By Jim O’Neal
Stephen A. Douglas was known as “Little Giant” due to his diminutive stature and superb oratorical skills. During his successful campaign for reelection to the senate in 1858, he engaged in a series of historic debates with Abraham Lincoln.
The “Great Debates of 1858” were a series of seven debates where the main issue was slavery. Media coverage was intense and major newspapers in Chicago sent stenographers to create verbatim texts of each one.
At the time, state legislators elected U.S. senators. The efforts of both Douglas and Lincoln were designed to enhance the probability of their parties winning the Illinois legislature.
Douglas, as a Democrat, won the senatorial race, but the visibility of the debates significantly elevated Lincoln in national prominence. This led directly to Lincoln winning the 1860 presidential election … defeating Douglas, who ran a weak fourth in the electoral vote behind John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky and even John Bell of Tennessee.
Despite this loss, Douglas was an astute political strategist and quickly realized that supporting Lincoln (and the federal government) was critical to avoiding an all-out civil war. So he launched a grueling speaking tour on behalf of the Union, preaching the need for unity – an effort that was to no avail, as we know.
After Fort Sumter fell, Lincoln proclaimed a state of rebellion and called on Douglas for his advice regarding calling up 75,000 troops to quell it.
Douglas suggested one change: Increase troop size to 200,000, since “you do not know the purposes of these men as well as I do.”
He then died of typhoid fever on June 3, 1861, just weeks after the start of hostilities on April 12. The war would grind on for four years and result in 620,000 deaths.
Douglas was right. The purpose of those men was war.
Intelligent Collector blogger JIM O’NEAL is an avid collector and history buff. He is president and CEO of Frito-Lay International [retired] and earlier served as chairman and CEO of PepsiCo Restaurants International [KFC Pizza Hut and Taco Bell].