The other day we asked whether U.S. senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois—best known as the Douglas half of the Lincoln–Douglas debates and a candidate for president in 1860—is best remembered as the Little Giant or, in the memorable formulation of our friends at the Gawker Media Empire, a Shrimpy Something-or-Other.
The answer, in case you were on the edge of your seat, is the latter. Or at least it is according to Christopher Hitchens, bomb-throwing columnist for Vanity Fair and Slate and the Atlantic. In a review of Abraham Lincoln: A Life by Michael Burlingame in the July/August issue of the Atlantic, Hitchens suggests that Lincoln “almost never stooped to crudity or vulgarity in political speech.”
Without overdrawing the contrast, Bulingame shows us a Judge Stephen Douglas who was a slave to every kind of anti–Negro demagogy and political mendacity. And Lincoln bested him, admittedly while hedging on the race question, by constantly stressing the need to secure “to each laborer the whole product of his labor.” In more modern terms, we might say that he used the language of class to neutralize racism. (I would say that the account given here of the famous debates surpasses all its predecessors.)
Get it? Douglas was a “slave”? Anyway, Hitchens goes on to address the “fashionable” question of whether Lincoln “really” believed in racial equality. “A thread that runs consistently through Burlingame’s narrative is that of self-education on this question,” Hitches writes, “to the eventual point where Lincoln came as close to an egalitarian position as made almost no difference.”
This hits on something I’ve always thought missing from the drive-by style of this debate, wherein some outraged party posts some outrageous comment of Lincoln’s and then expects the world to understand that the sixteenth president was not, in fact, the saint we have all made him out to be. Which certainly he wasn’t. Who could be? And yet it still seems likely that life and politics and war all conspired to change his opinions over time. If, in the end, he was good enough for Frederick Douglass—”who was able to say that Lincoln was ’emphatically the black man’s President'”—then perhaps he can be good enough for us, too.
IN ADDITION: Was Lincoln a liberal?
IMAGE: Stephen A. Douglas from McClure’s magazine, May 1896