tephen Douglas was a U.S. Senator, a leading advocate of "popular
sovereignty," the drafter of the controversial and consequential
Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, and the presidential nominee of the Northern wing
of the Democratic party in 1860.
Stephen Douglas was born in Brandon, Vermont, to Sarah Fisk Douglass and Stephen
Arnold Douglass (the younger Douglas dropped the final "s" from his
family name in 1846). His father died when he was an infant, and his mother
moved the family in with her father and bachelor brother. In his youth, Douglas
worked as an apprentice cabinetmaker. He was politically inspired by the
presidential campaign of General Andrew Jackson in 1828 and became a life-long
Democrat. In 1830 his family moved to Canandaigua in upstate New York, where he
studied at the town's academy.
Three years later Douglas began to study law under a local lawyer, but
impatiently stopped after six months and moved to the "west," where
training and qualification for the bar were less stringent. His journey took him
through Cleveland, Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis before he put down
stakes in Jacksonville, Illinois, in November 1833. The next year he was
admitted to the Illinois bar, although the administering judge urged him to
continue his legal studies.
Douglas was one of the pioneers at adapting the new Jacksonian party system-with
its committees, conventions and partisanship-to Illinois. He became a leader in
the state Democratic party, and was elected state's attorney before he turned
22. In 1836 he was elected to the state house of representatives, but the next
year he moved to Springfield and was appointed to the land office of the new
state capital. In 1840 he became secretary of state, but was appointed the
following year to the state supreme court, the youngest justice ever to serve in
that body. In 1838 he had narrowly lost a race for Congress, and in 1842 was
unsuccessful in a bid for the U.S. Senate (he was not of legal age to qualify).
He finally won a seat in the U.S. House the next year after the Illinois
legislature implemented a redistricting plan. He served two terms in the House,
then won election in 1846 to the first of three consecutive terms in the U.S.
In the Senate, Douglas became a leader of the northern Democrats and played a
pivotal role in the major issues of one of the most crucial periods (1846-1861)
in the nation's history. Nicknamed "the Little Giant," the diminutive
Senator (5' 4") was a scrappy fighter and a tireless worker, whose powerful
orations on the Senate floor drew capacity crowds to the galleries. He was both
an advocate of states' rights and an avid Unionist.
Douglas was also a promoter of America's territorial expansion to fulfill its
"manifest destiny," as the catch phrase of the time put it, to become
a continental republic from sea to shining sea. To that end, he supported the
annexation of Texas and of the entire Oregon Territory and backed the
expansionist war against Mexico. To encourage settlement of the new American
west, he proposed homestead legislation and pushed Congress to subsidize a
transcontinental railroad to run from the Mississippi Valley to the Pacific
Coast. As chair of first the House then the Senate Committee on Territories, he
sponsored bills to establish seven territories: Oregon, Minnesota, Utah, New
Mexico, Washington, Kansas, and Nebraska.
It was the Mexican War that reintroduced the issue of slavery into the national
political discussion; specifically, whether slavery would be allowed to expand
into the western territories. Douglas took a middle ground between the northern
antislavery view that the federal government could ban slavery in the
territories and the southern proslavery position that the Constitution protected
the institution there. He advocated, instead, what he believed was a more
democratic, fair, and workable solution: let the voters of the territories
decide the issue themselves-"popular sovereignty." The Illinois
senator was instrumental in the passage of the Compromise of 1850, which allowed
the Utah and New Mexico territories to be organized on the basis of popular
sovereignty, while permitting California to enter as a free state, which its
residents overwhelmingly desired. He personally believed that slavery was
ill-suited for transplantation to the west and that the settlers would reject
In order to accelerate the settlement of the west, Douglas drafted and
introduced a bill to establish two territorial governments in part of the
Louisiana Purchase land. By allowing the citizens of the territories to vote on
the slavery issue, Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 repealed the Missouri
Compromise ban on slavery in that area. Passage of the bill ignited a political
firestorm that caused the collapse of the Whig party, the birth of the
Republican party, and the widening of a fissure between the northern and
southern wings of the Democratic party. Henceforth in the 1850s sectional
politics because more volatile and violent. Pro- and antislavery forces in
Kansas created competing territorial governments and engaged in bloody guerrilla
In 1857 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case that slavery was, as
many southerners had insisted, constitutionally protected from interference by
federal or territorial government. That decision undercut Douglas's remedy of
popular sovereignty, but he responded with his "Freeport Doctrine"
(named after one of the sites of the Lincoln-Douglas debates). He argued that
territorial citizens could circumvent the letter of the decision by refusing to
pass legislation ("slave codes") that supported and protected the
institution; consequently, he reasoned, slaveowners would not venture to a
territory where their investment in slaves was insecure.
Douglas's tactical response to the Dred Scott decision angered southern
Democrats. During the winter of 1857-1858, he further alienated himself from
southern Democrats and their northern allies, such as President James Buchanan,
when he vehemently opposed the Lecompton constitution, drafted by the proslavery
factional legislature in Kansas.
Later in 1858 Douglas held a series of seven debates with his Republican
senatorial challenger, Abraham Lincoln. The sole topic discussed was the issue
of slavery, and because Douglas was a major figure in national politics, the
debates received national press coverage. The debates matched two powerful
thinkers and hard-hitting speakers and are justifiably famous in American
history. Although Douglas was reelected to the Senate by the Democratic state
legislature, Lincoln became a national name for the first time and a contender
for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860.
Douglas had been a losing candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination
in 1852 and 1856, but was in a position to take the prize in 1860. The
Democratic nominating convention met in April 1860 in Charleston, South
Carolina. The southern delegates arrived determined to have the party endorse in
its platform a federal slave code for the territories. The northern delegates,
led by Douglas, were equally adamant that their party would not endorse such a
territorial slave code. The fierce disagreement led many southern delegates to
walk out of the convention and reconvene in Richmond, where they nominated Vice
President John C. Breckinridge for the presidency. Northern Democrats reconvened
in Baltimore and nominated Douglas for the presidency. Meanwhile, the
Republicans nominated Lincoln and a group of former Whigs organized the
Constitutional Union party and nominated John Bell for president.
It was customary that presidential candidates did not campaign actively for the
office. Douglas broke with tradition, however, to undertake a speaking tour
where his opposition was strongest, New England and the South. He urged
southerners not to leave the union if Lincoln was elected. When the Republican's
election provoked the secession of seven states from the deep south, Douglas
searched for a compromise that would save the union. Once the Civil War began,
he pledged his support to President Lincoln and the fight to save the union.
Weakened by years of overwork and excessive drinking, Douglas died in June 1861
while on a trip to secure Illinois' support for the union cause. His final words
were a message for his sons: "Tell them to obey the laws and support the
Constitution of the United States."