Stephen A. Douglas was a controversial and influential politician known as a champion for popular sovereignty and his widely followed debates with Abraham Lincoln. Douglas played a key role in shaping mid-1800s American politics, especially when it came to slavery. Called “the Little Giant” (the prominent U.S. congressman stood 5-feet-4-inches tall), his rallying cry for states and territories—and not the federal government or courts—to choose whether slavery should be allowed within their borders was a precursor to the unrest that led to the Civil War.
Early Life and Political Career
Born April 23, 1813, in Brandon, Vermont, Douglas’s father, a doctor, died when he was a baby, and his mother moved the family to her brother’s nearby farm, and later to western New York, where he studied at the Canandaigua Academy and practiced debate. Apprenticing as a cabinetmaker as a teen, he was inspired by President Andrew Jackson’s 1828 election campaign and became a devoted follower of Jacksonian Democracy and its “era of the common man” ideals.
In New York, Douglas clerked at a law firm, then moved to Cleveland, where he continued to study law before moving to Illinois in 1833, at age 20, where he worked as a schoolmaster before earning a law license in 1834 and setting up a law practice in Jacksonville, about 35 miles west of the state Capitol.
In 1836, Douglas was elected to the Illinois General Assembly, serving as a Democrat. He was appointed Illinois secretary of state during the 1840-41 legislative session and elected to serve as a judge on the Illinois Supreme Court in 1841. In 1843, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, a seat he held for three terms until 1847. From 1847 until his death in 1861, he served three terms as a U.S. senator.
Douglas ran unsuccessfully for president of the United States on the Democratic ticket in 1852, 1856 and 1860.
The Popular Sovereignty Doctrine
During his time in Congress, Douglas became known as a gifted debater and key supporter of westward expansion and the principle of popular sovereignty.
Douglas sponsored the Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed by Congress in 1854, which, in allowing the Kansas and Nebraska territories (today’s Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota) to choose whether or not to allow slavery, served as a repeal of the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which banned slavery in northern territories.
Opponents of the controversial law, including abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, said it would turn the territories into “a dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves.” The law’s enaction brought both abolitionists and pro-slavery settlers to Kansas, resulting in what came to be called “Bleeding Kansas,” because of the violence that ensued and became a precursor to the Civil War that would soon follow in 1861.
The Lincoln-Douglas Debates
In 1858, Douglas faced a challenge to his third-term Senate seat from Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln, and the two faced off on the issue of slavery over the course of seven debates held between August 21 and October 15, 1858.
Douglas’s call for popular sovereignty was pitted against Lincoln’s arguments opposing slavery’s expansion, and the highly attended debates received widespread news coverage around the nation, gaining notoriety for Lincoln. Although the popular vote was in Lincoln’s favor, it was the state legislature that elected U.S. senators until the 17th Amendment was enacted 1913, and Douglas was voted the victor.
Soon after, however, Lincoln went on to defeat Douglas in the 1860 U.S. presidential election. Ultimately, Douglas, running on a divided Democratic party ticket, was trounced, finishing the last of four candidates.
Death and Legacy
Despite his presidential defeat and their rivalry, Douglas, following the fall of Fort Sumter to the Confederates in April 1861, lent his support to Lincoln and the Union cause.
“You all know that I am a very good partisan fighter in partisan times,” he told the Illinois State Legislature, most of whom were his political foes, for which he received a standing ovation on April 25, 1861. “And I trust you will find me equally a good patriot when the country is in danger.”
A few days later, during a May 1, 1861, speech in Chicago, he echoed that sentiment.
“There are only two sides to this question,” he said in his final address to the public. “Every man must be for the United States or against it. There can be no neutrals in this war; only patriots and traitors.”
Exhausted from the campaign trail and efforts to stop the South from seceding from the North, Douglas suffered worsening health problems. He died in a hotel room from typhoid fever at age 48 on June 3, 1861, just weeks after the start of the Civil War. He is buried in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago at the Douglas Tomb State Historic Site.
In 2020, a statue of Douglas was removed from the lawn of the Illinois Capitol following a unanimous vote by a state board, citing Douglas’s ties to slavery. Lincoln biographer Sidney Blumenthal wrote in a 2019 book that a plantation with slaves was bequeathed to Douglas’s first wife, Martha Martin, whom he married in 1847, and that Douglas had used his 20 percent share of income generated from a hired plantation manager to help with campaign funds.
“Stephen A. Douglas: A Featured Biography,” U.S. Senate
“Stephen A. Douglas Papers,” University of Chicago Library
“Stephen A. Douglas: The Political Apprenticeship, 1833-1843,” by Reg Ankrom
“Stephen Arnold Douglas,” Illinois Supreme Court Historic Preservation Commission