Lincoln's Personal Life HTML version

A Return To Politics
Meanwhile, great things were coming forward at Washington. They centered about a
remarkable man with whom Lincoln had hitherto formed a curious parallel, by whom
hitherto he had been completely overshadowed. Stephen Arnold Douglas was prosecuting
attorney at Springfield when Lincoln began the practice of law. They were in the
Legislature together. Both courted Mary Todd. Soon afterward, Douglas had distanced
his rival. When Lincoln went to the House of Representatives as a Whig, Douglas went to
the Senate as a Democrat. While Lincoln was failing at Washington, Douglas was
building a national reputation. In the hubbub that followed the Compromise of 1850,
while Lincoln, abandoning politics, immersed himself in the law, Douglas rendered a
service to the country by defeating a movement in Illinois to reject the Compromise.
When the Democratic National Convention assembled in 1852, he was sufficiently
prominent to obtain a considerable vote for the presidential nomination.
The dramatic contrast of these two began with their physical appearance. Douglas was so
small that he had been known to sit on a friend's knee while arguing politics. But his
energy of mind, his indomitable force of character, made up for his tiny proportions. "The
Little Giant" was a term of endearment applied to him by his followers. The mental
contrast was equally marked. Scarcely a quality in Lincoln that was not reversed in
Douglas--deliberation, gradualness, introspection, tenacity, were the characteristics of
Lincoln's mind. The mind of Douglas was first of all facile. He was extraordinarily quick.
In political Strategy he could sense a new situation, wheel to meet it, throw overboard
well-established plans, devise new ones, all in the twinkle of an eye. People who could
not understand such rapidity of judgment pronounced him insincere, or at least, an
opportunist. That he did not have the deep inflexibility of Lincoln may be assumed; that
his convictions, such as they were, did not have an ethical cast may be safely asserted.
Nevertheless, he was a great force, an immense human power, that did not change its
course without good reason of its own sort. Far more than a mere opportunist. Politically,
he summed up a change that was coming over the Democratic party. Janus-like, he had
two faces, one for his constituents, one for his colleagues. To the voter he was still a
Jeffersonian, with whom the old phraseology of the party, liberty, equality, and fraternity,
were still the catch-words. To his associates in the Senate he was essentially an aristocrat,
laboring to advance interests that were careless of the rights of man. A later age has
accused the Senate of the United States of being the citadel of Big Business. Waiving the
latter view, the historian may assert that something suggestive of Big Business appeared
in our politics in the 'fifties, and was promptly made at home in the Senate. Perhaps its
first definite manifestation was a new activity on the part of the great slave-holders. To
invoke again the classifications of later points of view, certain of our historians to-day
think they can see in the 'fifties a virtual slavery trust, a combine of slave interests
controlled by the magnates of the institution, and having as real, though informal, an
existence as has the Steel Trust or the Beef Trust in our own time. This powerful interest
allied itself with the capitalists of the Northeast. In modern phraseology, they aimed to
"finance" the slave interest from New York. And for a time the alliance succeeded in
doing this. The South went entirely upon credit. It bought and borrowed heavily in the
East New York furnished the money.