Our state capital is named for Honest Abe. So who is Omaha's county named for?
That's right, “the other guy.”
I quizzed two Douglas County officials this week — one elected, one a longtime, loyal public servant — to see whether they knew whose 200th birthday occurred Tuesday.
My only hint to them was that the birthday boy's name is a local place name.
They were good enough to play along, and I am not being critical when I say both were puzzled.
Answer: Stephen A. Douglas, U.S. senator from Illinois and Abraham Lincoln's opponent in the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debates.
His 200th birthday? Who knew?
Last Oct. 20, officials went to lengths to celebrate the centennial and the architecture of the beautiful Douglas County Courthouse: a band, a magician, clowns, food vendors, a procession of Model A and Model T cars, speeches, a big cake, historical displays and a new county seal.
But the bicentennial of the birth of the county's namesake — not surprisingly — passed this week with almost no notice.
Everyone loves Abe, the old Railsplitter, the Great Emancipator, the 16th and most admired president — about whom 18,000 books have been written.
Last week I queried the Douglas County Historical Society to see if the 200th anniversary of Douglas' birth would be observed.
Yes, but only with a press release, which cheerily began: “Happy 200th Birthday, Stephen!”
Stephen A. Douglas, the release continued, was born April 23, 1813, in Vermont, and moved to Illinois at 19. He became an attorney, and then a congressman at 30 and a U.S. senator at 33.
He was nicknamed “The Little Giant” because of “his short stature and powerhouse oratorical style.”
On the bitter issue of slavery, he espoused the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. It allowed settlers in territories, under the phrase “popular sovereignty,” to determine whether to permit slavery.
The settlement of Nebraska soon began. In 1855, Thomas B. Cuming, acting governor of the Nebraska Territory, named the eight original counties of the territory, including one for Stephen A. Douglas.
Meanwhile, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which Douglas saw as a moderate compromise, resulted in violence and bloodshed, as well as anti-slavery forces' anger toward Douglas.
As the Chicago Tribune noted last week, Douglas' political vulnerability opened the door for a Republican political challenger — a Springfield lawyer named Lincoln.
In 1858, they debated seven times across Illinois. Douglas kept his Senate seat in that year's election, but Lincoln became famous. Both were among four candidates in the 1860 presidential election.
The man in the stovepipe hat was sworn in to lead the nation, a house divided, as the Civil War began.
Douglas himself had suffered much. His first wife died in childbirth in 1853, followed by the death of the baby daughter. He married a second time, and an infant daughter died in 1859.
Douglas, on the wrong side of history, was said to be ravaged by alcohol. He died at age 48, months after Lincoln became president in 1861.
Lincoln and Douglas are linked in history because of the famous debates, and some argue that Douglas, in effect, had made Lincoln a national figure.
When a portrait of Douglas was hung in the Douglas County Courthouse in 1928, a speaker intoned:
“Since the days when Cicero thundered in the Roman forum, there has been nothing to compare with the great oral discussions between Lincoln, the tall, awkward Kentuckian, and Douglas, the small, polished Vermonter. If these men had done no more than this, they would have left America the legacy of two immortal names.”
Each did much more, but Lincoln's place in history stands far above that of Douglas.
Interest in Abe Lincoln rose anew in recent months with the Steven Spielberg movie “Lincoln” and the Academy Award that Daniel Day-Lewis received for portraying the president.
In front of the Nebraska State Capitol stands a statue of Lincoln, namesake of the capital city.
Sixty miles away in Omaha, the seat of Douglas County, people this week celebrated Douglas, all right, but a different one — All-America basketball player Douglas McDermott, who announced he would return for his senior season at Creighton University rather than turn professional now.
That, naturally, was welcome news.
As for the 200th birthday of the county's namesake? Who knew?
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