Stephen Arnold Douglas (April 23, 1813 – June 3, 1861)

Updated: July 24, 2015

Two-term United States Congressman and three-term United States Senator from Illinois Stephen A. Douglas was a prominent antebellum politician who championed popular sovereignty and was influential in the enactment of the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.

Stephen Arnold Douglas was born in Brandon, Vermont, on April 23, 1813. He was the only son and second-born of two children of Stephen Arnold Douglass and Sarah Fisk Douglass. Stephen dropped the last "s" in the family name later in life.

Douglas's father was a successful physician who died unexpectedly of a heart attack on July 1, 1813, just nine weeks after his son's birth. Lacking an independent income, Douglas's widowed mother moved her two children to live with her brother on his nearby farm. There, Douglas spent his youth, when not working the fields with his uncle, attending local schools.

At about the age of fourteen or fifteen years, Douglas abandoned farm life and apprenticed himself to a cabinetmaker in Brandon and, later, to another craftsperson in nearby Middlebury. After two years learning his craft, Douglas had saved enough money to enroll at Brandon Academy for one year. Meanwhile, his mother re-married in 1830 and moved to her new husband's residence near Canandaigua, New York. Douglas joined her there in December 1830 and soon enrolled at Canandaigua Academy, where he studied for about two years. During that time, Douglas developed an interest in law, prompting him to leave the academy in January 1833, to study with local attorneys. Although an able learner, in six months, Douglas determined that he was unwilling or financially unable to continue his studies for the length of time needed to meet New York's stringent requirements to be admitted to the bar. Consequently, he pulled up roots and left home on June 24, 1833 in search of better opportunities in the West.

By way of Cleveland, Ohio, Cincinnati, Ohio, Louisville, Kentucky, and St. Louis, Missouri, Douglas eventually made his way to Jacksonville, in central Illinois, by November 1833. Short on funds and with no immediate prospects of employment with a legal firm, Douglas founded a subscription school in nearby Winchester, where he taught for one term. While not in the classroom, Douglas continued his legal studies, and in March 1834, Illinois Supreme Court Justice Samuel D. Lockwood certified his admittance to the bar. Unable to secure a position with an established law firm when he returned to Jacksonville, the ambitious young attorney hung out his shingle and founded his own law firm.

Although a lawyer by trade, Douglas's ambitions soon gravitated toward his real interest--politics. A gifted speaker and debater, Douglas quickly gained recognition as a defender of President Jackson and frontier democracy. He soon assumed a leadership role in recruiting members and organizing the local Democratic Party. Douglas began a long and notable career as a public official in 1834, when his Democratic cohorts in the state General Assembly elected him as state's attorney of the First Judicial District. It is noteworthy that at the time, Douglas was only twenty-one years of age and that he had resided in Illinois for less than one year.

In 1836, voters elected Douglas to the Illinois General Assembly. One year later, Douglas's support of President Martin Van Buren landed him an appointment as registrar of the federal land office in the new state capital at Springfield, Illinois. In 1840, Douglas received an appointment as secretary of state of Illinois. Although not a member of the General Assembly, Douglas worked tirelessly in 1841 for the enactment of a bill sponsored by Democrats to reform the state's judicial system. When the legislation was approved, his party members rewarded him with an appointment as an associate justice on the expanded Illinois Supreme Court.

Douglas performed his judicial duties for two years, until 1842, when voters of Illinois's 5th Congressional District elected him to the United States House of Representatives. Reelected in 1844, Douglas sat in the 28th and 29th Congresses from March 4, 1843 to March 3, 1847. During his terms in the House, Douglas was a vocal proponent of America's "manifest destiny" to expand its borders. Consequently, he was a staunch supporter the annexation of Texas and of the Mexican-American War.

In 1847, the Illinois legislature selected Douglas to represent the state in the United States Senate. He assumed his seat in the upper chamber of the 30th Congress on March 4, 1847.

One month later, on April 7, 1847, Douglas married Martha Denny, the daughter Robert Martin, an influential North Carolina planter and slaveholder. The couple took up residence in Chicago, where Douglas increased his expanding wealth by engaging in land speculation in the rapidly growing city. Shortly after the marriage, Robert Martin died and left his daughter in possession of a 2,500-acre cotton plantation and one hundred slaves in Mississippi. Martin's will named Douglas as property manager of the estate, but Douglas quickly disassociated himself from the plantation by hiring a manager.

Following Martha's untimely death in 1853, ownership of the estate passed to the couple's two young children. Although Douglas had no voice in the matter, his children's ownership of slaves served as fodder for his political opponents in years to come.

It was in his role as a United States Senator that Douglas gained his greatest notoriety. Soon after taking his seat in the Senate, Democrats selected Douglas as chairman of the Committee on Territories. Douglas's appointment came when the disposition of new territories acquired during the Mexican-American War was resurrecting bygone discord over the extension of slavery into the territories. As the rhetoric between extremists on each side of the slavery issue became more impassioned, Douglas became the moderates' new standard-bearer. His shrewd political maneuvering paved the way for the enactment of several momentous pieces of legislation, collectively known as the Compromise of 1850. A key provision of the compromise authorized the territorial legislatures of New Mexico and Utah to determine the status of slavery within their borders. That concept, generally known as popular sovereignty, was promoted by Douglas and Michigan Senator Lewis Cass as a Democratic answer to the sectional dissent regarding the extension of slavery that was afflicting the United States at that time.

Moderates across the country celebrated the Compromise of 1850, believing that the Union had been saved. President Millard Fillmore proclaimed a "final settlement" to the sectional differences that plagued the nation. Extremists on both sides of the debate were not so easily convinced. Free-Soil Senator Salmon P. Chase of Ohio could have been speaking for both sides when he guardedly observed, "the question of slavery in the territories has been avoided. It has not been settled." Chase would prove to be correct.

Douglas's role in helping to broker the Compromise of 1850 enhanced his national reputation and boosted his influence in the Democratic Party. By 1852, he was one of the party's leading presidential candidates. During the convention in Maryland, Douglas was the leading vote getter on the thirtieth and thirty-first ballots, before finally losing to dark-horse candidate Franklin Pierce on the forty-ninth poll.

In January 1853, the Illinois legislature elected Douglas to a second term in the Senate. On the 19th of that month, his wife, Martha, died, leaving Douglas as the single father of two small sons. In May, the grieving widower departed for a five-month tour of Europe.

When Douglas returned to America in October, western pioneers and entrepreneurs were clamoring to occupy the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase. "Kansas Fever" was rampant. Before the area could be settled, however, it needed to be organized as a territory, so that the government could displace the native population, survey the area, and implement regulations for land ownership. As chairman of the Committee on Territories, Douglas was only too eager to shepherd the nation's manifest destiny.

Congress considered petitions to establish a territory west of the Missouri River as early as 1851, but it took no action on the proposals. Fearful of the admission of more free states to the Union, Southerners in the Senate refused to support the measures if slavery was banned from the territory as required by the Missouri Compromise. Several years of Congressional wrangling failed to produce an agreement. On January 23, 1854, Douglas's Committee on Territories sent a bill to the full Senate calling for the organization of two territories separated at the 40th parallel: Nebraska to the north and Kansas to the south. The measure also stipulated that the section of the Missouri Compromise prohibiting slavery in the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase was "inoperative and void" because it had been "superseded" by the popular sovereignty provisions of the Compromise of 1850. Douglas conveniently, albeit erroneously, maintained that the Compromise of 1850 also applied to the Louisiana Purchase.

The Senate hotly debated the bill for nearly six weeks. William Seward of New York and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, two unabashed abolitionists, led the opposition. Beyond their moral objections to extending slavery into the new territories, Seward and Sumner argued that Douglas and his followers had no authority to renege on the Missouri Compromise. The abolition of slavery above the southern border of Missouri, they argued, was the condition to which the South agreed in return for admitting Missouri as a slave state.

Despite the harsh denunciations of Northerners, on March 4, 1854, the Senate voted to accept the bill, which would become known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act, by a vote of thirty-seven to fourteen. After two weeks of angry debate, the House approved the measure on May 22, by a vote of 113 to one hundred. Officially titled "An Act to Organize the Territories of Nebraska and Kansas," President Franklin Pierce signed the bill into law on May 30, 1854. Alluding to Douglas's grand presidential ambitions and his small physical stature, Representative William Cullom, a Tennessee Whig, sarcastically suggested that the legislation should have been titled “A bill to make great men out of small ones and to sacrifice the public peace and prosperity upon the altar of political ambition.”

Whatever his aspirations or motivations, Douglas believed that the implementation of popular sovereignty would bring the sectional dispute over the extension of slavery in the territories to a halt. Instead, the Kansas-Nebraska Act kindled the opposite reaction. Political bickering turned into bloodshed in Kansas as ruffians on both sides of the issue hastened to the new territory in an attempt to influence the vote over slavery.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act also accelerated a complete realignment of the political landscape in the United States. The Democratic Party lost much of its support among Northerners and evolved to become the face of pro-slavery forces in the South. The Whig Party ceased to exist in the South and began crumbling in the North, to the extent that an amalgam of disaffected Democrats, abolitionists, and Free-Soilers coalesced as the new Republican Party. The two-party system that emerged from the turmoil caused by the Kansas-Nebraska Act was one that was divided almost exclusively along sectional lines. Only seven of forty-four Northern Democrat representatives who voted for the Kansas Nebraska Act were reelected when their Congressional terms expired. Douglas became the target of harsh criticism, even in Illinois.

In addition to promoting the Kansas-Nebraska Act during his second term in the Senate, Douglas also championed the construction of a transcontinental railroad following a northern route that included Chicago. As a successful land speculator and large property owner in the Chicago area, Douglas stood to benefit financially if the proposed railway was constructed. That possibility led some critics to suspect that Douglas's support for the project was not altogether altruistic.

The 1856, Douglas once again finished second-best in his attempt to secure the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. After fourteen ballots, neither incumbent President Franklin Pierce, nor front-runner James Buchanan, could garner enough votes to secure the nomination. On the fifteenth ballot, nearly all of the Southern states shifted their support from Pierce to Douglas. The support of the solid South for the Illinois senator proved to be too little too late. Douglas inched closer to the nomination on the sixteenth ballot, but when it became apparent that Buchanan's lead was insurmountable, he received the party's unanimous approval after the seventeenth vote. A disappointed Douglas returned to the Senate, where he continued to lobby for popular sovereignty as the answer to the national dispute over the extension of slavery.

While Congress struggled to find a political solution to the issue of slavery that was dividing the nation, some people began looking to the judicial system for deliverance. Unbeknownst to the political leaders of the time, events involving a common slave named Dred Scott had begun to transpire three decades earlier that eventually compelled the United States Supreme Court to weigh in on the matter.

On March 6, 1857, in the case of Dred Scott v. Sanford, Chief Justice Roger Taney issued his ruling, which a majority of the justices endorsed. Taney ruled that Dred Scott, a slave who was suing for his freedom, was not entitled to bring suit in federal court because neither he nor anyone else of African descent, whether slaves or freedmen, were citizens of the United States. Not stopping there, Taney went on to outrage abolitionists and others opposed to the extension of slavery by declaring that Congressional attempts to regulate slavery in U.S. territories were unconstitutional. Taney reasoned that Congress could not deprive Caucasian inhabitants of the territories of their Fifth Amendment rights to life, liberty, or property (including their slaves) without due process of law, any more than it could deny citizens of their First Amendment right to free speech. Although Taney specifically targeted the Missouri Compromise of 1820, his ruling also had the effect of nullifying the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

The court's ruling had major repercussions on the sectional dispute over slavery that was dividing the nation. While Southerners applauded the decision, Northerners denounced Taney and the court. The pro-slavery decision galvanized anti-slavery sentiment in the North and strengthened the emerging Republican Party. Northerners who previously viewed slavery as a peculiar institution of the South were aroused by speculation that, if slaveowners could not be denied of their Fifth Amendment rights in the territories, then what was to stop them from bringing their human "property" to the North. Far from resolving the sectional differences dividing the North and South, the Dred Scott decision widened the schism even more. It also spelled bad news for Douglas's political ambitions.

As a result of the fallout over the Dred Scott decision, leaders of the burgeoning Republican Party in Illinois hoped to gain control of the Illinois legislature in the fall election of 1858. They then planned to replace Douglas with Abraham Lincoln when Douglas's term in the U.S. Senate expired in 1859. During the summer of 1858, Lincoln and Douglas assumed the role of the leading spokespersons for their respective parties in Illinois. As the election neared, the two agreed to engage in public debates in seven of the state's nine congressional districts. Not surprisingly, the overriding theme during the seven encounters was slavery.

The second, and most historically consequential of the seven encounters, took place at Freeport on August 27, before an estimated fifteen thousand onlookers. There, Lincoln asked Douglas, "Can the people of the United States Territory, in any lawful way, against the wish of any citizen of the United States, exclude slavery from its limits prior to the formation of a State Constitution?" Lincoln's question put Douglas in a difficult position. An affirmative response, based on Douglas's long-held support of popular sovereignty, would fly in the face of the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision. In addition, it would cost Douglas the support of Southern Democrats, upon whom his quest for the U.S. presidency in 1860 depended. A negative answer might alienate enough Illinois voters to enable Republicans to gain control of the state legislature in the November election, thereby costing Douglas his Senate seat.

Realizing that he had to tread lightly, Douglas constructed a response targeted at catering to both groups. He attempted to satisfy Southerners by conceding that the Dred Scott decision did preclude territorial residents from prohibiting slavery in the territories. Nonetheless, he then went on to opine, the Supreme Court decision was inconsequential in a practical sense because territorial residents could simply discourage the spread of slavery by enacting restrictive or unsupportive local legislation. In Douglas's words, "It matters not what way the Supreme Court may hereafter decide as to the abstract question whether slavery may or may not go into a Territory under the Constitution, the people have the lawful means to introduce it or exclude it as they please, for the reason that slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere, unless it is supported by local police regulations." Douglas's response, which became known as the Freeport Doctrine, assuaged Illinois voters, but it antagonized Southerners, and it created a sectional crack in the Democratic Party, which proved to be monumental two years later.

On November 2, 1858, Illinois voters spoke. The Republican candidates received more popular votes statewide, but the Democrats won more districts and remained in control of the state legislature. Not surprisingly, on January 5, 1859, the Illinois General Assembly elected Douglas to his third term in the U.S. Senate. Soon after the 36th Congress assembled on March 4, 1859, the Senate leadership, which was controlled by Southern Democrats, stripped Douglas of his chairmanship of the Committee on Territories.

By 1860, the Democratic Party was in complete disarray. In April, when Democrats attending the party's presidential nominating convention met in Charleston, South Carolina, Douglas appeared to be the front runner. Soon after the convention began, however, the delegates split along sectional lines regarding the party's position on the Dred Scott decision and the extension of slavery. When the Northerners predominated, fifty Southern delegates walked out in protest. The remaining delegates then tried fifty-seven times to nominate a candidate for president. Douglas led every vote, but he failed to obtain the required two-thirds majority to receive the nomination on any of the ballots. Finally, on May 3, the frustrated delegates voted to adjourn the convention without nominating a candidate.

On June 18, 1860, the Democrats reconvened in Baltimore, Maryland. Controversy quickly arose over the credentials of Southern delegates, resulting in another walk-out. The remaining delegates selected Douglas as their presidential candidate on the second ballot. Meanwhile, the delegates who had left held their own convention and nominated Kentucky Senator John C. Breckinridge as their candidate for president. The split ended any hope Douglas had of winning the presidency in 1860. When the results from the November election were tabulated, Douglas finished second to Republican Abraham Lincoln in popular votes (1,865,908 to 1,380,202). In the Electoral College balloting, Douglas finished a distant fourth with twelve electoral votes, compared to 180 for Lincoln, seventy-two for Breckinridge, and thirty-nine for Constitutional Union Party candidate John Bell.

Douglas accepted defeat gracefully and sat on the presidential platform as Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861. Although not in complete agreement with Lincoln's early political policies, Douglas firmly supported the Union when the Civil War erupted. After Lincoln's initial call for volunteers to put down the Southern insurrection, he met Douglas in the White House and recruited him to make a trip to through the Midwest to rally support for the war.

Following stops in Virginia, Ohio, and Illinois, Douglas fell ill toward the end of his trip. During his last public speech on May 1, 1861, in Chicago, Douglas proclaimed, "The conspiracy is now known; armies have been raised, war is levied to accomplish it. There are only two sides to the question. Every man must be for the United States or against it. There can be no neutrals in this war; only patriots or traitors." Suffering from typhoid fever, pneumonia, or possibly cirrhosis of the liver, Douglas's condition worsened throughout the month of May. After lingering near death for several weeks, he died at Chicago's Tremont House at 9:10 P.M. on Monday, June 3, 1861, at the age of forty-eight years.

Douglas left behind two sons from his first marriage, as well as his second wife, Adele Cutts Douglas, whom he married on November 20, 1856. His remains were buried on a tract of land Douglas owned near the shores of Lake Michigan about four and one-half miles from Chicago's city hall. A towering monument sitting over Douglas's tomb was dedicated in his honor in 1881.

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