In studying the Golden Circle concept, it should be remembered that some of its supporters (especially in the early nineteenth century) were Northerners. As well, many of those who supported expansion into the Caribbean were Unionists who wanted to strengthen the South’s position in the US Congress. Both were the case with Northern Democrat Stephen Douglas. Born and raised in New England, Douglas moved to central Illinois (north of the Little Egypt area) as a young man where he became a school teacher and a law student. Interestingly enough, he briefly dated Mary Todd, the future wife of Abraham Lincoln, before marrying the daughter of a wealthy Southern planter (who left her a large plantation and 100 slaves). Douglas went on to be elected to various positions in the Illinois State Government before being making it to the US House of Representatives and later to the US Senate. His politics were rather middle of the road, generally speaking, and he supported compromise on key sectional issues. Douglas became one of the leading figures in the US senate in the 1850s and was involved in many of the important legislative struggles of his time. He was considered a top potential nominee for his party for the US presidency during the period and finally won nomination in 1860. However, Douglas was by this time viewed with suspicion by many Southerners who did not trust him to defend their interests on the issue of western expansion. Southern Democrats nominated Kentuckian John Breckinridge, splitting the party in half. The Democrats were the only cross-sectional party and their split (combined with formation of the Constitutional Union Party which won the electoral votes of three Upper South States) enabled Lincoln and the Republicans to win the White House in 1860.
Of interest to us here is Douglas’ strong support for expansion into the Caribbean right up until Southern secession in the winter of 1860-61. Perdue University professor Robert E May describes this on pages 178-180 of his book The Southern Dream of Caribbean Empire:
Northern Democratic support for tropical expansion persisted to the very eve of the Civil War [sic]. Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts, when presiding over the national Democratic convention at Charleston in 1860, told the delegates that he favored the acquisition of Cuba, and a plank of the platform adopted by the Douglas Democrats to that convention declared that “the Democratic party are in favor of the acquisition of the Island of Cuba on such terms as shall be honorable to ourselves and just to Spain.”
Few northern Democrats so vocally supported the tropical movement as Stephen Douglas. He backed the Cuba initiatives of 1854 and 1859, defended William Walker in 1856, and as late as December, 1860, suggested a plan to [future Confederate Vice President] Alexander Stephens that would enable Mexico to enter the Union as a slave state if the South agreed not to secede. He made speeches for acquisition and included a plea for Cuba in one of his famous debates with Abraham Lincoln. In 1858 he visited Cuba aboard the Black Warrior to demonstrate his interest in the island. Many Southern expansionists regarded him as their champion. The Montgomery Daily Confederation, for instance, said in early 1860: “Our India lies in the tropics. There will we find inexhaustible sources of wealth and power, which none can wrest from our grasps. The policy which Douglas has the wisdom to conceive, and the energy to execute, if entrusted with authority, would surround the Gulf of Mexico with great and prosperous States, all bound to us by the ties of interest and identity of institutions.” At about the same time, Susannah Keitt, wife of Lawrence Keitt, a vocal South Carolina states’ rights congressman, explained to her father that she supported the nomination of Stephen Douglas for the presidency because “he is in favor of taking Cuba.” Although most Southern Democrats in the late 1850s considered Douglas an “apostate” for his role in defeating the Lecompton Constitution, many others acknowledged his gestures concerning the Caribbean. Douglas’ base of support in the South in the late 1850s was stronger than most studies of the sectional controversy have implied.