As the semester starts to wind down, my United States History survey course (before1865) will soon turn toward the Civil War. Stephen Douglas, the so-called “Little Giant,” will soon enter the narrative. Douglas was probably the most famous politician in America in the 1850s, but most of us know him as the guy who helped catapult Abraham Lincoln to national fame by debating him during the 1858 race for an Illinois Senate seat.
One of those famed “Lincoln-Douglas” debates occurred in Charleston, the current home of Eastern Illinois University. Recently the faculty at Eastern Illinois decided to remove Douglas’s name from a dormitory on campus because his record “bears a dishonorable record of public service and is hence undeserving of public acclaim and honor.”
The primary issue is the fact that Douglas, according to EIU English professor Chris Hanlon, “gave voice to a contemptuous view of African-Americans, a view that has long since been recognized as incompatible with modern American democracy.” Indeed, Douglas defended the right of slave-holders to expand into the West and bring their slaves with them. He was the primary architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) which allowed slavery to extend into the north.
Some EIU faculty have opposed the resolution to remove Douglas’s name from the dormitory. For example, historian Martin Hardeman, a professor of African-American history, argued the the faculty resolution is
a presentist idea in that it is imposing values of the present on views from the past. He said that he “obviously” wouldn’t agree with most of what Douglas said or did.”Douglas was very much a man of his time, what we would consider a white supremacist,” said Hardeman. “He was neither for nor against slavery. He was very much for the Union after losing the election.” (Douglas pushed for the settlers of new territories to be given the right to decide whether slavery should be permitted there — a view he called support for “popular sovereignty,” but which his historical critics note was only support for electoral decisions being made by white men, and which tended to extend slavery.)
Read all about it here.
I think colleges and universities need to proceed with caution in making decisions like this. Douglas’s policies may have been flawed, but one would be hard-pressed to find any political leader who was flawless.
Douglas defended the American right of choice, or “popular sovereignty.” In the context of the 19th century, he defended the idea that states and the individuals who lived in them had the right to make their own decisions about slavery (or any other political or moral issue, for that matter) rather than having the federal government make that decision for them. This was 19th century democracy.
Does this sound familiar? Contemporary parallels are never perfect, but Douglas’s position sounds a lot like the arguments made today by both libertarians and the pro-choice lobby.
Libertarians: Keep government out of my life.
Pro-Choice Lobby: Abortion is a personal choice and individual women have the right to make it without government interference. The government should not be legislating morality on this matter.
Douglas: The decision about whether a state should be “slave” or “free” should be made by individuals, not by a government that wants to enforce morality on its people.
What am I missing?
In Defense of the Republic says
I think you're right on. It's ridiculous that we have to purge our culture in order to maintain political correctness. Are we going to tear down the Jefferson memorial because he owned slaves? Are we going to systematically go through every building named after a person and rename the building if that person did something in the past that our society now frowns upon? It just never ends.