Was There a Plot to Kill Stephen Douglas?

Was There a Plot to Kill Stephen Douglas?

Stephen A. Douglas, Senator from Illinois, Thirty-Fifth Congress (1859). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Stephen A. Douglas’s return to the Senate in early 1859 should have been triumphant. He had just been re-elected after a tough campaign against Abraham Lincoln, and he was already anticipating a presidential bid in 1860. But after a meandering journey from Chicago through Memphis, New Orleans, Havana, New York, and Philadelphia, Douglas arrived in Washington to find himself besieged by fellow Democrats. George W. Jones of Iowa nursed an old feud over railroads. Indiana Senator Graham Fitch quarreled with Douglas over comments which Fitch willfully construed as insulting to his son. More seriously, President James Buchanan and southern Democrats had contrived to expel Douglas from his position as chairman of the powerful Senate Committee on Territories.

If that wasn’t enough, rumor had it that there was a plot to kill him.

According to an indignant article in Harper’s Weekly, the scheme went like this: Louisiana Democrat John Slidell, a veteran duelist and expert marksman, would provoke Douglas on and off the Senate floor until the Little Giant lost his temper, retaliated, and gave Slidell the pretext to challenge him. Then the Louisianan, “to whom duels are matters of course,” would dispatch his inexperienced opponent. This theory rested on several assumptions: Slidell was “doubtless” a crack shot; Douglas was “not likely” to have equal skill; there was a “suspicion” that Slidell was maneuvering Douglas into a duel. But the author closed with pious outrage: “if any noisy ranter can deprive the country of the services of such a man as Senator Douglas, by provoking him into an encounter in which he can gain nothing and may lose his life, this is not a civilized country.”[1] Denouncing duels as barbaric relics of a bloody past, the author cast Douglas as a potential victim of the Slave Power.

John Slidell, Senator from Louisiana, Thirty-Fifth Congress (1859). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

There were compelling reasons to believe this story. Slidell, a devoted supporter of President Buchanan, had been shadowing the Illinoisan for months. Furious over Douglas’s opposition to the admission of Kansas under the proslavery Lecompton Constitution, Slidell had collaborated with anti-Douglas forces in the 1858 Senate election. He urged leading Democrats, including Senator James S. Green of Missouri, to come out against Douglas’s candidacy.[2] Anti-Douglas Illinois Democrats, known as Danites, asked Slidell to help finance their effort to elect Sidney Breese (the often-forgotten third candidate in the “Lincoln-Douglas” race) in Douglas’s place.[3] And in July, Slidell had visited Chicago to coordinate with local Danites, including Buchanan-appointed postmasters who could control the flow of campaign materials and information through the city. After Slidell departed Chicago, he reported to Buchanan that he remained doubtful about the Danites’ success in 1858, but was cautiously optimistic that shrewd use of the patronage power – replacement of Douglas partisans with Buchanan loyalists – could turn Illinois against Douglas by 1860.[4] Douglas’s friends resented this meddling by the “corrupt tamperer” from Louisiana; one claimed that Slidell had brazenly declared his hope that Lincoln would defeat the Little Giant.[5] After Douglas prevailed, observers noted Slidell’s leading role in Douglas’s ouster from his committee chair.[6]

Most provocative were Slidell’s alleged attempts to sway the 1858 election by spreading rumors about the mistreatment of enslaved people on the Mississippi cotton plantation that Douglas managed for his two sons. The boys had inherited the land along with a labor force of more than 140 enslaved people through their mother, née Martha Martin, daughter of a wealthy planter from North Carolina. After Martha died in 1853, Douglas held the estate in trust. He knew that this could alienate Illinois voters and tried to keep his entanglement with slavery out of the press. Periodically, rivals had used the plantation against him. Illinois Whigs, for instance, deplored Douglas’s endorsement of the Compromise of 1850 as a product of his investment in slavery.[7]

Slidell recognized that the plantation was a political Achilles’ heel, and in the summer of 1858, he struck. According to Horace White, a Chicago Tribune reporter who covered the Lincoln-Douglas campaign from the lanky Republican’s side, Slidell planted the story while in Chicago. He told Dr. Daniel Brainard, a Buchanan Democrat and surgeon of the U.S. Marine Hospital on Clarendon Avenue, that the slaves on Douglas’s plantation lacked food and clothing. The rumor spread rapidly and was widely reprinted in the Republican press, including the Chicago Tribune. When pro-Douglas papers demanded the source, the Tribune revealed both Brainard and Slidell’s names. Douglas’s secretary, James B. Sheridan, retaliated with a public letter calling Slidell a liar. In his reply, Slidell denied that he had told Brainard the story (thus leaving the doctor hanging out to dry) and slammed Douglas for approving Sheridan’s attack.[8]

The flurry of charges and countercharges looked like a duel in the making, and in January 1859, the question on headlines around the nation was, as an Indiana paper put it, “Will Douglas Fight?”[9] As Slidell and Douglas traded barbed remarks, and as theories about Slidell’s murderous intentions proliferated, many of Douglas’s supporters worried that he would stumble into the trap. Douglas received letters from across the North (and from a few supporters in the South) begging him to remain calm and shun the dueling-ground. An Ohioan prayed that Douglas would bear the “petty persecution of the Senate” with “Christian resignation.”[10] William W. Wick of Indiana urged Douglas to “take no offense at anything Slidell…or any other thief or murderer may say – and if cornered, have the courage to decline any call to Combat.”[11] From Memphis came the sound advice to “keep cool” and “disappoint your enemies.”[12]

Douglas heeded these entreaties and the Slidell affair fizzled out. After Douglas publicly denied authorizing Sheridan to write his scathing rebuttal and Sheridan concurred, Slidell let the matter drop. The simultaneous quarrel with Fitch escalated when Douglas recruited the assistance of Tom Hawkins, a notorious Kentucky duelist, to serve as his intermediary and perhaps bodyguard. But that squabble soon cooled down as well.[13] By late February, Douglas was still sparring with southern Democrats over a federal slave code for the territories, but talk of duels and death had subsided.

“Progressive Democracy – Prospect of a Smash Up” (1860). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

If Slidell’s purported conspiracy dissolved without harming Douglas’s person, the same could not be said of Douglas’s party. The maelstrom of rumors and fears exacerbated the sectional estrangement that was tearing the Democratic Party apart. In 1860, southern Democrats bolted the party convention rather than accept Douglas’s nomination for president. But already in early 1859, northern Democrats were growing alienated from their erstwhile southern allies, and becoming increasingly inclined to view them in terms which resembled Republican criticisms of the Slave Power. Amid the Slidell-Douglas controversy, Samuel S. Marshall, a Democratic congressman from Illinois, lamented the “malignant influence” wielded by Buchanan and his southern allies, including Slidell, over the party and the government. He was “outraged almost beyond endurance” by their apparent desire to destroy Douglas by any means necessary.[14] Similar frustrations echoed outside of Congress. None was more emphatic than an Illinois Douglasite who condemned Buchanan as a “corrupt and vindictive old dotard” and blasted his southern “attendants” for attacking Douglas. He resolved to see Douglas nominated in 1860 and vowed that “if a factious southern minority” should “secede” from the convention, northern Democrats would carry the party banner to victory.[15]

Was there a plot to kill Stephen A. Douglas? The evidence is circumstantial. But the evidence of a concerted effort by proslavery Democrats to destroy his career is compelling, and together, the plots primed northern Democrats to stand firm for Douglas in 1860. If southerners refused to support Douglas, wrote Indiana Democrat A.M. Puett, then they would have to face the consequences of an inevitable Republican victory. “I and thousands more will stand off,” Puett swore, “and let the Hell hounds…pitch into them.”[16]


[1] “The Duello,” Harper’s Weekly 3, no. 106 (January 8, 1859), 18.

[2] James S. Green to Samuel Treat, September 29, 1858 (box 2), Samuel Treat Papers, Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Missouri.

[3] Henry S. Fitch to William Bigler, September 22, 1858 (box 9, folder 27) William Bigler Papers, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (hereafter cited as HSP).

[4] John Slidell to James Buchanan, August 8, 1858, reel 35, James Buchanan Papers, HSP.

[5] Henry S. Foote, Casket of Reminiscences (Washington: Chronicle Publishing Company, 1874), 135.

[6] W.C. Templeton to Stephen A. Douglas, December 20, 1858 (box 22, folder 20), Stephen A. Douglas Papers, Special Collections Research Center, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois (hereafter cited as SAD Papers).

[7] Anita Watkins Clinton, “Stephen Arnold Douglas – His Mississippi Experience,” Journal of Mississippi History 50, no. 2 (June 1988): 56-88; Robert W. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 208-209, 211, 299-300, 337-338.

[8] William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik, Abraham Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, 2 vols. (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1909), II, 127-128; James W. Sheahan, The Life of Stephen A. Douglas (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1860), 439-442; Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas, 689.

[9] “‘Will Douglas Fight?’ – That’s the Question,” (Terre Haute, IN) Wabash Express, January 5, 1859.

[10] James B. Steadman to Stephen A. Douglas, January 5, 1859 (box 23, folder 1), SAD Papers.

[11] W.W. Wick to Stephen A. Douglas, December 30, 1858 (box 22, folder 24), SAD Papers.

[12] J. Knox Walker to Stephen A. Douglas, January 1, 1859 (box 22, folder 25), SAD Papers.

[13] Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas, 689-690; Damon Wells, Stephen Douglas: The Last Years, 1857-1861 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971), 168.

[14] S.S. Marshall to Charles H. Lanphier, December 9, 1858 (box 1, folder 7), Charles H. Lanphier Papers, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, Illinois.

[15] James Singleton to Stephen A. Douglas, February 20, 1859 (box 24, folder 9), SAD Papers.

[16] Quoted in John T. Hubbell, “The Douglas Democrats and the Election of 1860,” Mid-America 55, no. 2 (April 1973), 109.

Michael E. Woods

Michael E. Woods is Associate Professor of History at University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He is the author of Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border (Routledge, 2016) and Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States (Cambridge, 2014), which received the 2015 James A. Rawley Award from the Southern Historical Association. His most recent book is entitled Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy (North Carolina, 2020).

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