Stephen A. Douglas and Popular Sovereignty

By Dean, Eric T., Jr. | The Historian, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Stephen A. Douglas and Popular Sovereignty


Dean, Eric T., Jr., The Historian


Explosive struggles in the U.S. Congress over the expansion of slavery into parts of the Louisiana Purchase and the vast new expanses of western territory acquired in the Mexican war occurred from 1847 to 1861, when Stephen A. Douglas served as a senator from Illinois. As chairman of the Committee on Territories, Douglas helped to develop and champion popular sovereignty, as one of four alternatives proposed for dealing with the issue of slavery in the new territories added to the United States.

The doctrine of popular sovereignty was opposed to the more extreme northern and southern positions, which advocated direct federal control by Congress or the courts either to exclude (the "free soft" position) or to protect (the "common property" theory) slavery in the territories; it also differed from the Missouri Compromise alternative, which suggested further division of territory between free and slave states. Ruling out any congressional action on slavery in the territories, popular sovereignty left the decision regarding the "peculiar institution" to the people of the territories as a matter of local autonomy, with direct democracy to be exercised by territorial residents themselves. A presidential candidate, Lewis Cass, had originally advocated popular sovereignty as the solution to the territorial crisis in his "Nicholson Letter" of 1847. The doctrine later became closely associated with Senator Douglas in the 1850s as he helped incorporate it into the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.(1)

One major problem with popular sovereignty related to the question of when the doctrine would take effect. Would this local autonomy commence immediately when the territory was organized and opened for settlement, or would it take effect only when the fully-inhabited territory applied to Congress for statehood a number of years later? Such questions raised the matter of the territorial legislature's power over the institution of slavery in the interim period between organization and statehood. Some early advocates had maintained that popular sovereignty would apply to the territories from the very time these areas had been organized and open for settlement. Others argued that territorial residents would only be entitled to full autonomy on application to Congress for statehood, and, until that time, the Constitution (under the "common-property theory") protected slavery in the territorial phase. Southerners would thereby retain their "equal rights" to the territories and settlement by slaveowners would be encouraged. Consciously attempting to retain popular sovereignty's appeal to both northerners and southerners in order to neutralize the slavery issue, Cass and Douglas argued that the issue of when popular sovereignty took effect must ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court.(2)

The doctrine was further tainted when Douglas, in patching together a politically workable Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, substituted the principle of popular sovereignty for the Missouri Compromise's previous ban on slavery in the Louisiana Purchase north of 36 [degrees] 30 [minutes]. Many northerners, suspecting that the Illinois senator had made this adjustment in order to win southern support for an expected presidential bid, viewed popular sovereignty as a matter of political expediency and a backhanded attempt to convert previously free territory into eventual slave states. However, after Douglas led the effort in the Senate to defeat a proslavery constitution (one parading under the guise of popular sovereignty) for the Kansas territory, even his southern supporters turned against him and referred to popular sovereignty by the derisive term "squatter sovereignty."

The ultimate failure of popular sovereignty was reflected in the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Although the doctrine's proponents had hoped to prevent sectional strife, popular sovereignty had not only failed to avert civil war, but also seemed to exacerbate sectionalism by contributing to the formation of the first sectional party - the Republican party. …

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