U.S. congressman, senator, and presidential candidate Stephen A. Douglas was born in Brandon, Vermont, on April 23, 1813. Short in stature but influential in Congress, Douglas was nicknamed the “Little Giant.”
Douglas left New England at the age of twenty, settling in Illinois where he quickly established himself as a leader in the Democratic Party. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1843 and to the U.S. Senate in 1847, serving there until his death in 1861. A strong advocate of national expansion, he supported the annexation of Texas and the Mexican War.
In the 1850s, Douglas became a leader in the effort to negotiate the volatile issue regarding the spread of slavery into the territories. To this end, he supported the Compromise of 1850, which attempted to maintain the congressional balance between free and slave states, and, in 1854, sponsored the highly controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act. This legislation removed from Congress the authority to exclude slavery from a territory, effectively repealing the congressional compromise achieved with the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and upheld with the Compromise of 1850.
Douglas favored the doctrine of popular sovereignty in the territories, a policy in which settlers themselves—not the federal government, decided the status of slavery. After passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the rivalry in Kansas between pro- and anti-slavery settlers led to the formation of two separate territorial legislatures. When the pro-slavery faction submitted to Congress the Lecompton Constitution establishing Kansas as a slave state, Douglas denounced the proposed constitution as a violation of the concept of popular sovereignty in a speech on December 9, 1857. This stance caused a breach between Douglas and President James Buchanan, despite both being members of the Democratic Party. This difference was so strong that for a time Buchanan worked to block Douglas’ reelection.
In the Senate campaign of 1858, Republican hopeful Abraham Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of seven debates, known today as the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Although Douglas won the election of 1858, he lost the presidential election of 1860 to Lincoln in a four-way race that included John Breckinridge and John Bell.
- To find more material about the political issues that shaped Douglas’ career, see the Today in History features on Henry Clay and John Calhoun.
- An important topic of the Lincoln-Douglas debates was slavery and the Dred Scott case. Search on the term Dred Scott in Slaves and the Courts, 1740-1860 to learn more from primary source documents of Douglas’ time.
- Also see the November 9, 1857, letter from Justice Roger Brooke Taney to Caleb Cushing in which he discusses his decision in the Dred Scott case in Words and Deeds in American History: Selected Documents Celebrating the Manuscript Division’s First 100 Years.
- Search on the keywords Stephen Douglas or debate in the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress to learn more. Find, for example, Richard T. Merrick’s telegram to Abraham Lincoln, reporting the death of Stephen Douglas.
- Search A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875 to find additional information about Douglas’ congressional career, including speeches found in the Congressional Globe. For example, on March 6, 1861, Douglas defended Lincoln’s inaugural address as a “peace-offering rather than a war message.”
- The online exhibition American Treasures consists of the rarest, most interesting, or significant items relating to U.S. history from the collections of the Library of Congress. Included are two items, a banner and a poster, from Lincoln’s presidential campaign against Douglas, Breckinridge, and Bell.