Stephen Arnold Douglas

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Stephen Arnold Douglas

U.S. senator Stephen Arnold Douglas (1813-1861), the foremost leader of the Democratic party in the decade preceding the Civil War, was Lincoln's political rival for the presidency.

Stephen A. Douglas was born in Brandon, Vt., on April 23, 1813. His father's early death meant Stephen's dependence on a bachelor uncle and later, a detested apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker. When his mother remarried and went to Canandaigua, N. Y., Stephen followed. He attended the academy there, developed a formidable talent as a debater, and became an ardent follower of Andrew Jackson.

Douglas made up for his short stature (5 feet 4 inches) in aggressiveness, audacity, and consuming political ambition. When he said farewell to his mother at 20, he promised to return "on his way to Congress," a prediction he made good 10 years later. He settled in Illinois, where he became a teacher. He taught himself law with borrowed books, became active in the Democratic party, and at 27 was a member of the Illinois State Supreme Court, the youngest ever to attain that office. He was called Judge Douglas thereafter.

Career in Congress

Elected to the House of Representatives in 1843 and to the Senate in 1847, Douglas became a power in all legislation having to do with territories in the West. Known as the "Little Giant" because of his massive head, heavy brown hair, broad shoulders, and booming voice, he soon won the reputation of being the most formidable legislative pugilist in Washington. His enemies called him ruthless; his admirers strove to make him president.

In 1847 Douglas married Martha Denny Martin. The following year she inherited a Mississippi plantation with 150 slaves; by the terms of his father-in-law's will, Douglas was made manager. Though he always denied ownership of any slaves himself, he did manage the plantation up to his death, and there is little doubt that he looked upon his own marriage as symbolic of a successful bridging of North and South. When his wife, after having two sons, died in childbirth, he became depressed and turned for a time to liquor. A tour abroad rejuvenated his spirits, and in 1856 he married the beautiful Adèle Cutts, another Southern woman.

Though privately Douglas held slavery to be "a curse beyond computation," publicly he pronounced it a matter "of climate, of political economy, of self-interest, not a question of legislation." It was good for Louisiana, he said, but bad for illinois. Essentially proslavery in his legislation, he voted against abolition petitions, favored the annexation of Texas, helped Henry Clay push through the Compromise of 1850, and encouraged the purchase of Cuba to make a new slave state.

Doctrine of "Squatter Sovereignty"

Douglas's failure to reckon with the enormity of the slavery evil, and the growing Northern resentment against it, led him to devise in 1854 what modern historian Allan Nevins called "the worst Pandora's box in our history." In planning for two new states, Kansas and Nebraska, he insisted that the slavery issue be resolved by the settlers themselves rather than by Congress, thus repudiating the 20-year-old Missouri Compromise. Southern extremists saw in this "squatter sovereignty" doctrine an opportunity to make Kansas a slave state, though a majority of the actual settlers were against slavery. Missourians crossed the border at election time to overwhelm the polls and vote in a proslavery government. The antislavery majority set up a rival government in Topeka, and soon there was a small but bloody civil was in Kansas. Douglas was denounced by the abolitionists. Charles Sumner in the Senate called him the squire of slavery, "ready to do all its humiliating offices."

When President James Buchanan recognized the proslavery government in Kansas, Douglas, angered by the misuse of his popular-sovereignty doctrine, denounced the President in 1857, thereby alienating his friends in the South and damaging his presidential chances. But his Kansas-Nebraska Bill had also alienated his antislavery followers in illinois, who charged him with conniving with railroad speculators. In 1858 he went home to face a difficult reelection battle, with Abraham Lincoln as his opponent.

Debates with Lincoln

In his famous debates with Lincoln, Douglas opposed African American citizenship in any form and attacked as "monstrous heresy" Lincoln's insistence that "the Negro and the white man are made equal by the Declaration of Independence and by Divine Providence." Douglas held that African Americans "belong to an inferior race and must always occupy an inferior position." Lincoln denounced Douglas's popular-sovereignty idea as "a mere deceitful pretense for the benefit of slavery" and emphasized the callousness of Douglas's statement: "When the struggle is between the white man and the Negro, I am for the white man; when it is between the Negro and the crocodile, I am for the Negro."

Douglas barely won the senatorial election, but the debates won national recognition for his rival. In 1860, when Lincoln was nominated for president on the Republican ticket, Douglas said of him to Republicans, "Gentlemen, you have nominated a very able and a very honest man."

Presidential Candidate

Douglas expected to be nominated for president in the Democratic convention in Charleston, but a block of Southerners bolted the party, nominating instead John C. Breckinridge. The remaining Democrats nominated Douglas at a second convention in Baltimore. A fourth convention, organized by the Constitutional Union party, nominated John Bell. Douglas suspected that the four-candidate election would ensure Lincoln's victory but nevertheless campaigned vigorously, urging support for the Union he loved. "I wish to God," he said in New York City, "that we had an Old Hickory now alive in order that he might hang Northern and Southern traitors on the same gallows." In the South he deplored secession, which he said would make it necessary for his children to obtain a passport to visit the graves of their ancestors.

A Douglas feared, Lincoln's victory brought the immediate secession of South Carolina from the Union, and other states quickly followed. Douglas still labored for compromises to restore the Union, and he urged Lincoln to support a projected 13th Amendment which would guarantee that slavery would never be tampered with in the slave states. The firing on Ft. Sumter on Jan. 9, 1861, by Confederate forces ended his compromise efforts. He now swung behind Lincoln, urging a vigorous war effort and rallying Northern Democrats to the cause of the Union.

Douglas contracted typhoid fever and died June 3, 1861. Thus Lincoln lost his ablest rival at precisely the moment in history when he was most needed.

Further Reading

The bulk of Douglas's papers are at the University of Chicago, with additional letters in the illinois State Historical Society Library and the Chicago Historical Society. The brief Autobiography of Stephen A. Douglas (1913) and a volume of his letters, The Letters of Stephen A. Douglas, edited by Robert W. Johannsen (1961), are good source materials. The earliest good biography is Allen Johnson, Stephen A. Douglas: A Study in American Politics (1908). George Fort Milton in The Eve of Conflict: Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless War (1934) proves to be the most sympathetic of all the biographers and contends that, had Douglas been elected president in 1860, he would have prevented the Civil War. The same thesis in echoed in Gerald M. Capers, Stephen A. Douglas: Defender of the Union, edited by Oscar Handlin (1959). Historians are more critical of Douglas than these laudatory biographers. □

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Stephen Arnold Douglas, 1813–61, American statesman, b. Brandon, Vt.

Senatorial Career

He was admitted to the bar at Jacksonville, Ill., in 1834. After holding various state and local offices he became a U.S. Representative in 1843, and from 1847 until his death was a U.S. Senator. In the Senate, Douglas was made chairman of the Committee on Territories, an all-important post in the next decade because of the growing battle over the issue of slavery in the territories. For the Compromise of 1850, Douglas drafted the bills instituting territorial government in New Mexico and Utah, whose citizens were left free to act for themselves on all subjects of legislation (including slavery) not inconsistent with the Constitution. This was the essence of Douglas's doctrine of popular sovereignty (a phrase he coined later, in 1854), or Squatter Sovereignty, as its opponents contemptuously called it.

In the early 1850s, when expanding settlement and the great desire for a transcontinental railroad to the Pacific focused attention on the Nebraska region, Douglas proposed a bill in which, as in New Mexico and Utah, all questions of slavery were left to the residents of the new territory. A conference of leaders changed the bill to provide for two territories rather than one, and in this form the Kansas-Nebraska Act became law in 1854. Douglas believed that popular sovereignty would unite the northern and southern wings of the Democratic party and at the same time settle the slavery issue peacefully. But he had not foreseen the bitter contest that would develop between proslavery and Free-State settlers in Kansas. In his report on the Kansas situation he blamed the organized interference of interests outside the territory for the failure of popular sovereignty.

When James Buchanan decided to support the proslavery Lecompton Constitution (see under Lecompton), on which only the proslavery forces in Kansas had voted, Douglas rebelled and in one of his major speeches denounced both the Lecompton Constitution and Buchanan, whom he had formerly supported. It was a courageous and spectacular stand, but his enemies held, unfairly, that Douglas was motivated by political expediency, for he was coming up for reelection in 1858.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

In the 1858 Illinois campaign the "Little Giant," as his admirers called him, was pitted against Abraham Lincoln. The contest was made memorable by the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which first gained Lincoln a national reputation. Of the seven debates, the second, held at Freeport on Aug. 27, 1858, had the most important consequences. There Lincoln shrewdly put to Douglas a question exposing the inconsistency between Douglas's doctrine of popular sovereignty and the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Dred Scott Case— "Can the people of a United States Territory, in any lawful way … exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a State constitution?" Had Douglas answered no, in line with the Dred Scott decision, he would have offended many of his constituents and doubtless lost his seat in the Senate. As it was, he replied that people of a territory could exclude slavery, since that institution could not exist for a day without local police regulations and these could be legislated only with their approval.

The Republicans won a popular majority in the ensuing election, but the Democrats controlled the legislature, and Douglas was returned to the Senate. However, his Freeport doctrine, as his answer to Lincoln's question was styled, had made him anathema to Southern Democrats. Since they controlled the Senate, he was relieved of the chairmanship of the Committee on Territories.

Presidential Campaign and After

The Democratic national convention at Charleston, S.C., in 1860 adopted Douglas's recommendations in a platform advocating nonintervention with slavery in the territories; the demands of William L. Yancey that the federal government protect the institution were thus rejected, and Yancey and other Southern delegates withdrew. Although Douglas led on all 57 ballots taken there for the presidential nomination he was unable to muster the necessary two-thirds of the vote, and the convention adjourned. Reconvening at Baltimore, the Democrats finally chose him only after more Southern delegates withdrew to nominate their own candidate, John C. Breckinridge. Douglas won only 12 electoral votes, although he stood second to the victorious Lincoln in the popular count.

In the following months Douglas worked hard to effect a compromise between the sections; when that failed and the Civil War broke out, he vigorously supported Lincoln. One of the greatest orators of his day, he made a speaking tour to rally the people of the Northwest in the crisis, but after an eloquent speech at Springfield, he was stricken with typhoid fever and died. Douglas's reputation suffered with the growth of the Lincoln legend. In recent years, however, historians have asserted that he was one of the few men of pre–Civil War era with a truly national vision, and this was both the basis for his honorable attempts to reconcile differences and for his ultimate political failure, because the age was essentially one of bitter sectional controversy.


See his letters, ed. by R. W. Johannsen (1961); biographies by A. Johnson (1908, repr. 1970), G. M. Capers (1959), R. W. Johannsen (1973), and M. H. Quitt (2012); G. F. Milton, The Eve of Conflict: Stephen A. Douglas and the Civil War (1934, repr. 1963); D. Wells, Stephen Douglas: The Last Years (1970); A. C. Guelzo, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America (2008); F. M. Bordewich, America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union (2012); J. Burt, Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict (2012).

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Stephen Arnold Douglas achieved prominence as a U.S. senator and as the originator of the policy known as Popular Sovereignty. He was born on April 23, 1813, in Brandon, Vermont. He pursued legal studies and was admitted to the Illinois bar in 1834.

In 1843 Douglas entered the legislative branch of the federal government as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Four years later, he was elected to the U.S. Senate and served until 1861.

During his lengthy tenure as senator from Illinois, Douglas became an outspoken leader in the slavery controversy, and his many debates and innovative policies earned him the name "Little Giant." He was presiding officer of the Committee on Territories, a forum for the discussion of whether slavery should be allowed in the new territories.

"There can be but two great political parties in this country."
—Stephen A. Douglas

Douglas was instrumental in the formulation of the bills which constituted that section of the compromise of 1850 that allowed the residents of Utah and New Mexico to decide whether or not their states would institute slavery. This freedom of choice became known as the policy of Popular Sovereignty. Four years later, Douglas again attempted to apply this policy to the slavery issue involved in the admission

of Kansas and Nebraska to the Union. The plan was not successful, however, for the proslavery and antislavery forces in Kansas clashed in a violent action. Two separate governments were established, the Lecompton, or proslavery, faction and the abolitionist faction. Douglas vehemently opposed the Lecompton Constitution, and criticized President James Buchanan's support of such a measure. After much violence and debate, Kansas was admitted as a free state.

abraham lincoln and Douglas were opponents in the Illinois senatorial election of 1858, and they met seven times throughout their campaign to debate the issues. These arguments were the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, and several of Douglas's responses won him disfavor with southern Democrats. Although he won the senatorial election, this faction was responsible for Douglas's removal from the Committee on Territories.

In 1860 Douglas fared better with the Democrats, and his Popular Sovereignty policy was incorporated into the national program. He was chosen as the Democratic candidate for the presidential election. The southern Democrats still refused to accept him and supported their own candidate, John C. Breckinridge. Both Douglas and Breckenridge lost the election to the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Douglas staunchly supported the newly elected Lincoln. Adept at public speaking, Douglas's last contribution to government was a tour of the Northwest to encourage support of the Union, during which he contracted a fatal case of typhoid fever. Douglas died June 3, 1861, in Chicago, Illinois.


Kansas-Nebraska Act.

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Douglas, Stephen Arnold (1813–61) US statesman. Douglas served in the House of Representatives (1843–47), before becoming Senator for Illinois (1847–61). He tried to unite the Democratic Party on the issue of slavery, and was instrumental in the Compromise of 1850. He sponsored the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), that promoted popular sovereignity. In the Lincoln-Douglas debates (1858), Douglas defeated the challenge of Abraham Lincoln. In 1860 he gained the Democratic presidential nomination, but lost the election to Lincoln. He supported Lincoln at the start of the American Civil War.