by Martin H. Quitt. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. 223 pp. Cloth $ 75.00 ISBN: 978-1-107-02478-6 . Paper $ 24.00 ISBN: 978-1-107-63901-0.

Reviewed by Ken I. Kersch, Department of Political Science, Boston College. Email: kersch[at]


“Judge” and Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas (the former his proudly preferred title) was a major player in the constitutional debates leading up to the Civil War, though ever since he has dwelt, in historian Martin Quitt’s description, “in Lincoln’s shadow” (p.169). This, Quitt reminds us, was a stunning reversal. From his mid-twenties on, it was Douglas, not Lincoln, who was considered the political star, destined ultimately for the White House. It was a coup for the relatively obscure Lincoln – a one-term Whig Congressman – to get the famed Judge Douglas to join him for a series of debates during their 1858 contest for the U.S. Senate seat from Illinois which, electorally, Douglas won, and Lincoln lost. Those brilliant debates – critical texts of American constitutional theory – marked the beginning of the reversal of the friendly antagonists’ political (and constitutional) fortunes. From Appomattox Courthouse on, we have lived in Lincoln’s world, not Douglas’s. While there’s no suggestion that Quitt would want it otherwise, he plainly feels that something has been lost in Douglas’s historical eclipse. In that sense, at least, he seeks to redeem Douglas’s political and constitutional thought – as well as Douglas’s personal reputation.

The charges against Douglas are well-known. Where Lincoln stood firmly on principle, Douglas specialized in fancy-footwork. Where Lincoln pronounced slavery a great moral wrong, Douglas trimmed, refusing to take any position on the slavery’s morality, and played enthusiastically to the racism of his crowds. Where Lincoln faced the central constitutional question of his day head-on, Douglas worked frenetically – and fecklessly – to muscle it off the national agenda. Douglas remains for many an opportunist, a self-contradicting and ethically-challenged politico, so avid for the limelight, office, and the huzzahs of the crowd that his fate, paradoxically, was political failure in his own time and historical irrelevance in ours.

Quitt’s “thematic biography” ranges widely in its redemptive agenda, and advances numerous arguments and theses, large and small (p.10). The first three chapters are biographical and psychological, surveying Douglas’s youth, schooling, early apprenticeships, and complicated family dynamics. The fourth chapter chronicles his move to Illinois and his entry into politics. The fifth and sixth chapters are analytical studies of Douglas’s constitutional positions and theories as they developed over time. The sixth and seventh chapters take up his 1860 run for the Presidency, and, after his loss, his steadfast commitment to the Union as the nation descended into war. The eighth chapter is a concluding [*142] assessment. The ninth is a coda weighing the ethical and political implications of the direct ties between Douglas and slavery via his (absentee) ownership of a plantation he had (embarrassingly) inherited from his first wife’s family, intended for the benefit of their children.

The book’s core argument is that Douglas’s commitment to local self-determination or “popular sovereignty,” far from being opportunistic and ethically dubious, was principled, consistent, and deeply-rooted in his life experiences from childhood forward. Quitt crafts a psycho-biographical account of the origins of Douglas’s commitment to the politics of place – the conviction “that every place did not suit every individual, that America should be large and diverse enough to enable every person to find the particular locale in which he or she could thrive” (p.3). Douglas’s very identity – his self-image and self-understanding – was intertwined with his conviction that the U.S.’s geographic diversity was the foundation of its political freedoms.

Befitting his argument that the child is father of the man, Quitt painstakingly reconstructs Douglas’s Vermont youth, presenting readers with multiple versions of the same childhood and adolescent events and episodes, carefully weighing the divergent accounts, and pronouncing himself persuaded by the one he adjudges most plausible. In the interest of arriving at sound historical judgments on, for example, Douglas’s “state of mind at sixteen and seventeen,” Quitt roots out previously untapped original sources (like Douglas’s schoolboy copybook and the records of Middlebury College (his father’s putative alma mater)) and engages in contextualizing forays into diverse corners of cultural history (e.g. early nineteenth century New England boy culture; gender in Jacksonian America) and contemporary psychological science (e.g. modern studies of the psychology of birth order). We learn that, from an early age, Douglas read instrumentally with a “swift and versed intelligence … to advance an argument or solve a problem” rather than to cultivate knowledge for its own sake, or to better understand himself (pp.35-37). We learn, moreover, that from at least the age of fifteen on, Douglas was a passionate constitutionalist. He devoted much of his free time during a teenage cabinetmaking apprenticeship in Middlebury immersed in the debates of the Philadelphia Constitutional Convention, Elliott’s accounts of the state ratification debates, The Federalist, the Thomas Jefferson Papers, John Adams’s A Defence of the Constitutions of Government of the United States of America, and The Legislative and Documentary History of the Bank of The United States. These preoccupations continued for the rest of his career.

Quitt traces Douglas’s life from Vermont, through (briefly) upstate New York, and onto Illinois in the 1830s, where Douglas joined with other young men starting new lives and careers, and forging the state’s new Democratic Party. Quitt’s Douglas is enterprising, outgoing, and ambitious, hanging out his lawyer’s shingle and launching his political career at only twenty years of age (a major appeal of frontier Illinois for Douglas was that there the barriers to entry to law and politics were enticingly low). A vibrant localized democratic politics attracted Douglas viscerally. As [*143] a child and adolescent, he never received the warm support and admiration he craved from his withholding mother. He failed to forge close friendships. In compensation and by contrast, in his early years in Illinois, Douglas “bathed in the adoration of the crowd, which gave him what he did not get from private relationships.” He relished the comradely “fraternizing” of Jacksonian democracy: a small man, Douglas loved leaping into men’s laps, clasping their hands, and being hoisted on their shoulders (pp.67, 74, 81). On the hustings, he was intimate, egalitarian, and exuberant.

To such a man, the elitist and centralizing Whig Party was a non-starter. Quitt posits an unusually tight fit between Douglas's life, his personality, and the principles of the antebellum Democratic Party, including its constitutional credo. Another of Quitt’s theses is that the political positions and actions Douglas took in courtrooms, on the floor of Congress, and on the stump were constituted fundamentally by his constitutional convictions – which generally tracked those of the (Jacksonian) Taney Court. His belief in a robust federalism was a direct outgrowth of his life’s course as a man who profoundly appreciated the freedom he had had to move west whenever circumstances conspired to thwart or frustrate him. America’s federalism set the institutional context for no less than his growth into a self-directed and self-actualizing manhood.

As Douglas understood it, the Constitution assigned the states and the national government separate spheres of governing power. Although the Supremacy Clause applied in areas where constitutional powers were concurrent, in all others each was supreme within its sphere. Douglas, for instance, was an active supporter of alien suffrage throughout his career, and fashioned sophisticated arguments in support of the de-coupling of voting rights, naturalization, and citizenship. But while he ardently supported giving aliens the right to vote as a matter of politics, he nevertheless was consistent in his position that constitutionally suffrage qualifications were the exclusive province of the states. This localist majoritarian take – which trumped his personal policy preferences – “prefigured his approach to slavery” (p.95). As a “Young American,” Douglas was initially part of a group of Democrats in the 1840s who sought to move beyond the constitutional rigidity and traditionalist agrarianism of their Jacksonian predecessors, favoring the fulfillment of the nation’s “manifest destiny” with the assistance of a national government committed to making internal improvements. But after earnestly studying Madison’s Notes on the Debates in the Federal Convention, he concluded that the Constitution forbade such initiatives. His solution was to fashion work-arounds, such as one by which Congress would authorize states to levy tonnage duties to raise revenue to support the improvement of rivers and harbors.

In his thirteen years in the U.S. House and Senate, Douglas played a leading role in shaping federal policy on slavery in the territories. He sought a middle ground between northerners agitating for a total ban and southerners insisting for unlimited expansion. Douglas conceded that Article IV, Section 3 (especially when read in conjunction with the [*144] necessary and proper clause) gave Congress the power to “make all needful Rules and Regulations” for the territories. But he insisted that that provision be read in conjunction with the “equal footing doctrine” holding that U.S. territories should be admitted to the Union as states on the same terms as the original states (p.108). (The “equal footing” language was drawn from the Northwest Ordinance (1787), and had been adopted by the Supreme Court in Pollard’s Lessee v. Hagan (1845)). Put otherwise, and citing the Tenth Amendment for good measure, Douglas held that incipient new states should have the same leeway to determine the character of their “domestic institutions” as did the nation’s original thirteen colonies. Congress should not “pass on the propriety and expediency of clauses of the constitution of the new states. The people of each state are to form their own constitution in their own way and in accordance with their own views; subject to one restriction only …it should be republican in character” (pp.109-110). Key moments in Douglas’s pursuit of the middle-ground were his “principled and gutsy” opposition to Kansas’s (pro-slavery) LeCompton Constitution (on the grounds that it was the product of sham rather than true popular sovereignty) and to the Wilmot Proviso (barring slavery in the territories acquired in the Mexican War) (p.9). In his subtle – many would say evasive – “Freeport Doctrine,” he held to his position on popular sovereignty even after the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) decision, which obliterated it.

It wouldn’t be credible to argue that Douglas was always consistent. His commitment to popular sovereignty notwithstanding, at one point he supported the extension of the Missouri Compromise line through the lands acquired in the Mexican War: not to do so, Douglas reasoned, would be “reckless” (p.113). But afterwards he fashioned the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repudiated it. His reputation was sullied by the fact that many of the historical-constitutional assessments he articulated over the course of his career seemed too clever by half (such as his argument that slavery had been barred in the states covered by the old Northwest Ordinance not because Congress had prohibited it (which the Ordinance did explicitly), but because of local practice, an argument he also put to use in his defense of the extension of the Missouri Compromise line). When he felt it would get him out of hot water, he substituted a call for “non-intervention” for his more usual appeal to “popular sovereignty.” Quitt is instructive in tracing out the paths leading to the bends and twists, elucidating Douglas’s internal logic as he responded to changing conditions and facts on the ground, sought to avoid irreconcilable stand-offs, and rationalized, miscalculated, recalibrated, and revised. Still, when the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter, it was clear where Douglas stood. Although angry at northern abolitionists and southern secessionists alike for conspiring to wreck his beloved Union, he pronounced secession treason and pledged his full support to President Lincoln.

Quitt’s book is very good, but there’s no denying it’s an idiosyncratic mélange, comprising psycho-biography, gumshoe sleuthing to establish arcane historical points, context-setting modular lessons on Douglas’s antebellum socio-cultural and political milieu, description and analysis of his constitutional theory and [*145] commitments, and an assessment of those in light of recent theoretical work in law, constitutional theory, and historical institutionalist political science. Quitt does a good job of surveying Douglas’s constitutional arguments in Congress, on the stump, and in courts, drawing out their overarching themes to the extent possible, explaining their cohesiveness and coherence and relating them to his famed positions on slavery in the territories. As such, it is a useful contribution to the literature on “the Constitution in Congress” and, more generally, on “the Constitution outside the courts.” Constitutional theorists will note that the debates Quitt chronicles involved arguments over not just substance but also over interpretive theory. Douglas ruminated over questions of the relative authority in the determination of contemporary constitutional meaning of original meaning and framer’s intent, post-ratification practice and settlements, and of contextual societal change. Quitt tells us that Douglas placed significant value on the original intent or meaning, but never believed that it could, in the end, of itself, resolve many of the most critical constitutional questions of his time. With all these matters in play, there is something for all interested parties in Quitt’s book, be they historians, constitutional theorists, or political scientists. But it’s not a book for those less catholic in their interests, who require scholarship more tightly focused on their particular academic bailiwick.

I have some substantive criticisms and questions. Quitt’s thesis rooting Douglas’s politics in his unique psychology sits uneasily with the fact that, as Quitt describes it, Judge Douglas’s politics harmonized so well with that of so many others of his era – he was, to a large extent, a mainstream Jacksonian Democrat. Was this a party of millions of socially-arrested young men with emotionally distant mothers? Were Whig mothers and sons made of different developmental stuff? This is not to say that Quitt’s informed speculation about Douglas’s psychology is wrong. But where we are talking about a mass phenomenon there must have been many roads to Rome. I suspect that psychology is better at explaining Douglas’s rare energy and ambition than his substantive constitutional positions. Then there is Quitt’s core argument that those positions – and particularly Douglas’s commitment to localism and federalism -- were held sincerely rather than instrumentally and opportunistically. The implication of this argument is that, for others, the commitment was purely instrumental. But I think Quitt is overly sanguine about the ease with which, in many cases, we can separate principles from substance in constitutional politics generally, and often concerning race in particular. This is especially the case with serious theorists of localism, community, and decentralization (one thinks, for example, of the diverse group that includes the Nashville Agrarians, Richard Weaver, Mel Bradford, James Jackson Kilpatrick , Felix Morley, Hannah Arendt, Wendell Berry, and Wilson Carey McWilliams). Perhaps the best way to think of this is to say that Douglas is better matched with this group than with some other group of cynical, disingenuous hacks. Even within this group, critics could claim that even if they had genuinely principled [*146] and cognizable arguments on behalf of localism when core civil rights were at stake (and, a few of these – Douglas not included – didn’t have a racist bone in their body), they certainly didn’t weight racial oppression very heavily in their calculus. A thorough-going commitment to localism is a luxury that others simply couldn’t afford.

Still, Quitt succeeds in his quest to present Douglas as s a sincere and serious constitutionalist who stuck to his core positions with about as much principle as one might expect of a man of his ambition and in his position in rapidly changing tinderbox times. An “authentic democrat,” Douglas’s commitments to popular sovereignty, localism, and indestructible Union, when considered abstractly (and often in context), have worthy claims on our attention and respect (p.68). Like Mark Graber (2006, p1), who has argued that “Stephen Douglas understood the constitutional order better than Abraham Lincoln,” Quitt thinks that the time is ripe, at least, to devote a lot more attention to the constitutionalism of the nation’s antebellum Democrats, which, I would add, promises a more sophisticated appreciation for the constitutional touchstones of our own time. Quitt’s book joins Graber’s as an engaging and instructive contribution to that endeavor.


Graber, Mark A. 2006. Dred Scott and the Problem of Constitutional Evil. New York: Cambridge University Press.


Dred Scott v. Sandford 60 U.S. 393 (1857).

Pollard’s Lessee v. Hagan 44 U.S. (3 How.) 212 (1845).

Copyright 2013 by the Author, Kenneth I. Kersch.