How History Shaped My Mystery: The Remarkable Rivalry of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas
Read Jonathan F. Putnam's exclusive guest post about the rivalry between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas, then make sure you're signed in and comment below for a chance to win a copy of his third Lincoln & Speed Mystery, Final Resting Place!
Stephen Douglas was a towering figure of the mid-19th century in every sense but the literal one. Standing barely five feet tall, Douglas acquired the moniker “Little Giant” early in his public life, and he kept it until his death. And his outsized life fully justified the nickname.
Born into modest circumstances in Vermont and apprenticed to a cabinet maker after his father’s early death, Douglas soon headed west to seek his fortune. He landed in Illinois, where he knew not a soul, and took the state by storm. Though largely self-educated, he began as an itinerant teacher and soon went into politics. He became state’s attorney by age 21, secretary of state by age 26, and a justice on the Illinois Supreme Court at the ripe old age of 27.
Douglas was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1844 at age 30, a position he would hold for the rest of his life. In the Senate, Douglas became the leading proponent for the doctrine of “popular sovereignty”—letting the people of each state decide important issues for themselves—which in the highly charged politics of the time equated to supporting the right of the southern states to maintain slavery.
Today, Douglas’s life is inextricably tied to a figure who was towering in every sense, including the literal one: Abraham Lincoln. The landmark Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, conducted during the Senate contest between the two rivals, set a standard for serious public discourse over matters of intense political disagreement that is well-remembered—though little emulated—today. At the time, Douglas prevailed, fending off Lincoln’s challenge and keeping his Senate seat. Two years later, the men faced each other again, this time in the presidential election of 1860. Lincoln, of course, won that round—and won history.
Much less well-known is the fact that Lincoln and Douglas had been fiercely intertwined rivals—legal, political, and romantic rivals—for more than two decades before their famous 1858 debates. That historic rivalry is at the heart of my new Lincoln & Speed Mystery, Final Resting Place. As Joshua Speed—Lincoln’s real-life roommate and best friend and the narrator of my historical mystery series—later recalled, “two great rivals, Lincoln and Douglas … seemed to have been pitted against each other from 1836 till Lincoln reached the Presidency.”
Final Resting Place is set amidst the hotly contested and extremely violent political campaign of 1838 and is based directly on actual historical events from that bloody year. In real life, as in my mystery, the political season began when one prominent local politician was accused of shooting a rival politician dead after a dispute in the gentlemen’s smoking room of Colonel Spotswood’s Rural Hotel, the top gathering place for politicians in the new Illinois state capital of Springfield. Lincoln signed on to defend the accused man. The regular prosecutor was recused by the judge because of a personal conflict, and Douglas was appointed as the special prosecutor in his place. So in real life in 1838, as in my novel, Lincoln and Douglas squared off in the courtroom in a sensational murder trial, the leading entertainment of the year in the small frontier town. Lincoln and Douglas would go on to be involved in dozens of legal cases against each other over the years.
At the same time—again in real life as in my novel—the two men were battling each other in the political arena. In the most important local election race of 1838, Douglas fought for the U.S. Congressional seat against Lincoln’s law partner, John Todd Stuart. Lincoln himself was running for re-election to the state legislature, but since his victory was a foregone conclusion, he spent most of his time campaigning for Stuart and against Douglas.
The entire political season was nasty and violent, highlighted by a raucous debate at the Springfield market house at which Stuart, enraged by the provocative speech-making of the diminutive Douglas, picked up the Little Giant and paraded him around the market house to widespread ridicule. In response, Douglas bit Stuart’s thumb so hard it became infected, and Stuart was forced to miss the final debate of the campaign. Stuart was said to bear the scar of Douglas’s bite for the rest of his life.
Final Resting Place retells the story of the start of Lincoln and Douglas’s famous, highly consequential rivalry, and it does so in a very personal context. Lincoln’s ne’er-do-well father and stepbrother appear in the novel, as do other figures from the life Lincoln thought he’d left behind when he moved to Springfield. The young Lincoln had spent years running from the indignities of his impoverished childhood and the mistakes of his itinerant young-adulthood. Now, in Final Resting Place, Lincoln’s past comes back to haunt him. You’ll have to read the novel to see if Lincoln and Speed together can solve the murder mystery in time for Lincoln to win the race against his own past.
And did I mention that Lincoln and Douglas were romantic rivals as well? A beautiful, intelligent young woman from a prominent political family in Lexington, Kentucky, was to move to Springfield in the following year, 1839. Upon her arrival in town, Mary Todd was courted assiduously by Lincoln, Speed, and Douglas, among many other Springfield bachelors. (These real-life events take place after the timeframe of Final Resting Place, but they’ll form the backdrop for my next Lincoln & Speed Mystery, A House Divided, which will be published in the summer of 2019.)
In fact, Douglas is said to have proposed marriage to Mary Todd. Years later, Mary told a confidante that she had turned him down with a chillingly prescient statement: “I can’t consent to be your wife. I shall become Mrs. President, or I am the victim of false prophets, but it will not be as Mrs. Douglas.” In love, as in politics and law, Lincoln and Douglas were fated to live inextricably intertwined lives.
I sometimes describe my Lincoln & Speed series as “Holmes and Watson on the American frontier,” with Lincoln playing the role of Holmes, solving mysteries that arise out of his law practice, while Speed plays the Watson role: the right-hand man, spitting and sparring partner, and the narrator of their shared adventures. More than once, I’ve been asked, “If Lincoln is Holmes, then who is Moriarty?”—the wily, resourceful archenemy, sworn to bring down the great man.
Easy, I say: Stephen Douglas.
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