Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Stephen Douglas Misses A Chance

Reading (as I am) about Stephen Douglas, I feel wistful. It’s such a shame that he didn’t take up leadership of the free soil wing of the Democratic party.

He had the opportunity, too. In 1845 and early 1846, the rabidly expansionist Douglas was a leader of the 54-40 or fight forces. At one point, he announced that a renewal of the offer to settle the US-Canadian boundary at 49 degrees
would be nothing less than “a treasonable proposition.” . . . “[I]f ever [the offer] was commended again . . ., in violation of the pledges given by the Democratic party to the American people, sooner let his tongue cleave to the roof of his mouth than he would defend that party which should yield one inch of Oregon."

At the same time, Douglas championed an internal improvements bill that focused on fresh-water rivers and harbors. Douglas adamantly denied that the bill improperly violated strictures against federal funding of local projects.

President James K. Polk undercut – demolished is more like it – both initiatives. First, Polk wound up negotiating and recommending a treaty with Great Britain by which the boundary was set at 49 degrees. Then Polk vetoed the rivers and harbors bill.

Remarkably – and unfortunately – Douglas turned his cheek on both humiliations. Douglas remained an intimate confidant of the president. When the Wilmot Proviso came before the House later in 1846, Douglas “was one of only four northern Democrats to oppose” it. What a shame.

It’s hard to imagine what would have happened if Douglas had joined the Wilmot Proviso Democrats in August 1846. If he had not helped fashion the Compromise of 1850, would there have been Civil War in 1850? If he had not driven the catastrophic Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, would there have been no Civil War at all? And if Stephen Douglas had morphed into a Republican by 1858, where would that have left Abe?

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