|United States Senator|
March 4, 1847 - June 3, 1861
|Orville H. Browning|
|Member of the U.S. House of Representatives|
from Illinois's 5th district
March 4, 1843 - March 3, 1847
|Associate Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court|
February 15, 1841 - June 28, 1843
|Jesse B. Thomas Jr.|
|7th Secretary of State of Illinois|
November 30, 1840 - February 15, 1841
|Alexander P. Field|
Stephen Arnold Douglass|
April 23, 1813
Brandon, Vermont, U.S.
June 3, 1861 (aged 48)|
Chicago, Illinois, U.S.
(m. 1847; her death 1853)
(m. 1856; his death 1861)
Stephen Arnold Douglas (April 23, 1813 - June 3, 1861) was an American politician from Illinois and the designer of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He was a member of the United States House of Representatives, later in the United States Senate, and the Democratic Party nominee for president in the 1860 election, losing to longtime political and personal rival, new Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865). Douglas had previously defeated Lincoln in a U.S. Senate contest elected by the Illinois state legislature, noted for the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858. He was nicknamed the "Little Giant" because he was short in physical stature, but a forceful and dominant figure in politics. (His height is given in various sources as being in the range of 5 feet (1.5 m) to 5 feet 4 inches (1.63 m); five feet four is reported most often.)
Douglas was well known as a resourceful party leader, and an adroit, ready, skillful tactician in debate and passage of legislation. He was a champion of the Young America movement which sought to modernize politics and replace the agrarian and strict constructionist orthodoxies of the past. Douglas was a leading proponent of democracy, and believed in the principle of popular sovereignty: that the majority of citizens should decide contentious issues such as slavery and territorial expansion. As chairman of the Committee on Territories, Douglas dominated the Senate from 1850 to 1859. He was largely responsible for the Compromise of 1850 that apparently settled slavery issues; however, in 1854 he reopened the slavery question with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened some previously prohibited territories to slavery under popular sovereignty. Opposition to this led to the formation of the Republican Party.
Douglas initially endorsed the Dred Scott decision of 1857. But during the 1858 Senate campaign, he argued its effect could be negated by popular sovereignty. He also opposed the efforts of President James Buchanan and his Southern allies to enact a Federal slave code and impose the Lecompton Constitution on Kansas.
In 1860, the conflict over slavery led to the split in the Democratic Party in the 1860 Convention. Hardline pro-slavery Southerners rejected Douglas, and nominated their own candidate, Vice President John C. Breckinridge, while the Northern Democrats nominated Douglas. Douglas deeply believed in democracy, arguing the will of the people should always be decisive. When civil war came in April 1861, he rallied his supporters to the Union cause with all his energies, but he died of typhoid fever a few weeks later.
He was born Stephen Arnold Douglass in Brandon, Vermont, to Stephen Arnold Douglass and Sarah Fisk. Douglas dropped the second "s" from his name some years later. His father, a physician and Middlebury College graduate, died suddenly when Stephen was just a few months old. He grew up with his mother (or under the care of a bachelor uncle) and was educated in the local schools. As a teenager, he was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker in Middlebury. His mother remarried in 1830 and moved to western New York. Douglas attended Canandaigua Academy. Although he wished to attend Middlebury College like his father, his family couldn't support his continued formal education. Instead, he began to teach school while studying law with Walter and Levi Hubbell. While studying law he became friendly with Henry B. Payne, a law student in another attorney's office. Payne later became a prominent businessman and politician in Cleveland, Ohio, and was a supporter of Douglas' subsequent campaigns for president.
In 1833 Douglas migrated first to Cleveland, and then to Winchester, Illinois, where he served as an itinerant teacher and opened a school for three months at three dollars a pupil. He then settled in Jacksonville, Illinois, where he was admitted to the bar. 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."
Douglas briefly courted Mary Todd (who married Abraham Lincoln instead). He 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 Martini, the 21-year-old daughter of wealthy Colonel Robert Martin of North Carolina. The year after their marriage, her father died and bequeathed Martha a 2,500-acre cotton plantation with 100 slaves on the Pearl River in Lawrence County, Mississippi. He appointed Douglas the property manager but, as a senator of the free state of Illinois, and with presidential aspirations, Douglas found the Southern plantation presented difficulties. He created distance by hiring a manager to operate the plantation, while using his allocated 20 percent of the income to advance his political career. His sole lengthy visit to Mississippi was in 1848, and he made only brief emergency trips thereafter.
The newlyweds moved their Illinois home from Springfield to fast-growing Chicago in the summer of 1847. They had two sons: Robert M. Douglas (January 1849 - 1917) and Stephen Arnold Douglas, Jr., (November 1850 - 1908). Martha Douglas died young on January 19, 1853, after the birth of her third child, a daughter. The girl died a few weeks later, and Douglas and the two boys were bereft.
On November 20, 1856, Douglas married a second time, to 20-year-old Adele Cutts, a southern woman from the capital. She was the daughter of James Madison Cutts of Washington, D.C., nephew of President James Madison, and Ellen O'Neal, niece of Rose O'Neal Greenhow. Her great-aunt was the former U.S. First Lady Dolley Madison. Her mother Ellen O'Neal Cutts was from a Maryland Catholic family and raised Adele as a Catholic. With Stephen's approval, she had his two sons baptized as Catholic and reared in that faith.
She had a miscarriage in 1858 and became ill. The following year, Adele gave birth to a daughter, Ellen, who lived only a few weeks. She was left weakened by childbirth.
Douglas was appointed as State's Attorney of Morgan County in 1834, serving until 1836. In the next few years, Douglas became a leader of the dominant Illinois Democrats. He was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives, was appointed registrar of the Springfield Land Office, became Illinois Secretary of State, and at age 27 was appointed an associate justice of the Illinois Supreme Court when the court was expanded in 1841.
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.
In the sectional crisis of 1850, Douglas was one of the strongest advocates of compromise. He supported the proposals of Henry Clay, despite their partisan differences (Clay was a Whig). But Clay's "omnibus" bill for the Compromise of 1850 was defeated - there being a majority who were opposed to various parts of it. Douglas stepped in and divided the parts of the Compromise into separate bills, each of which had majority support, though a different majority for each, and thus the Compromise was passed.
Douglas was easily reelected to the Senate in 1853. An avid promoter of railroad expansion, he devised the land grant system to fund the Illinois Central railroad. He intended it to link the nation north and south, from Chicago to the Gulf of Mexico; Douglas hoped that would more thoroughly integrate the regional economies and reduce sectional tensions. The railroad was begun, but its southern extension was interrupted by the Civil War. It did not reach the Gulf until afterward. Douglas owned land in Chicago which the railroad would make more valuable, but his primary motivation was political.
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.
While never a religious man, he donated 10 acres of his lakefront property in Chicago, worth $50,000, to a small new Baptist college, the first University of Chicago. Critics said that he wanted to enhance the value of his adjoining lots.
Douglas set off a tremendous political upheaval with the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. 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.
At this time, various proposals for a transcontinental railroad to California had been offered. One was for a southern route, from New Orleans; another was for a central route, from Chicago. Douglas owned Chicago real estate, expected to boom if the central route was adopted.
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.
This action was initially highly unpopular in the North. Douglas joked that he could travel from Washington back to Illinois by the light of burning effigies of him.
But he responded with a principled argument which won over many of his critics. He invoked "popular sovereignty", the doctrine that the people of a community were rightfully entitled to decide such issues for themselves.
Douglas argued that therefore, the people of a Territory should decide whether to permit or exclude slavery, not Congress. He also asserted that the soil and climate of the Territories was unsuitable for slave agriculture anyway, which reassured northerners. Douglas defended applying popular sovereignty as consistent with American democratic tradition, and said it would remove the slavery issue from national politics, where it threatened to rip the nation apart. Douglas thus regained most of his support in the North.
"Free-soil" and anti-slavery Northerners remained critical. Among them was Abraham Lincoln, who attacked Douglas in three major public speeches, most notably at Peoria on October 16, 1854.
Congress passed the Act by the votes of some Northern Democrats and of all Southerners, Democrat and Whig alike; Douglas had little to do with the final text. This was the first appearance of the Solid South. Opponents of the Act saw it as a triumph for the hated Slave Power. 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.
In 1856, Douglas was again a candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination, and received strong support at the convention, but again was passed over. When the Know Nothing movement arose, he crusaded against it, but privately welcomed it as a split in the former Whig opposition.
Douglas continued to steer a middle course on the slavery issue. His "popular sovereignty" doctrine that slavery should be decided on locally by states and territories was satisfactory to Southerners who didn't want outside interference with slavery and Northerners who didn't want to take sides over it. It was famously said of him that he didn't care "whether slavery was voted up or voted down," as long as it was voted on by the people.
Then in 1857, the US Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott decision, which 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".
Pro-slavery Southerners had praised Douglas for relaxing restrictions on slavery in the Kansas-Nebraska Act; now, ardent pro-slavery "Fire-Eaters" denounced him for supporting any restrictions at all. At the same time, some Northerners, seeing "popular sovereignty" apparently dead, went over to the Republicans.
Douglas faced an ugly dilemma. If he rejected Dred Scott, he would lose Southern support 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.
Another issue came up at this time, and here Douglas did take a side. President James Buchanan and his Southern allies tried to get Kansas admitted as a slave state. But the anti-slavery majority in Kansas rejected this, despite efforts to rig the voting there.
Douglas strongly opposed Buchanan's machinations, and the two became bitter enemies. Even his Republican critics praised him for this stand, and he restored his standing with the moderates of the North. This was critically important, because his Senate term ended in 1859, and he wanted to be re-elected.
The Illinois legislature elected in 1858 would elect a US Senator in 1859: either Douglas or a Republican challenger. Thus the legislative election became a proxy for the Senate election, with both parties emphasizing their Senate candidates above all other issues.
The Democrats selected Douglas; the Republicans named Lincoln. Douglas tried to avoid meeting Lincoln directly. He traveled the state, making speeches for the Democratic ticket. (Douglas was provided with a private train, through his friend, Illinois Central vice-president and future Civil War general George McClellan.) Lincoln followed Douglas around the state, answering each Douglas speech with one of his own a day or two later.
After several such incidents, Douglas agreed to seven formal joint appearances, now 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 interracial marriage.
At Galesburg, Douglas explicitly declared that the Declaration of Independence was not meant to apply to non-whites. He said, "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". Douglas also emphasized his opposition to the Lecompton Constitution and alluded to the hostility of the Buchanan Administration. (Buchanan had used Federal patronage to form an anti-Douglas faction of Illinois Democrats. This group, known as "Danites", ran their own candidates for the legislature.)
For his part, Lincoln criticized Douglas for his moral indifference to slavery, but denied any intention of interference with slavery in the South. He evaded Douglas' question about the admission of a slave state. He also suggested that, despite the public break between Douglas and Buchanan over Kansas, Douglas, Buchanan, and Chief Justice Roger B. Taney worked together to extend and perpetuate slavery. Lincoln disclaimed the radical views on racial equality attributed to him by Douglas, arguing only for the right of negroes to personal liberty and to earn their own livings.
Both men attacked each other for allegedly extreme or irresponsible statements by supporters or colleagues, and accused each other of bad faith in denying responsibility for such statements or for inconsistency in their own statements.
Most importantly, however, 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 made one last attempt to square the circle. He 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 was the Freeport Doctrine.
It was enough to satisfy Illinoisans, even in many former Know-Nothing strongholds. In the 1858 legislative elections, the Democrats won a narrow majority of seats, and Douglas was re-elected by a vote of 54 to 46. Republican candidates actually received more votes statewide, but the districts had been laid out per the Census of 1850. At that time, Republican areas in northern Illinois were much less settled and so received fewer seats. The pro-Buchanan "Danite" candidates got only a handful of votes.
The Freeport Doctrine was vehemently rejected by most Southerners. The "Fire-Eaters" denounced Douglas as no better than an abolitionist.
The debates were redefining republicanism. Lincoln advocated equality of opportunity, arguing that individuals and society advanced together. Douglas 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.
Douglas was the obvious nominee for the Democrats in the election of 1860, despite the opposition of President Buchanan. Although Douglas was not reappointed chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, his allies defeated Buchanan for control of the party throughout the North, and in early 1860 he was the front runner for the nomination.
However, Douglas faced implacable opposition in the Deep South. When the 1860 Democratic National Convention met in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 23, Douglas supporters included half of the delegates, but very few from the South. Many Southerners openly predicted the collapse of the party and the election of Republican front-runner William H. Seward.
The Southern-controlled platform committee explicitly endorsed Dred Scott, and called for Congress to enact a slave code for all the Territories. (That is, Federal law prohibiting any Freeport-style "hostile legislation" by any Territory, and committing Federal authority to protect slavery there.) Douglas supporters responded that with such a platform, they would lose every Northern state. The Convention adopted the committee's minority report, which evaded Dred Scott and rejected a slave code, prompting 50 delegates from seven Southern states to withdraw.
The remaining delegates now voted on a Presidential nominee. Douglas received just over 150 votes out of 250 cast, but the Convention's rules required a 2/3 majority for a nomination, and chairman Caleb Cushing ruled that 2/3 of the entire convention was needed. After 57 ballots, the convention adjourned on May 3.
The convention reconvened on June 18 in Baltimore, Maryland. After replacement delegates were seated in place of some of the withdrawn delegates, most of the remaining Southerners withdrew. The delegates overruled Cushing and Douglas was nominated by 190 1/2 votes of 203 1/2 cast.
During the subsequent campaign, Douglas broke an unwritten rule by campaigning in person. From the first presidential election, that had been considered beneath the dignity of a presidential candidate. But Douglas, seeing the dangers facing the country, went on speaking tours across the country. Douglas campaigned energetically, attacking abolitionism in the North, and disunionism in the South.
In early October, Republicans won state elections in Ohio and Pennsylvania. Douglas told his secretary "Mr. Lincoln is the next President. We must try to save the Union. I will go south." He went to the South to rally Unionist sentiment.
He made no compromises. At Raleigh, North Carolina, he said "I am in favor of executing in good faith every clause and provision of the Constitution and protecting every right under it - and then hanging every man who takes up arms against it!" (While this was clearly directed at Southern secessionists, it also included by clear implication the anti-slavery activists who resisted enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act.)
Despite the vigor of his campaign, Douglas was defeated. He received 1,376,957 popular votes (second at 29%), but only 12 electoral votes (fourth and last at 4%), with Lincoln receiving 180. The support for Douglas in the North came from Irish Catholics and poorer farmers; in the South, Irish Catholics were his main supporters.
Douglas urged the South to acquiesce to Lincoln's election, and tried to arrange a compromise which would avert secession. As late as Christmas 1860, he wrote to Alexander H. Stephens and offered to support the annexation of Mexico as slave territory.
Douglas denounced secession as criminal; he was one of the strongest advocates of maintaining the integrity of the Union at all hazards.
After the bombardment of Fort Sumter, Lincoln decided to proclaim a state of rebellion and call for 75,000 troops to suppress it. Douglas looked over the proclamation before it was issued and endorsed it completely. He suggested only one change: Lincoln should call for 200,000 troops, not just 75,000. "You do not know the dishonest purposes of those men as well as I do," he said.
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 Virginia, Ohio and Illinois.
Douglas died in Chicago from typhoid fever on June 3, 1861. He was buried on the shore of Lake Michigan. After his death, Douglas's friends created the Douglas Monument Association. Leonard Volk, a prominent sculptor, was commissioned to design the monument. The Memorial and tomb were completed in 1883.
Douglas married into a slave-holding family (as did Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant). His wife had inherited a large slave plantation in Mississippi. When she died in 1853, Douglas, acting as executor of her estate and guardian of their minor children who inherited the slaves, controlled the plantation and derived most of his income from it. He denied that he ever personally owned these slaves, for they belonged to his wife and his children.
In his "Freeport Doctrine" of 1858, he repeatedly said 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 the petitions signed by thousands of clergymen in 1854, who said the Kansas-Nebraska Act offended God's will. He rejected the Republican assertions that slavery was condemned by a "higher law" (Seward's position) and that the nation could not long survive as half slave and half free (Lincoln's position). He disagreed with the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision that Congress had no ability to regulate slavery in the territories. When Buchanan supported the Lecompton Constitution and the pro-slavery position on Kansas, Douglas fought him in a long battle that gained Douglas the 1860 Democratic nomination but ripped his party apart.
Historian Allan Nevins was harsh on Douglas, writing "When it [slavery] paid it was good, and when it did not pay it was bad." Nevins assessed that Douglas did not "regard a slaveholding society as one whit inferior to a free society." He criticized what he called Douglas's "dim moral perceptions."
Graham Peck finds that while several scholars have said that Douglas was personally opposed to slavery, none has presented "extensive arguments to justify the conclusion". He cites recent scholarship as (equally briefly) finding Douglas "insensitive to the moral repugnance of slavery" or even "proslavery". He concludes 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 V. Jaffa thought Douglas was tricking the South with popular sovereignty--telling Southerners it would protect slavery but believing the people would 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, though 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."
Starting with Josiah Gilbert Holland's 1866 Life of Abraham Lincoln, a number of sources recount an anecdote about Douglas at Lincoln's first inauguration. Lincoln took the oath of office, then took off his "stovepipe" hat in preparation for giving his inaugural address. But he had nowhere to set down the hat. Douglas, who was on the platform, stepped forward and took the hat from Lincoln's hands. Moving back, he remarked "If I can't be the President, at least I can hold his hat."
The story seems symbolic of both the power of the moment and the character of Douglas, but was often considered apocryphal. Though he and Lincoln had been well-known rivals for both Senator and President, his respect for the office and his loyalty to the Union overcame any personal bad feelings. In 1959, Allan Nevins reported the discovery of an independent contemporary source which corroborated that Douglas had actually held Lincoln's hat; a newspaper article from March 11, 1861.
In 1930, E. Alyn Warren portrayed Douglas in the United Artists film, Abraham Lincoln. In 1939, Milburn Stone portrayed Douglas in the Twentieth Century-Fox film Young Mr. Lincoln. In 1940, Canadian actor Gene Lockhart portrayed Douglas in the RKO film Abe Lincoln in Illinois. In 1957, the actor Walter Coy portrayed Douglas in the episode "Springfield Incident" of CBS's The 20th Century Fox Hour. Other stars of the segment are Lloyd Corrigan and Tom Tryon, and Alan Hale, Jr.Richard Dreyfuss portrayed Stephen A. Douglas in a Lincoln-Douglas debate audiobook with David Straithairn portraying Abraham Lincoln.
In the alternate history short story Lincoln's Charge by Bill Fawcett (published in Alternate Presidents), Douglas wins the election of 1860, a change which only postpones the outbreak of war by one year.
Douglas is referenced by folk-artist Sufjan Stevens in the song "Decatur, or, Round of Applause for Your Stepmother!".
Edgar Lee Masters' work Children of the Marketplace: A fictitious biography is about Stephen Douglas.
Alexander P. Field
| Secretary of State of Illinois
|U.S. House of Representatives|
|New constituency|| Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Illinois's 5th congressional district
| U.S. Senator (Class 2) from Illinois
Served alongside: Sidney Breese, James Shields, Lyman Trumbull
Orville H. Browning
|Party political offices|
| Democratic nominee for President of the United States¹
|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.|