Douglas, Stephen A. (1813-1861)
Stephen A. Douglas (1813-1861)
A New Generation in Politics . During his long political career Stephen A. Douglas was deeply involved in every major issue to come before the nation. He is most famous as Abraham Lincoln’s Democratic opponent for the Senate in 1858 and the presidency in 1860, but his time in Congress also had a lasting impact on the politics of the West. Douglas’s career marked a changing of the guard in U.S. politics, from the era of compromisers and nationalist leaders such as Henry Clay and Daniel Webster to one dominated by men with sectional interests such as Jefferson Davis of Mississippi, Abraham Lincoln of Illinois, and William Seward of New York.
Rising Democratic Star . Douglas grew up in Vermont and upstate New York before moving to Illinois in 1833. Captivated by Andrew Jackson, he helped build the Democratic Party in that state and rose rapidly in political circles. Just one year after arriving in his adopted home he became state’s attorney; one year later he was a member of the state legislature. After a failed bid for the United States Congress in 1837, Douglas acted as Illinois secretary of state and as a judge on the Illinois Supreme Court. He finally won election to Congress in 1843, and he spent the rest of his life as a member of that body, after 1847 as United States senator.
The “Little Giant.” Douglas served as chair of the powerful Committee on Territories, and he developed a strong interest in political issues involving the West. He acted quickly to propose legislation encouraging territorial expansion, the organization of territorial governments, a homestead policy, and the construction of a transcontinental railroad. These policies in turn led him to back the annexation of Texas in 1845, the acquisition of all of Oregon, and the war with Mexico. Standing just 5′4″ tall, Douglas was dubbed the “Little Giant” for his legislative and oratorical prowess.
Popular Sovereignty . When the slavery issue emerged as a threat to the Union in the late 1840s, Douglas fastened onto the idea of “popular sovereignty” (the idea that the people of a state or territory should decide on the slavery issue themselves) as a concept that could avert sectional strife. He led the fight in Congress for the Compromise of 1850 after Henry Clay was forced by ill health to leave Washington, and the version of the accord that passed in the fall of that year was his creation. Four years later Douglas made popular sovereignty the centerpiece of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 by opening the territories to slavery. Douglas saw the immediate need to form governments in that part of the Louisiana Purchase to promote economic growth, especially railroad construction, in which he had a personal interest as a director of the Illinois Central Railroad. Douglas severely miscalculated that the American people would accept the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Instead, the Kansas-Nebraska controversy ignited bitter opposition and sparked the formation of the Republican Party as well as violence in the new territory of Kansas.
Middle Ground . By 1854 the once-popular Douglas was suddenly a controversial figure in Democratic politics. However, such attention only fed his hunger for political power. In 1856 he ran unsuccessfully for his party’s nomination for president, losing to Pennsylvania’s James Buchanan, who was conveniently out of the country on a diplomatic mission during the Kansas-Nebraska crisis. The next year, Douglas broke publicly with President Buchanan’s Kansas policy, which was decidedly proslavery. In 1858 he engaged in series of heated debates with Abraham Lincoln in a successful effort to defend his Illinois senate seat. Throughout the debates and in his presidential campaign in 1860, Douglas attempted to tread a middle ground on the slavery issue, blaming Northern abolitionists for fueling political flames and Southern disunionists for threatening the nation’s future, but slavery was not an issue that could be viewed impartially by either side.
Freeport Doctrine . In the famous Freeport Doctrine, named by the press for the Illinois town in which he unveiled it, Douglas claimed that the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott decision, which guaranteed the right of slaveholders to bring their human property into any federal territory, was meaningless. Under popular sovereignty, he argued, local settlers could keep slavery out by refusing to enact the police legislation necessary to protect it. Douglas’s position was well received in Illinois (and helped him regain his Senate seat), but it forever lost him support in the South. Thus Douglas’s 1860 presidential nomination by the Democrats caused Southern members of the party to bolt and select their own candidate, John C. Breckinridge. His party split, and Douglas won electors only in Missouri and New Jersey despite receiving 1,383,000 votes. Lincoln won the election without a single Southern electoral vote. Douglas’s last legislative act was a desperate attempt to forge another sectional compromise in 1860 to head off secession, which failed miserably. Broken in spirit and worsening in health (Douglas was a heavy drinker), he died in June 1861.
Robert W. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997).
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