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The Civil War: The Senate's Story

April 25, 1861: Senator Stephen Douglas Speaks Before the Illinois Legislature
Speech of Senator Stephen Douglas before the Illinois Legislature, April 25, 1861. Page 1.

On the evening of April 14, 1861, just two days after the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas privately met for two hours with his long-time political rival and now president, Abraham Lincoln. Since being defeated by Lincoln in a fiercely contested presidential election the previous November, Senator Douglas had toiled away in the Senate, seeking a compromise to avert civil war. The “Little Giant” had not given up hope that a peaceful solution could still be found. On inauguration day, March 4, 1861, Douglas graciously held Lincoln’s hat as the new president gave his inaugural speech.

The bombardment of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12 dashed the senator’s hopes. War had come. Upon hearing the news of the Union surrender of the fort, Douglas arranged the meeting with the president. Lincoln showed Douglas a draft of his proclamation calling forth the state militias and summoning Congress to return for an extraordinary session on July 4. In a statement to the press after the meeting, Douglas indicated that he had assured Lincoln that “he was prepared to sustain the President in the exercise of all his constitutional functions to preserve the Union, and maintain the government, and defend the Federal Capital.”

In the days following, Senator Douglas departed Washington for Illinois, making speeches along the way to rally support for the Union cause. He arrived in Springfield on the morning of April 25 and delivered this featured address to the Illinois Legislature that evening. “Now permit me to say to the assembled Representatives and Senators of our beloved State, composed of men of both political parties, in my opinion it is your duty to lay aside, for the time being, your party creeds and party platforms...,” Douglas declared, “…forget that you were ever divided, until you have rescued the government and the country from their assailants.”

Falling ill shortly after this speech in Springfield, Senator Douglas died on June 3, having never returned to Washington.

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