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Band of Brothers in History and Literature

Stephen Douglas - Band of Brothers

Stephen Douglas is primarily remembered today for his association with Abraham Lincoln in a series of debates in which they were both engaged while running for Senator of the State of Illinois just prior to the Civil War. Yet he was a powerful politician in his own right. In fact he was far better known than Lincoln up to the time of the debates.

Henry Villard, a reporter, described Douglas at the time of the first debate:

Senator Douglas was very small, not over four and a half feet height, and there was a noticeable disproportion between the long trunk of his body and his short legs. His chest was broad and indicated great strength of lungs. It took but a glance at his face and head to convince one that they belonged to no ordinary man. No beard hid any part of his remarkable, swarthy features. His mouth, nose, and chin were all large and clearly expressive of much boldness and power of will. The broad, high forehead proclaimed itself the shield of a great brain. The head, covered with an abundance of flowing black hair just beginning to show a tinge of grey, impressed one with its massiveness and leonine expression. His brows were shaggy, his eyes a brilliant black.

This small but impressive man chose to evoke the "band of brothers" theme in one of his speeches during the debates with Lincoln in 1858:

My friends, there never was a time when it was as important for the Democratic party, for all national men, to rally and stand together, as it is to-day. We find all sectional men giving up past differences and continuing the one question of slavery; and when we find sectional men thus uniting, we should unite to resist them and their treasonable designs. Such was the case in 1850, when Clay left the quiet and peace of his home, and again entered upon public life to quell agitation and restore peace to a distracted Union. Then we Democrats, with Cass at our head, welcomed Henry Clay, whom the whole nation regarded as having been preserved by God for the times. He became our leader in that great fight, and we rallied around him the same as the Whigs rallied around Old Hickory in 1832 to put down nullification. Thus you see that whilst Whigs and Democrats fought fearlessly in old times about banks, the tariff, distribution, the specie circular, and the sub-treasury, all united as a band of brothers when the peace, harmony, or integrity of the Union was imperiled. It was so in 1850, when Abolitionism had even so far divided this country, North and South, as to endanger the peace of the Union; Whigs and Democrats united in establishing the Compromise measures of that year, and restoring tranquillity and good feeling. These measures passed on the joint action of the two parties.
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Stephen Douglas was an artful speaker. Here, he uses "band of brothers" as an evocation of the past, a past when Democrats and Whigs were united in the cause of preservation of the Union. He says the whigs then supported ideas that slavery was a legitimate institution in the South, and thus preserved the peace. Further on in his speech he vilifies the Republicans for opposing slavery and standing up for the rights of "Negro slaves". He calls this divisive and a betrayal of the Union. Thus Douglas excludes the Republicans from his band of brothers because they will not countenance slavery.

Unlike other previous and later evocations of the "band of brothers", Douglas does not use it to inspire, he uses it to wound. This shows it has become a powerful weapon in the arsenal of words that a skilled orator could bring to bear. He tells his audience, Americans had at one time been a "band of brothers" fighting together for the good of the country. But now these nasty Republicans care more for the rights of individual black men than for the peace and tranquility of their country.

Douglas was considered by many to have bested Lincoln in the field of oratory, but lost the debates on grounds that Lincoln had the better arguments and was able to touch a cord with his listeners that Douglas could not reach. Douglas eventually won the Senate seat that was being contested in these debates. It is important to note, however, that at the time, it was not the people who directly elected the senators from each state. Senators were selected by a vote of the state legislature.

In 1860 Douglas would run for President, ironically again against Abraham Lincoln. However, now he was the representative of a divided party. Lincoln won the presidency and Douglas would die in 1861 soon after the great struggle between North and South became engaged.

It is not easy to judge people by modern standards of morality. Slavery, at the time, was an institution engrained in a part of American Society. Even so, all the evidence of its abuses were present and the rights of man were plainly laid out by philosophers as well as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. The fact is that slavery was and is wrong and Douglas could not have been unaware of the arguments against it. That he was such a gifted speaker and used his skills in such a cause tends to discount him heavily in the scales of historical evaluation.

Another Douglass would speak of a band of brothers, but this time it was a slave.

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