Douglas, Stephen Arnold

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.

Douglas, Stephen Arnold

Stephen Arnold Douglas, 1813–61, American statesman, b. Brandon, Vt.

Senatorial Career

He was admitted to the bar at Jacksonville, Ill., in 1834. After holding various state and local offices he became a U.S. Representative in 1843, and from 1847 until his death was a U.S. Senator. In the Senate, Douglas was made chairman of the Committee on Territories, an all-important post in the next decade because of the growing battle over the issue of slavery in the territories. For the Compromise of 1850, Douglas drafted the bills instituting territorial government in New Mexico and Utah, whose citizens were left free to act for themselves on all subjects of legislation (including slavery) not inconsistent with the Constitution. This was the essence of Douglas's doctrine of popular sovereignty (a phrase he coined later, in 1854), or Squatter Sovereignty, as its opponents contemptuously called it.

In the early 1850s, when expanding settlement and the great desire for a transcontinental railroad to the Pacific focused attention on the Nebraska region, Douglas proposed a bill in which, as in New Mexico and Utah, all questions of slavery were left to the residents of the new territory. A conference of leaders changed the bill to provide for two territories rather than one, and in this form the Kansas-Nebraska Act became law in 1854. Douglas believed that popular sovereignty would unite the northern and southern wings of the Democratic party and at the same time settle the slavery issue peacefully. But he had not foreseen the bitter contest that would develop between proslavery and Free-State settlers in Kansas. In his report on the Kansas situation he blamed the organized interference of interests outside the territory for the failure of popular sovereignty.

When James Buchanan decided to support the proslavery Lecompton Constitution (see under Lecompton), on which only the proslavery forces in Kansas had voted, Douglas rebelled and in one of his major speeches denounced both the Lecompton Constitution and Buchanan, whom he had formerly supported. It was a courageous and spectacular stand, but his enemies held, unfairly, that Douglas was motivated by political expediency, for he was coming up for reelection in 1858.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates

In the 1858 Illinois campaign the "Little Giant," as his admirers called him, was pitted against Abraham Lincoln. The contest was made memorable by the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which first gained Lincoln a national reputation. Of the seven debates, the second, held at Freeport on Aug. 27, 1858, had the most important consequences. There Lincoln shrewdly put to Douglas a question exposing the inconsistency between Douglas's doctrine of popular sovereignty and the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in the Dred Scott Case— "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?" Had Douglas answered no, in line with the Dred Scott decision, he would have offended many of his constituents and doubtless lost his seat in the Senate. As it was, he replied that people of a territory could exclude slavery, since that institution could not exist for a day without local police regulations and these could be legislated only with their approval.

The Republicans won a popular majority in the ensuing election, but the Democrats controlled the legislature, and Douglas was returned to the Senate. However, his Freeport doctrine, as his answer to Lincoln's question was styled, had made him anathema to Southern Democrats. Since they controlled the Senate, he was relieved of the chairmanship of the Committee on Territories.

Presidential Campaign and After

The Democratic national convention at Charleston, S.C., in 1860 adopted Douglas's recommendations in a platform advocating nonintervention with slavery in the territories; the demands of William L. Yancey that the federal government protect the institution were thus rejected, and Yancey and other Southern delegates withdrew. Although Douglas led on all 57 ballots taken there for the presidential nomination he was unable to muster the necessary two-thirds of the vote, and the convention adjourned. Reconvening at Baltimore, the Democrats finally chose him only after more Southern delegates withdrew to nominate their own candidate, John C. Breckinridge. Douglas won only 12 electoral votes, although he stood second to the victorious Lincoln in the popular count.

In the following months Douglas worked hard to effect a compromise between the sections; when that failed and the Civil War broke out, he vigorously supported Lincoln. One of the greatest orators of his day, he made a speaking tour to rally the people of the Northwest in the crisis, but after an eloquent speech at Springfield, he was stricken with typhoid fever and died. Douglas's reputation suffered with the growth of the Lincoln legend. In recent years, however, historians have asserted that he was one of the few men of pre–Civil War era with a truly national vision, and this was both the basis for his honorable attempts to reconcile differences and for his ultimate political failure, because the age was essentially one of bitter sectional controversy.


See his letters, ed. by R. W. Johannsen (1961); biographies by A. Johnson (1908, repr. 1970), G. M. Capers (1959), R. W. Johannsen (1973), and M. H. Quitt (2012); G. F. Milton, The Eve of Conflict: Stephen A. Douglas and the Civil War (1934, repr. 1963); D. Wells, Stephen Douglas: The Last Years (1970); A. C. Guelzo, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America (2008); F. M. Bordewich, America's Great Debate: Henry Clay, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Compromise That Preserved the Union (2012); J. Burt, Lincoln's Tragic Pragmatism: Lincoln, Douglas, and Moral Conflict (2012).

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