Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Douglass and Douglas

Robert E. May

Back in the fall of 1990, when viewing the first episode of Ken Burns’s powerful TV documentary on the Civil War, I noticed something curious. The episode, which covered the causes of the war, gave much attention to the escaped slave and famous black editor and orator Frederick Douglass.  Entirely missing, on the other hand, was the white Douglas—U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. It was that Douglas who had steered the “Compromise of 1850,” including an outrageously offensive Fugitive Slave Law, through Congress. It was that Douglas’s notorious Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (which allowed slavery in western territories where it had previously been forbidden) that triggered many of the arguments over the territorial expansion of slavery that led directly to the war.  Very possibly, no one today would remember Abraham Lincoln had it not been for Douglas’s legislation, which so infuriated Lincoln that he reentered national politics after mostly practicing law for years. How could Burns have ignored Stephen Douglas?

Both Douglas[s]es must be accounted for in explaining the Civil War…their stories may be more intertwined than one might think

Since then, in doing research for my recent book Slavery, Race, and Conquest in the Tropics: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Future of Latin America, I have become increasingly sensitive not only that both Douglas[s]es must be accounted for in explaining the Civil War, but also that their stories may be more intertwined than one might think. Frederick Douglass’s opposition to both the Fugitive Slave Law and the Kansas-Nebraska Act has been long understood by historians. What is not so well known is that Stephen Douglas’s policies in the years leading up to the Civil War anticipated a U.S. takeover of Latin America, and that one of the reasons Frederick Douglass was so opposed to the Kansas-Nebraska Act was that he thought it would lead to U.S. slaveholders spreading their cruel labor system not only westward to Kansas but also southward to the tropics, and that Southerners would enslave Latin American populations in the process.

By the time Stephen Douglas got his Kansas act passed, he was notoriously identified with the cause of U.S. acquisition of Latin America. Further, he made it clear that the Kansas-Nebraska Act’s principle of “popular sovereignty” should be applied to any areas in the tropics the U.S. took over. Popular sovereignty held that the people living in an area, not Congress, should determine the slavery question for themselves. Since Douglas said that he expected the people of Latin America, under popular sovereignty, to want slave labor because their climate and land were suitable for it, it is easy to see where his policies led. That’s a key reason, as Slavery, Race, and the Tropics shows, why Lincoln and his antislavery Republican Party fought Douglas’s legislation so bitterly after its passage—every bit as bitterly as Republicans have fought “Obamacare” in recent years.

And that brings us back to Frederick Douglass. It was no accident that Frederick Douglass, in a speech a year after Stephen Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act, warned that slaveholders intended to absorb Mexico, Cuba, Hawaii, Nicaragua, and all the Caribbean Islands. It is also helps explain why his autobiographical Life and Times of Frederick Douglass recalled how the “Slave Power” tried before the Civil War to conquer Cuba and Central America. Frederick Douglass was alluding indirectly here to William Walker, the Tennessee native and adventurer (or “filibuster” as such men were then called) who five years before the U.S. Civil War conquered Nicaragua and legalized slavery there!

The concerns of the white Douglas, who supported Walker’s Nicaraguan adventure, and the black Douglass who opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, were intertwined and adversarial. Restoring this connection reminds us that the future of Latin America was a lurker in this nation’s course to civil war.

Download an excerpt from Slavery, Race, and Conquest in the Tropics: Lincoln, Douglas, and the Future of Latin America here.

About The Author

Robert E. May

Robert E. May is the author of Slavery, Race, and Conquest in the Tropics....

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