What’s in a name? A great deal, if it happens to be Stephen A. Douglas.
A hundred and fifty years ago, Stephen Arnold Douglas was the most powerful politician in America. He had begun his political career as a hyper-loyal Andrew Jackson Democrat, snatched up one of Illinois’ U.S. Senate seats in 1846, and rose from there to the heights of Congressional stardom by helping the great Henry Clay cobble together the Compromise of 1850 – which effectively averted civil war over the expansion of slavery into the West for another decade. No man was a more obvious presidential candidate than Douglas, and in 1860, he won his party’s nomination to the presidency.
That, unhappily for Douglas, was when the cheering stopped.
He made the magnificent mistake, when running for re-election to the Senate in 1858, of agreeing to debate the new Republican party’s anti-slavery candidate, Abraham Lincoln. Although Douglas managed to win the election, Lincoln handled him so relentlessly, exposing the failure of Douglas’s policies on slavery during the duo’s seven open-air debates, that Lincoln emerged as a national contender, while Douglas lost legions of disappointed supporters. When Douglas faced Lincoln again in the presidential campaign of 1860, Douglas’s party fractured into three pieces and guaranteed Lincoln’s election by default. Douglas died only eight months later.
Still, Douglas’s name was revered by Illinois Democrats for a generation afterward. In the 1920s, Progressive Democrats adopted Douglas as a model of moderate statesmanship, trying to hold off the destructive fanaticism of both pro- and anti-slavery radicals. Biographers of Lincoln and Douglas alike – Albert Beveridge on the Lincoln side, Robert Johannsen on Douglas’s side – praised Douglas for taking the practical road to compromise, unlike the ideologues whose fervor eventually triggered the Civil War. In 1963, Illinois governor Otto Kerner, who would later chair the famous National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, praised Douglas for creating the Illinois Central railroad and the University of Chicago, and in 1975, Chicago mayor Richard Daley, a life-long admirer of Douglas, founded a Stephen A. Douglas Association to promote the observation of Douglas’s birthday.
And, on top of it all, a residence hall – one of three named for famous Illinois politicians – was built at Eastern Illinois University with Douglas’s name on it.
Douglas Hall, a 200-bed residence hall built in the 1950s, may have been the most innocuous of all the memorializations of Stephen A. Douglas. But not after November 9th.
That’s when the EIU Faculty Senate, acting on a proposal from Associate Professor of English Christopher Hanlon, voted to remove Douglas’s name from the residence hall. This was not the first time the “Douglas” in Douglas Hall had been challenged, but this time, Hanlon cast his objections as a statement on race. Stephen A. Douglas, Hanlon argued, “gave voice to a contemptuous view of African Americans, a view that has long since been recognized as incompatible with modern American democracy.” And it is true that Douglas supported the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 (it was part of the Compromise), backed legislation which tore up laws banning the expansion of slavery into the Western territories, and in his debates with Lincoln, spoke of blacks in terms so demeaning they would make a Klansman blush. Douglas addressed Illinoisans in 1858 with the ringing affirmation that “this government of ours is founded on the white basis.” During the debates with Lincoln Douglas made a specialty of race-baiting in the most foul-mouthed fashion:
I ask you, are you in favor of conferring upon the negro the rights and privileges of citizenship? Do you desire to strike out of our state’s constitution that clause which keeps slaves and free negroes out of the state, and allow the free negroes to flow in, and cover your prairies with black settlements? Do you desire to turn this beautiful state into a free negro colony in order that when Missouri abolishes slavery, she can send one hundred thousand emancipated slaves into Illinois to become citizens and voters on an equality with yourselves? If you desire negro citizenship, if you desire to allow them to come into the state and settle with the white man, if you desire them to vote on an equality with yourselves, and to make them eligible to office, to serve on juries, and to judge your rights, then support Mr. Lincoln and the Black Republican party, who are in favor of the citizenship of the negro.
And although he tried to distract notice from it, Douglas was even the legal owner of slaves, which had come to him through the estate of his father-in-law and which he managed as a trust for his two under-age sons.
It is easy to read Hanlon’s charge that Douglas “bears a dishonorable record of public service and is hence undeserving of public acclaim and honor” as simply another sanctimonious exercise in air-brushing the racially-insensitive and diversity-intolerant out of college and university histories. And this has provoked some equally-predictable push-back from historians like EIU’s Mark Summers, who argues that “trying to find historical actors who fully abided my own moral judgments was a fruitless exercise… because our world today is too different from the world occupied by predecessors who spoke and acted in the past.” Douglas was, in other words, a man of his time, when white supremacist attitudes were actually mainstream, and should not be judged by “presentist” attitudes.
In the case of Stephen A. Douglas, however, I’m on the side of removing the name, and not just because of race. Douglas’s entire policy toward race and slavery arose from an even more toxic assumption, which Douglas deified as the principle of “popular sovereignty.” In Douglas’s dictionary, democracy is an end in itself, and democratic process amounts entirely to consulting what a majority of the people want at any given time. If the voters wanted to legalize slavery, so be it; if not, that was up to them, too, so long as they did not attempt to force this conviction on others. “The principle of self-government is, that each community shall settle this question for itself… and we have no right to complain, either in the North or the South, whichever they do.” Douglas liked to speak of this as an example of what he called “diversity;” but in the context of the crisis over slavery in the 1850s, what it meant in practical terms was that “If Kansas wants a slave-State constitution she has a right to it…. I do not care whether it is voted down or voted up.”
Lincoln, by contrast, believed that democracy was a means, not an end in itself, and that it was a means toward realizing in the fullest fashion the natural rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness which Nature and Nature’s God had hard-wired into every human being. There was a line, drawn by natural right, beyond which no majority and no democracy could or should go, and on the far side of that line was slavery. Douglas’s politics were the politics of the pitchfork, devoid of moral principle and respecting nothing except force. Lincoln believed that “moral principle is all that unites us,” and that Douglas’s popular sovereignty was merely a kind face on mob rule. Wed that notion to white supremacy, and you get the real offense of Stephen A. Douglas.
In the long run, the EIU resolution is little more than pin-prick. It would have been far better if they had gone to the root of Douglas’s problem, which was his utter political amorality. That’s what needs banishing, not only from the addresses of residence halls, but from our halls of representatives, too.