminate Lincoln and Douglas’s evolving campaign strategies and clarify the stakes of their legendary showdown.
The third candidate was Sidney Breese, a leading figure in Illinois Democratic politics since statehood in 1818. Breese had been retired for six years when, in the summer of 1858, he reentered public life at the behest of President James Buchanan and his allies. Outraged by Douglas’s recent opposition to Kansas’s admission as a state under the proslavery Lecompton Constitution, Buchanan’s predominantly southern wing of the splintering Democratic Party condemned Douglas as a traitor and vowed to unseat the “Little Giant,” even if it meant throwing the election to Lincoln. In Illinois, pro-Buchanan Democrats, known as Danites, rallied behind Breese’s long-shot campaign.
Ultimately, Danite legislative candidates snagged only a few thousand votes, far fewer than the 240,000 tallied by Lincoln and Douglas proponents. Yet Breese’s ill-fated campaign is more than an interesting piece of trivia. Both Lincoln and Douglas were keenly aware of his belated entrance into the contest, and they adjusted their strategies accordingly.
Lincoln initially accused Douglas of conspiring with southern Democrats to expand slavery across the West and, perhaps, throughout the country. In the “House Divided” speech which launched his campaign in June, Lincoln argued that Douglas, Chief Justice Roger Taney, and presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan had plotted to erase all restrictions on slavery’s spread. Yet the obvious rift between Douglas and the southern wing of his party weakened the conspiracy charge, especially once Breese entered the race, since one of Douglas’s alleged co-conspirators—Buchanan—was actively opposing his re-election. Lincoln, an adept campaigner. quickly adapted. When the debates with Douglas commenced in late August, Lincoln sought to aggravate Democratic infighting by forcing Douglas to address the key issue in his fight with Buchanan: whether a territorial legislature could prohibit slavery. If Douglas answered affirmatively, he might lose support in both the South and in southern Illinois, which was where Breese expected to run best. Lincoln’s new strategy threatened to boost Breese’s appeal and alienate Douglas from proslavery Democrats nationwide.
Douglas countered with virulent race-baiting. This was not out of character for him, but in 1858, Douglas’s racist demagoguery was specifically calculated to advance his two pressing goals: beat Lincoln and mend a badly fractured Democratic Party. Douglas was courting two key voter blocs: Democrats who had already defected to the Republicans and Democrats who might support Breese. Thousands of Democrats had switched parties because they opposed slavery expansion, but many were fiercely racist and Douglas believed that they might switch back if they thought Lincoln supported racial equality. Meanwhile, racism also offered a lowest-common-denominator appeal which could appease angry Danites by convincing them that Douglas, not Lincoln, was the lesser of two evils.
Breese’s candidacy invites us to rethink the political dynamics of the Lincoln-Douglas contest. Commentators often place Lincoln and Douglas at opposite ends of the political spectrum, as if antebellum politics could be condensed into one state election. Yet Lincoln and Douglas did not even cover the full range of northern opinion, since neither was an abolitionist and both rejected Breese and Buchanan’s position on slavery. Attending to Breese’s role in the 1858 contest thus helps to clarify why, despite their differences, Lincoln and Douglas’s famous rivalry ended when the shooting started in 1861—and why they joined forces at the outset of their country’s gravest crisis.
Michael E. Woods is associate professor of history at the University of Tennessee and director of the Papers of Andrew Jackson project.