Stephen Arnold Douglass was born in Brandon, Vermont on April 23, 1813 to a Stephen Arnold Douglass and a Sarah Fisk. A number of years later he dropped the second “s” from his name.
In 1833, he moved to Illinois and settled in Jacksonville. There he taught and studied law.
Douglas decided to enter politics and his rise in the political scene in Illinois was meteoritic even by the standards of the day
In 1834, he was appointed as Morgan County State Attorney and he served in that capacity until 1836.
He was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives and he was appointed to be an associate justice of the Illinois Supreme Court in 1841 and the very young age of 27.
In 1842 and 1844, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and in his second term he served alongside future President Abraham Lincoln who at that time was a Whig and they developed an intense rivalry and friendship as well.
Douglas was a supporter of the Mexican War and he was a proponent of territorial expansion as well.
In 1846, he was elected by the legislature to serve in the U.S. Senate. He was re elected in 1852 and 1858.
In 1858, his main challenger was Abraham Lincoln. Their nationally recognized debates significantly boosted Lincoln’s name recognition and Douglas commented later that the Senate Election of 1858 was only a ruse by Lincoln. Douglas believed to his dying day that Lincoln’s ambitions were for the presidency all along and Douglas also felt that Lincoln was a very talented politician in spite of his popular mantra as a simple “rail splitter.”
While in the Senate, Douglas was Chairman of the Committee on Territories. In this capacity he was almost wholly responsible for The Compromise of 1850 as well as the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed the people of new territories determine whether they were to become free or slave. The term “popular sovereignty” was the term coined and it was this term which was the nail in the coffin so to speak for the Whig Party and it was also the phrase which started the Republican Party.
Douglas also supported the Dred Scott Decision of 1857 that stated that parts of the Missouri Compromise were unconstitutional and that slaves were not citizens and under the current Constitution they would never be and therefore had no right to sue in federal court.
Douglas was a strong advocate of democracy. He believed that the will of the people was paramount. When President James Buchannan attempted to pass a federal slave code, Douglas strongly opposed it and the measure failed. This let to a split in the Democratic Party into two wings, a pro-slavery Southern wing and an anti-slavery Northern wing. This split would affect the entire country in 1860-1861.
At the 1860 Democratic National Convention which was held in Charleston, South Carolina, the convention split because of the failure to include slave codes for the new territories in its platform. Consequently, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida, Texas and Arkansas withdrew their delegations.
The convention reconvened in Baltimore, Maryland and the states of Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Maryland withdrew as well.
At this convention, Stephen Douglas was nominated for President by the Northern Democrats. The Southern Democrats would eventually nominate their own candidate, John C. Breckenridge of Kentucky.
During the election Douglas fought hard to maintain the Union. The South was already stating that if Lincoln was elected President, they would secede.
In the final results, Douglas came in second in the popular vote (1,376,957) but in the Electoral College, he came in last with only 12 votes compared to Lincoln’s 180. Most of his support in the North came from the Irish Catholics and the poor farmers and in the South most of his support came from the Irish Catholics. It just simply wasn’t enough to defeat Lincoln and win the presidency.
After the election, Douglas fought long and hard to preserve the Union. He campaigned tirelessly to try to convince the South to recognize Abraham Lincoln’s election. Even as late as December of 1860, Douglas wrote a letter to Alexander Stephens, a senator from Georgia and future Confederate Vice-President, offering to annex Mexico and offer it to the South as a slave state. Mexico had abolished slavery in 1829. Exactly how Douglas was going to accomplishment this is unclear even though there was talk in the early stages of the Lincoln Administration by Secretary of State William H. Seward of doing just this, in a last ditch attempt to unify the country.
After the southern states started seceding, Douglas denounced these acts as criminal. He was a strong supported of preserving the Union at all costs.
When war finally did break out, Lincoln dispatched Douglas to the Border States and the Midwest urging everyone to support maintaining the Union. He spoke in Virginia, Ohio and Illinois.
Stephen Arnold Douglas was one of the greatest Senators to ever serve. His nickname was “Little Giant” in the Senate. Although he was small in stature he was considered one of the greatest Senators to ever serve, whether you disagree with his positions or not, his primary motivation was the preservation of the Union. He believed in the Union above everything else.
In 1861, Stephen Douglas contracted typhoid fever and he died in Chicago, Illinois on June 3, 1861 and he was buried in Chicago on the shore of Lake Michigan.