This Place In History: Stephen A. Douglas


At 'This Place in History' we visit the birthplace of Stephen A. Douglas in Brandon, Vermont with Executive Director of the Vermont Historical Society Steve Perkins.

"We're going to explore one of Brandon's most famous native sons, Stephen Douglas, the Little Giant of the Senate. I think most remember him from their high school history classes, through the Lincoln-Douglas debates. So we talk about civil war and states rights, slave states and compromise and everything else. A fascinating figure from American history, born right here in Brandon. Dr. Kevin Thornton is going to talk to us a bit about Stephen Douglas," said Perkins.

"Douglas was born in 1813 and he grew up here. And he didn't grow up with much money. His father died when he was an infant in this house. He was a farm boy and didn't get much formal education. He trained when he was a teenager to be a cabinet maker. It looked like he was going to be a working man in Vermont," introduced Thornton.

"When he was 15 years old, it was the election of 1828. Andrew Jackson won. Jackson's whole theme was the common man, the ordinary person should be participating in politics. And that captured Douglas's imagination. The idea that an ordinary boy could grow up to be president was something that took him and carried him through the rest of his life."

"He winds up in Illinois in 1833. Even though he had no university training of any kind, he announced to the world that he's a lawyer. He beings to practice law and becomes a politician. He has a meteoric rise. By the time he's 30, he's in Congress. Shortly thereafter, he's a U.S. Senator and becomes one of the leading American politicians for the course of the 1840s and 1850s," continued Thornton.

"So then Lincoln comes along and runs against him. They have these Lincoln-Douglas debates," said Perkins.

"It's really interesting because in some ways they're the same guy. They both grow up poor. They both have this incredible belief that in the democratic promise of America. They both believe in the creation of a democratic society; they both believe that is the American future. And they're both products of that. They lived in Springfield, IL. They practiced law, not together, but in the same town. They dated the same woman for a short while. They both had the same ambitions. So in all of these ways, they were similar people. But slavery divided them," explained Thornton.

"Douglas was a slave holder. He kept it a secret. He put his plantations in his wife's name; very unusual, but it gave him an element of deniability. Douglas believed slavery was just another issue to be decided; that the way to handle slavery was for white men to vote about it. And if the men of Vermont said we don't want it and the men of Alabama said we did, well that was fine. It was their right to make those decisions. Lincoln took the opposite tact and said this was a moral issue. It's a problem. It's something we shouldn't have in America and we should do our best to limit it. Lincoln doesn't want to necessary eliminate it entirely in 1860, but he wants to limit it and that's the basis of their disagreement."

"In 1860, when they're running for president, Douglas comes back to Brandon and there's a reception for him. Everybody goes and shakes his hand and then on election day, they vote 4 to 1 in favor of Lincoln. That's because of the slavery issue. This town becomes a hot bed of abolitionism. People here believe slavery is wrong and that's the issue in 1860 so they won't vote for their native son."
"Douglas leaves. He shakes the dust of Vermont from his feet and becomes very much a man of the west. It's the people who stay behind and who disagree with him that are the real story in this town," said Thornton.

"We can see that here at the Visitor's Center, at this museum in Brandon, it doesn't just tell Stephen Douglas's story, it tells that story of abolitionism and the people who are here," said Perkins.
"I like to think of it as telling the story of why the town didn't vote for him," said Thornton.

For more from our 'This Place In History' series, click here.

To view a map of Vermont's roadside historic markers, click here.

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