Monday, April 4, 2011

A Yankee's Conversion from Douglas Democrat to Solid Successionist

Russell McClintock's recent post in the NY Times Opinionator blog (here ) about Senator Stephen Douglas reminded me that Henry Brown Richardson had been a Douglas Democrat before he went to Louisiana. McClintock writes about Douglas's energetic efforts to avoid secession, and within that context, his support for Lincoln:
For both patriotic and political reasons, the Democratic senator had decided that his best course lay in a conspicuous display of public support for the incoming Republican administration — and in making himself a critical player in the last-ditch efforts to avoid civil war.
Douglas’s change was jarring for many observers; for years, and especially over the last several months, the belligerent, free-swinging senator had been blunt in asserting that the Republicans, with their irrational, reckless belief in racial equality and their self-righteous, moralistic attacks on Southern society, were no less to blame for the growing sectional crisis than the fire-eating Southern radicals. The previous August, referring to Andrew Jackson’s ferocious response to South Carolina’s defiance of federal law three decades earlier, Douglas had linked extremists on both sides of the slavery question with disunion when he thundered, “I wish to God we had an Old Hickory now alive, in order that he might hang Northern and Southern traitors on the same gallows.”
Yet Douglas was no fire-eater himself: his overriding goal was to save the Union, and to him, the only effective way to do this was through compromise. “I will not meditate war, nor tolerate the idea,” he pronounced in a fiery speech in early January 1861, “until every effort at peaceful adjustment shall have been exhausted, and the last ray of hope shall have deserted the patriot’s heart.” His reasoning captured the fears of millions, North and South: “War is disunion, certain, inevitable, irrevocable disunion. I am for peace to save the Union.”
Henry claimed to have little or no interest in politics, but his letters showed consistent sympathy for "The Little Giant" until the final months of 1860. He was probably circumspect about expressing these views in Louisiana, because many in the South considered Douglas to be a traitor. "The Little Giant" had incurred Southern enmity by his consistent support of the principle that local sovereignty must determine whether a territory or a state should be slave or free. Thus, according to his Freeport Doctrine, the Dred Scott decision could not be enforced in a territory opposed to slavery, because its citizens would never permit the exercise of police power necessary to support the peculiar institution. His ultimate act of "treason", however, came in 1858, when he led Congress to refuse admission of Kansas to the Union as a slave state, following a constitutional convention and referendum in that territory, which were tainted by fraud and misrepresentation.
Henry was a solid supporter of States Rights including the right to secede from the Union, but as one would expect from a Douglas Democrat, he doubted at first that secession was a wise policy. As secession fever swept the South, however, Henry, too, was caught up in the same current, and by mid April of 1861 found himself to be a committed citizen soldier of the Confederacy.
Henry was probably an ideal candidate for conversion to the Confederate cause, and the story of this conversion is treated in detail in my forthcoming book.

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