Who Was Stephen Douglas? - Facts, Debates & Timeline

Instructor: Daniel Vermilya
Stephen Douglas (1813-1861) was a United States senator from Illinois. He is best known today for the series debates he participated in with Abraham Lincoln during the 1858 Senate campaign in Illinois.

During the sectional tensions gripping the United States in the 1850s, few men were more important that Senator Stephen Douglas from Illinois. Let's learn more about this figure who played a role in the nation's pre-Civil War years, a man nicknamed 'the Little Giant' for his short stature and big impact on American history…

Early Years

A native of Vermont, Stephen Douglas was born in 1813. He spent his early years in the Northeast, moving to Illinois in 1833. For a short while he worked as a teacher, but soon began studying law. In 1847 he married Martha Martin, whose father left the couple a vast plantation in Mississippi upon his passing, giving them a considerable amount of wealth, slaves, and land. Douglas managed the property from a distance because he had strong political aspirations in Illinois and did not want to be strongly linked with a plantation. Martha died in 1853 after childbirth, and Douglas remarried in 1856. He had several children from his marriages.

Throughout the 1830s, Douglas had a steady rise through Illinois politics. By 1841, at the age of 27, he became a justice in the Illinois Supreme Court. The following year, Douglas won a seat in Congress as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. During these years, Douglas was a strong Democrat. He supported bills and amendments aimed at expanding the young country, and he was also a proponent of the Mexican War. Because of this policies, in 1846, he was elected to be a United States senator from Illinois. This placed Douglas in position to truly impact national policy.

Senator Stephen Douglas

Senator Douglas

Following the Mexican War, the United States acquired a vast amount of territory. In these pre-Civil War years, much of the national debate focused on slavery. Specifically, it centered on whether slavery would expand into new territories or simply remain where it already existed in Southern states. Many Democrats sought the expansion of slavery. The guiding legislation on the topic was the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which dictated that Missouri would be a slave state and that all new territories north of the 36°30 latitude line would be slave-free.

In 1850, a great debate erupted over whether California and other lands from the Mexican War would be admitted to the Union. The elder statesman, Senator Henry Clay, a member of the Whig Party from Kentucky, came up with a compromise to avoid sectional conflict and admit new lands to resolve the crisis. However, Clay was unable to pass the legislation through Congress. Douglas stepped in, dividing the bill into numerous pieces, ensuring its passage and establishing Douglas as one of the most prominent and important members of the Senate. This is known in history as the Compromise of 1850. In 1852, Douglas was re-elected to his seat.

In 1854, Douglas made his biggest political impact with the passage of the Kansas Nebraska Act. When deciding the future of the Kansas and Nebraska territories, Douglas put forward a bill that would admit the two territories to the Union. However, this reversed the standard set by the Missouri Compromise thirty years earlier. The issue of slavery in the new states would be left to the people themselves. In other words, the issue of slavery would be determined by a popular vote. Douglas termed this popular sovereignty and declared it a democratic way of deciding the matter. With the bill's passage, anti-slavery Whigs and others who sought to limit slavery's expansion formed together to form the new Republican Party. The Republicans' one uniting principle was opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and limiting the westward spread of slavery. Among these new Republicans was a former congressman and Illinois lawyer, Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln Douglas Debates

After Douglas missed out on the Democratic nomination for president in 1856, he was up for re-election to his senate seat in 1858. His Republican challenger was Abraham Lincoln. Because Douglas was already an established political figure, Lincoln was running at a disadvantage. His initial strategy was to follow Douglas around the state and, after Douglas made an address, Lincoln would speak right afterward to capture Douglas's attention. The tactic paid off when Lincoln got Douglas to agree to seven debates across the state.

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