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The Law that Ripped America in Two

One hundred fifty years ago, the Kansas-Nebraska Act set the stage for America's civil war

Now, as always, Douglas saw himself as the defender of the sane middle ground, where the Union might be saved from extremists. But when the House of Representatives, at Douglas’ urging, refused to accept the slave-state constitution submitted by Kansas, Southerners who had supported Douglas’ notion of popular sovereignty when it suited their purposes now abandoned both it and Douglas. And Buchanan, who had boldly proclaimed Kansas “as much a slave state as Georgia or South Carolina,” became Douglas’ implacable enemy. The South had elected Buchanan, and he was desperately afraid of secession; he couldn’t bring himself to back down on Lecompton.

Yet neither could Douglas. Whatever a compromise might have gained him in the South would have been lost in the North and the West, where the Democrats were already in disarray. And though Douglas had made his reputation as a canny politician, he was also, at bottom, a patriot. He believed a national Democratic Party was needed to hold the Union together, and he believed he was needed to lead it. Douglas had never been a man of moderate habits, and his health in recent years had been suspect. But when, in 1860, he was at last nominated for the presidency, and found the party irretrievably damaged—Southern Democrats promptly chose a candidate of their own, John C. Breckinridge, to oppose him—he turned his remaining energy into a campaign that was as much for the Union as it was for himself. Meanwhile, Abraham Lincoln had been nominated as the presidential candidate of the new Republican Party, created in 1854 to oppose the spread of slavery.

In October, accepting the inevitability of Lincoln’s election, and knowing that secession was no idle threat, Douglas courageously decided on a final tour of the South, hoping to rally sentiment to keep the nation whole. But though his reception was generally civil, the time for persuasion had passed. As if a symbol of the failure of his mission, the deck of an Alabama riverboat on which he and his wife were traveling collapsed, injuring them both and forcing Douglas to continue with the aid of a crutch. He received news of his defeat in Mobile, realized it augured a country divided and likely a war, and retired to his hotel “more hopeless,” reported his secretary, “than I had ever before seen him.” The following June, exhausted in body and spirit, Douglas died at age 48, just seven weeks after the fall of FortSumter in the opening salvo of the Civil War.

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