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Stephen A. Douglas and His Legacy

Hon. Stephen A. Douglas, Ill

Hon. Stephen A. Douglas, Ill. Portrait by Matthew Brady, courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration, PD.

Today’s guest blog post is by Matthew Irvine, a 2012-2013 Miller Center Ambassador and first year student at the University of Virginia majoring in Computer Science.

Two hundred years ago today marks the birth of one of America’s most prominent political leaders. Though Stephen A. Douglas was never elected President of the United States, he tried his hardest to ascend to the position. In the process, he served as a member of the United States House of Representatives and the Senate, championing causes like westward expansion and popular sovereignty. Although his legacy is sometimes eclipsed by that of his Illinois political rival Abraham Lincoln, Douglas was one of the most influential and powerful politicians of his day.

Stephen A. Douglas’s legacy began on April 23, 1813 when he was born in Brandon, Vermont, to parents Stephen Arnold Douglass and Sarah Fisk. Before entering into politics, Douglas held a variety of jobs. He worked on the farm where he grew up until he turned 15, at which point he became a cabinetmaker’s apprentice. Quickly moving on, he relocated to New York, where he worked as a farmhand for three years. Yearning for a career in law but not wanting to spend the four years in school that New York required, Douglas ventured westward to the land of opportunity and self-made men and settled in Jacksonville, Illinois, where he quickly became a lawyer.

As a citizen of Illinois, Douglas involved himself in politics almost immediately. Only about a year after coming to the state, he was appointed as a state prosecutor. Over the years he worked his way up through the political ranks, holding such positions as state legislator, state supreme court justice, U.S. Representative, and, eventually, U.S. Senator. From his time as a young man to his tenure in the United States Senate, Douglas was a dedicated Jacksonian Democrat, believing in such principles as limited government, westward expansion, and popular sovereignty.

As a federal legislator, Douglas played a huge role in the pre-Civil War debate over the “peculiar institution” of slavery. When Douglas joined the Senate, the United States has just acquired vast new territory in the Mexican-American War, and faced the question of how to deal with slavery in the new land. Confronted with a Southern secessionist movement and the first national debate over slavery in decades, the freshman Senator worked closely with Henry Clay to broker the Compromise of 1950. With this compromise, Douglas was able to implement in New Mexico and Utah what remained a key position of his throughout his career: popular sovereignty. This was a policy that he advocated several years later in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, when he argued that citizens in Kansas and Nebraska should be able to choose for themselves whether to accept slavery or not. What Douglas saw as encouraging western settlement and removing the divisive issue of slavery from national politics, however, others saw as a blatant attempt to expand slavery.

Douglas is, perhaps, most remembered for his famous debates with Abraham Lincoln and his aspirations for the presidency. In his 1858 campaign to retain his Senate seat, Douglas faced a challenge from Republican Abraham Lincoln. The two agreed to a series of debates, one in each congressional district of Illinois. Given the state of national politics at the time, the debates naturally focused on the issue of slavery. Through the course of the debates, Douglas defended his support of the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, speaking in favor of the idea of popular sovereignty. Lincoln, on the other hand, saw Douglas’s policies as nationalizing slavery rather than removing them from the national debate.

Although Lincoln failed to convince the Illinois legislature to elect him to the Senate over Douglas, it may have been Douglas who suffered the most from the debates. At a debate in Freeport, Illinois, Lincoln trapped Douglas by asking him how his theory of popular sovereignty could fit with the Supreme Court’s decision in Dred Scott, where it had ruled that the federal government could not exclude slavery from the territories. Douglas’s response established the Freeport Doctrine, which said that any territory could prevent slavery by failing to pass laws favorable to the institution. While Douglas had believed that popular sovereignty would be seen as a great compromise between pro-slavery and anti-slavery ideals, the effect of Lincoln’s trap was to make Douglas less appealing to Southern Democrats who supported slavery as well as to Northerners who took a strong anti-slavery stance. Douglas hoped that the compromise that won him his Senate seat in Illinois would win him the presidency in 1860, but it only served to ensure that neither those who supported slavery nor those who opposed it looked favorably upon him. Even though Douglas never ascended to the presidency, he still had a long and successful career as a powerful and influential Jacksonian Democrat.

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