The New Lincoln-Douglas Debate

Stephen A. Douglas, the "Little Giant" who served in the U.S. Senate and debated Abraham Lincoln, is still much-honored in some quarters.

November 16, 2010

Stephen A. Douglas, the "Little Giant" who served in the U.S. Senate and debated Abraham Lincoln, is still much-honored in some quarters. Douglas, Wyo., and Douglas County, Nev., are among a number of localities that boast of being named for the "noted statesman from Illinois." A 96-foot statue marks his grave, at a park in Chicago, with ceremonies held on his birthday and the anniversary of his death. And a residence hall is named for him at Eastern Illinois University -- at least for now.

Following much campus discussion, the Faculty Senate at Eastern Illinois last week adopted a resolution to change the name of the building, arguing that Douglas "bears a dishonorable record of public service and is hence undeserving of public acclaim and honor." The discussion is taking place in Charleston, Ill., the home of Eastern Illinois and also the site of one of the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which are suddenly being debated anew.

Christopher Hanlon, an associate professor of American literature who studies the 19th century, set off the discussion when he started to talk to students and fellow faculty members about the meaning of having a dormitory named for Douglas. Initially, Hanlon proposed that the university simply add another S to Douglas -- and honor Frederick Douglass. But he decided not to make the final proposal so specific, in part because the abolitionist doesn't have strong ties to Illinois, and Hanlon said he respected the idea that Eastern might want to honor someone from the state.

The problem with Douglas Hall, Hanlon and others say -- even when a Lincoln Hall sits nearby -- is that it elevates not only the Lincoln-Douglas debates, but what Douglas argued for in his public life.

"Stephen Douglas gave voice to a contemptuous view of African Americans, a view that has long since been recognized as incompatible with modern American democracy," wrote Hanlon in a report that led to the discussion at the university. "The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which Douglas introduced into the Senate in 1854 and which was passed principally with the support of Southern votes that year, effectively annulled the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which had stipulated that slavery would be prohibited north of the 36°30' parallel of the United States.

"By allowing residents of new Western states to decide the slavery issue by popular vote, Douglas's bill led to the extension of slavery as well as a state of civil war in Kansas territory, where pro- and anti-slavery activists who had flooded the region waged violent campaigns upon each other in order to achieve political supremacy. The conflagration in Kansas, indeed, was one of the most decisive events in U.S. history, propelling the nation toward its eventual division in 1861."

Hanlon continues: "But aside from enacting catastrophic legislation, Senator Douglas distinguished himself, even in an overtly racist era, for his particularly incendiary and hateful rhetoric concerning African Americans, whether enslaved or free. In his speech before the U.S. Senate presenting his bill for the organization of the Kansas and Nebraska territories, Douglas defamed opponents of the bill for their 'unadulterated, Free-Soil, Abolition Niggerism.' In his first debate with Abraham Lincoln at Ottawa on 23 August 1858, Douglas asked his audience, 'Do you desire to run 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?"

In an interview, Hanlon said that he was struck that when he spoke to students, very few of them were aware whom Douglas Hall honored or what Stephen Douglas stood for. To Hanlon, this shows that he is not trying (as some of his critics have suggested) to "erase history." The history of Douglas has already been erased if students live in a building unaware of who the man was, he said.

That Eastern's students aren't aware of the history of the period or whom their dormitories honor may be best illustrated by an article on the dispute in the student newspaper that said that "three residence halls, Lincoln, Stevenson and Douglas, are named after the three prominent figures in a debate over slavery." (This is a problematic statement in that the Stevenson in question is Adlai E. Stevenson II, who was born in 1900, served as governor of Illinois, and unsuccessfully ran for president as the Democratic nominee against Dwight D. Eisenhower.)

"What I'm trying to do is to get students and faculty to talk about Stephen Douglas," said Hanlon -- and both Hanlon and the faculty who disagree with him on the issue agree that there has been little awareness or discussion of Douglas or the debate over slavery, even in this institution in the Land of Lincoln. Various student leaders didn't return e-mail messages seeking their comments on the controversy.

Eastern is not the only Illinois university to honor Stephen Douglas. Northern Illinois University has dormitories named for the same three Illinois figures honored at Eastern -- plus one for Ulysses S. Grant (who lived in Galena, Ill., before and after the Civil War). A spokesman for Northern Illinois said that he had not heard of any controversy there. A spokeswoman for Eastern said that the administration there had taken the issue under advisement and wasn't ready to announce a decision.

Some faculty have spoken out against a name change.

Martin Hardeman, an associate professor of history who studies the 19th century and African-American history, said that the Faculty Senate resolution is "a presentist idea in that it is imposing values of the present on views from the past." He said that he "obviously" wouldn't agree with most of what Douglas said or did.

"Douglas was very much a man of his time, what we would consider a white supremacist," said Hardeman. "He was neither for nor against slavery. He was very much for the Union after losing the election." (Douglas pushed for the settlers of new territories to be given the right to decide whether slavery should be permitted there -- a view he called support for "popular sovereignty," but which his historical critics note was only support for electoral decisions being made by white men, and which tended to extend slavery.)

Thomas D. Russell, a professor of legal history at the University of Denver whose research led the University of Texas at Austin, where he used to teach, to recently decide to change the name of a building, also said he opposed the idea of stripping the Douglas name at Eastern Illinois. Russell said that he has a very high bar for changing names in cases like this. William Stewart Simkins, whose name has been removed at Texas and who helped organize the Florida branch of the Ku Klux Klan, wasn't just someone who argued for offensive racial views, Russell said.

"He was an accomplice to 25 murders during Reconstruction" and his Klan links were "concealed from the faculty" when it voted to honor him with a building, Russell said.

Of Douglas, Russell said: "However wrongheaded we think he was today, he was acting within the confines of the common law, of the Constitution at the time. Scouring the past for people who took the wrong positions is not fruitful."

Other professors at Eastern Illinois disagree.

Jonathan Coit, an assistant professor of history, is quick to note that his focus is the 20th century, but he adds that this may be relevant to the current debate. Eastern Illinois didn't exist at the time of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and Douglas Hall wasn't named until the 1950s, Coit noted. This debate isn't about undoing something that has existed since Douglas's time, but is about an honor bestowed by the university at a very specific time -- with certain ideas behind it. "I look at this through the lens of historiography about slavery, and the war and Reconstruction," Coit said. Naming a hall for Douglas "tells us the story of the Civil War as it was understood in the 1950s, that it was about states' rights, and that the Civil War was a tragic struggle, a brothers' war," he said.

"The pairing of Lincoln and Douglas to stand for the entirety of the debate on slavery draws from that narrative," he said.

Coit said that defenders of the current name -- who he said were making "good faith arguments" -- have suggested that they fear the name change will be a move away from telling "complicated and nuanced stories" about history. But the Lincoln-Douglas equivalence is "a simple story," Coit said, when more nuance and understanding is called for. There is no suggestion, he said, that Douglas shouldn't be taught. "You can't teach about this period without teaching Douglas. I don't think there's any question that Douglas is a pivotal figure of antebellum history," he said. "This is a narrower question. If a public building is a kind of memorial, and I think it is, should we memorialize someone who supported the system of slavery?"

Hanlon, the professor whose research led to the debate at Eastern Illinois, said he was not arguing that all honors should be removed from figures in American history such as Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln whose views on slavery and race can hardly be seen as meeting accepted standards today. But Hanlon said those figures have truly significant accomplishments as well. "The fact is that Stephen Douglas inveighed and legislated tirelessly on behalf of the interests of slavery. Unlike with Lincoln or Jefferson or Washington, there's little on the record to complicate that," he said.

As to the argument that he is applying present-day standards to Douglas, Hanlon said that in fact he's making arguments similar to those made while Douglas was in power. He noted that Frederick Douglass said of Stephen Douglas: "No man of his time has done more to intensify hatred of the Negro." And Hanlon noted the furious, angry speeches by senators who fought slavery about so many of Douglas's actions. Political cartoons of the day showed Douglas "shoving slaves down the throats of free-soilers," he said. Preserving the honor for Douglas ignores this history, Hanlon said. "Far from being presentist, I'm trying to remind my campus of these historical facts."

Ruth Hoberman, professor of English, said she applauded Hanlon's efforts and the Faculty Senate vote. "I think it's important that we be aware of what our buildings represent," she said. "This was named at a particular point in Eastern's history and there is nothing sacrosanct about the name."

While the debate has surprised some people, Hoberman said it was positive. "Part of being a university is to think about how we relate to past issues and controversies and how we place ourselves in relation to those," she said. "This is a really important conversation to have."


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