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Chapter 12: Lincoln and Douglas

In speaking of the orators and oratory that were evolved by the Slavery issue, there are two names that cannot be omitted. These are Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. It was the good fortune of the writer to be an eye and ear witness of the closing bout, at Alton, Illinois, between those two political champions in their great debate of 1858. The contrast between the men was remarkable. Lincoln was very tall and spare, standing up, when speaking, straight and stiff. Douglas was short and stumpy, a regular roly-poly man. Lincoln's face was calm and meek, almost immobile. He referred to it in his address as “my rather melancholy face.” Although plain and somewhat rugged, I never regarded Lincoln's face as homely. I saw him many times and talked with him, after the occasion now referred to. It was a good face, and had many winning lines. Douglas's countenance, on the other hand, was leonine and full of expression. His was a handsome face. When lighted up by the excitement of debate it could not fail to impress an audience.

Lincoln indulged in no gesticulation. If he had been addressing a bench of judges he would not [95] have been more impassive in his manner. He was an animate, but not an animated, bean-pole. He poured out a steady flow of words-three to Douglas's two--in a simple and semi-conversational tone. He attempted no witticisms and indulged in no oratorical claptrap. His address was pure argument. Douglas's manner was one of excitement, and accompanied and emphasized by almost continuous bodily movement. His hands and his feet, and especially that pliable face of his, were all busy talking. He said sharp things, evidently for their immediate effect on his audience, and showed that he was not only master of all the arts of the practical stump orator, but was ready to employ them.

But the most noticeable difference was in the voices of the men. Douglas spoke first, and for the first minute or two was utterly unintelligible. His voice seemed to be all worn out by his speaking in that long and principally open-air debate. He simply bellowed. But gradually he got command of his organ, and pretty soon, in a somewhat laborious and painful way, it is true, he succeeded in making himself understood.

Lincoln's voice, on the contrary, was without a quaver or a sign of huskiness. He had been speaking in the open air exactly as much as Douglas, but it was perfectly fresh, not a particle strained. It was a perfect voice.

Those who wanted to understand Douglas had to press up close to the platform from which he was speaking, and there was collected a dense, but not very deep, crowd. There was no crowding in front of Lincoln when he was speaking. He could be [96] heard without it. There was a line of wagons and carriages on the outskirts of the audience, and I noticed, when Lincoln was speaking, that they were filled with comfortably seated people listening to his address. They did not need to go any nearer to him. The most of the shouting was done by Douglas's partisans, composing a clear majority of the crowd, but it was very manifest that Lincoln commanded the attention of the greater number of those who were interested in the arguments. He did not act as if he cared for the applause of the multitude. He said nothing, apparently, simply to tickle the ears of his hearers.

Rather strange was it that the only points on which there did not appear to be much, if any, difference between the two men were reached when they came to the propositions they advocated. Douglas was avowedly pro-slavery. He was talking in southern Illinois and on the border of Missouri, to which many of his hearers belonged, and his audience was mostly Southern in its feelings. He was plainly trying to please that element. He not only approved of slavery where it was, but metaphorically jumped on the negro and trampled all over him. He denied that the negro was a “man” within the meaning of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln, however, as far as slavery in the States was involved, met Douglas on his own ground, and “went him one better.” He said, “I have on all occasions declared as strongly as Judge Douglas against the disposition to interfere with the existing institution of slavery.”

If a stranger who knew nothing of the speakers [97] and their party associations had heard the two men on that occasion, he would have concluded that one was strongly in favor of slavery and the other was not opposed to it.

Their only disagreement was as to slavery in the Territories, and that was more apparent than real. Lincoln contended for free soil through the direct action of the general government. Douglas advocated a roundabout way that led up to the same result. His proposition, which he called “popular sovereignty,” was to leave the decision to the people of the Territories, saying he did not care whether they voted slavery up or voted it down. That was a practical, although indirect declaration in favor of free soil. The outcome of the contests in Kansas and California showed that at that game the free States with their superior resources were certain to win. The shrewder slaveholders recognized that fact, and their antagonism to Douglas grew accordingly. They deliberately defeated him for the Presidency in 1860, when he was the regular candidate of the Democratic party, by running Breckenridge as an independent candidate. Otherwise Mr. Douglas would have become President of the United States. Out of a total of 4,680, 93 votes, Mr. Lincoln had only 1,866,631. The rest were divided between his three antagonists.

As between Lincoln and Douglas, who together held the controlling hand, the slaveholders preferred Lincoln, against whom they had no personal feeling, while they knew that his policy was no more dangerous to their interests than the other man's, if faithfully adhered to and carried out. Besides [98] that, by this time many of them had reached that state of mind in which they wanted a pretext for secession from the Union. Lincoln's election would give them that pretext while Douglas's would not.

On a boat that carried a portion of the audience, including the writer, from Alton to St. Louis, after the debate was over, was a prominent Missouri Democrat, afterwards a Confederate leader, who expressed himself very freely. He declared that he would rather trust the institutions of the South to the hands of a conservative and honest man like “Old Abe,” than to those of “a political jumping-jack like Douglas.” The most of the other Southern men and slaveholders present seemed to concur in his views.

It is a fact that a good many of the Anti-Slavery leaders living outside of Illinois, and a good many of those living within it, wanted the Republicans of that State to let Douglas go back to the Senate without a contest, believing that he would be far more useful to them there than a Republican would be. It is not improbable that enough of the Illinois Republicans took that view of the matter, and helped to give Douglas the victory in what was a very close contest.

A portion of Douglas's speech was a spirited defense of his “squatter sovereignty” doctrine against the denunciations of members of his own political party, in the course of which he gave President Buchanan a savage overhauling. It showed him to be a master of invective.

“Go it, husband; go it, bear,” was Mr. Lincoln's comment on that part of Douglas's address. [99]

I went to the debate with a very strong prejudice against Douglas, looking upon him as one of the most time-serving of those Northern men whom the Abolitionists called “dough-faces.” I confess that my views of the man were considerably modified. I admired the pluck he showed in speaking when his voice was in tatters. Still more did I like the resolution he displayed in defying those leaders of his own party, including the President, who wanted him to retreat from the ground he had taken, seeing that it had become practically Anti-Slavery.

At the same time I had an almost worshipful admiration for Lincoln, whom I had not before seen or heard. I expected a great deal from him. I thought his closing appeal in that great debate would contain some ringing words for freedom. He had, as I supposed, a great opportunity for telling eloquence. He stood almost on the ground that had drunk the blood of Lovejoy, the Anti-Slavery martyr. I felt that that fact ought to inspire him. I was disappointed. Mr. Lincoln's speech was altogether colorless. It was an argument, able but perfectly cold. It was largely technical. There was no sentiment in it. Lovejoy had died in vain so far as that address was concerned. I am free to say that I was led to doubt whether Mr. Lincoln was then in hearty sympathy with any movement looking to the freedom of the slave, and this impression was not afterwards wholly removed from my mind.

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