Illinois House Speaker Michael Madigan wants to remove a portrait of Stephen Douglas from the house chambers, South Side legislators want to remove a statue of Douglas atop his tomb in Bronzeville, and residents of Lawndale want to rename Douglas Park.

Those memorials should indeed be removed, though renaming the park merits a broader discussion. And it’s a bit rich seeing Madigan — who’s made millions from a biased property tax system, and who unlike Douglas never took a political risk in his entire career — wrap himself in political correctness. Acts of symbolism shouldn’t take the place of real substantive change that’s needed in Springfield.

Famous for defeating Abraham Lincoln in the 1858 U.S. Senate campaign and losing to him in the presidential contest two years later, Douglas believed in white supremacy, opposed the abolition of slavery and basic civil rights for Blacks, and profited from a slave plantation in Mississippi that his wife inherited from her father. 

Of course, no one is suggesting erasing him from the history books. Douglas was a national political leader whose career offers insights into the way history works, including how a crisis can develop from a basic contradiction — in this case, slavery versus democracy, even a highly limited version of democracy — and how that can bring disparate forces into common cause.

In the decade before the Civil War, Douglas sought compromise with the southern slave states but ended up in conflict with them. And despite his racism, he didn’t shy from that conflict.

A complex path to opposing the Confederacy 

As the leading northern Democrat in Congress, Douglas sponsored the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Law — putting northerners in the position of slave-catchers and provoking resistance which “sometimes boiled over into riots and revolts” in northern cities. 

A few years later, Douglas sponsored the Kansas-Nebraska Act, leaving the question of whether the states would allow slavery up to local voters. This reflected Douglas’s doctrine of “popular sovereignty.” Slave states rejected the concept, since slave-owners were not eager to move into newly-forming states where the possibility of outlawing slavery existed.

Again, the measure failed to conciliate sectional discord. Instead it led to brutal battles between pro- and anti-slavery settlers in “Bleeding Kansas,” which riled up both abolitionists and northern Free Soilers, who didn’t directly oppose slavery in the South but wanted it excluded from new territories in the West.

In 1857, a small group of pro-slavery Kansans passed the Lecompton Constitution establishing slavery in Kansas, and Democratic President James Buchanan accepted the constitution, declaring Kansas “as much a slave state as Georgia and South Carolina.”  Douglas dramatically broke with the Democratic administration, calling the constitution a “fraudulent submission” and siding with congressional Republicans to oppose its ratification. 

In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the odious Dred Scott decision, declaring that African Americans had no right to U.S. citizenship and that states had no power to exclude slavery from their own borders. After initially urging respect for the decision, Douglas challenged it the next year in his debates with Lincoln. His Freeport Doctrine argued states did have the power to reject slavery. Southern Democrats termed it the “Freeport Heresy.”


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These issues came to a head in the 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston, South Carolina. Southern delegates demanded a platform endorsing the Dred Scott decision and supporting legislation protecting slavery in future states. The Douglas Democrats refused to accept these demands — not out of principle, but because they knew they would turn northern voters against the party. The southerners walked out and nominated a competing candidate for president. That probably ended Douglas’s presidential hopes.

During the campaign, Douglas warned of the danger of secession and spoke strongly against it. In North Carolina he called for “hanging every man who takes up arms against [the Constitution].” By October, it was clear Douglas had no path to electoral victory, and he changed tack, travelling to Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama to campaign not for his election but against secession.

After Lincoln was inaugurated and Charleston was shelled by Confederate forces, the new president consulted his old rival over the proclamation he was issuing. Douglas said he approved every word — except instead of calling for 75,000 volunteers to fight for the Union, he urged Lincoln to call for 200,000.

In contrast to northern “Peace Democrats,” Douglas helped bring his constituency — in some respects similar to Lincoln’s, homesteaders and family farmers who feared competition from slave labor — to support the fight against the Confederacy. Ultimately that fight required a range of forces, from enslaved people who revolted against their bondage and abolitionists to Free Soilers and Douglas-style Unionists. 

Lessons for today’s fight for justice, in symbols and action

All fought — and died by the thousands — to put down the slaveowners’ revolt. And we have far to go to recognize the contributions of those historymakers who weren’t white male generals and politicians. We also need to recognize the great tragedy of the Civil War, the abandonment of Reconstruction efforts to build real democracy in the South, which reflected the failure to overcome the ideology of white supremacy that Douglas always maintained.


Behind fascist Balbo monument, a history of multiracial resistance

For activists today, the complexity of this history may hold lessons about the path forward, and the way people with a variety of viewpoints come together in a common cause. It may well turn out that both police abolitionists and Black police officers challenging anti-reform unions – along with many others – are contributing to progress. There are also lessons about not settling for half measures based on outmoded ways of thinking, about pushing through to real change.

As for the memorials, the huge statue of Douglas in Bronzeville is objectionable to many neighborhood residents. At Douglas Park on the West Side, many have suggested adding an “s” to the park’s name and rededicating it to Frederick Douglass. That has obvious appeal, but I’m not sure it’s necessarily the best way to go.

It was, in fact, in another great Chicago park that Frederick Douglass played a prominent historical role. It was in Jackson Park that he represented Haiti, the only Black nation in the 1892 Columbian Exposition, and it was there that he gave a famous address challenging the United States to live up to its Constitution. He also collaborated with Ida B. Wells on a pamphlet exposing the exclusion of African Americans from the Columbian Exposition.

But the park is, of course, named for Andrew Jackson, another contradictory historical figure. By the standards of white male politics of the time, he was progressive, even radical, supporting expansion of the electoral franchise beyond property owners and abolition of imprisonment for debt, opposing banks and corporations, and reorienting government to serve his conception of “the common man.” 

He was also a racist, a slaveowner, and the perpetrator of perhaps the greatest act of ethnic cleansing in American history, the atrocity known as the Trail of Tears. 



How Ida B. Wells finally got the recognition she deserves in Chicago

But the democratic impulse he helped set in motion — however limited in its original scope — is credited by some historians with widening influence over subsequent decades. Northern Jacksonian radicals, including some of the former president’s top allies, launched the Free Soil Party and were a major force in founding the Republican Party.

A complex historical legacy, arguably — but as an individual, Jackson’s crimes and his record of cruelty are of such magnitude as to outweigh anything else. I say rename Jackson Park for Frederick Douglass. And put Harriet Tubman on the ten-dollar bill.

As for Douglas Park, perhaps it should be renamed for a great West Sider. I would suggest Richard Barnett, the legendary independent political organizer, who played a major role laying the groundwork for Harold Washington’s election as mayor in 1983. Barnett’s activism started in the 1950s with a baseball league for neighborhood youth — and a fight for a decent playing field in Lawndale, the neighborhood where Douglas Park is located.

And if Madigan really wants to get on the right side of history, he should address himself to what may be the single most important reform the legislature could accomplish right now: amending the state law that gives extraordinary protections to police officers accused of misconduct, and changing collective bargaining legislation to limit police unions’ ability to negotiate over provisions that enshrine the “code of silence.” 

That would take some guts — especially given longtime support for Madigan by the Fraternal Order of Police — and it would accomplish a lot more than moving a painting.

Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.

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