Memoirs of Henry Villard/Volume 1/06


The Lincoln-Douglas Debates.—1858

MAN is the creature of habit, and though the experiences through which I had passed at Jonestown were anything but congenial, I was almost loath to change my peaceful, careless existence for the more active life I really desired. It was evident that I had made many friends who were sorry at my departure, and I did not part from them without sincere regret. The Umberger family all cried when I took leave. I promised them and others to visit Jonestown again soon; but, alas! though I have all along intended to do so, circumstances have always prevented my revisiting the scene of my first and last attempt at teaching up to this writing — that is, during the thirty-eight years that have elapsed since I left. I suppose I should now hardly find any of my acquaintances among the living.[1]

I departed from Jonestown just twenty-three years old, with a moderately replenished wardrobe, about sixty dollars in my pocket, and fifty more due me from the Staats-Zeitung. This was all I had in the world except splendid health, eagerness for work, and fully regained and unbounded confidence in myself. I went directly to New York, determined to try once more for regular journalistic employment. I was more fortunate this time than in the previous fall. On calling at the office of the Staats-Zeitung and sending in my name to the publisher, Oswald Ottendorfer, I was at once invited into his private office. He received me very cordially, complimented me on my work for the paper, and asked me whether I was a professional journalist. Encouraged by his friendly manner, I spoke out frankly about my past and my aspirations. We talked a long time, and he finally told me he would consult with Mrs. Uhl, the proprietress of the paper, as to giving me steady employment, and let me know something definite the next day.

On reporting to him at the appointed hour, he took me to Mrs. Uhl's room and presented me to her. She received me very kindly, saying that she had read my contributions, and hoped that I might become regularly connected with the paper. Mr. Ottendorfer then stated that their weekly edition had a very large circulation throughout the Western States, to keep up which it was necessary to send out special agents from time to time to look after their customers. He proposed that I should travel for the paper through the middle States of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois, collecting old subscriptions and getting new subscribers, and at the same time writing regular descriptive letters to the paper. Mrs. Uhl was willing to have me engaged on trial for three months, and to allow me fifteen dollars a week and actual expenses. I thought I ought not to hesitate for a moment and accepted at once. I received the necessary detailed instructions, the fifty dollars due me, and one hundred dollars in advance on account, and set out the next day for Ohio.

I commenced my canvass at Steubenville, and in the course of the next five weeks, following the subscription-list, visited about twenty-five larger and smaller towns, including Newark, Canton, Massillon, Columbus, Springfield, and Chillicothe. I wrote regularly one letter a week, making from one and a half to two columns, for publication, and this part of my work gave entire satisfaction. But I was not successful in the other respect. I expected to find more or less educated Germans in the places I visited, who would be glad to give me the benefit of their advice and assistance. But I rarely came across any men of culture. Those I had to deal with were mainly grocers, saloon-keepers, and small mechanics. It was hard to collect past dues, and much harder to enlist new subscribers. My attempts in the latter direction exposed me to no little rudeness, and the pecuniary results of my efforts were so meagre that my collections were not equal to my current expenditures.

I felt it my duty to write Mr. Ottendorfer frankly, at the expiration of a month, that I was afraid I should not prove a successful canvasser, and to propose a new plan of operations. The public press was filled at the time with references to the approaching contest on the stump for the succession to the United States Senate between Senator Stephen A. Douglas and Abraham Lincoln in Illinois. The eyes of the whole country were fixed upon the former as the champion in the Senate of the wing of the Democratic party which had adopted his fallacious doctrine that the people of the Territories should be left free to regulate their domestic institutions — that is, to establish or to keep out slavery, as they saw fit — against the other wing, having the countenance of President Buchanan, which favored the introduction of slavery in Kansas and the other unsettled parts of the Union. Abraham Lincoln was the representative of the young Republican party. A series of joint debates between the two leaders had been arranged, which it was evident would form the principal political event of the season. I suggested to my employers to let me proceed at once to Illinois and observe the approaching political campaign there as the Staats-Zeitung's special correspondent. To my great joy, my proposition was readily accepted, and I proceeded without delay to Chicago.[2]

I reached there just in time to witness the grand ovation given to Senator Douglas on his arrival from Washington. He was received and escorted through the streets like a conquering hero, and it was made strikingly apparent that the Illinois Democracy were all but unanimously for him against the National Administration. I called on him the next day at the Tremont House to make known my mission, and to ask his leave to accompany him. I was promptly shown to his parlor, where I found him talking to a few friends. I knew him well by sight from my visit to Washington in 1856. He bid me a hearty welcome, and introduced me to the other visitors and to his private secretary, Mr. Sheridan. On learning the object of my call, he said at once that he should be very happy to have my company during the campaign, and directed the secretary to inform me fully regarding his programme, and make the proper arrangements with me. While we were talking, his newly-wedded second wife came in through a side door, and I was introduced to her. She was at once a most lovely and a queenly apparition. Indeed, it seemed to me that I had never seen a woman more beautiful in every way. Her tall figure was perfectly proportioned, and her every movement and gesture most graceful. She presented a marked contrast, in her youthful, blooming freshness and vivacity, to her small, dark, sombre husband. She appeared to be devoted to him, and certainly helped him no little in his political aspirations.

The first joint debate (in the famous series of seven) between Douglas and Lincoln, which I attended, took place on the afternoon of August 21, 1858, at Ottawa, Illinois. It was the great event of the day, and attracted an immense concourse of people from all parts of the State. Douglas spoke first for an hour, followed by Lincoln for an hour and a half; upon which the former closed in another half hour. The Democratic spokesman commanded a strong, sonorous voice, a rapid, vigorous utterance, a telling play of countenance, impressive gestures, and all the other arts of the practised speaker. As far as all external conditions were concerned, there was nothing in favor of Lincoln. He had a lean, lank, indescribably gawky figure, an odd-featured, wrinkled, inexpressive, and altogether uncomely face. He used singularly awkward, almost absurd, up-and-down and sidewise movements of his body to give emphasis to his arguments. His voice was naturally good, but he frequently raised it to an unnatural pitch. Yet the unprejudiced mind felt at once that, while there was on the one side a skilful dialectician and debater arguing a wrong and weak cause, there was on the other a thoroughly earnest and truthful man, inspired by sound convictions in consonance with the true spirit of American institutions. There was nothing in all Douglas's powerful effort that appealed to the higher instincts of human nature, while Lincoln always touched sympathetic chords. Lincoln's speech excited and sustained the enthusiasm of his audience to the end. When he had finished, two stalwart young farmers rushed on the platform, and, in spite of his remonstrances, seized and put him on their shoulders and carried him in that uncomfortable posture for a considerable distance. It was really a ludicrous sight to see the grotesque figure holding frantically on to the heads of his supporters, with his legs dangling from their shoulders, and his pantaloons pulled up so as to expose his underwear almost to his knees. Douglas made dexterous use of this incident in his next speech, expressing sincere regret that, against his wish, he had used up his old friend Lincoln so completely that he had to be carried off the stage. Lincoln retaliated by saying at the first opportunity that he had known Judge Douglas long and well, but there was nevertheless one thing he could not say of him, and that was that the Judge always told the truth.

I was introduced to Lincoln at Freeport, and met him frequently afterwards in the course of the campaign. I must say frankly that, although I found him most approachable, good-natured, and full of wit and humor, I could not take a real personal liking to the man, owing to an inborn weakness for which he was even then notorious and so remained during his great public career. He was inordinately fond of jokes, anecdotes, and stories. He loved to hear them, and still more to tell them himself out of the inexhaustible supply provided by his good memory and his fertile fancy. There would have been no harm in this but for the fact that, the coarser the joke, the lower the anecdote, and the more risky the story, the more he enjoyed them, especially when they were of his own invention. He possessed, moreover, a singular ingenuity in bringing about occasions in conversation for indulgences of this kind. I have to confess, too, that, aside from the prejudice against him which I felt on this account, I believed, with many prominent leaders of the Republican party, that, with regard to separating more effectively the antislavery Northern from the proslavery Southern wing of the Democracy, it would have been better if the reëlection of Douglas had not been opposed.

The party warfare was hotly continued in all parts of the State from early summer till election day in November. Besides the seven joint debates, both Douglas and Lincoln spoke scores of times separately, and numerous other speakers from Illinois and other States contributed incessantly to the agitation. The two leaders visited almost every county in the State. I heard four of the joint debates, and six other speeches by Lincoln and eight by his competitor. Of course, the later efforts became substantial repetitions of the preceding ones, and to listen to them grew more and more tiresome to me. As I had seen something of political campaigns before, this one did not exercise the full charm of novelty upon me. Still, even if I had been a far more callous observer, I could not have helped being struck with the efficient party organizations, the skilful tactics of the managers, the remarkable feats of popular oratory, and the earnestness and enthusiasm of the audiences I witnessed. It was a most instructive object-lesson in practical party politics, and filled me with admiration for the Anglo-American method of working out popular destiny.

In other respects, my experiences were not altogether agreeable. It was a very hot summer, and I was obliged to travel almost continuously. Illinois had then only about a million and a half of inhabitants, poorly-constructed railroads, and bad country roads, over which latter I had to journey quite as much as over the former. The taverns in town and country, as a rule, were wretched; and, as I moved about with the candidates and their followers and encountered crowds everywhere, I fared miserably in many places. Especially in the southern part of the State, then known as “Egypt” and mostly inhabited by settlers from the Southern States, food and lodging were nearly always simply abominable. I still vividly remember the day of semi-starvation and the night with half a dozen roommates I passed at Jonesboro', where the third joint debate took place.

I saw more of Illinois than I have since seen of any other State in the Union, and I acquired a thorough faith, based on the immeasurable fertility of her prairies, in the great growth that she has since attained. I also formed many valuable acquaintances, a number of whom have continued to this day. It was then that I first saw my lifelong friend Horace White, who accompanied Mr. Lincoln as the representative of the Chicago Tribune, and R. R. Hitt, the official stenographer of the Republican candidate. He was one of the most skilled shorthand writers in the country, and his success as such led in due time to his appointment as reporter of the United States Supreme Court. This position he resigned for a successful career as diplomat and Congressman.

I firmly believe that, if Stephen A. Douglas had lived, he would have had a brilliant national career. Freed by the Southern rebellion from all identification with pro-slavery interests, the road would have been open to the highest fame and position for which his unusual talents qualified him. As I took final leave of him and Lincoln, doubtless neither of them had any idea that within two years they would be rivals again in the Presidential race. I had it from Lincoln's own lips that the United States Senatorship was the greatest political height he at the time expected to climb. He was full of doubt, too, of his ability to secure the majority of the Legislature against Douglas. These confidences he imparted to me on a special occasion which I must not omit to mention in detail before closing this chapter.

He and I met accidentally, about nine o'clock on a hot, sultry evening, at a flag railroad station about twenty miles west of Springfield, on my return from a great meeting at Petersburg in Menard County. He had been driven to the station in a buggy and left there alone. I was already there. The train that we intended to take for Springfield was about due. After vainly waiting for half an hour for its arrival, a thunderstorm compelled us to take refuge in an empty freight-car standing on a side track, there being no buildings of any sort at the station. We squatted down on the floor of the car and fell to talking on all sorts of subjects. It was then and there he told me that, when he was clerking in a country store, his highest political ambition was to be a member of the State Legislature. Since then, of course, he said laughingly, “I have grown some, but my friends got me into this business [meaning the canvass]. I did not consider myself qualified for the United States Senate, and it took me a long time to persuade myself that I was. Now, to be sure,” he continued, with another of his peculiar laughs, “I am convinced that I am good enough for it; but, in spite of it all, I am saying to myself every day: ‘It is too big a thing for you; you will never get it.’ Mary [his wife] insists, however, that I am going to be Senator and President of the United States, too.” These last words he followed with a roar of laughter, with his arms around his knees, and shaking all over with mirth at his wife's ambition. “Just think,” he exclaimed, “of such a sucker as me as President!”

He then fell to asking questions regarding my antecedents, and expressed some surprise at my fluent use of English after so short a residence in the United States. Next he wanted to know whether it was true that most of the educated people in Germany were “infidels.” I answered that they were not openly professed infidels, but such a conclusion might be drawn from the fact that most of them were not church-goers. “I do not wonder at that,” he rejoined; “my own inclination is that way.” I ventured to give expression to my own disbelief in the doctrine of the Christian church relative to the existence of God, the divinity of Christ, and immortality. This led him to put other questions to me to draw me out. He did not commit himself, but I received the impression that he was of my own way of thinking. It was no surprise to me, therefore, to find in the writings of his biographers Ward Hill Lamon and W. H. Herndon that I had correctly understood him. Our talk continued till half-past ten, when the belated train arrived. I cherish this accidental rencontre as one of my most precious recollections, since my companion of that night has become one of the greatest figures in history.

I went from Jonesboro' to Chicago, and remained there till after the election. I considered the outcome so uncertain that I did not venture any predictions in my correspondence. Douglas himself, I knew, was much in doubt; Lincoln and his friends were very confident, and therefore bitterly disappointed by the result.

  1. Jonestown was revisited by Mr. Villard in company with his son Oswald in the spring of 1897. All, in fact, whom he had known had disappeared.
  2. Sympathy with the Douglas Democrats in their opposition to the proslavery followers of Buchanan led him to offer to send letters gratuitously, during his Western engagement with the Staats-Zeitung, to John W. Forney's Philadelphia Press, a Douglas organ.