Up for debate: Can Stephen Douglas’ home state lay claim to Lincoln?Kevin O’Connor / Staff Photo
Statesman Stephen A. Douglas, born 200 years ago, is celebrated on a plaque outside his childhood home in Brandon.
Fact 1: Vermont is the birthplace of 19th-century American statesman Stephen A. Douglas, who sprang from a childhood in Brandon to Congress as an illustrious senator from Illinois.
Fact 2: The Democrat retained his seat by besting Republican Abraham Lincoln after a legendary 1858 series of debates, only to see the challenger learn from his mistakes and beat him in the race for president two years later.
“Without Douglas,” historian Martin Quitt contends, “Lincoln would never have achieved a national position.”
And without Vermont, the scholar continues, Douglas wouldn’t have been around at all. That’s one reason why the author of the new biography “Stephen A. Douglas and Antebellum Democracy” says the Green Mountain state can claim some credit this Presidents Day week for the rise of the Great Emancipator.
Quitt, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Massachusetts Boston, didn’t set out to become a Douglas scholar. Instead, he was lecturing on Lincoln in 2005 when he noted the candidate stayed put in Illinois during his presidential bid while Douglas conducted a national campaign.
“In the course of contrasting their behavior, I was critical of Lincoln for not reaching out to the South. I thought, ‘I really ought to do something about Douglas.’”
Quitt started by discovering Douglas’ student notebook from Brandon Academy — found, ironically, at Lincoln’s presidential library.
“No one had ever written about it.”
That spurred the historian to visit Vermont, where he scoured previously unknown, unexamined, unused or unpublished papers in Brandon, Middlebury, Barre and Montpelier, then proceeded to read every Rutland Herald (then a weekly) from the nearly two decades Douglas lived in the state.
“I knew Douglas was the great celebrity of his age,” Quitt says of the 5-foot-4 politician deemed the Little Giant. “But I had no idea how his experience in Vermont and his feelings about the state are really a central part of his story.”
Quitt has spent the winter trying to interest the public and the press in his Douglas biography, a 220-page paperback recently released by Cambridge University Press. But people only have eyes for Lincoln — specifically, the Academy Award-nominated, Steven Spielberg-directed film.
“Lincoln we’re still celebrating, but Douglas is forgotten. There’s just no interest in him. But Douglas was Lincoln’s greatest rival before he became president. No Douglas, no Lincoln.”
The town of Brandon, population 3,966, has opened a museum in Douglas’ childhood home — set to mark the bicentennial of the politician’s birth this spring — but it ranks only No. 5 of eight local attractions on tripadvisor.com. (“Not a destination type attraction,” one visitor writes on the website, “but can’t beat the public restrooms open most of the day.”)
Then again, Douglas himself had “mixed feelings” about his place of origin. Receiving an honorary degree from Middlebury College in 1851, he reportedly said, “My friends, Vermont is the most glorious spot on the face of this globe for a man to be born in, provided he emigrates when he is very young.”
Reminded of the jibe upon returning to his hometown in 1860, Douglas clarified that he had intended the comment “perhaps in jest.”
Or perhaps not, Quitt’s book reveals. Born in Brandon April 23, 1813, Douglas was two months old when his father, holding his son in his arms, died at age 31, requiring his 24-year-old mother to move the family to her brother’s nearby farm.
In his autobiography, Douglas referred to his uncle as a “hard master” who only excused him from chores long enough to attend classes three months a year. (The town’s one-room schoolhouse, with one teacher wrestling 84 students ages 4 to 18, was just as challenging.)
The boy left home at age 15 to become an apprentice to a Middlebury cabinetmaker, only to backtrack several months later to Brandon, where he mourned the death of his grandfather before moving out of state in 1830, studying law and running for Congress.
“The story of his youthful crisis was essential both to his sense of selfhood and to the image he wanted to project,” Quitt writes in his book. “Douglas cast himself as a gutsy youth who had not heeded his uncle’s wishes but had instead persuaded his mother to let him leave home to make his own way in the world.”
The politician’s sister, speaking to the press during her brother’s presidential campaign, remembered differently: “Douglas,” Quitt summarizes her take, “grew weary of school, was eager to take up a trade, begged his mother to let him leave home, and, after she shrewdly permitted him to find out for himself how ill-suited he was for cabinetmaking, refocused on educating himself for a professional career.”
What’s fact and what’s fiction? Quitt devotes the first three chapters of his book to detailing what he unearthed about Douglas’ family, adolescence and schooling in Vermont so readers can decide for themselves.
“The rest, as they say, is history,” Quitt says. “Douglas became a giant in Illinois and the most important figure in American politics.”
Until Lincoln, that is. Three years before the onset of the Civil War, the Republican debated Douglas during their 1858 race for U.S. Senate. Douglas won the election. But his challenger gained national recognition that would propel him to the presidency in 1860.
Douglas returned to his hometown that year to campaign.
“Vermont is a glorious place to be born in — to educate and train children,” he told Brandon residents still smarting from his Middlebury crack. “Here you inculcate virtue, you educate your children, you train them to habits of industry — you teach them the necessity of labor. Yet it does a man good to emigrate. This early discipline prepares him for life on a broader theater.”
The crowd cheered, but the country voted otherwise. A century and a half later, few know much about the man who died seven months after his loss at age 48. Instead, everyone is lining up for “Lincoln.”
“I’m not boycotting it, I just don’t go to movies,” Quitt says. “But had Douglas been in it, I would have gone.”
Perhaps Spielberg is looking for a prequel.
In his own words
With the angst from his adolescent crisis abated, he could integrate his youth and political beliefs in a new narrative. His Vermont boyhood now became rhetorically the springboard of his faith in local self-government and popular sovereignty. He no longer had to equivocate or jest about his Vermont background. He could recall it with a new sense of acceptance. In Burlington he spoke of his own parochialism as a boy, when he thought that the valley where he was born was the center of civilization and that beyond the mountains was only barbarism. He then discovered that the variety of opinions in the West was attributable to the “diversity of circumstances which prevails in the different portions of our extended Union.”
— From Martin Quitt’s “Stephen A. Douglas and Antebellum Democracy,” available from Cambridge University Press to buy or order at most bookstores.MORE IN Central Vermont
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