Good dramatization of one of the great political rivalries of the 19th Century
When Abraham Lincoln won the 1860 Republican Nomination for the Presidency, most Americans must have been surprised. Lincoln had served in the Illinois State Assembly in the 1830s and 1840s, but had only served one term in a national level job. From 1847 to 1849 Lincoln held the job of Congressman from his town of Springfield in Illinois. His main achievements were (ironically, given his later fame) questioning the purpose of the Mexican War, and demanding the impeachment and removal from the Presidency of War making President James Knox Polk. It was one of the first serious attempts to impeach a sitting President. But nothing further was heard of him on the national scene. He had become a leading corporate attorney in Illinois, ironically being attorney for the Illinois Central Railroad when it's President was his future commander George Brinton McClellan. In 1856, at the first Republican Presidential Convention, Lincoln had been mentioned for the Vice Presidency - to run with the "Pathfinder" Explorer of the West, Senator John Charles Fremont of California. Instead, William Dayton of New Jersey ran with Fremont, and lost to James Buchanan and John Breckenridge.
Yet Lincoln was known as an eloquent spokesman for national unity and for the abolition of slavery. This was due to his 1858 campaign to wrest the seat of U.S. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois. The Lincoln
Douglas debates helped crystallize the issues of Free and Slave
States for the nation. Yet, when the votes were counted, Judge Douglas (he had been a state jurist once) beat Lincoln.
Charles Durning plays the clever Douglas, who had won his national following for his support of "Popular" or "Squatter Sovereignty". Basically he felt that the population determined if states should be free or slave, by moving into the new territories in such numbers that the better organized segments would end up in the majority and determine the support or rejection of slavery. It seems like a sensible point of view, but Douglas was aware that the South just did not have the population to match Northern settlers in the new territories.
Douglas chose not to speak much about slavery, but to concentrate on our growth and foreign interests. Lincoln kept returning to the topic. The results were that Douglas beat Lincoln in the election, but that Lincoln's brilliance as an orator became widely known.
Douglas was fully aware that he had not destroyed his opponent but given him massive publicity. He and Lincoln went back to the 1830s, as rival attorneys, as rivals in the Assembly, and now as Senatorial candidates confronting each other. They had also both been rivals over Mary Todd, who eventually married Lincoln. Yet they both liked each other, for even with their differences they appreciated each other's strengths. Douglas may have not cared about the fate of the African American in his society, but he was a passionate believer in democracy and in the development of the western territories. Lincoln may have felt "Squatter Sovereignty" a secondary issue to Slavery, but he appreciated that it did push for government in the hands of the common (if white skinned) man.
In the end, Lincoln faced Douglas in 1860, with the Senator as the official Democratic Candidate for the Presidency. But 1860s was a bad Presidential Election Year. The Democrats were split, the Southerners supporting John Breckenridge. Their was also a fragment of the Whig Party called the Constitution Party, who supported John Bell of Tennessee. We know that Lincoln won the election, but he won with a plurality because the vote was split. Had the Democrats supported Douglas's candidacy he would have won. As it was he got more popular votes than Breckenridge, but less electoral votes than the Vice President or Lincoln.
But we don't realize today that Douglas, when he saw the Sothern delegates walk out of his convention and create a new party, did one of the bravest acts in American political history. Instead of contacting Breckenridge and his supporters, and publicly reassuring them of his willingness to work with them and accept their platform, Douglas stumped the country begging the South not to secede and cause a Civil War. He did this at considerable risk to his own safety. It did not work, but it was the most constructive attempt to ward off the disaster of any of the candidates in the campaign ( the great historian, Allan Nevins felt that he liked Stephen Douglas more than Lincoln when he read what Douglas did that Lincoln didn't try to do).
In the end, on Inauguration Day March 4, 1861, Stephen Douglas sat next to Lincoln on the central stand in front of the Capital Building, and held his friend's hat while Lincoln took the oath of office. He was fully supporting the President's efforts to keep the country together - and after Fort Sumter was attacked he supported the war. Douglas died in June 1861 (Lincoln knew his friend was dying), but had he lived he would have been deeply involved in governmental planning to restore the Union.
Charles Durning did a very fine job as Douglas, growing from a slightly patronizing view of his friend and rival to a man who understood better than most what Lincoln was about. And as Lincoln, Arthur Hill showed the man of vision who cut to the basic issue that was splitting our society, yet could see his rival was (if slightly short sighted) fully as committed to that society as he (Lincoln) was.
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