Douglas, Lincoln and the Historical Times of the Lady Elgin

Gazette Article by Duff Peterson
Appeared in the Gazette: Fall 2010

~Photo Courtesy of the Stephen A. Douglas Association~


The wreck of the Lady Elgin was directly related to the events leading up to the Civil War.  The country was tearing itself apart over the issue of slavery, and had it not been for the tumultuous political climate of 1860, the Lady Elgin would never have sailed from Milwaukee on September 7 of that year.

The more than 300 Irish-Americans from Milwaukee who traveled to Chicago were very likely supporters of Stephen Douglas, a three-term Senator from Illinois who was probably the most famous politician in the country in 1860.[1] Although the Milwaukee visitors were not able to see Douglas on their trip, they took pleasure in visiting Chicago places he frequented.

Douglas had come to Illinois as a young man and trained as a lawyer, becoming a State’s Attorney at 21 and a judge of the Illinois Supreme Court at 27.   Entering national politics at 28, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives twice and then to the U.S. Senate.  He was the architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which gave those new territories the right to choose for themselves whether to allow slavery.  Many saw the act as an acceptable compromise, but as opposition to slavery hardened in the North, and as voting fraud and then bloodshed erupted in Kansas, the act became a rallying point for antislavery advocates all over the North.[2]

Douglas stood 5 foot 4 inches and weighed only 90 pounds, but he had a commanding presence, and a speaking voice usually described as “stentorian.”  Because of his short physical stature and tall political stature, he was called “the Little Giant.”  His Republican opponent in the presidential race that year was a one-term former Congressman who had been out of office for ten years, an awkward-looking lawyer also from downstate Illinois named Abraham Lincoln.[3]

Douglas and Lincoln knew each other well.  In 1858, Lincoln had challenged Douglas, the incumbent, for the U.S. Senate.  The main issue of the campaign was slavery, and the people of Illinois, especially downstate, were divided on the issue.  The two politicians conducted a series of seven debates in which Douglas championed “popular sovereignty,” the right of the people to decide.[4]

Lincoln, on the other hand, took an uncompromising stand against slavery’s further spread.  After a hard-fought campaign, the Democrats retained their majority in the Illinois legislature and Douglas kept his seat.  (Until passage of the 17th amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1913, state legislatures elected Senators.  Historians still debate whether Douglas’ reelection resulted from Illinois’ failure to reapportion the legislature to reflect the rapid population growth during the 1850’s of northern Illinois, where Lincoln was stronger.)[5]  The Lincoln-Douglas Debates had sharpened the differences between the two parties and helped to make Lincoln a national standard-bearer for the GOP.  Early in 1860, Lincoln arranged for publication of the debates in book form, which further enhanced his national reputation.[6]

In the 1860 presidential campaign, the Democratic Party split into Northern and Southern factions, each nominating its own candidate.  The Republican Party quickly gained strength in the North, but was shunned in the South.  Meanwhile another party emerged, Constitutional Union, made up mostly of voters from both North and South who thought the best way to preserve the peace was to take no stand on slavery at all.[7]

Historians credit Douglas as the first presidential candidate to undertake a modern campaign, traveling from city to city and making speeches.  Lincoln, meanwhile, conducted a “front-porch campaign” more typical of the 19th century, receiving members of the press in Springfield while Republicans around the country stumped for him.[8] No record exists of Douglas’ speech at that Chicago gathering of September 7, 1860, but we can imagine that he took every opportunity to portray Lincoln as a dangerous extremist who would lead the country into war.

In the four-way election that followed, Lincoln won the Electoral College without even being on the ballot in ten Southern states, while gaining only 40% of the popular vote.  With the Democratic coalition in tatters, Douglas got only 12% of the popular vote, carrying two states.  (Election results do not exist for Winnetka, then an unincorporated town of about 130 people, but we can guess that with its high number of Yankee transplants from New England and upstate New York, Winnetka went heavily for Lincoln.)

Lincoln’s election was the last straw for the South.  Barely a month later, South Carolina seceded from the United States, soon to be followed by six other states.  After the Confederates attacked Fort Sumter in April 1861, four more states seceded.  In that time of crisis, Douglas set aside his differences with Lincoln and publicly declared his support for the President and the Union cause.[9]  The long campaign had exhausted him, however, and on June 3, 1861, the Little Giant died.  He was 48 years old.  Lincoln ordered the White House draped in mourning in tribute to the fiery Senator who had never compromised his faith in the democratic process.  In the terrible ordeal that followed, over 600,000 Americans would die and the Southern economy would be destroyed.  The nation would struggle with the legacy of the Civil War for generations.

~1. Neely, The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia.  New York: McGraw-Hill (1982),~
~p. 88.~
~2. Goodwin, Team of Rivals:  The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.~
~New York: Simon & Schuster (2005), p. 161-162; Merk, A History of the~ ~Westward Movement.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf (1978), p. 384-391.~
~3. Donald, Lincoln.  New York: Simon & Schuster (1995), p. 214.~
~4. Neely, p. 87.~
~5. McPherson, The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom.  New York: Oxford U.~
~Press (2003), p. 146.~
~6. Goodwin, p. 224; McPherson, p. 172.~
~7. McPherson, p. 174-175; Goodwin, p. 259.~
~8. Goodwin, p. 264.~
~9. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas.  New York: Oxford U. Press (1973),~
~p. 840-870; Miller, Lincoln: Duty of a Statesman.  New York: Alfred A. Knopf~ ~(2008), p. 94.~

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