Life of Stephen A. Douglas

Author: William Gardner

Chapter IX. the Conventions of 1856.

Douglas was now at the zenith of his success, master of all his resources, the most admired, dreaded and powerful man in American public life. History must inexorably condemn much of his most brilliant and successful work, but the very emphasis of its condemnation is an involuntary tribute to the matchless efficiency of the man. At this period he was the most masterful and commanding personage of purely civil character that has "strutted his hour upon the stage" of American politics. The cabinet maker’s apprentice, the village schoolmaster, the Western lawyer, had, by sheer force, established his right to this position of real master of his country. A weak President was cringing at his feet. He had overcome the brilliant and powerful opposition in the Senate. The aristocratic South, which instinctively dreaded and despised a plebeian, was paying him temporary homage.

He was barely 43 years old. So strenuous and effective had been his youth that people hesitated to set bounds to his future possibilities. So strongly had his overmastering force impressed the popular imagination that the sobriquet, "Little Giant," suggested by his small stature and enormous energy, had become household words. He had come to Washington fifteen years before, a crude, coarse, blustering youth, as described by the accomplished Adams whose social ideals were borrowed from the courts of Europe. But he had readily adjusted himself to his new environment and taken on the polish of the Capital. Though never rich, he made money with ease and spent it with princely munificence. He was not only the political dictator but the social lion of Washington. He lived in splendid style, in harmony with his exalted station, entertained generously and responded freely to the numerous invitations of friends and admirers. "His ready wit, his fine memory, made him a favorite. * * * * He delighted in pleasant company. Unused to what is called etiquette, he soon adapted himself to its rules and took rank in the dazzling society of the Capital. * * * To see him threading the glittering crowds with a pleasant smile or kind word for everybody one would have taken him for a trained courtier."

Tradition, backed by General McClellan, says he was a heavy drinker, though not a drunkard, and some of his finest speeches at this period of his life appear to have been delivered after unrestrained carousals that would have prostrated ordinary men.

Ever since 1852, when his youth and indiscretion had defeated his presidential aspirations, he had been waiting impatiently for the Convention of 1856. During the past four years he had been conspicuously "riding in the whirlwind and directing the storm" of politics. He had perhaps intensified the hostile prejudices of the New England Puritans; but they were austere moralists, rather than progressive politicians. He had certainly alienated many friends in the Northwest, which was slowly withdrawing from its old alliance with the South, and falling into sympathy with the stern and uncompromising East. But, while he regretted the necessity of giving offense to any section of the country or any body of the people, he had deliberately chosen what he deemed the less of two political evils,—the alienation of the Puritans of New England and the Northwest rather than a breach with the salve holding baronage of the South, which had established a prescriptive right to control the Presidency. And yet the fact could not be blinked that all his services and sacrifices to the South had failed to give him its confidence and the enthusiastic loyalty that springs from it. It viewed him with mingled emotions of admiration and fear. It desired to retain his service but was unwilling to trust him with power. It could not forget that in his zeal for its service that he had trifled with the North and suspected that, if self-interest prompted, he might break faith with the section which he now served with such ardor.

The South, a decided minority in population, had long held its sway by artful appeals to the selfish ambition of Northern politicians. Although the undisputed command of the Democracy was in its hands and the burning question of the time was that of slavery, no Southern man had in late years been permitted to enter the field as a candidate for the Presidency. The Southern leaders inexorably insisted on giving the nomination to Northern men. There were at this time three candidates from the North; Pierce, how would have joyfully submitted to any terms and pledged himself to any service for another four years of office; Buchanan, the great lawyer and distinguished statesman, who had just returned from the English mission; and Douglas, the giant of the Senate, the recognized head and practical dictator of his party.

In point of ability and energy there was no comparison between Douglas and either of his competitors. Pierce had laboriously earned for himself the lasting contempt of the world. Buchanan was an eminently respectable, dignified old gentleman of great professional attainments and diplomatic experience, an admirable Ambassador, a good Secretary of State, who might even have adorned the Supreme Bench, but whose vacillating will and temporizing character hopelessly unfitted him for the arduous duties of the Presidency in the great crises that ensued. Had the positive, combative and masterful Douglas been nominated at this time it may be safely said that the most momentous chapter of American history would have been widely different from what it is.

The Convention met at Cincinnati on the 2d of June and continued in session for five days. The platform was adopted without dissent, declaring the firm purpose of the party to "resist all attempts at renewing, in Congress or out of it, the agitation of the slavery question," and "recognizing and adopting the principle contained in the organic law establishing the Territories of Nebraska and Kansas as embodying the only sound and safe solution of the slavery question."

Buchanan’s candidacy was engineered with rare skill. He was fortunate in having been absent from the country, representing his Government at the Court of St. James, during the three preceding years crowded with great and stirring events, while Pierce and Douglas had been skirmishing for the advantage, each seeking to outbid the other in eager competition for Southern favor. The South was deeply indebted to Douglas; but fear is strong than gratitude. It was well satisfied with Pierce, but hesitated to nominate him lest he might be overwhelmed with a storm of just contempt. Without an element of positive strength, Buchanan was a formidable candidate. On the first ballot he had 135 votes, Pierce 122, Douglas 33, and Cass 5. Pierce lost steadily for 14 ballots while Buchanan and Douglas gained. Pierce’s name was then withdrawn. On the next ballot Buchanan had 168 and Douglas 118 votes. Douglas then sent a dispatch to Richardson, his manager, to withdraw his name and make the nomination of Buchanan unanimous.

On June 17th the first Republican National Convention was held at Philadelphia. It was not yet a united and well organized party. It made little pretense of agreeing in anything but unyielding opposition to slavery-propagandism and the fixed resolve to curb the intolerable arrogance of the slave power. It was made up of those who were opposed to the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, to the further extension of slavery, and to the refusal to admit Kansas as a free State. It consisted of Whigs, Free-spoilers, Know-nothings and Democrats, who were inclined to apologize for their temporary association under the name of this mushroom upstart and were not willing to have it forgotten that their essential political creeds were unchanged. They were Republicans for a time until their own parties reformed or gathered strength for more effective work.

Yet, imperfect as was the organic unity of the party, it contained a large part of the best political ability of the country. The real leaders, who had evolved it from the incoherent chaos of earlier years, impressed their energetic characters upon the organization, and prescribed for it such formula of faith as it yet had, were Seward and Chase. To one of them the nomination was clearly due. Seward preferred to wait four years. It was not deemed prudent to nominate Chase. On the first formal ballot John C. Fremont was nominated. For the office of Vice-President Abraham Lincoln received 110 votes, but was fortunately defeated. The platform declared it to be "the right and duty of Congress to prohibit in the Territories those twin relics of barbarism, polygamy and slavery," condemned in scathing terms the conduct of affairs in Kansas and demanded its immediate admission under the Topeka Constitution.

An exciting campaign followed. Rallies, parades, fireworks and theatrical displays were lavishly provided by the sanguine Republicans. Their orators filled the land with eloquent denunciation of the Pierce Administration and the Buchanan platform. Much as it outwardly resembled the log cabin and hard cider campaign of 1840, it was wholly different in character. The Republicans were in serious earnest. They had well defined, though discordant opinions and convictions. But before the end of the contest it was clear that they had blundered in nominating the picturesque "pathfinder."

Douglas was not inactive during the campaign, being deeply interested, not only in the election of Buchanan, but in restoring Democratic supremacy in Illinois. He sold a hundred acres of land on the western limit of Chicago for a hundred thousand dollars and contributed with great liberality to the campaign fund, not only of his own State, but also of Pennsylvania. The Democrats won both States, which, with the entire vote of the South, elected Buchanan.

Millard Fillmore, a rather ghostly reminiscence of other days, had been nominated by the American and Whig parties and carried Maryland. The combined vote of Fremont and Fillmore exceeded that of Buchanan by nearly half a million. The Democrats were evidently approaching a crisis, and harmony, never so imperatively needed as now, was never so hopelessly unattainable.


Related Resources

None available for this document.

Download Options

Title: Life of Stephen A. Douglas

Select an option:

*Note: A download may not start for up to 60 seconds.

Email Options

Title: Life of Stephen A. Douglas

Select an option:

Email addres:

*Note: It may take up to 60 seconds for for the email to be generated.

Chicago: William Gardner, "Chapter IX. The Conventions of 1856.," Life of Stephen A. Douglas, ed. Morris, Charles, 1833-1922 in Life of Stephen A. Douglas Original Sources, accessed January 27, 2023,

MLA: Gardner, William. "Chapter IX. The Conventions of 1856." Life of Stephen A. Douglas, edited by Morris, Charles, 1833-1922, in Life of Stephen A. Douglas, Original Sources. 27 Jan. 2023.

Harvard: Gardner, W, 'Chapter IX. The Conventions of 1856.' in Life of Stephen A. Douglas, ed. . cited in , Life of Stephen A. Douglas. Original Sources, retrieved 27 January 2023, from