CHICAGO — Years ago, when George Buss decided to become an Abraham Lincoln re-enactor, he dove into research and was hounded by a central question.
"Why is Lincoln doing these things," Buss recalled, a few days before presenting Lincoln at the Grayslake Heritage Center and Museum in the northern suburb. The answer astonished him. "Every time I asked that question, Stephen Douglas came up."
One of history's most notorious "other guys," Stephen A. Douglas would be 200 years old April 23, a milestone that will pass with little more than a few almanac references. If recollected at all, Douglas is viewed by many as the short, loudmouth racist nemesis to Sacred Abe.
But Buss, the man who re-creates Lincoln coast-to-coast about 60 times a year, became so enthralled with the "Little Giant" that today he is president of the largely inconspicuous Stephen A. Douglas Association. He is leading the 85-member group on a campaign to redraw history's caricature of the man.
Those in Buss' camp contend Douglas was a passionate believer in democracy and moderate politics, someone who played a critical role in establishing Chicago as the nation's transportation center. Douglas also created the state's Democratic political machine, and yet his ability to set aside political differences for love of country serves as a noble contrast to today's venomous partisanship.
On top of all that, some Douglas supporters say in near-blasphemy, it's time to consider this: Douglas made Abraham Lincoln.
"It's pretty clear," Buss said. "Without Douglas, you don't get Lincoln."
Born in Vermont, Douglas came to Quincy, Ill., at 20 years old, taught school, obtained a law license and set up a practice in Jacksonville. While lobbying in what was then the state capital of Vandalia in 1834, he met state legislator Lincoln. According to Douglas biographer Reg Ankrom, Lincoln was unimpressed and encouraged colleagues to ignore the fiery lobbyist.
But Douglas was at the start of a staggering political ascent, sprung from a party organizational model he learned in upstate New York and brought to Illinois. By the time he was elected to Congress in 1843, Douglas had served as a state's attorney, legislator, secretary of state and Illinois Supreme Court justice.
Historical references also indicate he courted Mary Todd before she chose the tall guy.
A strong advocate of western expansion, Douglas was selected by state legislators to become a U.S. Senator in 1847 and secured federal legislation supporting a railroad route from Chicago to New Orleans. The move boosted Chicago's status as a commercial and industrial center, and also enhanced it as a national transportation hub.
But Douglas' political aspirations were forever dogged and finally doomed when, in 1854, he proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act as a moderate remedy to the simmering debate over slavery. The act allowed settlers in territories to determine whether to permit slavery.
"He created the greatest legislative blunder in our nation's history," said James Huston, Oklahoma State University history professor and author of the 2006 book, Stephen A. Douglas and the Dilemmas of Democratic Equality. "Holy mackerel, that ignited the firestorm."
Violence and bloodshed erupted, as did anger toward Douglas, one of the nation's most powerful elected officials. His political vulnerability opened the door for a Republican challenger, Lincoln, who appeared at Douglas speeches and goaded the senator into the seven, now-famous debates across Illinois in 1858.
The contests vaulted the moderately successful Springfield lawyer to national prominence, even though Douglas retained his Senate seat. Two years later, in the election of 1860, Lincoln prevailed in a four-candidate presidential race that included Douglas.
Douglas died seven months after the election, at 48.
After his death, Douglas' family donated much of his estate, located on what is now Chicago's South Side, to the federal government. It opened Camp Douglas on the land, which became a Confederate POW camp.
About 150 years later, state historians were organizing events for the sesquicentennial of the great debates and asked Tim Connors to act as Lincoln's rival.
"I really thought, no," said Connors, director of theater and speech at Freeport High School. " 'Why would I want to do this? Lincoln is everyone's hero, everyone's friend.' "
Douglas, he said, was "the other guy."
But Connors examined the historical record on Douglas, and drew the same conclusion as Buss.
"The more fascinated I was, the more I wanted to get into the character," Connors said, "and the more I wanted people to know how much he cared for his country. I kept saying to my wife, 'Douglas really was a great man.' "
Since then, Connors, one of a handful of Douglas re-enactors, has impersonated the "Little Giant" about 60 times in eight states. He takes on a character with a life as tragic as Lincoln's.
Douglas' father died when the boy was 2 months old and Douglas' first wife died in child birth in 1853, followed weeks later by the couple's baby daughter. For the next three years, between his smoking and abuse of alcohol, Douglas "had some trouble holding it all together," historian and author Huston said. Then Douglas married a second time, only to lose an infant daughter in 1859.
Connors is among those who contend tagging Douglas as a racist is perhaps unfair, particularly since he died before evolving politically on racial issues, as some of his peers did. Douglas fans also note that history often omits some of Lincoln's less flattering statements on race.
At the Sept. 18, 1858, debate in Charleston, Ill., for example, Lincoln said he opposed "making voters of negroes. Qualifying them to hold office. To intermarry with white people. And I as much as any man, am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race."
Douglas also believed whites were a superior race. The difference, Lincoln fans point out, is that Douglas balked at taking a moral stand on slavery while Lincoln specified freeing slaves was a measure that, as he said in an 1862 speech, "the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless."
Some historians say Douglas' reluctance represented his belief in popular sovereignty, the notion that states — not the federal government — should choose their fate.
The "Little Giant" believed that slavery was going to disappear, his supporters say, and he wanted to push it to the periphery while concentrating on what he perceived as greater concerns: preserving and expanding the union.
Lincoln, of course, went on to become a canonized figure, the topic of an estimated 18,000 books and most recently popularized by actor Daniel Day-Lewis' Oscar-winning performance in last year's Lincoln.
Most agree that Douglas played a critical role in molding Lincoln.
"Douglas is forgotten a lot of times," said Connors, "and when Douglas is forgotten, we forget a piece of pretty important history. It would be nice to get him back in people's minds."