Call it the “great awokening.”
Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan — ever-sensitive fellow that he is — announced last week that he’s decided the portrait of U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas should be removed from the chamber of the Illinois House. In addition, a statue of Douglas is likely to be removed from its current place of prominence and relocated to a less prestigious location.
His announcement came after an apparent epiphany while he was reading “All the Powers of Earth,” one volume of author Sidney Blumenthal’s multivolume biography of Abraham Lincoln.
“While reading Sidney Blumenthal’s book, ‘All the Powers of Earth,’ concerning the pre-Civil War period a few months ago, I learned of Stephen Douglas’ disturbing past as a Mississippi slave owner and his abhorrent words toward people of color,” Madigan said in a statement.
As a consequence, Madigan said that he “became more resolute in my decision to remove the Douglas portrait.”
Madigan has a reputation as being a master political tactician and, generally speaking, a pretty smart cookie. That’s one reason why his explanation for his decision is a head-scratcher.
Was he unaware that Douglas, a prominent politician in the 1850s and ‘60s and a major figure in Illinois history, was hardly a supporter of equality among the races?
It’s impossible to believe that Madigan was unfamiliar with the Lincoln/Douglas debates. They are a staple of not only state history but American history.
Was he not aware what Lincoln and Douglas were debating in 1858, a time when the irrepressible conflict over slavery was coming to a head?
Lincoln and Douglas were, specifically, exchanging views on the question of the potential extension of slavery beyond the slave-holding South. The debates were in the context of Lincoln’s challenge to Douglas’ 1858 bid for re-election to the U.S. Senate.
Lincoln insisted that slavery had to be confined to where it was — the South — and expand no further. Eventually, he hoped it would wither and die.
Douglas took a position advocating “popular sovereignty,” one in which the residents of territories joining the Union as states would decide the issue for themselves via popular vote.
By today’s standards, neither Lincoln nor Douglas would be considered enlightened on the racial issue.
Looking back, Lincoln wore the white hat and Douglas the black one in their multiple debates across the state that drew thousands of onlookers and attracted nationwide newspaper coverage.
Lincoln was not yet “the Great Emancipator.” Indeed, he was more focused on preserving the Union, viewing proposed secession by the South as the death knell of the concept of democratic self-government.
Douglas, of course, had his own ideas about how to break secession fever, and they involved appeasing Southern slaveholders through popular sovereignty.
Madigan’s announcement, not to mention the reason he gave for it, draws new attention to Douglas, a man who was short in stature but dubbed the “Little Giant” because of his great success and accomplishments in Illinois politics and history.
Born in 1813 in Vermont, Douglas was 21 when he was elected a state’s attorney in Illinois in 1834. He moved steadily up the political ladder to the state legislature and then was elected to the Illinois Supreme Court, the U.S. House of Representatives and, finally, the U.S. Senate.
Lincoln’s challenge to Douglas’ 1858 re-election bid was built around the issues of slavery and union, culminating in the debates and leading, eventually, to Lincoln’s election as president.
Douglas won the 1858 Senate race, one of his many political victories and Lincoln’s many political defeats.
Two years later, in 1860, Lincoln was the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, while Douglas was the presidential nominee of the pro-Union wing of the Democratic Party. Two other candidates also were in the race.
Lincoln’s win set off secession by a string of Southern states and the Civil War.
Although now repudiated by Madigan and apparently considered a caricature of evil by woke historical illiterates, Douglas is favorably credited with standing by Lincoln’s presidential efforts to quell the rebellion and save the Union.
But Douglas didn’t stand by Lincoln for long. He died at 48 in June 1861, just a few months into the four-year war.
Considered a great politician and public official in his time, he is now reviled because he reflected his times, as did Lincoln and virtually everyone else who lived then and not now.
Madigan’s move is probably smart politically — which is his likely motivation. It heads off potential ugliness over portraits and statues in Springfield. Madigan said as much when he stated he wants a “more fitting representation of the Democratic Party” of Illinois that Douglas helped found.
What would be a more fitting representation of government in Illinois to portray in the General Assembly?
Maybe a statue of former corrupt Chicago Alderman Paddy Bauler announcing “Chicago ain’t ready for reform”? Perhaps a lobbyist handing out cash-stuffed envelopes to craven legislators? Maybe one or all of our past corrupt governors and legislators being handcuffed and led to prison?
If Douglas is unfit — a damning accusation from someone of Madigan’s political character — those other options might be a little too fitting.