Your Turn: Let’s revisit the name of our county, while we’re at it

As a longtime resident of Old West Lawrence, I have followed with interest the efforts of my neighbors to the north to consider renaming their neighborhood, which for decades has been known as Pinckney. The reason for their discussion lies in the fact that Charles Pinckney, of South Carolina, was a noted supporter of the now universally repudiated practice of slave owning. This decision will doubtless also affect the name of the elementary school in the neighborhood, which my oldest daughter attended.

While I applaud the efforts of these neighbors, I wish to make the case that there is a far more egregious historical error that needs to be resolved by those of us living in this county, for it is the name of the county itself: Douglas. I firmly believe that few are familiar with the origin of this name and that virtually all of us would be repulsed to learn the opinions of the man whose name is on the county we inhabit.

Stephen A. Douglas was a Democratic United States senator from Illinois in the 1850s. For whatever reasons, he promoted the infamous Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, by which the long-established Missouri Compromise of 1820 was overturned and the possibility of slavery’s extension into the Great Plains was allowed under the concept of “popular sovereignty.” While this was advertised as allowing the residents of a territory to decide the issue for themselves on the basis of a popular vote, it was clearly open to manipulation, as evidenced by the residents of an adjoining slave state (for example, Missouri) to flood across the border on election day and cast fraudulent votes with accompanying violence. This, in fact, repeatedly happened, giving rise to the national shame of “Bleeding Kansas.”

In 1858, Douglas was up for reelection in Illinois, although the system then in place did not allow a popular vote. Rather, his reelection depended on getting a majority of the state representatives and senators to vote for him. His challenger was Abraham Lincoln, of the newly minted Republican Party. Lincoln mounted a surprisingly strong challenge to Douglas, who was one of the most widely known national Democrats, and the campaign produced a series of seven debates, which were nationally reported.

A review of the transcripts of these debates is both enlightening and shocking. In each Illinois city, ranging from Freeport in the north to Jonesboro in the south and Quincy in the west, Douglas, an incumbent U.S. senator, avowed things that would repulse and disgust any right-thinking person in America today. As Thomas Jefferson said in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence, “let facts be submitted to a candid world.”

At their first debate in Ottawa, Ill., on Aug. 21, 1858, Douglas said, “I believe that this government was made on the white basis. I believe it was made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever, and I am in favor of confining the citizenship to white men – men of European birth and European descent, instead of conferring it upon Negroes and Indians and other inferior races.”

This was not a slip of the tongue, nor was Douglas misquoted. To the contrary, he said the same thing at Freeport (Aug. 27), Jonesboro (Sept. 15), Charleston (Sept. 18), Galesburg (Oct. 7), and Quincy (Oct. 13). By the time of the last debate (Alton, Oct. 15), Douglas, perhaps feeling pressed by the superior debating skills of the rail-splitter, went so far as to say, “I hold that the signers of the Declaration of Independence had no reference to the negro at all, when they declared all men to be created equal.”

And yet, this is the man for whom our county is named. If the Pinckney Neighborhood can see its way to changing its long-established name, and the City of Lawrence can return a Precambrian red quartzite boulder to the Kansa tribe, can the residents of Douglas County do any less? What message would the renaming of Douglas County to Free State County send to the rest of the state and the country? While I recognize that any change would have to be approved by the Kansas Legislature, admittedly not currently a supportive venue for such things, it is surely incumbent upon us to try, even if by doing so we cannot cancel our culture or our history.


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