Stephen A. Douglas (1813-1861) was a U.S. politician, leader of the Democratic Party, and orator who espoused the cause of popular sovereignty in relation to the issue of slavery in the territories before the American Civil War (1861-1865). He was re-elected senator from Illinois in 1858 after a series of eloquent debates with the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, who defeated him in the presidential race two years later.
Born in Vermont, Douglas studied law in Canandaigua, New York, before moving to Illinois in 1833, where he became involved in politics. As a youth he had been captivated by Andrew Jackson, and it was as a Jacksonian that he built his career. He played an important part in the organization of the Democratic party in Illinois, introducing such new devices as party committees and nominating conventions and pushing for party regularity and discipline. He enjoyed a lasting popularity among the small farmers of the state, many of whom had migrated from the border South, and he used his popularity to establish a tightly knit Democratic organization.
After holding several state offices, Douglas ran for Congress in 1837, losing by the narrow margin of thirty-five votes. Six years later, he was elected to the House of Representatives, where he sat for two terms. In 1847, he was elected U.S. senator, a position he held until his death in 1861.
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Douglas was involved in every major issue to come before the nation during his years in Washington. As chairman of the House and Senate Committees on Territories, he developed a strong interest in the West. One of his first legislative proposals was a program that included territorial expansion, the construction of a Pacific railroad, a free land (homestead) policy, and the organization of territorial governments. ‘You cannot fix bounds to the onward march of this great and growing country,’ he declared. He believed in America’s unique mission and manifest destiny, was a leading proponent of Texas annexation, demanded the acquisition of Oregon, and supported the war with Mexico. A man of great energy and persuasive power, standing only five feet four inches tall, Douglas became known as the Little Giant.
When slavery became a divisive political issue during the Mexican War, Douglas’s romantic nationalism faced a new challenge. Fearing that the issue might disrupt the Republic, he argued for the doctrine of popular sovereignty-the right of the people of a state or territory to decide the slavery question for themselves-as a Union-saving formula. He led the fight in Congress for the Compromise of 1850. Four years later, he incorporated the doctrine in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, thus repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Douglas’s hopes for the country suffered a setback when the act aroused bitter opposition from northern antislavery elements, who eventually formed the Republican party.
During the 1850s, he continued to fight for popular sovereignty in Congress and in Illinois, where the state election campaign of 1858 was highlighted by his famous debates with Abraham Lincoln. He blamed the agitation over slavery on abolitionists in the North and disunionists in the South, trying to find a middle way that would preserve the Union. Slavery, he believed, must be treated impartially as a question of public policy, although he privately thought it was wrong and hoped it would be eliminated some day. At the same time, he saw in popular sovereignty an extension of local self-government and states’ rights and charged his opposition with seeking a consolidation of power on the national level that would restrict individual liberty and endanger the Union.
Douglas’s popularity waned as the party system foundered on the slavery question. Proposed as the Democratic candidate for president in 1852 and 1856, he did not win his party’s nomination until 1860, when it was too late. With his party hopelessly divided and a Republican elected to the presidency, he fought strenuously to hold the sections together with a compromise on the slavery issue, but to no avail. Following the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861, he pledged his support to the northern cause and urged a vigorous prosecution of the war against the rebels. He died in June, however, worn out from his exertions and broken in spirit.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.