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Template:Infobox Senator Stephen Arnold Douglas (April 23, 1813 – June 3, 1861) was an American politician from the western state of Illinois, and was the Northern Democratic Party nominee for President in 1860. He lost to the Republican Party's candidate, Abraham Lincoln, whom he had defeated two years earlier in a Senate contest following a famed series of debates. He was nicknamed the "Little Giant" because he was short of stature but was considered by many a "giant" in politics. Douglas was well-known as a resourceful party leader, and an adroit, ready, skillful tactician in debate and passage of legislation.

As chairman of the Committee on Territories, Douglas dominated the Senate in the 1850s. He was largely responsible for the Compromise of 1850 that apparently settled slavery issues. However, in 1854 he reopened the slavery question by the highly controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act that allowed the people of the new territories to decide for themselves whether or not to have slavery (which had been prohibited by earlier compromises). The protest movement against this became the Republican Party.

Douglas supported the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision of 1857, and denied that it was part of a Southern plot to introduce slavery in the Northern states; but also argued it could not be effective when the people of a territory declined to pass laws supporting it.[1] When President James Buchanan and his Southern allies attempted to pass a Federal slave code, to support slavery even against the wishes of the people of Kansas, he battled and defeated this movement as undemocratic. This caused the split in the Democratic Party in 1860, as Douglas won the nomination but a breakaway southern faction nominated their own candidate, Vice President John C. Breckinridge. Douglas deeply believed in democracy, arguing the will of the people should always be decisive.[2] When civil war came in April 1861, he rallied his supporters to the Union with all his energies, but he died a few weeks later.

Earlier career[]

Born Stephen Arnold Douglass in Brandon, Vermont[3] to Stephen Arnold Douglass and Sarah Fisk, Douglas dropped the second "s" from his name some years later.[4] He came to Illinois in 1833, was an itinerant teacher, studied law, and settled in Jacksonville. By the end of the year, he told his Vermont relatives, "I have become a Western man, have imbibed Western feelings principles and interests and have selected Illinois as the favorite place of my adoption." He served as Morgan County State's Attorney from 1834-36. Within a decade, he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives, and was appointed registrar of the Springfield Land Office, Illinois Secretary of State, and an associate justice of the Illinois Supreme Court in 1841, at age 27.[5] A leader of the majority Democratic Party, he was elected twice to Congress (1842 and 1844), where he championed expansion and supported the Mexican War. Elected by the legislature to the U.S. Senate in 1846, he was reelected in 1852 and 1858. He was challenged for his Senate position in 1858 by Abraham Lincoln, who had served with Douglas in the legislature, in a series of nationally famous debates which significantly boosted Lincoln's reputation despite his loss to Douglas.

Douglas chiefly designed the Compromise of 1850, however Henry Clay's support was needed and therefore receives much of the credit. The omnibus bill containing it did not pass Congress. Each point separately had majority support, but Northerners and Southerners combined to vote the bill down for their own reasons. Douglas passed the Compromise by dividing it into separate bills, and arranged a different majority for each.[6] He moved to Chicago, gaining wealth by marriage to a Mississippi woman who inherited a slave plantation. An avid promoter of westward expansion, and devised the land grant system that enabled the funding of the Illinois Central railroad.

Douglas always had a deep and abiding faith in democracy. "Let the people rule!" was his cry, and he insisted that the people locally could and should make the decisions about slavery, rather than the national government. He was passed over for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1852 and 1856.[7]

A deeply religious man, but one also dedicated to the enterprise of higher education, Stephen Douglas founded a Baptist Seminary in Chicago, which was called the University of Chicago in 1857. However, the University was largely destroyed by fire in 1886, leading to its closing. The Old University of Chicago was replaced in 1890 by a newly chartered university, funded largely by the Rockefeller family. The current University of Chicago later added the alumni from the previous incarnation to its graduation rolls, thereby linking the two institutions. Currently, the old Stephen Douglas founded seminary's sole remnant is a brick which is located between Weiboldt Hall and the Classics Building on the Hyde Park campus of the University.

Personal Life and Family[]

File:Adele Cutts - Brady-Handy.jpg

Adele Cutts

In person Douglas was conspicuously short (at 5 foot 4 inches and 90 pounds), but his large head and massive chest and shoulders gave him the popular sobriquet "The Little Giant". Though his voice was strong and carried far, he had little grace of delivery, and his gestures were often violent.

Douglas moved to a farm near Clifton Springs, New York and studied at Canandaigua Academy in 1832-33 (where he was honored posthumously in 1996 as a "Graduate of Distinction".) He then moved to Illinois as an itinerant teacher and soon rose in Democratic Party politics. Douglas briefly courted Mary Todd (who married Abraham Lincoln instead). Douglas became a member of the Masonic fraternity in Springfield Lodge No. 4 in Springfield, Illinois in 1839. He was a member of several Masonic organizations in Springfield. In March 1847 he married Martha Martin, the daughter of wealthy Colonel Robert Martin of North Carolina. She brought to Douglas the new responsibility of a large cotton plantation in Lawrence County, Mississippi worked by slaves. To Douglas, an Illinois senator with presidential aspirations, the management of a Southern plantation with slave labor presented a difficult situation. However, Douglas sought to escape slaveholding charges by employing a manager for his Mississippi holdings, while using the economic benefits derived from the property to advance his political career. His sole lengthy visit to Mississippi came in 1848, with only brief emergency trips thereafter.[8] The newlyweds moved their Illinois home to fast-growing Chicago in the summer of 1847. Martha Douglas died on January 19, 1853, leaving the Senator with two small sons (one of whom was Robert M. Douglas). On November 20, 1856, he married 20 year-old Adele Cutts, the daughter of James Madison Cutts and a great-niece of former U.S. First Lady Dolley Madison.[9]

Kansas-Nebraska Act, 1854[]

File:Forcing Slavery Freesoilers Throats.jpg

Forcing Slavery Down the Throat of a Freesoiler An 1856 cartoon depicts a giant free soiler being held down by James Buchanan and Lewis Cass standing on the Democratic platform marked "Kansas", "Cuba" and "Central America". Franklin Pierce also holds down the giant's beard as Douglas shoves a black man down his throat.

Douglas set off a tremendous political upheaval by proposing the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. New laws were needed to allow for the settlement of the Nebraska territory. Illinois was Douglas's home state, so naturally he had invested in Chicago land, which would be made more valuable by railroads from Chicago that would serve the region, as it had been by the Illinois Central. The Missouri Compromise had guaranteed slavery would not exist there (because it was north of the 36°30' compromise line), and the Compromise of 1850 had reaffirmed this.

Leading Southern senators had met with Douglas, and had insisted on popular sovereignty as a condition for their support of the bill. Douglas's first bill had only enacted it to a limited extent, by providing that Nebraska and Kansas could enter the Union free or slave as the residents might decide; but the Southerners insisted, and Douglas discovered a "clerical error", and revised the bill.[10]

Douglas argued that the people of the territory should decide the slavery question by themselves, and that soil and climate made the territory unsuitable for plantations; which last reassured his northern supporters it would remain free. Douglas defended his doctrine of popular sovereignty[11] as a means of promoting democracy and removing the slavery issue from national politics, lest it threaten to rip the nation apart, but it had exactly the opposite effect.

Douglas and Abraham Lincoln aired their disagreement on this topic in Peoria, Illinois, on October 16, 1854.[3] Although Mr. Lincoln's three hour "Peoria Speech"[4], presented thorough moral, legal and economic arguments against slavery,[5] it did not stop the Act from passing.

The act was passed by Southern votes, Democratic and Whig alike, and Douglas had little to do with the final text. This was the first appearance of the Solid South, and the opponents of the Act saw it as the triumph of the hated Slave Power and formed the Republican Party to stop it.[12]

Presidential Aspirant[]

In 1852, and again in 1856, Douglas was a candidate for the Presidential nomination in the national Democratic convention, and though on both occasions he was unsuccessful, he received strong support. When the Know Nothing movement grew strong he crusaded against it, but hoped it would split the opposition. In 1858 he won significant support in many former Know-Nothing strongholds.[13] In 1857, he broke with President James Buchanan and the "administration" Democrats, and lost much of his support in the Southern United States, but partially restored himself to favor in the North – especially in Illinois – by his vigorous opposition to the method of voting on the Lecompton constitution, which he saw as fraudulent, and (in 1858) to the admission of Kansas into the Union under this constitution.[14]


Stephen A. Douglas

In 1858, the United States Supreme Court – after the vote of Kansas against the Lecompton constitution – had decided that Kansas was a "slave" territory, thus quashing Douglas' theory of "popular sovereignty", he engaged in Illinois in a close and very exciting contest for the Senate seat with Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate, whom he met in a series of seven famous debates which became known as the Lincoln-Douglas debates. In the second of the debates, Douglas was led to declare that any territory, by "unfriendly legislation", could exclude slavery, no matter what the action of the Supreme Court. Having already lost the support of a large element of his party in the South, his association with this famous Freeport Doctrine made it anathema to many southerners, including Jefferson Davis, who would have otherwise supported it.

File:Freeport Il Debate Square4.JPG

Statue of Douglas at the site of the 1858 debate in Freeport, Illinois.

Before and during the debates, Douglas repeatedly invoked racist rhetoric, claiming Lincoln was for black equality and saying at Galesburg that the authors of the Declaration of Independence did not intend to include blacks. "This Government was made by our fathers on the white basis . . . made by white men for the benefit of white men and their posterity forever," he said.[15] Lincoln pointedly denied Douglas' assertion that the Declaration of Independence did not include minorities.[16]

Much of the debate was about the redefinition of republicanism. Lincoln advocated equality of opportunity, arguing that individuals and society advanced together. Douglas, on the other hand, embraced a democratic doctrine that emphasized equality of all citizens (only whites were citizens), in which individual merit and social mobility was not a main goal.[17] Douglas won the senatorship by a vote in the legislature of 54 to 46, but the debates helped boost Lincoln into the presidency.

Douglas waged a furious battle with President Buchanan for control of the Democratic party. Although Douglas was not reappointed chairman of the Senate committee on territories, he bested Buchanan throughout the North and headed into 1860 as the front runner for president.[18]

File:Spanking Douglas.jpg

Political cartoon from 1860 depicting Stephen A. Douglas receiving a spanking from Columbia as Uncle Sam looks on approvingly.

In the 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston, South Carolina, the failure to adopt a slave code to the territories in the platform brought about the withdrawal from the convention of delegations from Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida, Texas and Arkansas. The convention adjourned to Baltimore, Maryland, where the Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Maryland delegations left it, and where Douglas was nominated for the presidency by the Northern Democrats. He campaigned vigorously but hopelessly, boldly attacking disunion, and in the election of 1860, though he received a popular vote of 1,376,957 (2nd at 29%) he received an electoral vote of only 12 (4th and last at 4%) - Lincoln receiving 180. His support in the North came from the Irish Catholics and the poorer farmers; in the South the Irish Catholics were his main supporters.[19]

Douglas urged the South to acquiesce to Lincoln's election, and made efforts to arrange a compromise which would persuade the South to remain in the Union. As late as Christmas 1860, he wrote Alexander H. Stephens, offering to annex Mexico as a slave state as a sweetener; Mexico had abolished slavery in 1829.[20] At the outbreak of the Civil War, he denounced secession as criminal, and was one of the strongest advocates of maintaining the integrity of the Union at all hazards. At Lincoln's request, he undertook a mission to the Border States and to the Midwest to rouse the spirit of Unionism; he spoke in West Virginia, Ohio and Illinois.

File:Stephen Arnold Douglas tomb.jpg

Douglas's tomb

Historical Disputes[]

Position on Slavery[]

For a century and a half, historians have debated whether or not Douglas opposed slavery,[21] and whether or not he was a trimmer[clarification needed] and compromiser or a devotee of principles.[22]

Douglas married into a slaveholding family (as did Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant), but the issue is whether he supported slavery as a matter of public policy. In his "Freeport Doctrine" of 1858 he repeatedly insisted that he did not care whether slavery was voted up or down, but only that the people had the right to vote it up or down. He denounced as sacrilegious and undemocratic the petitions signed by thousands of clergymen in 1854 who said the Nebraska Act offended God's will.[23] He rejected the Republican notions that slavery was condemned by a "higher law" (Seward's position) or that the nation could not long survive half slave and half free (Lincoln's position). He disagreed with the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision that Congress had to protect slavery in the territories, regardless of what the people there thought. When Buchanan supported the Lecompton Constitution and thus adopted the pro-slavery position on Kansas, Douglas fought him relentlessly in a long battle that gave Douglas the 1860 Democratic nomination but ripped his party apart.

Historian Allan Nevins was harsh on Douglas, "When it [slavery] paid it was good," wrote Nevins, "and when it did not pay it was bad." Nevins consequently judged that Douglas did not "regard a slaveholding society as one whit inferior to a free society." All in all, Nevins rather brutally assessed what he called Douglas's "dim moral perceptions."[24] Graham Peck finds that several scholars have given brief opinions to the effect that Douglas was personally opposed to slavery, none of them with "extensive arguments to justify the conclusion". He cites some more recent scholarship as (equally briefly) finding Douglas "insensitive to the moral repugnance of slavery" or even "proslavery". He himself finds, however, that Douglas was the "ideological [and] practical head of the northern opposition to the antislavery movement" and questions whether Douglas "opposed black slavery for any reason, including economics". Harry Jaffa thought Douglas was tricking the South with popular sovereignty—telling Southerners it would protect slavery but believing the people would actually vote against it. Johannsen found Douglas "did not regard slavery as a moral question; at least, he never condemned the institution in moral terms either publicly or privately." However he "privately deplored slavery and was opposed to its expansion (and, indeed, in 1860 was widely regarded in both North and South as an antislavery candidate), he felt that its discussion as a moral question would place it on a dangerous level of abstraction." [25]

1861 Lincoln Inauguration[]

Starting with Josiah Gilbert Holland's 1866 Life of Abraham Lincoln, a number of sources recount an anecdote in which Douglas holds Lincoln's hat during Lincoln's first inaugural address. If true, this short story speaks volumes about both the power of the moment and the character of Stephen A. Douglas. After all, Douglas and Lincoln were well-known rivals for both the senate and, just a few months earlier, for the presidency. In fact, the bitterly contested election of 1860 which had culminated in seven states seceding from the union set the stage for the event. For decades, many scholars viewed the story with skepticism mainly due to its all-too-perfect romantic appeal. In 1959, writing for American Heritage Magazine, the same Allan Nevins who was so critical of Douglas's position on slavery, reported the discovery of two independent contemporary sources that corroborated the story.[26]

Death and legacy[]

Douglas died in Chicago from typhoid fever on June 3, 1861. He was buried on the shore of Lake Michigan. The site was afterwards bought by the state, and an imposing monument with a statue by Leonard Volk now stands over his grave. His birthplace in Brandon, Vermont has been turned into a Museum and Visitor Center.

Today, there are Douglas Counties in Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Washington and Wisconsin. There is Fort Douglas in Salt Lake City, and the city of Douglas, Georgia is also named for him, but it is not located in his namesake county; the city of Douglas is found in Coffee County. The county seat of Georgia's Douglas County is, fittingly, Douglasville.

In Wyoming, the County Seat of Converse County is named in honor of him. The town of Douglas is located in east/central Wyoming on the banks of the North Platte River.

See also[]

  • Old University of Chicago

Further reading[]

  • Capers, Gerald M. Stephen A. Douglas: Defender of the Union (1959), short biography
  • Clinton, Anita Watkins. "Stephen Arnold Douglas - His Mississippi Experience" Journal of Mississippi History 1988 50(2): 56-88. in JSTOR
  • Dean; Eric T., Jr. "Stephen A. Douglas and Popular Sovereignty" Historian 1995 57(4): 733-748 online version
  • Eyal, Yonatan. "With His Eyes Open: Stephen A. Douglas and the Kansas-Nebraska Disaster of 1854" Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 1998 91(4): 175-217. ISSN 1522-1067
  • Glickstein, Jonathan A., American exceptionalism, American anxiety: wages, competition, and degraded labor in the Antebellum United States; University of Virginia Press, (2002)
  • Hansen, Stephen and Nygard, Paul. "Stephen A. Douglas, the Know-nothings, and the Democratic Party in Illinois, 1854-1858" Illinois Historical Journal 1994 87(2): 109-130.
  • Huston, James L. "Democracy by Scripture versus Democracy by Process: A Reflection on Stephen A. Douglas and Popular Sovereignty." Civil War History. 43#1 (1997) pp: 189+. online version
  • Jaffa, Harry V. Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. 1959. online version
  • Johannsen, Robert W. Stephen A. Douglas (1973), 993pp the standard scholarly biography
  • Johannsen, Robert W. The Frontier, the Union, and Stephen A. Douglas U. of Illinois Press, 1989.
  • McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom. Oxford Univ. Press, 1988. Standard modern history.
  • Milton, George Fort. The Eve of Conflict: Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless War (1934)
  • Morris, Roy, Jr., The Long Pursuit: Abraham Lincoln's Thirty-Year Struggle with Stephen Douglas for the Heart and Soul of America, HarperCollins Publishers, 2008.
  • Morrison, Michael A. Slavery and the American west: the eclipse of manifest destiny and the coming of the American Civil War University of North Carolina Press, (1997)
  • Nevins, Allan. Ordeal of the Union especially vol 1-4 (1947–63): Fruits of Manifest Destiny, 1847–1852; A House Dividing, 1852–1857; Douglas, Buchanan, and Party Chaos, 1857–1859; Prologue to Civil War, 1859-1861. Highly detailed narrative of national politics with extensive coverage of Douglas
  • Nichols, Roy F. "The Kansas-Nebraska Act: A Century of Historiography," Mississippi Valley Historical Review 43 (1956): 187-212; in JSTOR
  • Graham A. Peck, "Was Stephen A. Douglas Antislavery?," Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Summer 2005 online
  • Rhodes, James Ford. History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 (1920) vol 1-2, detailed narrative
  • Russel, Robert R. "What Was the Compromise of 1850?" Journal of Southern History 20 (1956): 292-309 in Jstor
  • Russel, Robert R. "The Issues in the Congressional Struggle Over the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, 1854," Journal of Southern History 29 (May 1963): 187-210; in JSTOR
  • Stevenson, James A. "Lincoln vs. Douglas over the Republican Ideal" American Studies 1994 35(1): 63-89
  • Zarefsky, David. Lincoln, Douglas, and Slavery: in the Crucible of Public Debate U. of Chicago Press, 1990. 309 pp


  1. McPherson, pp. 177-8
  2. Dean (1994)
  3. Brandon Village Historic District, Vermont Heritage Network via the University of Vermont. Accessed 2009-07-14.
  4. Morris 2008, pg. 8
  5. [1]
  6. McPherson
  7. Dean 1995
  8. Clinton 1988
  9. Clinton 1988
  10. McPherson, Battle Cry, pp.121-122.
  11. Senator Lewis Cass, a leading Democrat from Michigan and the Democratic presidential nominee in 1848, had coined the idea of popular sovereignty.
  12. Nichols 1956, who concludes thus (p.212):"It was but a few steps onward to secession, the Confederacy, and the Solid South. The great volcano of American politics was in a state of eruption. In the midst of the cataclysm, one sees Douglas crashing and hurtling about, caught like a rock in a gush of lava. Two new masses were prominent on the political landscape, the Republican party and the Solid South. Douglas had disappeared."
  13. Hansen and Nygard
  14. Johannsen (1973)
  15. David Donald, Lincoln. (1995) p. 222
  16. Donald, 222
  17. Stevenson 1994
  18. Johannsen (1973)
  19. Johannsen (1973)
  20. Kagan, Dangerous Nation, p. 243
  21. Nichols (1956)
  22. Dean (1995)
  23. Huston 1997
  24. Nevins (1947) 2:107-8, quoted in Peck (2005)
  25. Peck (2005); Peck cites (footnote 2, and associated text) Johannsen, Stevens, Milton, Capers, Wells, Baker, Potter and David Donald as believing Douglas opposed slavery; on the other side, he cites Morrison, Richards and Glickstein.
  26. [2] Nevins,Alan;"He Did Hold Lincoln's Hat: Senator Douglas’ act is verified, at last, by first-hand testimony";American Heritage Magazine;Vol 10, Issue 2 (February, 1959).

Primary sources[]

  • Robert W. Johannsen, ed. The Letters of Stephen A. Douglas (1961)
  • Paul M. Angle, ed., Created Equal? The Complete Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858 (1958),
  • Lincoln, Abraham and Douglas, Stephen A. The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Complete, Unexpurgated Text. Harold Holzer, Ed. Harpercollins, 1993.
  • Harry V. Jaffa and Robert W. Johannsen, eds. In the Name of the People: Speeches and Writings of Lincoln and Douglas in the Ohio Campaign of 1859. (1959) online version
  • Douglas, Stephen Arnold. A brief treatise upon constitutional and party questions, and the history of political parties, (1861) James Madison Cutts, ed. (1866)

Text supplemented from the 1911 Encyclopædia Britannica

External links[]

Preceded by
Alexander P. Field
Illinois Secretary of State
1840 – 1841
Succeeded by
Lyman Trumbull
United States Senate
Preceded by
James Semple
Senator from Illinois (Class 2)
March 4, 1847 – June 3, 1861
Served alongside: Sidney Breese, James Shields, Lyman Trumbull
Succeeded by
Orville H. Browning
Preceded by
James Buchanan
Democratic Party presidential candidate¹
Succeeded by
George McClellan
Notes and references
1. The Democratic Party split in 1860, producing two presidential nominees. Douglas was nominated by Northern Democrats; John C. Breckinridge was nominated by Southern Democrats.

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