Douglas, Stephen A. (1813–1861)

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DOUGLAS, STEPHEN A. (1813–1861)

An Illinois lawyer and judge, Stephen Arnold Douglas served in the house of representatives (1843–1847) and the senate (1847–1861), where he chaired the powerful committee on the territories from 1847 until 1859. Throughout his career Douglas was a strong Democratic partisan who advocated western expansion, railroad development, and compromise on slavery. A major political figure throughout the 1850s, Douglas closed his career with his losing presidential campaign in 1860. When the civil war began Douglas rallied to the cause of the Union despite his hostility toward Lincoln and his familial and residual political ties to the South.

Throughout his career Douglas attempted to finesse the issue of slavery in the territories while supporting territorial acquisition and western settlement. Douglas hoped such a policy would lead to a presidential nomination from a united Democratic party. Practical politics dovetailed with Douglas's personal beliefs that blacks were inferior to whites, that slavery was a legitimate institution deserving of constitutional and political protection, and that abolitionists were troublemakers or worse.

The key to Douglas's program was popular sovereignty, which would allow settlers to decide the slavery issue for themselves, and thus not require Congress, and the national Democratic party, to take a position on slavery in any particular territory. Ultimately, Douglas's position proved costly. Proslavery Democrats eventually demanded federal protection for slavery in the territories and opposed any Democrat who would not support them. On the other hand, Northerners, in Illinois and elsewhere, came to oppose the spread of slavery into the western territories. By 1858 Douglas discovered he could not satisfy the voters at home and remain a viable presidential candidate in the South.

As early as 1844–1845 Douglas had advocated that settlers in the West be allowed to decide for themselves the status of slavery. In Congress he urged the organization of the Oregon Territory without slavery because settlers there did not want slavery. In the House and Senate Douglas enthusiastically supported all American claims in Oregon and the Mexican War, and he opposed the wilmot proviso. As chairman of the Committee on the Territories, Douglas secured the organization of the Oregon and Minnesota territories without slavery. In August 1850, Douglas resurrected the compromise measures of henry clay's "Omnibus Bill" and adroitly guided them through the Senate, one bill at a time, as the compromise of 1850. The Compromise included the infamous Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, the admission of California without slavery, and organization of the rest of the Mexican Cession with slavery. The compromise satisfied few, but it halted a secession movement then building in the South and probably delayed the Civil War by ten years.

In 1854 Douglas supported the kansas-nebraska act in the expectation that it would stimulate western expansion and set the stage for a transcontinental railroad, which he hoped would begin in Chicago. The act repealed the missouri compromise, refused "to legislate slavery into any Territory of State, nor to exclude it therefrom," and left the settlers "perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way." Northern resentment of this sellout to slavery resulted in Democratic electoral defeats and formation of the Republican party, while popular sovereignty in the territories quickly degenerated into "bleeding Kansas." Douglas lost political support throughout the North, but he explained to hostile constituents that popular sovereignty would lead to a free Kansas. In 1858, however, Kansas petitioned for statehood under the proslavery lecompton constitution. Douglas opposed the Lecompton Constitution because it was ratified by fraud, did not represent the majority in Kansas, and thus was not a fair expression of popular sovereignty. For this opposition Douglas was virtually read out of his party. Later that year, in debate with abraham lincoln during the Senate race, Douglas defended the Supreme Court's decision in dred scott v. sandford (1857) and the Kansas-Nebraska Act by asserting in the freeport doctrine that territorial governments could prevent slavery by denying it police protection or supportive legislation. Despite opposition from the Buchanan wing of his own party, as well as Lincoln, Douglas was reelected to the Senate. In 1859 his party, dominated by Southerners, stripped him of his Territorial Committee chairmanship because of his apostasy on the Lecompton Constitution and his Freeport Doctrine. Openly a presidential candidate since 1852, Douglas led a divided party in 1860. He ran second in popular votes and a distant fourth in electoral votes. Douglas opposed secession and before his death in 1861 urged Lincoln to call out enough troops to defend the Union.

Paul Finkelman


Jaffa, Harry V. 1959 Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday.

Johannsen, Robert W. 1973 Stephen A. Douglas. New York: Oxford University Press.

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Douglas, Stephen A. (1813–1861)

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