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.

Read Angie Barry’s glowing review of Final Resting Place!

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of Final Resting Place by Jonathan F. Putnam!

To enter, make sure you’re a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

Final Resting Place Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at beginning at 1:00 p.m. Eastern Time (ET) July 17, 2018. Sweepstakes ends at 12:59 p.m. ET July 31, 2018. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

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  1. Mitch Schaub

    Looking forward to reading this, I lived in the Land of Lincoln for many years!

  2. Toni A Laliberte

    This book sounds interesting. I haven’t read any of these before but I love a good mystery.

  3. John Monahan

    As a bit of a Lincoln buff, I’ve been enjoying your books. I look forward to the new one.

  4. Joye I

    This one sounds really interesting and thought provoking.

  5. Desmond Warzel

    Count me in, please!

  6. MM

    Thank you for the opportunity to win!

  7. Nirmala89

    Sounds fascinating. Would love to win a copy!

  8. John Smith

    I have always thought Stephen Douglas very Moriarty-esque!

  9. Adrien Toro

    I love a good mystery. Intertwining American history and a mystery sounds fantastic. I’m sure it is a great read.

  10. John Davis

    A writer who masters the historical research of his chosen field, then lends his imagination to make a remarkable story, has it all in my book. As a St. Louisan, I’ve always been a Lincoln admirer, having visited his home(s) in Illinois. A great man. Can’t wait to read Mr. Putnam’s book.


  11. becky

    I love when real history and fiction take on a twist!

  12. Ruth M Corbit

    Great series, looking forward to the latest. Fingers crossed.

  13. Jean Barber

    I really look forward to reading this!

  14. Jackie Wisherd

    Sounds like a book I would enjoy reading.

  15. lasvegasnv

    how interesting

  16. Annie Buck

    I am absolutely intrigued, and am off to aquire the first Lincoln and Speed novel!

  17. Pat Murphy

    Sounds like a description of our last election. Would really be interested in reading this book. History major in college and still enjoy a well-written historical novel.

  18. Trisha McCullough

    I knew they were rivals, but didn’t know all these details.

  19. JLWalling1

    This is really interesting!

  20. Brad Bonds

    I’d like to read this book.

  21. pat murphy

    Love to win .

  22. Shirley Evans

    I would love the chance to win this historical book. Very much enjoyed history in college.

  23. Jess

    I would love to read this and share my thoughts with my very active online book club of over 10K members!

  24. Janet West

    At times, history and mystery overlap!

  25. Catherine Myers

    interesting dou

  26. carloshmarlo

    This whole series sounds excellent. Please enter my name in the draw for the chance to win a copy of Final Resting Place.

  27. David Siegel

    A great subject.

  28. Anita Sue Hamilton

    I read many Lincoln books.

  29. Alicia Sargant

    looks very interesting

  30. susan beamon

    Historical mystery, docu-drama, excellent. I want this book.

  31. Tina Chavez-Caddey

    What an amazing story! I am excited to read Final Resting Place.

  32. bellecindy87

    Typically history stories do not interest me but I feel I have to read this one. You have put a real element into the book making it more down to earth for the average reader and intriguing to me. Thank you.

  33. Michael Carter

    Please enter me in this sweepstakes.
    Thanks —

  34. Louis Burklow

    Abraham Lincoln as Sherlock Holmes – I’d like to read that.

  35. Karen Hester

    Intriguing cast of characters for a mystery

  36. Michelle Herman

    Sounds like an interesting read. Thanks for the chance.

  37. Jennifer Sakurai

    I had no idea that Lincoln and Douglas were romantic rivals, too. I need to read more about this!

  38. Katharine Kan

    I just read the first Lincoln and Speed book, Honor the Dead, over the weekend, in anticipation of Mr. Putnam’s visit to my local public library this week. I now want to read any Lincoln and Speed book I can find, and I’m so happy to know a fourth one will be forthcoming.

  39. Sandra Brossart

    Looking forward to a great read from a new (to me) author. This book combines 2 of my favorite reads: History and Crime, so it should be a good choice for me.

  40. Cindee

    Love the comparisons to Holmes .. Watson… and Moriarty = Douglas

  41. Janet Gould

    Sounds fascinating!

  42. Lori P

    Wonder if they’d have achieved similar stature had they not met each other. ‘Final Resting Place’ sounds like a complex and satisfying read.

  43. Sally Schmidt

    Sounds really interesting. I grew up in Indiana so visiting places of interest concerning Lincoln was a treat.

  44. Cherie Gravette

    Looking forward to reading this! Thank you for the opportunity!

  45. L

    Wow! The premise of this book sounds so interesting. I can’t wait to read it.

  46. Lisa Ahlstedt

    Sounds like a great read!

  47. Joyce Benzing

    Nice premise.

  48. Susan Morris

    I’m new to this series, but it sounds like a great read. I’ll be checking out the first two books really soon.

  49. Vicki Andrew

    Love anything to do w/ Lincoln, sounds like a great read

  50. Maureen Wynn

    I love historical fiction – can’t wait to read this book!

  51. Elena L.

    I love when you mix historical figures with fiction, such a perfect match! This is exciting!!

  52. Susan Wise

    Sounds so interesting. I would love to win this book.

  53. Karen Salyer

    Enjoyed the author’s presentation at Lanier Library and look forward to reading this series.

  54. Vicki Wurgler

    I would enjoy reading this book

  55. Patricia Nicklas

    I read the first Lincoln and Speed book and am looking forward to this one

  56. Barbara Lima

    Wow! I’ve learned a lot about Douglas. Looking forward to the book.

  57. Margit Curtright

    Thanks for the contest!

  58. thebookmom76

    Sounds like fun!

  59. ditmo1948

    fascinating window into little known history, is their a Jesuit/illuminati connection

  60. nancy wolfe

    This book sounds delightful; I love all the rivalry between Lincoln and Douglas. I never knew this. Thank you for the giveaway. Would love to read it!

  61. Barbara Bates

    This book sounds very interesting! Would love to win!

  62. Daniel M

    looks interesting

  63. Linda Cosby

    Sounds like a good book!

  64. Karen Minter

    This book sounds a lot like the politicians of today!

  65. Vernon Luckert

    I love mysteries, and I love history – so this book looks like it would be a winner on both counts.

  66. Laurent L

    I love historical books. I hope I win.

  67. Cree Teasyatwho

    I’m so poor but I do enjoy reading books especially historical books.

  68. Deb Philippon

    I enjoy a well written historical, and would find this an enjoyable read. Wish me luck!


    Thanks for the opportunity to win!

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