The Kansas Nebraska Act and the Great Change in American Politics

 

An excellent presentation in how the Kansas-Nebraska Act reshuffled American politics.  This happens periodically in American politics.  American politics seems geared to two great parties fighting it out for political dominance, and it can often seem that nothing can change in the face of such a monolithic standoff.  However the Kansas-Nebraska Act demonstrates the factors that can lead to rapid political change.  Some of the factors are:

 

  1.  Some great issue arises that the conventional political parties seem helpless to deal with.
  2. The great issue cuts across the traditional two parties.
  3.  In confronting the great issue new political alignments are formed.
  4. Out of this maelstrom one party presents to the public some hope of resolving that issue and that party goes on to achieve political dominance, usually for several decades.

When Senator Douglas dreamed up the Kansas-Nebraska Act he predicted it would raise “one hell of a storm”.  Douglas never spoke more prophetic words.  His great antagonist Abraham Lincoln immediately grasped the great significance of what had happened and he noted it in a speech on October 16, 1854:

 

It is an aggravation, rather, of the only one thing which ever endangers the Union. When it came upon us, all was peace and quiet. The nation was looking to the forming of new bonds of Union; and a long course of peace and prosperity seemed to lie before us. In the whole range of possibility, there scarcely appears to me to have been any thing, out of which the slavery agitation could have been revived, except the very project of repealing the Missouri compromise. Every inch of territory we owned, already had a definite settlement of the slavery question, and by which, all parties were pledged to abide. Indeed, there was no uninhabited country on the continent, which we could acquire; if we except some extreme northern regions, which are wholly out of the question. In this state of case, the genius of Discord himself, could scarcely have invented a way of again getting [setting?] us by the ears, but by turning back and destroying the peace measures of the past. The councils of that genius seem to have prevailed, the Missouri compromise was repealed; and here we are, in the midst of a new slavery agitation, such, I think, as we have never seen before.

 

The Compromise of 1850 seemed to ensure the maintenance of the political status quo.  Kansas-Nebraska revealed that the old political order was dying and a new one was in the process of being born.

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Published in: on October 16, 2022 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on The Kansas Nebraska Act and the Great Change in American Politics  
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Age of Marvels

From the vantage point of twenty-first technology, it is easy for us to view nineteenth century America as being technologically primitive.  Our ancestors living then certainly did not view themselves in such a light.  They thought they were living in a time of incredible technological change, and they were right.  Within 30 years of the first half of the nineteenth century, steamships, railroads and the telegraph, along with hundreds of other inventions, revolutionized life more than any change in technology that we have witnessed in our lifetimes.

Americans were proud at the time of the technological revolution they were witnessing.  In the seventh of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in Alton, Illinois on October 15, 1858, Douglas hit upon this theme: (more…)

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April 25, 1861: Stephen A. Douglas: “Protect the Flag”

Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the great antagonist of Abraham Lincoln, gave many eloquent speeches in his career, but the finest one he delivered was at the end of that career on April 25, 1861 to a joint session of the General Assembly of the State of Illinois.  In broken health, his coming death on June 3, 1861 already foreshadowed, he summoned the energy to help save his country.  Always first and foremost a patriot, Douglas was intent on rallying members of his party to the cause of the Union.  After one of the most vitriolic presidential contents in the history of the nation, it was an open question as to whether most members of the Party of Jackson would stand in support of the efforts of the Lincoln Administration to fight to preserve the Union.  Douglas, putting country above party, helped ensure that they would.

Immediately after the election of Lincoln he made it clear that he would make every effort in his power to fight against secession.  At the inaugural speech of Lincoln, he held the new President’s hat, giving a strong symbol of his support.  Illinois was a key state for the Union in the upcoming conflict.  Pro-Southern sentiment was strong among Illinois Democrats in the southern portion of the State, with even some talk that “Little Egypt”, as the extreme southern tip of Illinois is called, should secede from the rest of the state and join the Confederacy.  To rally his supporters for the Union, and at the request of President Lincoln, Douglas returned to Illinois and on April 25, 1861 had his finest hour. 

The speech he delivered that day has gone down in Illinois history as the “Protect the Flag” speech.  It was received by both Republicans and Democrats with thunderous applause and cheers throughout.  Although there would be much dissension in Illinois during the War, Douglas helped ensure that Illinois would be in the forefront of the war effort, with its quarter of a million troops,  among whom was Ulysses S. Grant, who would ultimately fight under the Stars and Stripes being absolutely crucial to Union victory.

Here is the speech, interspersed with comments by me: (more…)

Published in: on April 25, 2019 at 3:30 am  Comments Off on April 25, 1861: Stephen A. Douglas: “Protect the Flag”  
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Lincoln-Douglas Debate on Utah: June 1857

Lincoln-Douglas

 

 

It is easy to assume that in the 1850s there was only one issue in American politics, slavery.  This is of course incorrect, there were many issues, most forgotten now that attracted attention of voters and politicians.  One hot issue in 1857 was Utah and the on-going conflict between the Federal government and the Mormon settlers.  The issue was addressed in Springfield, Illinois in June 1857 in separate appearances by Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln, both warming up for the Senate contest in 1858.  It is easy to forget that the Mormons had a sojourn in Illinois, until they were chased out after the murder of Joseph Smith on June 27, 1844.  Stephen Douglas was usually on friendly terms with the Mormons, he and Smith both being native Vermonters.  Smith predicted that Douglas would run for President one day and would win, unless he became unfriendly to the Mormons.  Lincoln represented both Mormons and non-Mormons in lawsuits against each other and in 1840 in the state legislature voted in favor of the incorporation of the Mormon town of Nauvoo, which granted unusually broad powers to the Mormon controlled town government.  Nauvoo at the time rapidly became the largest city in Illinois, and Smith and his co-religionists were a subject of considerable controversy in Illinois that eventually broke out into open war between Mormons and anti-Mormons.  By 1857 the Mormons, and their polygamy, were no longer a local issue in Illinois, but were definitely a national issue.

Douglas spoke first at the State House on June 12, 1857 on Kansas, the Dred Scott decision and Utah.  Here is the section of his speech that dealt with Utah:

Mr. President, I will now respond to the call which has been made upon me for my opinion of the condition of things in Utah, and the appropriate remedy for existing evils. , The Territory of Utah was organized under one of the acts known as the compromise measures of 1850, on the supposition that the inhabitants were American citizens, owing and acknowledging allegiance to the United States, and consequently entitled to the benefits of self-government while a territory and to admission into the Union, on an equal footing with the original States [12] so soon as they should number the requisite population. It was conceded on all hands, and by all parties, that the peculiarities of their religious faith and ceremonies interposed no valid and constitutional objection to their reception into the Union, in conformity with the federal constitution, so long as they were in all other respects entitled to admission. Hence the great political parties of the country indorsed and approved the compromise measures of 1850, including the act for the organization of the Territory of Utah, with the hope and in the confidence that the inhabitants would conform to the constitution and laws, and prove themselves worthy, respectable and law-abiding citizens. If we are permitted to place credence to the rumors and reports from that country, (and it must be admitted that they have increased and strengthened, and assumed consistency and plausibility by each succeeding mail,) seven years experience has disclosed a state of facts entirely different from that which was supposed to exist when Utah was organized.

 

These rumors and reports would seem to justify the belief that the following facts are susceptible of proof:, 1st. That nine-tenths of the inhabitants are aliens by birth, who have refused to become naturalized, or to take the oath of allegiance, or to do any other act recognizing the government of the United States as the paramount authority in that Territory., 2d. That all the inhabitants, whether native or alien born, known as Mormons, (and they constitute the whole people of the Territory,) are bound by horrid oaths and terrible penalties to recognize and maintain the authority of Brigham Young, and the government of which he is the head, as paramount to that of the United States, in civil as well as religious affairs; and that they will, in due time, and under the direction of their leaders, use all means in their power to subvert the government of the United States, and resist its authority., 3d. That the Mormon government, with Brigham Young at its head, is now forming alliances with the Indian tribes of Utah and the adjoining Territories – stimulating the Indians to acts of hostility – and organizing bands of his own followers, under the name of ”Danites or Destroying Angels,” to prosecute a system of robbery and murder upon American citizens, who support the authority of the United States, and denounce the infamous and disgusting practices and institutions of the Mormon government. , If, upon a full investigation, these representations shall prove true, they will establish the fact that the inhabitants of Utah, as a community, are out-laws and alien enemies, unfit to exercise the right of self-government under the organic act, and unworthy to be admitted into the Union as a State, when their only object in seeking admission is to interpose the sovereignty of the State as an invincible shield to protect them in their treason and crime, debauchery and infamy. [Applause.] 

 

Under this view of the subject, I think it is the duty of the President, as I have no doubt it is his fixed purpose, to remove Brigham Young and all his followers from office, and to fill their places with bold, able, and true men, and to cause a thorough and searching investigation into all the crimes and enormities which are alleged to be perpetuated daily in that Territory, under the direction of Brigham Young and his confederates; and to use all the military force necessary to protect the officers in the discharge of their duties, and to enforce the laws of the land. [Applause.] , When the authentic evidence shall arrive, if it shall establish the facts which [13] are believed to exist, it will become the duty of Congress to apply the knife and cut out this loathsome, disgusting ulcer. [Applause.] No temporizing policy – no half-way measure will then answer. It has been supposed by those who have not thought deeply upon the subject, that an act of Congress prohibiting murder, robbery, polygamy, and other crimes, with appropriate penalties for those offences, would afford adequate remedies for all the enormities complained of. Suppose such a law to be on the statute book, and I believe they have a criminal code, providing the usual punishments for the entire catalogue of crimes, according to the usages of all civilized and christian countries, with the exception of polygamy, which is practiced under the sanction of the Mormon church, but is neither prohibited nor authorized by the laws of the Territory., Suppose, I repeat, that Congress should pass a law prescribing a criminal code and punishing polygamy among other offences, what effect would it have – what good would it do? Would you call on twenty-three grand jurymen with twenty-three wives each, to find a bill of indictment against a poor miserable wretch for having two wives? [Cheers and laughter.] Would you rely upon twelve petit jurors with twelve wives each to convict the same loathsome wretch for having two wives? [Continued applause.] Would you expect a grand jury composed of twenty-three ”Danites” to find a bill of indictment against a brother ”Danite” for having, under their direction, murdered a Gentile, as they call all American citizens? Much less would you expect a jury of twelve ”destroying angels” to find another ”destroying angel” guilty of the crime of murder, and cause him to be hanged for no other offence that that of taking the life of a Gentile!

 

No. If there is any truth in the reports we receive from Utah, congress may pass what laws it chooses, but you can never rely upon the local tribunals and juries to punish crimes committed by Mormons in that Territory. Some other and more effectual remedy must be devised and applied. In my opinion the first step should be the absolute and unconditional repeal of the organic act – blotting the territorial government out of existence – upon the ground that they are alien enemies and outlaws, denying their allegiance and defying the authority of the United States. [Immense applause.], The territorial government once abolished, the country would revert to its primitive condition, prior to the act of 1850, ”under the sole and exclusive jurisdiction of the United States,” and should be placed under the operation of the act of Congress of the 30th of April, 1790, and the carious acts supplemental thereto and amendatory thereof,” providing for the punishment of crimes against the United States within any fort, arsenal, dock-yard, magazine, or ANY OTHER PLACE OR DISTRICT OF COUNTRY, UNDER THE SOLE AND EXCLUSIVE jurisdiction of the United States. All offences against the provisions of these acts are required by law to be tried and punished by the United States courts in the States or territories where the offenders shall be ”FIRST APPREHENDED OR BROUGHT FOR TRIAL.”

 

Thus it will be seen that, under the plan proposed, Brigham Young and his confederates could be apprehended and brought for trial” to Iowa or Missouri, California or Oregon, or to any other adjacent State or territory, where a fair trial could be had, and justice administered impartially – where the witnesses could be protected and the judgment of the court could be carried into execution, without violence or intimidation. I do not propose to introduce any new principles into our [14] jurisprudence, nor to change the modes of proceeding or the rules of practice in our courts. I only propose to place the district of country embraced within the territory of Utah under the operation of the same laws and rules of proceeding that Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, and our other Territories were placed, before they became organized Territories. The whole country embraced within those Territories was under the operation of that same system of laws, and all the offences committed within the same, were punished in the manner now proposed, so long as the country remained ”under the sole and exclusive jurisdiction of the United States;” but the moment the country was organized into territorial governments, with legislative, executive and judicial departments, it ceased to be under the sole and exclusive jurisdiction of the United States, within the meaning of the act of Congress, for the reason that it had passed under another and a different jurisdiction. Hence, if we abolish the territorial government of Utah, preserving all existing rights, and place the country under sole and exclusive jurisdiction of the United States, offenders can be apprehended, and brought into the adjacent States or Territories, for trial and punishment, in the same manner and under the same rules and regulations, which obtained, and have been uniformly practiced, under like circumstances since 1790., If the plan proposed shall be found an effective and adequate remedy for the evils complained of in Utah, no one, no matter what his political creed or partizan associations, need be apprehensive that it will violate any cherished theory or constitutional right, in regard to the government of the Territories.

 

It is a great mistake to suppose that all the territory or land belonging to the United States, must necessarily be governed by the same laws and under the same clause of the Constitution, without reference to the purpose to which it is dedicated or the use which it is proposed to make it. While all that portion of country which is or shall be set apart to become new States, must necessarily be governed under and consistent with that clause of the Constitution, which authorizes Congress to admit new states, it does not follow that other territory, not intended to be organized and admitted into the Union as States, must be governed under the same clause of the Constitution, with all the rights of self-government and State equality. For instance, if we should purchase Vancouver’s Island from Great Britain, for the purpose of removing all the Indians from our Pacific Territories, and locating them on that Island, as their permanent home, with guarantees that it should never be settled or occupied by white men, will it be contended that the purchase should be made and the island governed under the power to admit new States when it was not acquired for that purpose, or intended to be applied to that object? Being acquired for Indian purposes, is it not more reasonable to assume that the power to acquire was derived from the Indian clause, and the island must necessarily be governed under and consistent with that clause of the Constitution which relates to Indian affairs. Again, suppose we should deem it expedient to buy a small island in the Mediterranean or Carribean sea, for a naval station, can it be said, with any force or plausibility, that the purchase should be made or the island governed under the power to admit new States? On the contrary, is it not obvious that the right to acquire and govern in that case is derived from the power ”to provide and maintain a navy,” and must be exercised consistent with that power. So if we purchase land for forts, arsenals, or other military purposes, or set apart and dedicate any territory, which we now own, for a [15] military reservation, it immediately passes under the military power, and must be governed in harmony with it. So, if land be purchased for a mint, it must be governed under the power to coin money: or, if purchased for a post-office, it must be governed under the power to establish post-offices and post-roads; or, for a custom house, under the power to regulate commerce; or, for a court house under the judicial power.

 

In short the clause of the Constitution under which any land or territory, belonging to the United States, must be governed is indicated by the object for which it was acquired and the purpose to which it is dedicated. So long, therefore, as the organic act of Utah shall remain in force, setting apart that country for a new State, and pledging the faith of the United States to receive it into the Union so soon as it should have the requisite population, we are bound to extend to it all the rights of self-government, agreeably to the clause of the Constitution, providing for the admission of new States. Hence the necessity of repealing the organic act, withdrawing the pledge of admission, and placing it under the sole and exclusive jurisdiction of the United States, in order that persons and property may be protected, and justice administered, and crimes punished under the laws prescribed by Congress in such cases. , While the power of the Congress to repeal the organic act and abolish the Territorial government cannot be denied, the question may arise whether we possess the moral right of exercising the power, after the charter has been once granted, and the local government organized under its provisions. This is a grave question – one which should not be decided hastily, nor under the influence of passion or prejudice. In my opinion, I am free to say there is no moral right to repeal the organic act of a territory, and abolish the government organized under it, unless the inhabitants of that territory, as a community, have done such acts as amount to a forfeiture of all rights under it – such as becoming alien enemies, outlaws, disavowing their allegiance, or resisting the authority of the United States. These and kindred acts, which we have every reason to believe are daily perpetrated in that Territory, would not only give us the moral right, but make it our imperative duty to abolish the territorial government and place the inhabitants under the sole and exclusive jurisdiction of the United States, to the end that justice may be done, and the dignity and authority of the government vindicated., I have thus presented plainly and frankly my views of the Utah question – the evils and the remedy – upon the facts as they have reached us, and are supposed to be substantially correct. If official reports and authentic information shall change or modify these facts, I shall be ready to conform my action to the real facts as they shall be found to exist. I have no such pride of opinion as will induce me to persevere in an error one moment after my judgment is convinced. If, therefore, a better plan can be devised – one more consistent with justice and sound policy, or more effective as a remedy for acknowledged evils, I will take great pleasure in adopting it, in lieu of the one I have presented to you to-night. , In conclusion, permit me too present my grateful acknowledgments for your patient attention and the kind and respectfully manner in which you have received my remarks.

Lincoln made a speech in response at the State House in Springfield on June 26, 1857.  Although the Republican platform in 1856 denounced the “twin relics of barbarism” of polygamy and slavery, Lincoln himself rarely mentioned polygamy or the Mormons.  In his speech he used Utah and the Mormon belief in polygamy to attack the popular sovereignty doctrine by which Douglas left up to the people of a territory the issue of slavery.  Lincoln wondered why this didn’t also apply to polygamy.

 

I begin with Utah. If it prove to be true, as is probable, that the people of Utah are in open rebellion in the United States, then Judge Douglas is in favor of repealing their territorial organization, and attaching them to the adjoining States for judicial purposes. I say, too, if they are in rebellion, they ought to be somehow coerced to obedience; and I am not now prepared to admit or deny that the Judge’s mode of coercing them is not as good as any. The Republicans can fall in with it without taking back anything they have ever said. To be sure, it would be a considerable backing down by Judge Douglas from his much vaunted doctrine of self-government for the territories; but this is only additional proof of what was very plain from the beginning, that that doctrine was a mere deceitful pretense for the benefit of slavery. Those who could not see that much in the Nebraska act itself, which forced Governors, and Secretaries, and Judges on the people of the territories, without their choice or consent, could not be made to see, though one should rise from the dead to testify.

But in all this, it is very plain the Judge evades the only question the Republicans have ever pressed upon the Democracy in regard to Utah. That question the Judge well knows to be this: ‘If the people of Utah shall peacefully form a State Constitution tolerating polygamy, will the Democracy admit them into the Union?’ There is nothing in the United States Constitution or law against polygamy; and why is it not a part of the Judge’s ‘sacred right of self-government’ for that people to have it, or rather to keep it, if they choose? These questions, so far as I know, the Judge never answers. It might involve the Democracy to answer them either way, and they go unanswered.

 

Published in: on May 18, 2015 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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Friendly Enemies

The video above accurately recreates the civility that always reigned between Abraham Lincoln and his great antagonist Stephen A. Douglas.  Although always political adversaries, Lincoln and Douglas always were personally cordial to each other.  Lawyers, and they had tried cases against each other, they had the attorney knack of going hammer and tongs against each other in their professional capacity, and never allowing that to impact their ability to be civil.  When Douglas died in 1861, Lincoln ordered the flags of the nation flown at half staff and the White House to be draped in black.  The ability of these two great men to be political opponents and yet treat each other with perfect courtesy and respect, should be remembered and cherished by all Americans, especially in an election year.

Published in: on March 12, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Friendly Enemies  
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Abe Lincoln in Illinois: Lincoln-Douglas Debate

The film Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940) has perhaps the best recreation of the Lincoln-Douglas debates ever put on film.  The debate portrayed has remarks culled from all the debates,  is an excellent recreation of the main arguments made by each of the men, and is evocative of their speaking styles.

Ironically neither of the actors portraying Lincoln and Douglas were Americans.  The actor portraying Douglas was Gene Lockhart, a Canadian.  If his voice sounds vaguely familiar to you, it is probably because you recall him as the judge in Miracle on 34th Street.  His daughter June Lockhart, of Lassie and Lost in Space fame, carried on the thespian tradition of the family.

Lincoln was portrayed by Raymond Massey, also a Canadian.  Massey was one of the great actors of his day and bore a strong physical resemblance to Lincoln.  Massey served in the Canadian Army in both World War I and World War II, becoming a naturalized American citizen after World War II.  Like Lincoln he was a Republican and made a TV ad for Goldwater in the 1964 campaign.

  Here is a transcript from the film script of the debate: (more…)

Published in: on April 26, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Abe Lincoln in Illinois: Lincoln-Douglas Debate  
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Lincoln on the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act

The Civil War is often viewed as an inevitable conflict.  Perhaps.  However, it is certain that it was the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the brain child of Stephen A. Douglas, which set in motion the events of the 1850s which led to the rise of both the Republican Party and Abraham Lincoln.  Trying to square the circle, Douglas thought that his concept of “popular sovereignty” was the solution to the slavery question in the territories.  Let the people decide.  What true American could oppose that idea?  This, he thought, would appease both Northern and Democrat factions in his party and lead him inevitably to the Presidency.

Instead, as Bleeding Kansas demonstrated, Douglas merely gave a target for both anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces to fight the question out with violence rather than words. 

Lincoln in his speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act on October 16, 1854, which may be read here, emphasized how the Compromise of 1850 was thought at the time to end the slavery question: (more…)

Published in: on March 17, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Lincoln on the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act  
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Courage and the Little Giant

Stephen A. Douglas, the Little Giant, stands in the shadow of his great adversary Abraham Lincon in History.  This does the man less than justice I think.  In his relatively short life of 48 years, Douglas spent much of his adult years as one of the most powerful politicians of his day.  Although tragically wrong about slavery, he had an unshakable belief in the right of the people to rule themselves that is at the very core of our on-going experiment in self-government.  He had a powerful intellect and could project that intellect in speeches that still leap off the pages when they are read.  He was also an ardent patriot and completely fearless. (more…)

Published in: on November 12, 2010 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Courage and the Little Giant  
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Democratic Platform 1860

Last week we looked at the Republican Party platform for 1860 here.  The Democratic Party went into the election of 1860 hopelessly divided.  Although Douglas had been as pro-slavery as a Northern Democrat could possibly be and stand a chance of attaining the White House, he had alienated most Southern Democrats by his insistence during the Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858 that the people of a territory could vote to ban slavery.  This was anathema to pro-slavery extremists who increasingly dominated the Democratic party in the South.  After the anti-Douglas delegates bolted the Baltimore convention, ultimately to nominate Vice President John C. Breckinridge for President, the rump Democratic Party remaining adopted a very brief platform.

The platform adopted the 1856 platform, perhaps reasoning that Democrats had succeeded on that platform once, and might again.

Since Democrats were divided on whether a Territorial legislature could ban slavery, the Democrats punted the issue and said they would support whatever the Supreme Court decided.

The Democrats condemned Northern attempts to frustrate the Fugitive Slave Act.

The platform calls for “constitutional” assistance for a transcontinental railroad.  The Democrats were in a bind here.  A transcontinental railroad was vastly popular, but the Democrats since Jackson had opposed federal expenditures for internal improvements as unconstitutional.

Finally the Democrats called for acquiring Cuba from Spain, long the dream of pro-slavers who viewed Cuba as a future slave state.

It is striking to me that even after the most vociferous pro-slavery forces had bolted the party, just how wedded the Democrats were to pro-slavery policies.  Small wonder that vast numbers of anti-slavery Democrats had already become Republicans, and that more Democrats would leave the party during the Civil War, enough to ensure that the Democrats would be the minority party in the North for generations to come.  The Democratic Platform of 1860:  (more…)

Published in: on October 4, 2010 at 5:30 am  Comments (4)  
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Lincoln, Douglas and Their First Debate

I  live in rural Central Illinois in Livingston County.  Like most counties in Central Illinois, we have our Lincoln sites, places Lincoln visited while he was riding the circuit as a lawyer.  In those more civilized days, courts in most areas only operated part time.  On a court day, the judges and attorneys would arrive at a county seat, and the trials on the court’s docket would be called and tried.  So it was on May 18, 1840 when Lincoln and his fellow attorneys rode into Pontiac, the then tiny county seat of Livingston County, for the first ever session of the Circuit Court in Livingston County.

Lincoln by this time was beginning to be well known in Central Illinois.  He was a member of the Illinois House of Representatives, and was one of the leaders of the Whig Party in Central Illinois.  He was only 31 and was clearly a young man on his way up in the world. 

Lincoln was not the only celebrity attorney present that day in Pontiac.  Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln’s great antagonist, was also present.  Only 27, Douglas was already famous throughout the State.  Douglas was a fervent Democrat and one of the great orators of his day.  Already he had been Attorney General of the State, and  a member of the Illinois House of Representatives.  Later that year he would be appointed Secretary of State, and in 1841 he would be appointed a Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court, the youngest man ever to serve on that tribunal.  Douglas was also clearly a young man rising swiftly in the world.

However, on May 18, 1840 Lincoln and Douglas were not concentrating on grand issues or the future.  Their attention was riveted on the case of William Popejoy vs.  Isaac Wilson, the first case filed in the Circuit Court in Livingston County.  Wilson had accused Popejoy of stealing meat from a Sarah McDowell, and Popejoy was suing him for slander.  Slander lawsuits were not uncommon in Central Illinois of that period, and Lincoln, as was the case with most attorneys, represented quite a few clients in regard to such cases.

There was no love lost between Popejoy and Wilson.  Wilson had previously sued Popejoy for the death of a horse of his that Wilson had allowed him to borrow.  The horse had died and Wilson, represented by Stephen A. Douglas, had sued for $300.00 in damages.  Lincoln had represented Popejoy.  The jury had returned a verdict for Wilson, but assessed damages at $70.25.  In the current lawsuit for slander, Lincoln again represented Popejoy and Douglas represented Wilson.

Lincoln won the case, with the Jury deliberating on a pile of sawlogs on the bank of the Vermilion River which winds through Pontiac. (more…)

Published in: on May 18, 2010 at 5:19 am  Comments Off on Lincoln, Douglas and Their First Debate  
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