The other night, amidst all our upending national disasters, I was taken with an offhand comment—or rather, offhand tweet—made by presidential historian Michael Beschloss. On March 4, 1861, Beschloss wrote, “Defeated candidate Stephen Douglas held Abraham Lincoln’s hat while the new President gave his inaugural address.”
Imagine that. This was only five weeks before the Confederacy fired on the Union’s Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina’s harbor, the first shots of the horrific Civil War that tore the country apart. Yet Lincoln’s principal opponent for the presidency, Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas, stood by him in front of the capitol and humbly took hold of the stovepipe hat of the man who had beaten him.
While they philosophically opposed one another on the issue of slavery, Douglas didn’t throw Lincoln’s hat to the ground and jealously stomp on it. There was no screaming about losing a rigged election. Political attacks were held at bay for the day, there were no smears or false accusations. Just a relatively smooth transition of power from one chief executive (the benighted James Buchanan) to the next (Lincoln), respecting the rule of law and the United States Constitution, even as the nation was poised at the precipice of a near fatal conflict.
If Joe Biden wins on November 3 and Trump’s trickery fails to upend the results, Donald probably won’t even show up for his successor’s swearing-in. Instead, he’ll be sulking on the back nine of one of his near-bankrupt golf resorts and mumbling about his victimhood.
I have an interest in Stephen Douglas because we went to the same high school. I’m not making that up. Not at the same time, you understand, so keep your senior citizen wisecracks to yourself. Douglas was graduated in 1833, a few years before me, although I think we may have shared a study hall.
The educational institution was and is Canandaigua Academy, a public school with a private school-sounding name in the Finger Lakes region of New York State. Our most famous alumnus, Douglas went on to study law and moved west to establish a practice, eventually winding up in Illinois. There, he held several political offices, reaching the US House of Representatives and then the US Senate. Opposed for reelection to the Senate by Lincoln in 1858, the race is best remembered for its famous series of Lincoln-Douglas debates, but Douglas won the vote.
Two years later and tables turned, Lincoln now was the victor, beating Senator Douglas for the presidency. Lincoln, while not an abolitionist, believed slavery was deeply, morally evil. But while Douglas seemed to think slavery was a dying institution, he placed his faith in the notion of “popular sovereignty” -- that each US territory should decide for itself whether it would allow human beings to be bought and sold into abject lives of servitude; shackled, bound and treated as chattel.
On the issue of slavery, the choice between Lincoln and Douglas was clear. And once it had been made by a majority of American voters, Douglas acquiesced. Despite the sharp divide between the two men, Douglas did not want the United States split by war and had hoped to forge some sort of compromise, but on April 14, 1861, two days after the Fort Sumter bombardment, he met privately with President Lincoln for two hours. Afterwards, he told the newspapermen who waited outside that, “He was prepared to sustain the President in the exercise of all his constitutional functions to preserve the Union, and maintain the government, and defend the Federal Capital.”
For the sake of the country, he understood what Lincoln felt he must do. He did not attack or impugn Lincoln’s character. Instead, Douglas went back to Illinois and addressed a meeting of the state legislature. While still defending his misbegotten belief in so-called popular sovereignty, he nonetheless declared, “For the first time since the adoption of the Federal Constitution, a widespread conspiracy exists to destroy the best government the sun of heaven ever shed its rays upon…
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… In my opinion it is your duty to lay aside, for the time being, your party creeds and party platforms ; to dispense with your party organizations and partisan appeals; to forget that you were ever divided, until you have rescued the government and the country from their assailants. When this paramount duty shall have been performed, it will be proper for each of us to resume our respective political positions, according to our convictions of public duty. Give me a country first, that my children may live in peace; then we will have a theater for our party organizations to operate upon.
According to the public record, his words were greeted with “tremendous and prolonged applause.” Less than a month and a half later, Douglas succumbed to typhoid fever.
Fast forward to 2020 and a nation cast asunder by plague, fear and anger, the hatred and ignorance urged on by a president—supported by what remains of a once great political party—whose only motives are self-preservation and an ugly lust for domination.
Ashley Parker of The Washington Post reports, “In eight rallies over nine days, the president has offered a closing argument to voters that is both dark and outlandish, marked by offensive rhetoric laden with grievance.”
Trump crudely mocks Joe Biden and Somali-born Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, says Democrats would “destroy suburbia” and “indoctrinate your children with poisonous anti-American lies,” announces that the coronavirus that has killed more than a million worldwide, nearly a quarter of them in our country alone, “affects virtually nobody.”
Unlike Lincoln and Douglas, who despite their profound differences were committed to the preservation of the union, Donald Trump is his own anarchist jurisdiction, believing in nothing but Trump. To him, democracy and freedom are meaningless constructs.
In his 1861 Illinois speech, Stephen Douglas said, “You will not be true to your country if you ever attempt to manufacture partisan capital out of the misfortunes of your country.” Not since that horrific Civil War have we been in a crisis as profound and potentially fatal, yet the incumbent, the child who always kicked over the other kids’ blocks and threw slices of their birthday cakes, wants only to profit from our division and chaos.
On November 3, there’s a way out. Here’s your hat, Donald Trump, what’s your hurry?