Stephen Douglas is best known for the Lincoln-Douglas debates that took place across Illinois during the 1858 Senate campaign. The two candidates debated seven times. Douglas won the election and was returned to the Senate.
Many historians suggest that his views cost him the Presidency in the 1860 election to the very same Abraham Lincoln. However, Douglas did have a distinguished and impactful career in the House of Representatives and the Senate that spanned 18 years. He gained the nickname “Little Giant” both for his diminutive stature and his achievements while in the Congress.
Stephen Douglas was born on April 29, 1813 in Brandon, Vermont to Stephen Arnold Douglass and Sarah Fisk. Douglas dropped the second “s” from his name some years later.
He migrated to Winchester, Illinois in 1833, where he served as an itinerant teacher and opened a school for three months at three dollars a pupil. He also studied law, and settled in Jacksonville, Illinois. By the end of the year, he wrote 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.”
In 1934 Douglas began his political career with an appointment as State’s Attorney of Morgan County. He held the position for two years and then moved on to a succession of political positions, including the Illinois House of Representatives, registrar of the Springfield Land Office, Illinois Secretary of State and associate justice of the Illinois Supreme Court in 1841, at age 27.
He resigned from the Court upon being elected US Representative in 1843, and was re-elected in 1844. In Congress, he championed territorial expansion and supported the Mexican War. In 1846 the Illinois General Assembly elected him a US Senator. The Illinois Democrat had entered the biggest stage in American politics.
In 1850, Douglas supported the omnibus Compromise Bill of Henry Clay. However, it was defeated and Clay who was very ill and handed off the passage of the bill to Douglas. The omnibus bill had been defeated because too many senators were opposed to one part of the bill or another. Douglas realized this and the divided the bill into separate bills. The separate bills were thereby passed.
In 1852, Douglas vied for the Democratic Presidential nomination but was passed over for Franklin Pierce. The following year saw him easily reelected to the Senate.
Douglas was an avid promoter of railroads. He saw them as a means of tying the regions of America together. At the same time he saw them as a way of promoting commerce and trade for his hometown, Chicago. In addition, Douglas had a financial interest Chicago real estate that was expected to benefit if a central route for a transcontinental railroad was built.
In 1854, Douglas became involved in the Kansas-Nebraska controversy. Nebraska Territory, west of Missouri, was then being settled, and Congress needed to provide territorial organization for the region. The Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery there (because it was north of the 36°30′ compromise line), and the Compromise of 1850 had reaffirmed this.
Southern leaders proposed a deal: they would support the central route if slavery was permitted in the new Territories. Douglas agreed. In the first version of the Act, Douglas allowed for the Territories to choose slave or free status at statehood, but the Southerners demanded immediate permission for slavery there (an implicit repeal of that part of the Missouri and 1850 Compromises). Douglas discovered a “clerical error”, and revised the Act to suit their wishes.
Douglas was vilified throughout the North. He joked that he could travel from Washington back to Illinois by the light of burning effigies of him. But in order to respond to his critics he invoked “popular sovereignty“, the doctrine that the people of a community were rightfully entitled to decide such issues for themselves.
The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was assured with the votes of some Northern Democrats and of all Southerners, Democrat and Whig alike. Opponents of the Act saw it as a triumph for the hated Slave Power. The passage of the bill was responsible for the fundamental realignment of the political parties.
The Whig Party dissolved; anti-slavery Northern Whigs formed the Republican Party instead, joined by many “free-soil” Democrats. There was a Senate election in Illinois in 1855: Republicans and dissident Democrats elected “Anti-Nebraska” Democrat Lyman Trumbull, a clear rebuke to Douglas. He was passed over once again in the 1856 Presidential nominating process.
The 1857 Dred Scott decision presented Douglas with a tremendous dilemma. The decision declared that under the Constitution, neither Congress nor a Territorial legislature created by Congress had the power to prohibit slavery in a Territory. This struck down key elements of the Missouri and 1850 Compromises, made the Kansas-Nebraska Act irrelevant, and denied the basis of “popular sovereignty”.
If he rejected Dred Scott, he would lose the Southern support that he needed for the presidential election of 1860. If he embraced Dred Scott, he would lose Northern support. He tried to avoid both hazards, issuing a tepid endorsement of the decision, while continuing to assert popular sovereignty without explicitly saying the Court was wrong.
Campaigning for reelection in 1858, Douglas initially tried to avoid debating his Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln. But Lincoln followed Douglas around the state responding to each Douglas speech a day or two later. Finally, Douglas agreed to a series of seven debates which came to be known as the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.
In the debates, Douglas reiterated his support of popular sovereignty. He demanded to know whether Lincoln would ever vote to admit a new slave state, even if the majority of settlers favored slavery.
He denounced Lincoln for his insistence that slavery was a moral issue that had to be resolved by the nation as a whole. Douglas described this as causing an unnecessary conflict between free and slave states, which threatened to boil up into disunion and war. He also asserted that Lincoln supported civil and social equality between the races, and insinuated that Lincoln even accepted racial intermarriage.
Lincoln forced Douglas to commit himself on the question of Dred Scott versus popular sovereignty. In the second debate, at Freeport, he asked a direct question: “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?”
If Douglas answered “No”, he would fully endorse Dred Scott, and would alienate Illinoisans and other Northerners. If he answered “Yes”, he would reject Dred Scott, and would alienate Southerners. Douglas declared that while the Supreme Court had barred explicit prohibition of slavery, that didn’t really matter, because the people of a Territory could exclude slavery in practice by “unfriendly legislation”. This became known as the Freeport Doctrine.
It was barely enough to satisfy the voters of Illinois and Douglas won with a narrow majority in the Illinois legislature. But the Freeport Doctrine was vehemently rejected by most Southerners. The “Fire-Eaters” denounced Douglas as no better than an abolitionist.
The 1860 Presidential election matched Lincoln and Douglas again. However, the Democrats split along sectional lines and the Southerners nominated John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, the sitting Vice President while some former Whigs nominate John Bell under the banner of the Constitution Party.
The four way race ended with Lincoln winning the Presidency with almost 40% of the popular vote and 180 electoral votes. Douglas came in second with almost 40% of the vote but only 12 electoral votes. Six weeks after Lincoln’s election South Carolina voted to secede from the Union and began the secession of the other Southern states.
Douglas was opposed to secession and at Lincoln’s request he undertook a number of speaking engagements in the Border States and the Midwest to rouse the spirit of Unionism; he spoke in Virginia, Ohio and Illinois.
Douglas died in Chicago from typhoid fever on June 3, 1861. He was buried on the shore of Lake Michigan.