1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Douglas, Stephen Arnold

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DOUGLAS, STEPHEN ARNOLD (1813-1861), American statesman, was born at Brandon, Vermont, on the 23rd of April 1813. His father, a physician, died in July 1813, and the boy was under the care of a bachelor uncle until he was fourteen, when his uncle married and Douglas was thrown upon his own resources. He was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker in Middlebury, Vt., and then to another in Brandon, but soon abandoned this trade. He attended schools at Brandon and Canandaigua (N.Y.), and began the study of law. In 1833 he went West, and finally settled in Jacksonville, Illinois, where he was admitted to the bar in March 1834, and obtained a large practice. From the first he took an active interest in politics, identifying himself with the Jackson Democrats, and his rise was remarkably rapid even for the Middle West of that period. In February 1835 he was elected public prosecutor of the first judicial circuit, the most important at that time in Illinois; in 1835 he was one of several Democrats in Morgan county to favour a state Democratic convention to elect delegates to the national convention of 1836—an important move toward party regularity; in December 1836 he became a member of the state legislature. In 1837 he was appointed by President Van Buren registrar of the land office at Springfield, which had just become the state capital. In 1840 he did much to carry the state for Van Buren; and for a few months he was secretary of state of Illinois. He was a judge of the supreme court of Illinois from 1841 to 1843. In 1843 he was elected to the national House of Representatives.

In Congress, though one of the youngest members, he at once sprang into prominence by his clever defence of Jackson during the consideration by the House of a bill remitting the fine imposed on Jackson for contempt of court in New Orleans. He was soon recognized as one of the ablest and most energetic of the Democratic leaders. An enthusiastic believer in the destiny of his country and more especially of the West, and a thoroughgoing expansionist, he heartily favoured in Congress the measures which resulted in the annexation of Texas and in the Mexican War—in the discussion of the annexation of Texas he suggested as early as 1845 that the states to be admitted should come in slave or free, as their people should vote when they applied to Congress for admission, thus foreshadowing his doctrine of “Popular Sovereignty.” He took an active share in the Oregon controversy, asserting his unalterable determination, in spite of President Polk’s faltering from the declaration of his party’s platform, not to “yield up one inch” of the territory to Great Britain, and advocating its occupation by a military force; indeed he consistently regarded Great Britain as the natural and foremost rival of the United States, the interests of the two nations, he thought, being always opposed, and few senators fought more vigorously the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty or Great Britain’s reassertion of the right of search on the high seas. He ardently supported the policy of making Federal appropriations (of land, but not of money) for internal improvements of a national character, being a prominent advocate of the construction, by government aid, of a trans-continental railway, and the chief promoter (1850) of the Illinois Central; in 1854 he suggested that Congress should impose tonnage duties from which towns and cities might themselves pay for harbour improvement, &c. To him as chairman of the committee on territories, at first in the House, and then in the Senate, of which he became a member in December 1847, it fell to introduce the bills for admitting Texas, Florida, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, California and Oregon into the Union, and for organizing the territories of Minnesota, Oregon, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, Kansas and Nebraska. In 1848 he introduced a bill proposing that all the territory acquired from Mexico should be admitted into the Union as a single state, and upon the defeat of this bill proposed others providing for the immediate admission of parts of this territory.

In the bitter debates concerning the keenly disputed question of the permission of slavery in the territories, Douglas was particularly prominent. Against slavery itself he seems never to have had any moral antipathy; he married (1847) the daughter[1] of a slaveholder, Colonel Robert Martin of North Carolina, and a cousin of Douglas’s colleague in Congress, D. S. Reid; and his wife and children were by inheritance the owners of slaves, though he himself never was. He did more probably than any other one man, except Henry Clay, to secure the adoption of the Compromise Measures of 1850. In 1849 the Illinois legislature demanded that its representatives and senators should vote for the prohibition of slavery in the Mexican cession, but next year this sentiment in Illinois had grown much weaker, and, both there and in Congress, Douglas’s name was soon to become identified with the so-called “popular sovereignty” or “squatter sovereignty” theory, previously enunciated by Lewis Cass, by which each territory was to be left to decide for itself whether it should or should not have slavery. In 1850 his power of specious argument won back to him his Chicago constituents who had violently attacked him for not opposing the Fugitive Slave Law.

The bill for organizing the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, which Douglas reported in January 1854 and which in amended form was signed by the president on the 30th of May, reopened the whole slavery dispute—wantonly, his enemies charged, for the purpose of securing Southern support,—and caused great popular excitement, as it repealed the Missouri Compromise, and declared the people of “any state or territory” “free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to the Constitution of the United States.” The passage of this Kansas-Nebraska Bill, one of the most momentous in its consequences ever passed by the Federal Congress, was largely a personal triumph for Douglas, who showed marvellous energy, adroitness and resourcefulness, and a genius for leadership. There was great indignation throughout the free states; and even in Chicago Douglas was unable to win for himself a hearing before a public meeting. In 1852, and again in 1856, he was a candidate for the presidential nomination in the national Democratic convention, and though on both occasions he was unsuccessful, he received strong support. In 1857 he broke with President Buchanan and the “administration” Democrats and lost much of his prestige in the South, but partially restored himself to favour in the North, and especially in Illinois, by his vigorous opposition to the method of voting on the Lecompton constitution, which he maintained to be fraudulent, and (in 1858) to the admission of Kansas into the Union under this constitution. In 1858, when the Supreme Court, after the vote of Kansas against the Lecompton constitution, had decided that Kansas was a “slave” territory, thus quashing Douglas’s theory of “popular sovereignty,” he engaged in Illinois in a close and very exciting contest for the senatorship with Abraham Lincoln, the Republican candidate, whom he met in a series of debates (at Ottawa, Freeport, Jonesboro, Charleston, Galesburg, Quincy and Alton), in one of which, that at Freeport, Douglas was led to declare that any territory, by “unfriendly legislation,” could exclude slavery, no matter what the action of the Supreme Court. This, the famous “Freeport Doctrine,” lost to Douglas the support of a large element of his party in the South, and in Illinois his followers did not poll so large a vote as Lincoln’s. Douglas, however, won the senatorship by a vote in the legislature of 54 to 46. In the Senate he was not reappointed chairman of the committee on territories. In 1860 in the Democratic national convention in Charleston the adoption of Douglas’s platform brought about the withdrawal from the convention of Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, South Carolina, Florida, Texas and Arkansas. The convention adjourned to Baltimore, where the Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Maryland delegations left it, and where Douglas was nominated for the presidency by the Northern Democrats; he campaigned vigorously but hopelessly, boldly attacking disunion, and in the election, though he received a popular vote of 1,376,957, he received an electoral vote of only 12—Lincoln receiving 180. Douglas urged the South to acquiesce in Lincoln’s election. On the outbreak of the Civil War, he denounced secession as criminal, and was one of the strongest advocates of maintaining the integrity of the Union at all hazards. At Lincoln’s request he undertook a mission to the border states and the North-west to rouse the spirit of Unionism; he spoke in West Virginia, Ohio and Illinois. He died on the 3rd of June 1861 at Chicago, where he was buried on the shore of Lake Michigan; the site was afterwards bought by the state, and an imposing monument with a statue by Leonard Volk now stands over his grave.

In person Douglas was conspicuously small, being hardly five feet in height, but his large head and massive chest and shoulders gave him the popular sobriquet “The Little Giant.” His voice was strong and carried far, he had little grace of delivery, and his gestures were often violent. As a resourceful political leader, and an adroit, ready, skilful tactician in debate, he has had few equals in American history.

See Allen Johnson’s Stephen A. Douglas: A Study in American Politics (New York, 1908), W. G. Brown’s Stephen Arnold Douglas (Boston, 1902), and an excellent review of his later life in James Ford Rhodes’s History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 (New York, 1893-1906); also P. O. Ray, Repeal of the Missouri Compromise (Cleveland, Ohio, 1909), and E. C. Carr, Stephen A. Douglas (Chicago, 1909).


  1. Her death in 1853 was a great blow to him and embittered him. in November 1856 he married Adèle Cutts, a Maryland belle, a grandniece of Dolly Madison, and a Roman Catholic, who became the leader of Washington society, especially in the winter of 1857-1858, when Douglas was in revolt against Buchanan.