Hillary Clinton, Stephen Douglas, and the Logic of Success

Would liberals favoring Clinton over Sanders in 2016 have rooted for Lincoln’s opponent in 1858?

My colleague Corey Robin wrote a column earlier this week on  the fallacies and forgetfulness of liberal Democrats who continue to favor Hillary Clinton for the party’s Presidential nominee.  At this point the liberal Democrat case for Clinton essentially comes down to the (dubious) notion that she’s the more electable Democrat, and better equipped to deliver if elected.  Bernie Sanders may be the bona fide liberal in the race – no argument there – but Clinton is the one with the undisputed national stature, the impressive record of accomplishment, and the  proven political skill – to say nothing of her better aptitude for tailoring her message for mainstream appeal. As Corey makes clear, to argue this way is to  stake the Democrats’ hopes on the glamour of Clinton’s success, her talent for positioning herself as her party’s quasi-official front-runner. Reading Corey’s column— which I recommend to anyone still in the grip of this way of  thinking— I got to thinking about certain parallels with a past election I’ve lately been doing some reading about. There’s a peculiar resemblance between the liberal case for supporting Clinton this year, and the case that was made by anti-slavery Republicans  for supporting Stephen Douglas in the Senate election of  1858 — against Abraham Lincoln. I mentioned this to Corey; he mentioned it on his blog.  So let me just fill out the thought with a bit of historical context, and some choice words of Lincoln’s on the subject.

The 1858 Illinois Senate race is remembered mainly for the series of seven debates between Lincoln and Douglas, held in towns across the state from August through October that year.  (There were no debates when they vied for the Presidency two years later.) If  what you know of that election is the Lincoln-Douglas debates, it might sound strange that any anti-slavery men could have favored Douglas over Lincoln. Lincoln had staked his career on fighting the slave-holding powers’ ascendancy,  making that the central, single issue of his campaign.  Douglas, the incumbent, had long made it his policy to take no position on whether slavery was right or wrong.  Lincoln hammered away at that in their debates, mocking Douglas as the only man in the country without an opinion on the issue.  Surely any sincere opponent of slavery would recognize which of the two was a friend of their cause. And surely the challenger’s scrappy persistence  in pressing the issue in every debate would rally all sound anti-slavery men to his side.  Only it wasn’t so simple as that. Or at any rate — and more to the point — there were plenty of people on the scene at the time who persuaded themselves that it wasn’t.     

This was 1858, a moment when Lincoln’s Republican Party was still a recent, geographically-limited proposition, and Douglas’ Democratic Party was increasingly split between North and South. The Republicans embraced not only ex-Whigs like Lincoln, but also many Democrats,  repelled by their former party’s increasingly southward tilt. That included Illinois’ other U.S. Senator, Lyman Trumbull, who had still been a Democrat when elected. Senator Trumbull’s senior colleague Douglas was a figure of national stature, the Northern Democrats’ headstrong and capable leader on Capitol Hill. He had put enough distance between himself and his party’s hardline pro-slavery wing  for Establishment Republicans in Washington and New York to see him as practically — well, potentially — a friend of their cause.

Douglas had recently broken with his party’s incumbent President, James Buchanan, over the latter’s heavy-handed  attempt to bring Kansas into the Union as a slave-holding state. (The dispute concerned the validity of the Kansas constitution voted by a slave-holders’ meeting in the town of Lecompton, without proper ratification by the territory’s settlers.)  Douglas had also made it known he opposed a repeal of the longstanding ban on the foreign importation of slaves.  Lincoln derided this as a hollow, inconsequential gesture, without any real bite. But there were Republican regulars at the time who wanted the party to embrace that very position as an acceptably ‘moderate’ anti-slavery stance, better suited for furthering their party’s national prospects than Lincoln’s pricklier confrontation with slaveholders’ vested interests.

Within Illinois,  Republican strategists had argued that party would be better served by endorsing Douglas’ re-election than by backing a candidate of their own.   Lincoln won that argument,  obtaining the party’s nomination. But that wasn’t enough to keep prominent Republicans back East from throwing their vocal support to Douglas.   Among them was Horace Greeley, the influential editor of the New-York Tribune.  Greeley was so given to “eulogising, and admiring, and magnifying of Douglas” (as Lincoln complained, in a letter to Lyman Trumbull) that some in Lincoln’s circle wondered if the two had struck some sort of secret deal.

Lincoln knew better. He wouldn’t have put it past his nemesis Douglas, whose capacity for duplicity he never doubted.  (He suspected that Douglas’ showy break with Buchanan was merely a ploy,  calculated to disarm a Republican challenge to his Senate seat.)  But Lincoln understood that Greeley needn’t have been on the take. It sufficed for him to be held in the thrall of Douglas’ success, Lincoln explained to the editor of the Chicago Journal,  Charles L. Wilson (in a letter dated June 1, 1858): “It is because he thinks Douglas’ superior position, reputation, experience, and ability, if you please, would more than compensate for his lack of a pure republican position, and therefore, his re-election do the general cause of republicanism, more good, than would the election of any one of our better  undistinguished pure republicans.”  

Exposing the fallacy in thinking like Greeley’s was an ongoing labor of Lincoln’s campaign. In his famous “House Divided” speech, delivered in Springfield on receiving the party’s nomination, he had this to say:

“They remind us that he is a very great man, and that the largest of us are very small ones. Let this be granted. But ‘a living dog is better than a dead lion. Judge Douglas, if not a dead lion for this work, is at least a caged and toothless one. How can he oppose the advances of slavery? He don’t care anything about it. His avowed mission is impressing the ‘public heart’ to care nothing about it.”

The problem wasn’t merely that Douglas couldn’t be counted upon to put his great talent at the service of a cause to which he had never been committed. A talent like his was no use in the the fight, for it largely consisted in his gift for sidestepping the issue. His reputation had been won through a career of obscuring and belittling the principle involved.

Douglas won the election, assuring his position as presumptive front-runner for  the 1860 Presidential race.   Observing  from afar, a year later, Lincoln saw in his  rival’s latest manoeuvres the same recurrent pattern:  “He never lets the logic of principle, displace the logic of success”  (Miscellaneous Notes for Speeches, circa September 1859).   Lincoln was as appalled as ever at his fellow Republicans’ deference to the man, and darkly imagined a scenario in which the party leaders could be tempted to recruit him as their presidential nominee.    (Bear in mind – this was before the era of modern party caucuses and primaries.)  Lincoln’s own political future was very much in doubt- he’d just been defeated in Illinois, and was still little known or regarded outside his home state.   And yet, even so, Lincoln retained his conviction that his scrappy campaign had been worth all the fight.  Winning the election was less important than asserting the party’s independence from Douglas’ poisoned embrace.   As he explained in a letter to Salmon P. Chase, the Republican governor of Ohio (and one of “the very few distinguished men” of his party whom Lincoln could thank for supporting his campaign):

“Of course I would have preferred success; but failing in that, I have no regrets for having rejected all advice to the contrary, and resolutely made the struggle. Had we thrown ourselves into the arms of Douglas, as re-electing him by our votes could have done, the Republican cause would have been annihilated in Illinois, and, I think, demoralized, and prostrated everywhere for years, if not forever.”

 (Letter dated April 30, 1859)

[post edited for clarity, 1/31/16]