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  • Mike Martinez

Congressional Lions: Stephen A. Douglas

Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, nicknamed the “Little Giant” owing to his diminutive physical stature but his outsized political influence, was one of the key figures in nineteenth century American political history. I discuss his life and career in my book-in-progress, Congressional Lions.

Douglas is a difficult figure to write about. Even his detractors acknowledged that he was a man of enormous talent and industry, but he was on the wrong side of history. Owing to his role in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, he sometimes is portrayed as a footnote in the story of the rise of Abraham Lincoln as the preeminent political figure of the era. During most of his legislative career, however, Douglas was far better known than Lincoln. As an energetic, activist senator, Douglas was involved in numerous decisions that affected the course of American history. He was the principal author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the 1854 statute providing for popular sovereignty, a doctrine that allowed settlers in the Kansas and Nebraska territories to decide for themselves whether slavery would be allowed within their borders. He was viewed as a serious presidential candidate in 1860, until the Democratic Party split along northern and southern lines, thereby paving the way for the accession of a dark horse Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln.

Stephen A. Douglas was born in in Brandon, Vermont, on April 23, 1813. His father was a physician who enjoyed considerable prestige, but the man died while Stephen was still an infant. As a result, his mother moved onto a farm with her brother. Life was difficult, and young Stephen developed a loathing for manual labor. He eventually attended school, studied law on his own, and became a member of the bar. At age 20, he moved to Ohio before eventually settling down in Illinois.

Douglas was not much to look at—he was short and pudgy with an overlarge head—but he was quick-witted and good on his feet. Observers recognized a first-rate mind and a natural affinity for the political process. He also exhibited superior organizational skills, helping to arrange the first state Democratic Convention. In 1836, he won a seat in the Illinois House of Representatives. That same year, President Andrew Jackson’s hand-picked successor, Martin Van Buren, captured the presidency. Douglas served as state’s attorney, a state legislator, and, thanks to Van Buren, a registrar in the Springfield, Illinois, Land Office.

He was known as a faithful Democrat, hard-working and intelligent. Still, his first efforts at elective office fell short. In recognition of Douglas’s service to the Democratic Party, however, Governor Thomas Carlin appointed him secretary of state for Illinois. It was little more than a sinecure, a stepping stone for a young, restless, ambitious politician. During his brief time in office, Douglas evinced little interest in the position. Still, it raised his visibility and put him on track for bigger and better offices.

He did not have to wait long. The Illinois legislature elected state supreme court judges, and less than three months after he became secretary of state, Douglas won appointment to the state’s high court. He would stay in this position until he won a seat in the United States House of Representatives slightly more than two years later.

As a congressman, the Little Giant treasured his time on the national stage. Douglas was always a political animal, and so it was a natural progression into the United States Congress. He wasted little time in making a name for himself. Some newly-elected House members adopt the view that it is better to be seen than heard while they learn procedure, pay their dues, and accrue seniority in the chamber. Douglas bucked the trend. He was everywhere in the 1840s, speaking and writing on the pressing public issues of the day. He supported the Democratic candidate, James K. Polk, for the presidency in 1844, voiced his approval for the annexation of Texas as well as aggressive resolution of a boundary dispute in the Oregon Territory, and voted to declare war on Mexico. He later became one of four northern Democrats to oppose the Wilmot Proviso, a proposal to ban slavery in the territory ceded to the United States by Mexico after the 1846-1848 war.

Reelected to the House in 1846, Douglas was prepared to serve his time in the lower chamber, but the Illinois legislature had other plans. His legislative supporters voted Douglas into the United States Senate in 1847. There he would continue his advancement and become a prominent national politician.

During his freshman term in the Senate, Douglas made his name and reputation when Senator Henry Clay attempted to solve the problem of new states entering the Union following the war with Mexico. In January 1850, Clay had introduced a series of resolutions into the Senate to handle questions about slavery in newly admitted states. At the behest of southerners, he had compiled the measures into an omnibus bill known as the Compromise of 1850. Under the terms of the original plan, California would be admitted to the Union as a free state while the Utah and New Mexico territories would be organized without addressing slavery. Those issues would be resolved later. To mollify northern representatives, the slave trade, but not slave ownership, would be outlawed in the District of Columbia. The bill established boundaries for Texas and agreed to pay off the state’s $10 million debt. To capture southern support, the bill called for vigorous enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act and prohibited Congress from interfering with the interstate slave trade.

The bill faced stiff opposition. It contained so many provisions that opponents could easily find something to hate. Southern men recoiled at the idea that Utah and New Mexico might choose to become free states, and that the nation’s capital city would prohibit the slave trade. Northerners were outraged that they would be required to enforce the odious Fugitive Slave Act, capturing escaped slaves who entered free states and returning them to their masters. When the opponents combined their numerous objections, the lumbering measure simply did not muster enough votes for passage.

Clay’s compromise appeared to be dead, but the drama had not yet played out. Stephen Douglas stepped into the fray. At 37, Douglas was the youngest man in the Senate, but also one of the most ambitious. He believed he could step in to rescue Clay’s compromise, enhance the power of western states, and make a name for himself at the same time. One commentator concluded that the Herculean rescue effort “transformed Douglas from a talented and boilingly ambitious, but essentially garden-variety, politician into a true national statesman to be reckoned with.”

He had never supported the omnibus bill. It was too big and clumsy, overloaded with far too many unpopular provisions. If the compromise had any hope of success, the individual components must be separated and each section put to an independent vote. Here Douglas demonstrated his legislative prowess. He understood how to assemble each piece of the puzzle, and in what order. He began by engineering a compromise involving Texas. It had been admitted as a state late in 1845, but the boundary line was never clear, and state officials claimed a vast swath of land. Following much wrangling, Texas surrendered much of the western territory it had claimed. In exchange, the state received compensation of $10 million to pay off its outstanding debt.

Now Douglas could move on to other matters. Just a few days after the omnibus bill failed, he introduced a separate measure to admit California into the Union. To ensure success, he created a coalition of moderate Democrats and Whigs. These allies whisked the measure through the Senate, accomplishing in days what the iconic Clay had failed to do in months. The final measure passed the Senate by a 34-to-18 vote. In the House, it cruised through, 150-56. Southern extremists, so-called Fire-Eaters, were furious, believing that the admission of California into the Union as a free state would prove to be a decisive northern advantage. Yet they were unable to stop the Douglas juggernaut. Their anger at the Little Giant would come back to haunt him when he sought the presidency a decade later.

In the meantime, Douglas did not rest on his laurels. He understood that time was of the essence if he hoped to push through the companion measures. He took each part of Clay’s bill and worked on his fellow senators to smooth the way to passage. After much debate and horse-trading, Douglas helped to abolish the slave trade in Washington, D.C. He also promoted the concept of popular sovereignty to organize the Utah and New Mexico territories. The proposal for the territories was conceptually simple and removed the responsibility from Congress. Under Douglas’s plan, residents of a territory seeking admission into the Union would resolve the slavery question themselves. If a majority chose to allow slavery, so be it. If the majority chose to be a free state, that was fine, too. By ignoring the morality of the peculiar institution in all three areas—Washington, D.C., the Utah Territory, and the New Mexico Territory—Douglas demonstrated that majoritarian democracy could work if the tyranny of the majority was ignored.

Despite his absence, Henry Clay was credited as the father of the Compromise of 1850, a fitting culmination to his long and distinguished congressional career. Yet Douglas, too, enjoyed success as the man who had brought the package to fruition. He was only a freshman senator, but he was widely recognized as a man to watch. He began to harbor presidential ambitions, and only a fool would have bet against his prospects at that time in his career.

A few years later, Douglas again captured national attention when he proposed that two new territories in Kansas and Nebraska be added without definitively addressing slavery. It would be left to the residents to decide the question. Douglas’s plan seemed to undermine the old Missouri Compromise of 1820, where Congress outlawed slavery north of the 36º 30’ line. A young Henry Clay had helped to designate Missouri as a slave state with the proviso that territory to the north and west of its border was free. By rejecting the notion of an arbitrary line as the determining factor, Douglas was introducing uncertainty into an already uncertain political situation.

He believed, perhaps naively, that his legislation, known as the Kansas-Nebraska bill, would satisfy northerners because slavery was unlikely to spread into areas such as the American Southwest, where the arid climate and poor soil would not sustain slave-driven agriculture. Southerners, meanwhile, would no longer rail against the northern conspiracy to eradicate slavery by creating arbitrary lines to limit the spread of the institution. Popular sovereignty was the essence of democracy because it put the matter to a vote. Surely everyone could agree that voting was desirable.

Douglas failed to appreciate how much the uncertainty would be misinterpreted. Extreme partisans on both sides feared that “squatter sovereignty,” as it was disparagingly called, was a pretext for conspirators to move into a territory and manipulate the election results. At least arbitrary lines drawn on a map were definitive, and much less likely to be abused. Popular sovereignty, however, was an elusive concept because it was too difficult to determine who would vote, when they would vote, and how the vote would be certified with any reasonable degree of certainty. The Kansas-Nebraska bill, far from assuaging concerns, added fuel to an already blazing fire.

The bill was unpopular, but Douglas was still the master legislator; he assembled a coalition to shove it through both houses of Congress. Presented to the president as a fait accompli, the bill represented a major success for Douglas. President Franklin Pierce signed it into law on May 30, 1854. The Little Giant hoped that after it was passed, the measure would garner support. It did not. Wounded by its negative reception, Douglas wryly commented that, “on my return home, I traveled from Boston to Chicago in the light of fires in which my own effigies were burning.”

Aside from the immediate reaction, the Kansas-Nebraska Act held at least two long-term consequences. First, it energized a group of disaffected Whigs, Democrats, and Free Soil Party supporters to act. The Whig Party had died after the 1852 presidential election, and many former members had been standing at a crossroads trying to discern a path forward. Their disgust with Douglas’s statute led them to congregate at Ripon, Wisconsin, on February 28, 1854. There the delegates resolved to create a new political party designed specifically to attack the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the short run, and to stop the spread of slavery in the long run. They discussed a name for the new organization as well. It would be called the “Republican Party.” On March 20, the group met again. During their third meeting, in Jackson, Michigan, on March 5, 1854, they nominated candidates for state offices under the banner of the Republican Party.

The second consequence was that the Kansas-Nebraska Act upset a lawyer and former Illinois congressman, Abraham Lincoln, causing him to reenter public life. Lincoln had been a minor player on the national stage before Douglas pushed the law through Congress. After leaving the House of Representatives at the conclusion of a single term in 1849, Lincoln had turned his attention to practicing law. He remained vitally interested in political affairs, but his future in elective office appeared bleak.

Away from national politics, Douglas prepared for his Senate reelection bid in 1858. As he had anticipated, a rival emerged to challenge him for his Senate seat. Abraham Lincoln had lost a Senate contest in 1855, but he was undeterred in his quest to win high political office. He resolved to take on Douglas.

Lincoln won the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate in 1858. Even before he had secured the party’s blessing, however, he had crisscrossed the state, speaking whenever he could. He was not well known outside of his hometown of Springfield and surrounding areas. If he hoped to improve his election chances, Lincoln had to get his name and his message before large crowds of prospective voters.

He challenged Douglas to a series of face-to-face debates after New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley, always on the lookout for a good story, recommended the idea in his newspaper. Lincoln had been trailing Douglas across Illinois and denouncing popular sovereignty already, so the offer was not surprising. Although debates usually help the challenger more than the incumbent because they elevate the lesser-known opponent onto the same plane with the man he hopes to replace, Douglas accepted the offer.

He was thought to hold an advantage over Lincoln, but Douglas knew he faced a tough opponent. “I shall have my hands full,” he confided to a colleague. Douglas would not underestimate his rival. “He is the strong man of his party,—full of wit, facts, dates—and the best stump speaker, with his droll ways and dry jokes, in the West. He is as honest as he is shrewd; and if I beat him my victory will be hardly won.”

Both men had their hands full. They were seasoned debaters, well-spoken, and driven to succeed. The two candidates met seven times beginning in Ottawa, Illinois, on August 21, and concluding at Alton on October 15. The locations were chosen so that a debate could be scheduled in each of the state’s seven congressional districts. Each man spoke for an hour-and-a-half, and each had an opportunity to rebut the claims of his opponent. Except for Jonesboro, in the southern part of Illinois, massive crowds gathered at each stop to observe the spectacle. Newspapers reported on the debates extensively. Because slavery was the central focus of the speeches, the debates received national coverage.

Douglas still believed in popular sovereignty, and he championed the doctrine in every speech. He also defended the Kansas-Nebraska Act. With only a scant legislative record to defend—he had left Congress after only a single term almost a decade earlier—Lincoln attacked Douglas’s supposed accomplishments, characterizing “Judge” Douglas’s views as a thinly disguised tyranny of the majority. He derisively labeled popular sovereignty as “squatter sovereignty.”

During the final debate in Alton, Lincoln summarized his differences with Douglas. “The real issue in this controversy—the one pressing upon my mind—is the sentiment on the part of one class that looks upon the institution of slavery as a wrong, and of another class that does not look upon it as a wrong.” He analogized slavery to a cancer on the body politic, arguing that although the cancer could not be cut out, “surely it is no way to cure it, to engraft it and spread it over your whole body.”

On Election Day 1858, the Democrats captured a small majority of seats in the Illinois General Assembly. Because state legislatures selected United States senators until the Seventeenth Amendment was ratified in 1913, the Democratic victory in the General Assembly ensured that Douglas would win the Senate seat. Legend has it that Lincoln was sanguine about the loss, already setting his sights on the presidency two years later. In reality, though, he was melancholy, wondering if he would ever win elective office again.

The Little Giant had hoped to use his Senate reelection as a springboard to capturing the presidency two years later, but it was not to be. The nation was fracturing in 1860. The Democratic Party split into southern and northern factions, with the southern group nominating President Buchanan’s vice president, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, for president, and the northern group nominating Douglas. A third party that sprang up in 1859, the Constitutional Union Party, nominated John Bell, a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and a U.S. senator from Tennessee as well as secretary of war under Presidents Harrison and Tyler. Abraham Lincoln, now a prominent name in national politics thanks to the debates with Douglas, captured the Republican presidential nomination after better known candidates became deadlocked at the Chicago convention, and he emerged as a suitable compromise nominee.

The vote totals split exactly as one would have predicted. Breckinridge captured the southern states, but he lost the border states to Douglas and Bell. Lincoln won northern and some border states, but he overwhelmingly lost in the South. To his credit, Douglas took nothing for granted. Although the odds were against him, he campaigned throughout the South, addressing hostile audiences and defending his positions regardless of the costs.

When the votes were tallied, Douglas won 29.46 percent of the popular vote—second only to Lincoln—but he won only 12 electoral votes. Breckinridge won 72 electoral votes (18.1 percent of the popular vote) and Bell won 39 electoral votes (12.61 percent of the popular vote). Lincoln captured more electoral votes (180, or 59.4 percent) than all other candidates combined—in fact, 28 more than he needed to win. Because it was a four-way race, Lincoln’s popular vote was a plurality (39.82 percent). In retrospect, Lincoln won the election the minute the Democratic Party splintered, even though his name did not appear on the ballot in the southern states.

Douglas returned to the U.S. Senate, but his time on the national stage had ended. On a trip to the Midwest, the Little Giant fell ill, eventually contracting typhoid fever. He died on June 3, 1861. As one commentator noted, Douglas “had just passed his 48th birthday but was already gray and prematurely old. He had dwelt amid the tempest for twenty years and had felt more of severe strain than most men who had seen the Psalmist’s three score years and ten.”

Stephen A. Douglas left a mixed legacy. On one hand, he possessed a gifted mind, a penchant for powerful oratory, and a strong work ethic. He understood the legislative process in Congress better than all but a handful of congressmen and senators in American history. His skillful handling of the components of Henry Clay’s Compromise of 1850 as a freshman legislator served notice that he was a man to watch. In engineering that legislative package, he and Clay postponed civil war for more than a decade, no mean feat in a tumultuous era. Douglas was at the forefront of virtually every major national issue of the 1850s.

On the other hand, he was on the wrong side of history. In authoring the Kansas-Nebraska Act and insisting that popular sovereignty was a workable solution to the slavery issue, Douglas demonstrated the perils of abandoning principle in the interest of political expediency. He attempted to compromise on an issue that sooner or later could not be compromised. To his everlasting shame, he ignored the immorality of slavery, arguing that it should not matter which way the question was decided as long as the (white) citizenry spoke with one voice. He could not or would not see the suffering of the human beings enslaved throughout much of the country. For all of his legislative acumen, he was blind to the monstrosity of the peculiar institution. For that reason, Stephen A. Douglas remains a decidedly tragic historical figure—supremely gifted, undeniably accomplished, and irremediably flawed.

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