December 2014 has been a particularly challenging month for Democrats. Electoral defeats and Congressional reversal in November, an emboldened Republican leadership eager to thwart a Democratic president, and renewed racial tensions and violence across the country have created fissures in the party between stalwart supporters of President Obama and Congressional dissents fearful of 2016. Such intra-party drama, however, is not new. In fact, the woes of the 2014 holiday season are scarcely worth mentioning compared to the fatal split the party experienced 157 years ago, a split that led directly to the Civil War.
In December 1857, President James Buchanan of Pennsylvania wanted to make certain that Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois had a miserable Christmas. Both men were Northern Democrats who had built impressive careers catering to the Slave Power, and both men were fiercely protective of their political machines and their claims to party leadership. Indeed, for most of their careers, Buchanan and Douglas had served the Democratic Party faithfully, advocating federal protections for slavery, an aggressive pro-slavery foreign policy, and achieving the expansion of the “peculiar institution” into previously free lands. Despite their shared principles and significant age difference (“old fogey” Buchanan clocked in at 66, whereas the “Little Giant” was a sprightly 44), they were ferocious rivals.
By the 1857 holiday season, they could no longer agree on the method of slavery expansion. In that year, the Southern party bosses decided to do away with voting in the Kansas Territory and force slavery on the free state majority via the fraudulent, unrepresentative Lecompton Constitution (drafted by a tiny pro-slavery minority and quickly sent to Congress for ratification). Buchanan, nominated and elected by slave-owners, was interested in keeping his party pledges to achieve a pro-slavery victory in Kansas, while Douglas, with an eye toward his own re-election in 1858, was keenly aware of the rapidly growing anti-slavery movement in the free states and the profound unpopularity of the Lecompton Constitution.
On December 3, Douglas met with the President to explain his reservations about Lecompton. The Little Giant became furious when Buchanan remained unmoved, even after Douglas made it clear that supporting Lecompton would most likely kill what was left of the Northern wing of the Democratic Party and endanger his own re-election. Fifty-five of fifty-six Illinois newspapers, Douglas explained, had already denounced Lecompton as a swindle and a farce. Buchanan, unimpressed, warned Douglas against opposing the party, threatening to destroy him if he did so. Knowing his strength among Northern Democrats and better appreciating the depth of anti-Lecompton sentiment in the free states, Douglas stormed out of the White House determined to defy the administration. That same evening, Douglas ally Representative Thomas Harris was able to declare to newspaper editor Charles Lanphier, “Douglas will make the greatest effort of his life in opposition to this juggle.” “The Battle will soon begin,” proclaimed Douglas two days later. “We will nail our colors to the mast and defend the right of the people to govern themselves against all assaults and all quarters.”
President Buchanan wanted to make it absolutely clear that no challenge to his policy would be tolerated, and on December 8, in his annual message to Congress, he drew the line in the sand: Lecompton must be approved immediately, regardless of the will of the majority of Kansas settlers; any dissent would be severely punished. Douglas immediately jumped to his feet to declare his opposition, and, in a full speech the following day, he denounced the proposed constitution as “a system of trickery and jugglery to defeat the fair expression of the will of the people.” Do you intend “to force a constitution on the people against their will, in opposition to their protest, with a knowledge of the fact?” he asked the Democratic scions sitting around him in the chamber. “Am I to be called upon to forfeit my faith and my honor in order to enable a small minority of the people of Kansas to defraud the majority of that people out of their elective franchise?” Realizing the answers to both of these questions would be a resounding “yes,” Douglas concluded with a courageous statement of defiance. “If this constitution is to be forced down our throats, in violation of the fundamental principles of free government, under a mode of submission that is mockery and insult, I will resist it to the last.” His booming voice filled the marble hall, and Republicans and anti-Lecompton Northern Democrats cheered his declaration.
On December 13, Douglas met with Republican leaders in Washington to discuss opposition to Lecompton, and two days later, the disgusted Governor of the Kansas Territory, Robert Walker, resigned in protest of Buchanan’s policies. To accompany his resignation, Walker published a “manifesto,” drafted by Douglas, charging Buchanan with treachery and reminding Americans that the Lecompton constitution represented only 10% of the territorial population. Back in the Senate, Douglas launched an all-out political war on the Buchanan administration, employing a variety of legal and moral arguments against Lecompton. On December 16, he forcefully restated his position: “I said before, and I say now, that the constitution must be the act and deed of the people of Kansas…no constitution should be received by Congress, and none can fairly be considered republican which does not embody the will of the people.” “When the broad fact stands admitted before the world that this constitution is the act of a minority, and not of the majority,” Douglas continued, “the injustice becomes the more manifest and the more monstrous.”
Buchanan and regular Democrats, eager to force slavery on Kansas and keep their party united in the face of the Republican onslaught, were horrified and enraged by Douglas’s heresy. After a flurry of hate-filled orations, Senate Democrats read the Little Giant out of the party, while President Buchanan vowed to destroy Douglas’s career. Douglas, for his part, fought mightily to defeat Lecompton and save his own political future. To Douglas in December 1857, Buchanan must have seemed very much like The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, as a Buchanan victory would prove disastrous for the Little Giant. Not only did Douglas desire re-election in 1858 (made all the harder by his party’s tremendously unpopular policies), but he aimed for the presidency in 1860. If the Democrats passed Lecompton and actually tried to force slavery on Kansas, Douglas knew his chances at the presidency would dwindle. Only by standing against the Slave Power could he hope to maintain his free state support, which was the key to the presidency.
The epic political battle between anti-Lecompton upstarts and Democratic regulars, as well as the titanic struggle for party leadership between Old Buck and the Little Giant, continued well into 1858. In the end, the Buchanan administration emerged triumphant, pushing Lecompton through both houses of Congress in April (thanks primarily to cash bribes, patronage promises, and political threats). It was a short-lived victory, however, for the Douglas-Buchanan split in 1857-58 nearly guaranteed Democratic defeat in the 1860 elections. That year, the anti-slavery Republican Party elected its first president – an Illinois attorney named Abraham Lincoln – and the Deep South seceded. The Civil War had begun.