See a full text list of Biographies
  Name:  Stephen Arnold Douglas
  Born:  April 23, 1813
  Died:  June 3, 1861

  Complete HarpWeek Biography:

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

Stephen A. Douglas was a U.S. senator, a leading advocate of “popular sovereignty,” the author of the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854, and the presidential nominee of the Northern wing of the Democratic Party in 1860.  

He was born on April 23, 1813, in Brandon, Vermont, to Sarah Fisk Douglass and Stephen Arnold Douglass (the younger Douglas dropped the final “s” from his family name in 1846). His father died when Stephen was an infant, and his mother moved the family in with her father and bachelor brother. In his youth, Douglas worked as an apprentice cabinetmaker. He was politically inspired by the presidential campaign of General Andrew Jackson in 1828 and became a life–long Democrat.  In 1830, his family moved to Canandaigua in upstate New York, where he studied at the town’s academy.  

In 1833, Douglas began to read law at a local law office, but impatiently stopped after six months and moved to the “West,” where training and qualification for the bar were less stringent. His journey took him through Cleveland, Cincinnati, Louisville, and St. Louis before he put down stakes in Jacksonville, Illinois, in November 1833. The next year, he was admitted to the Illinois bar, although the administering judge urged him to continue his legal studies.  

Douglas was one of the pioneers at adapting the new Jacksonian party system—with its committees, conventions and partisanship—to Illinois.  He became a leader in the state Democratic Party, and was elected state’s attorney before he turned 22.  In 1836, he was elected to the state house of representatives, but the next year he moved to Springfield and was appointed to the land office of the new state capital.  In 1840, he became secretary of state, but was appointed the following year to the state supreme court, the youngest justice ever to serve in that body. In 1838, he had narrowly lost a race for Congress, and in 1842 was unsuccessful in a bid for the U.S. Senate (he was not of legal age to qualify). He finally won a seat in the U.S. House the next year after the Illinois legislature implemented a redistricting plan. He served two terms in the House, and then won election in 1846 to the first of three consecutive terms in the U.S. Senate.  

In the Senate (1847–1861), Douglas became a leader of the Northern Democrats, and played a pivotal role in the major issues of one of the most crucial periods in the nation’s history.  Nicknamed the “Little Giant,” the diminutive Senator (5’ 4") was a scrappy fighter and a tireless worker, whose powerful orations on the Senate floor drew capacity crowds to the galleries. He was both an advocate of states’ rights and an avid Unionist.  

Douglas was also a promoter of America’s territorial expansion to fulfill its “manifest destiny,” as a catchphrase of the time put it, to become a continental republic from sea to shining sea.  To that end, he supported the annexation of Texas and of the entire Oregon Territory and backed the expansionist war against Mexico.  To encourage settlement of the new American West, Douglas proposed homestead legislation and pushed Congress to subsidize a transcontinental railroad to run from the Mississippi Valley to the Pacific Coast.  As chairman of the Committee on Territories in, first, the House and, later, the Senate, he sponsored bills to establish seven territories:  Oregon, Minnesota, Utah, New Mexico, Washington, Kansas, and Nebraska.  

The Mexican War (1846–1848) raised the issue of whether slavery would be allowed to expand into the lands acquired from Mexico.  Douglas took a middle ground between the Northern anti–slavery view that the federal government could ban slavery in the territories and the Southern pro–slavery position that the Constitution protected the institution there. Instead, he advocated what he believed was a more democratic, fair, and workable solution:  let the voters of each territory decide the issue themselves (i.e., “popular sovereignty”).  The Illinois senator was instrumental in the passage of the Compromise of 1850, which allowed the Utah and New Mexico territories to be organized on the basis of popular sovereignty, while permitting California to enter as a free state, which its residents overwhelmingly desired. He personally believed that slavery was ill suited for transplantation to the West, and that settlers there would reject it.  

In order to accelerate the settlement of the west, Douglas drafted and introduced a bill to establish two territorial governments in part of the territory of the Louisiana Purchase (1803). By allowing the citizens of the territories to vote on the slavery issue, Douglas’s Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 repealed the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery in that area. Passage of the bill ignited a political firestorm that caused the collapse of the Whig party, the birth of the Republican Party, and the widening of the gulf between the Northern and Southern wings of the Democratic Party. In the rest of the 1850s, sectional politics because more volatile and violent.  In Kansas, pro– and anti–slavery forces established competing territorial governments and engaged in bloody guerrilla war.  

In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Dred Scott case that slavery was, as many Southerners had insisted, constitutionally protected from interference by federal or territorial government. That decision undercut Douglas’s remedy of popular sovereignty, but he responded with his “Freeport Doctrine” (named after one of the sites of the Lincoln–Douglas debates). He argued that territorial citizens could circumvent the letter of the decision by refusing to pass legislation (“slave codes”) that supported and protected the institution; consequently, he reasoned, slaveowners would not venture to a territory where their investment in slaves would be insecure.

Douglas’s tactical response to the Dred Scott decision angered Southern Democrats. During the winter of 1857–1858, he further alienated himself from Southern Democrats and their northern allies, such as President James Buchanan, when he vehemently opposed the Lecompton Constitution, drafted by the proslavery factional legislature in Kansas.  

Later in 1858 Douglas held a series of seven debates with his Republican senatorial challenger, Abraham Lincoln. The sole topic discussed was the issue of slavery, and because Douglas was a major figure in national politics, the debates received national press coverage.  The debates matched two powerful thinkers and hard–hitting speakers and are justifiably famous in American history.  Although Douglas was reelected to the Senate by the Democratic state legislature, Lincoln became a national name for the first time and a contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860.  

Douglas had been a losing candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1852 and 1856, but was in a position to take the prize in 1860.  The Democratic National Convention met in April 1860 in Charleston, South Carolina.  The Southern delegates arrived determined to have the party endorse in its platform a federal slave code for the territories. The Northern delegates, led by Douglas, were equally adamant that their party would not endorse a territorial slave code. The fierce disagreement led many Southern delegates to walk out of the convention and reconvene in Baltimore, where they nominated Vice President John C. Breckinridge for the presidency. Northern Democrats also reconvened in Baltimore and nominated Douglas for the presidency.  Meanwhile, Republicans nominated Lincoln for president, and a group of former Whigs organized the Constitutional Union party, which nominated Senator John Bell of Tennessee for president.  

It was customary that presidential candidates did not campaign actively for the office. Douglas broke that tradition, however, to undertake a speaking tour in the areas where his opposition was strongest, New England and the South. He urged Southerners not to leave the Union if Lincoln were elected.  When the Republican’s election did provoke the secession of seven states from the Deep South, Douglas searched for a compromise that would save the Union. Once the Civil War began in April 1861, he pledged his support to President Lincoln and the fight to save the Union.  Stephen Douglas died in Chicago on June 3, 1861, while on a trip to secure Illinois’ support for the Union cause. His final words were a message for his sons: “Tell them to obey the laws and support the Constitution of the United States.” 

Source consulted:  Robert W. Johannsen, “Douglas, Stephen Arnold,” American National Biography (online).


Website design 1998-2006 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content 1998-2006 HarpWeek, LLC
Do not use any materials on this website without express written permission from HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to [email protected]