United States Senator and presidential candidate Stephen Douglas was born on April 23, 1813, in Brandon, Vermont. His father trained him to be a cabinetmaker, but Douglas wanted to become an attorney. He began studying for a legal career at the Canandaigua Academy in New York, but he left before graduating. He spent a short time in Ohio, serving as a schoolteacher, while he continued to study the law. Douglas eventually moved to Winchester, Illinois, where he passed the Illinois bar exam in 1834. He opened his own law practice in Jacksonville, Illinois, that same year.
In 1836, Illinois voters elected Douglas to the state legislature. Hoping for a more prominent position in government, Douglas ran for the United States House of Representatives in 1838. He lost that race. Three years later, Douglas became a justice on the Illinois Supreme Court. He held that position for one year and then was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1847, Douglas became a United States senator from Illinois. He held this office until his death on June 3, 1861.
While he served in the House and in the Senate, Douglas played an important role in resolving differences between Northerners and Southerners over the issue of slavery. Douglas worked hard to ensure that the Compromise of 1850 went into effect, bringing various political factions together to endorse the measure. In 1854, Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Douglas hoped that this act would lead to the creation of a transcontinental railroad and settle the differences between the North and the South. Under this bill, Douglas called for the creation of the Nebraska Territory. The House of Representatives quickly passed the act, but the Senate refused to vote on the measure. Southern senators informed Douglas that slavery must be permitted in the Nebraska Territory or that they would not support the bill. Douglas knew that such a bill would outrage many white Northerners, including his own constituents.
Douglas introduced a rewritten version of his bill in 1854, this time stating that the eligible voters in the territory would decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. While the Southerners liked this bill much more than Douglas's original version, Southern senators still feared that Nebraska would become a free state. In yet another version of the bill, Douglas called for the creation of two territories, Kansas and Nebraska, and explicitly stated that the Missouri Compromise would no longer remain in effect. Southern senators accepted this bill. The repeal of the Missouri Compromise opened the parts of the Louisiana Purchase yet to become states to slavery. It also gave Southerners an opportunity to create two slave states out of Kansas and Nebraska.
While Douglas had now gained enough support to pass his bill in the United States Senate, he faced opposition from President Franklin Pierce. Pierce believed that the Missouri Compromise had kept peace between Northerners and Southerners, and he did not want to repudiate a government act that had worked so well. Several Southern senators visited Pierce in the White House and gave him an ultimatum: either support Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act or lose all political support that the president currently enjoyed in the South. Pierce gave in to the senators.
Many white Northerners opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in its final form. Salmon Chase, a senator from Ohio, denounced the bill. All of the bill's opponents, whether on economic or moral grounds, objected to the possible expansion of slavery. The bill passed both houses of Congress. Most members of the Democratic Party endorsed it, while members of the Free Soil Party condemned it. The Whig Party's members split along regional lines with Northern Whigs opposing it and Southern Whigs endorsing the legislation. The Whig Party collapsed because of the regional divisions caused by the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In Ohio, the Kansas-Nebraska Act led to the creation of the Fusion Party, a precursor of the Republican Party, in 1854. The Kansas-Nebraska Act also led to "Bleeding Kansas," a small civil war that began in Kansas in 1856. Many Northerners and Southerners went to Kansas in 1854 and 1855, determined to convert the future state to their view on slavery. To ensure that their side would win, some Americans like John Brown and Henry Ward Beecher advocated the use of violence in Kansas
While Douglas played an important role in the settlement of the West, he is perhaps best known for his political battles with Abraham Lincoln in both 1858 and again in 1860. In 1858, Douglas ran for reelection to the Senate. He represented the Democratic Party in the election, while his opponent, Lincoln, was the Republican Party's candidate. The two men participated in seven debates. Lincoln argued that the United States could not survive with half of the nation allowing slavery and the other half opposing this institution. Lincoln contended that African Americans were human beings and that they deserved their freedom. However, he never claimed that African Americans should have equal rights with whites. Douglas championed popular sovereignty and accused Lincoln of believing African Americans were equal to whites. Douglas retained his seat.
Douglas and Lincoln met again on the political battlefield in the presidential election of 1860. In this election, Lincoln represented the Republican Party, while Douglas represented the Northern Democratic Party. By the late 1850s, the Democratic Party was split over the issue of slavery. Northern Democrats generally opposed slavery's expansion, while many Southern Democrats believed that slavery should exist across the United States. Douglas refused to endorse the Southerners' view, and the Democratic Party split in two. John C. Breckinridge represented the Southern Democratic Party. A fourth party, the Constitutional Union Party, also campaigned in this election. Its candidate, John Bell, hoped to compromise the tensions between the North and South away by extending the Missouri Compromise line across the remainder of the United States. Slavery would be permitted in new states established south of the line, while the institution would be illegal in new states formed north of the line.
Lincoln won the election against the other three candidates. Many Northern voters agreed with him that slavery ultimately needed to end, whether through abolitionist efforts or letting the institution run its course to eventual extinction. Some of these people also agreed with Lincoln that the federal government could not end slavery where it already existed but that it could prohibit slavery in new territories and states. In 1860, the North had a population of approximately twenty-three million people to the South's nine million. Southerners divided their support between Breckinridge and Bell, while Northerners generally rejected these two candidates. Douglas provided the only real opposition to Lincoln in the North, but most Northern voters preferred Lincoln's views. With such a wide difference in population, the North controlled the Electoral College and gave Lincoln the victory in the election. In Ohio, Lincoln finished first with more than 231,000 votes to Douglas's 187,000. People originally from the South or with Southern leanings tended to vote for Douglas while those people from Northern states endorsed Lincoln. Bell and Breckinridge received just over 23,000 votes from Ohioans combined.
Douglas was gracious in defeat. He remained in the United States Senate and attempted to find a peaceful solution to the differences between the North and the South. Following the surrender of Fort Sumter in April 1861, Douglas backed Lincoln and his efforts to return the South to the United States through military force. Douglas died on June 3, 1861.
- John Brown
- Abraham Lincoln
- Bleeding Kansas
- Compromise of 1850
- Missouri Compromise
- African Americans
- Democratic Party
- Free Soil Party
- Fusion Party
- Union Party
- Whig Party
- Kansas-Nebraska Act
- Salmon P. Chase
- Republican Party
- Henry W. Beecher
- Northern Democratic Party
- Popular Sovereignty
- Southern Democratic Party
- Dee, Christine, ed. Ohio's War: The Civil War in Documents. Athens: Ohio University Press, 2007.
- Johannsen, Robert Walter. Stephen A. Douglas. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1973.
- Johannsen, Robert Walter. The Frontier, the Union, and Stephen A. Douglas. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
- Roseboom, Eugene H. The Civil War Era: 1850-1873. Columbus: Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Society, 1944.
- Wells, Damon. Stephen Douglas; The Last Years, 1857-1861. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1971.