Stephen A. Douglas
The Missing Constitutional Basis
A reference to Lincoln's opponents naturally calls to mind Stephen A. Douglas. For the better part of a decade, from the passage of the KansasNebraska Act under Douglas's sponsorship in 1854 to the presidential campaign of 1860, the “Little Giant” could no more free himself from Lincoln's scrutiny, it would seem, than he could free himself from his own shadow. Almost without exception, Lincoln's major speeches of the period are framed as responses to Douglas's views.1
It is possible, nevertheless, to exaggerate the importance of Lincoln's attention to Douglas. The events of the 1850s in which Douglas figured so prominently, as portentous in Lincoln's estimation as they no doubt were,2 did not necessarily change Lincoln's view of the broader, longerterm tendencies he had identified in 1852, to which Douglas's career was incidental. That year, in a public tribute to Henry Clay, Lincoln had spoken of two groups—one “increasing,” the other presumably keeping pace. One group would sacrifice the Constitution and the Union “rather than slavery should continue a single hour”; the other comprised those “men, who, for the sake of perpetuating slavery, are beginning to assail and ridicule the white man's charter of freedom—the declaration that 'all men are created free and equal.'”3 What Lincoln could not see in 1852 was what his own task might be.