Stephen Douglas

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Stephen A. Douglas
Stephen A. Douglas.gif

Born April 23, 1813
Brandon, Vermont
Died June 3, 1861
Chicago, Illinois
Spouse Martha Martin,
Adele Cutts

Stephen Arnold Douglas nicknamed the "Little Giant" (April 23, 1813 – June 3, 1861) was an American politician from the western state of Illinois, and was the Democratic Party nominee for President in 1860. He lost to Republican Party candidate Abraham Lincoln. As a brilliant party leader, and an adroit, ready, skillful tactician in debate and passage of legislation, he shaped the Third Party System by taking leadership of the Democratic party away from pro-Southern men like President James Buchanan, and committing it to the basic principle of democracy, "Let the People Rule!"

As chairman of the Committee on Territories, Douglas dominated the Senate in the 1850s and shaped most of the debates over slavery. 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 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. Douglas deeply believed in democracy, arguing the will of the people should always be decisive.[2] When war came in April 1861, he rallied his supporters to the Union with all his energies, but he died a few weeks later.

Early career

A Yankee born in Brandon, Vermont, Douglas came to Illinois in 1833 at age 20, was an itinerant teacher, studied law, and settled in Jacksonville, Illinois. By the end of one 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." Within a decade, he was elected to the state legislature, and was appointed register of the Springfield Land Office, Illinois Secretary of State, and an associate justice of the Illinois Supreme Court in 1841, at age 27. 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 Senate in 1847, he was reelected in 1853 and 1859. He contested the 1858 legislative elections by going head to head with Lincoln in a series of nationally famous debates.

Henry Clay chiefly designed the Compromise of 1850, but 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. He moved to Chicago, gaining wealth by marriage to a Mississippi woman who inherited a slave plantation. An avid promoter of westward expansion, he devised the land grant system that enabled the funding of the Illinois Central railroad.[3]

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.[4]

Personal and family

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, N.Y. and studied at Canandaigua Academy in 1832-33. 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). He married Martha Martin in March 1847, the daughter of wealthy Colonel Robert Martin of North Carolina. She brought to Douglas the new responsibility of a large cotton plantation in 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.[5] The newlyweds moved their Illinois home to fast-growing Chicago in the summer of 1847. Martha Douglas died January 19, 1853, leaving the Senator with two small sons. On November 20, 1856, he married 20 year-old Adele Cutts, the daughter of James Madison Cutts and a great-niece of Dolley Madison, wife of President James Madison.[6]

Kansas-Nebraska 1854

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. Douglas 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 Railroad. The Compromise of 1820 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; and 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.[7]

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[8] 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.

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.[9]

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.[10] In 1857, he broke with President 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, and 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.[11]

In 1858, when the Supreme Court, after the vote of Kansas against the Lecompton constitution, had decided that Kansas was a "slave" territory, thus quashing Douglas’s 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.

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 United States 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.[12] Lincoln pointedly denied Douglas' assertion that the Declaration of Independence did not include minorities.[13]

Much of the debate was about the redefinition of republicanism, the core American political values. 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.[14] 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 James 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 frontrunning candidate for president.[15]

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, 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 (see: U.S. presidential election, 1860). His support in the North came from the Irish Catholics and the poorer farmers; in the South the Irish Catholics were his main supporters.[16]

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. At the outbreak of the American 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.

Historical Disputes

For a century and a half, historians have debated whether or not Douglas opposed slavery,[17] and whether or not he was a trimmer and compromiser or a devotee of principles.[18]

Dean (1995) argues he was totally devoted to grass roots democracy, "The much maligned senator for Illinois deserves to be remembered for the fervor of his convictions as well as his devotion to the Union: I will stand on the great principle of popular sovereignty, which declares the right of all people to be left perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way. I will follow that principle wherever its logical consequences may take me and I will endeavor to defend it against assault from any and all quarters."[19]

Douglas married into a slaveholding family (as did Lincoln and 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.[20] 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."[21] 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." [22]


Douglas died from typhoid fever on June 3, 1861 in Chicago, where 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.

See also

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)
  • 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

Primary sources


  1. McPherson, pp. 177-8
  2. Dean (1994)
  3. Johannsen (1973)
  4. Dean 1995
  5. Clinton 1988
  6. Clinton 1988
  7. McPherson, Battle Cry, p.121-2
  8. Senator Lewis Cass, a leading Democrat from Michigan and the Democratic presidential nominee in 1848, had coined the idea of popular sovereignty.
  9. 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."
  10. Hansen and Nygard
  11. Johannsen (1973)
  12. David Donald, Lincoln. (1995) p 222
  13. Donald, 222
  14. Stevenson 1994
  15. Johannsen (1973)
  16. Johannsen (1973)
  17. Nichols (1956)
  18. Dean (1995)
  19. Speech of December 9, 1857 quoted in Dean 1995
  20. Huston 1997
  21. Nevins (1947) 2:107-8, quoted in Peck (2005)
  22. 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.

External links