Stephen A. politician, leader of the Democratic Party, and orator who espoused the cause of popular sovereignty in relation to the issue of slavery in the territories before the American Civil War (1861-1865). He was re-elected senator from Illinois in 1858 after a series of eloquent debates with the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, who defeated him in the presidential race two years later.
Born in Vermont, Douglas studied law in Canandaigua, New York, before moving to Illinois in 1833, where he became involved in politics. As a youth he had been captivated by Andrew Jackson, and it was as a Jacksonian that he built his career. He played an important part in the organization of the Democratic party in Illinois, introducing such new devices as party committees and nominating conventions and pushing for party regularity and discipline. He enjoyed a lasting popularity among the small farmers of the state, many of whom had migrated from the border South, and he used his popularity to establish a tightly knit Democratic organization.
After holding several state offices, Douglas ran for Congress in 1837, losing by the narrow margin of thirty-five votes. Six years later, he was elected to the House of Representatives, where he sat for two terms. In 1847, he was elected U.S. senator, a position he held until his death in 1861.
Douglas was involved in every major issue to come before the nation during his years in Washington. As chairman of the House and Senate Committees on Territories, he developed a strong interest in the West. One of his first legislative proposals was a program that included territorial expansion, the construction of a Pacific railroad, a free land (homestead) policy, and the organization of territorial governments. ‘You cannot fix bounds to the onward march of this great and growing country,’ he declared. He believed in America’s unique mission and manifest destiny, was a leading proponent of Texas annexation, demanded the acquisition of Oregon, and supported the war with Mexico. A man of great energy and persuasive power, standing only five feet four inches tall, Douglas became known as the Little Giant.
When slavery became a divisive political issue during the Mexican War, Douglas’s romantic nationalism faced a new challenge. Fearing that the issue might disrupt the Republic, he argued for the doctrine of popular sovereignty-the right of the people of a state or territory to decide the slavery question for themselves-as a Union-saving formula. He led the fight in Congress for the Compromise of 1850. Four years later, he incorporated the doctrine in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, thus repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Douglas’s hopes for the country suffered a setback when the act aroused bitter opposition from northern antislavery elements, who eventually formed the Republican party.
During the 1850s, he continued to fight for popular sovereignty in Congress and in Illinois, where the state election campaign of 1858 was highlighted by his famous debates with Abraham Lincoln. He blamed the agitation over slavery on abolitionists in the North and disunionists in the South, trying to find a middle way that would preserve the Union. Slavery, he believed, must be treated impartially as a question of public policy, although he privately thought it was wrong and hoped it would be eliminated some day. At the same time, he saw in popular sovereignty an extension of local self-government and states’ rights and charged his opposition with seeking a consolidation of power on the national level that would restrict individual liberty and endanger the Union.
Douglas’s popularity waned as the party system foundered on the slavery question. Proposed as the Democratic candidate for president in 1852 and 1856, he did not win his party’s nomination until 1860, when it was too late. With his party hopelessly divided and a Republican elected to the presidency, he fought strenuously to hold the sections together with a compromise on the slavery issue, but to no avail. Following the firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861, he pledged his support to the northern cause and urged a vigorous prosecution of the war against the rebels. He died in June, however, worn out from his exertions and broken in spirit.
The Reader’s Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Stephen A. Douglas
Stephen Arnold Douglas was born in Brandon, Vermont. He received a basic education, became employed in farm work and, briefly, teaching. At age 20 he moved to Illinois, his home for the remainder of his life. Douglas began practicing law in 1834, followed quickly by political ventures, including the office of Illinois attorney general, two years in the state legislature and an unsuccessful run for Congress. In 1840, Douglas became Illinois secretary of state, then served as a judge on the state supreme court from 1841 to 1843. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1843 and to the Senate in 1847. Known as the “Little Giant” for his diminutive size but towering will, Douglas played a major role in most of the major public issues of his day. He was an ardent expansionist, advocating the annexation of Cuba and the entirety of the Oregon Territory. He was a supporter of the Mexican War. In the Senate Douglas chaired the influential Committee on Territories, which guided territories to statehood. With Henry Clay he drafted the component bills of the Compromise of 1850. Douglas coined the term “Popular Sovereignty” and urged that doctrine's acceptance as a solution to the problems of the extension of slavery in the territories. He also was the prime force behind the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. Douglas was nominated for president by the Democratic Party in 1852 and 1856. In the latter campaign, Douglas threw his support to James Buchanan, the eventual winner. In one of the most dramatic and principled moves of his career, Douglas broke with the president over his support of the proslavery minority in Kansas. In 1858 he sought reelection to the Senate and engaged Abraham Lincoln in the historic Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Douglas won the election, but Lincoln emerged as a national figure. In 1860 Douglas was unable to secure the necessary two-thirds vote for nomination in the Democratic convention, but later accepted nomination from a rump convention of Northern Democrats. Douglas worked tirelessly in search of a compromise that might avert war. When the conflict finally came, he ardently supported Lincoln. On a trip to the Midwest and Border States, Douglas contracted typhus and died later. Stephen Douglas was truly one of the great political figures of his era, one of the few with a national vision, but his reputation has suffered in comparison with Lincoln.
Stephen A. Douglas
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Stephen A. Douglas, in full Stephen Arnold Douglas, (born April 23, 1813, Brandon, Vermont, U.S.—died June 3, 1861, Chicago, Illinois), American politician, leader of the Democratic Party, and orator who espoused the cause of popular sovereignty in relation to the issue of slavery in the territories before the American Civil War (1861–65). He was reelected senator from Illinois in 1858 after a series of eloquent debates with the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln, who defeated him in the presidential race two years later.
Douglas left New England at the age of 20 to settle in Jacksonville, Illinois, where he quickly rose to a position of leadership in the Illinois Democratic Party. In 1843 he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives one of its youngest members, Douglas gained early prominence as a dedicated worker and gifted speaker. Heavyset and only five feet four inches tall, he was dubbed the “Little Giant” by his contemporaries.
Douglas embraced a lifelong enthusiasm for national expansion, giving consistent support to the annexation of Texas (1845) and the Mexican-American War (1846–48), taking a vigorous stance toward Great Britain in the Oregon boundary dispute (1846), and advocating both government land grants to promote transcontinental railroad construction and a free homestead policy for settlers.
Douglas was elected in 1846 to the U.S. Senate, in which he served until his death there he became deeply involved in the nation’s search for a solution to the slavery problem. As chairman of the Committee on Territories, he was particularly prominent in the bitter debates between North and South on the extension of slavery westward. Trying to remove the onus from Congress, he developed the theory of popular sovereignty (originally called squatter sovereignty), under which the people in a territory would themselves decide whether to permit slavery within their region’s boundaries. Douglas himself was not a slaveholder, though his wife was. He was influential in the passage of the Compromise of 1850 (which tried to maintain a congressional balance between free and slave states), and the organization of the Utah and New Mexico territories under popular sovereignty was a victory for his doctrine.
The climax of Douglas’s theory was reached in the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), which substituted local options toward slavery in the Kansas and Nebraska territories for that of congressional mandate, thus repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The act’s passage was a triumph for Douglas, although he was bitterly condemned and vilified by antislavery forces. A strong contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in both 1852 and 1856, he was too outspoken to be chosen by a party that was still trying to bridge the sectional gap.
The Supreme Court struck indirectly at popular sovereignty in the Dred Scott decision (1857), which held that neither the Congress nor territorial legislatures could prohibit slavery in a territory. The following year Douglas engaged in a number of widely publicized debates with Lincoln in a close contest for the Senate seat in Illinois, and, although Lincoln won the popular vote, Douglas was elected 54 to 46 by the legislature. In the debates, Douglas enunciated his famous “ Freeport Doctrine,” which stated that the territories could still determine the existence of slavery through unfriendly legislation and the use of police power, in spite of the Supreme Court decision. As a result, Southern opposition to Douglas intensified, and he was denied reappointment to the committee chairmanship he had previously held in the Senate.
When the “regular” (Northern) Democrats nominated him for president in 1860, the Southern wing broke away and supported a separate ticket headed by John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. Although Douglas received only 12 electoral votes, he was second to Lincoln in the number of popular votes polled. Douglas then urged the South to acquiesce in the results of the election. At 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 costs. At President Lincoln’s request, he undertook a mission to the Border States and to the Northwest to rouse Unionist sentiments among their citizenry. Douglas’s early and unexpected death was partly the result of these last exertions on behalf of the Union.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by John P. Rafferty, Editor.
Lincoln the Underdog
The seven Lincoln-Douglas debates in 1858 were not really debates by modern standards – one candidate spoke for 60 minutes, the other then spoke for 90 minutes, and finally the first speaker gave a 30-minute response. Just imagine how today’s typical audience would react!
And while Abraham Lincoln – the Republican candidate – won the popular vote by a small margin, Stephen A. Douglas was reelected to the Illinois Senate by the legislature. So did Lincoln emerge the loser? On the contrary – national media coverage of the debates greatly raised Lincoln’s profile, making him a viable Republican candidate in the 1860 presidential election.
The main issue under discussion was of course slavery – and more specifically, the question of slavery’s expansion into the territories. Douglas favored the doctrine of popular sovereignty, whereby the people of a territory could decide for themselves whether to allow slavery Lincoln feared that popular sovereignty would nationalize slavery, which he viewed as a “monstrous injustice.” In Lincoln’s stirring words:
“That is the real issue. That is the issue that will continue in this country when these poor tongues of Judge Douglas and myself shall be silent. It is the eternal struggle between these two principles—right and wrong—throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, “You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.” No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”
From a political strategist’s perspective, the mere existence of these debates was a major coup for Lincoln. The incumbent Senator Douglas was better-financed and better-organized, and had little to gain from debating him on equal footing. So Lincoln adopted a classic underdog strategy: he simply followed Douglas around the state, and spoke wherever he spoke. When Lincoln’s friend and supporter, Bloomington lawyer William H. Hanna, informed him that Douglas was scheduled to be in Bloomington on Friday, July 16th, Lincoln replied, “No accident preventing, I will be with you Friday afternoon and evening.”
Here you can see Lincoln’s response to Hanna, and learn more about the path the debates then took.
Douglas, Stephen A.
More than most other antebellum politicians, Stephen Douglas is closely linked with “Bleeding Kansas” and the Missouri-Kansas “Border War.” A complex man, strongly partisan but committed to the Constitution as the ultimate law of the land, Douglas sponsored both the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Unintentionally, while trying to prevent secession by pacifying the Southerners, Douglas’s compromises stoked more violence and helped push the United States over the brink and into Civil War.
The facts surrounding Douglas’s early years are foggy, due in part to the various versions of his childhood he issued himself. He was born in Brandon, Vermont, on April 23, 1813. His father was Stephen Arnold Douglass (The younger Stephen dropped the second “s” in his name in 1846). His mother was Sara “Sally” Fisk Douglass. Stephen’s father was a physician but died in 1815 when Stephen was three months old. Sara Douglas moved to her brother Edward’s farm, where Stephen lived for the next 17 years. Douglas described his uncle alternately as a hard man who refused to allow him to attend school more than three months a year and as a loving uncle whose duty to his own family prevented helping Stephen with his education. Eventually Douglas left home to apprentice to cabinetmaker Nathan Parker in Middlebury, Vermont. He served Parker for nearly a year and then moved to Brandon, where he served as an apprentice to a cabinetmaker, Caleb Knowlton. Illness caused him to surrender that position, but once recovered, Douglas enrolled in Brandon Academy, where he remained until his mother remarried. In 1830 he moved with her to Clifton Springs, New York, and enrolled in Canandaigua Academy. After graduating, Douglas joined the Hubbell law firm and studied law for six months. The long internship required in the state of New York to become a lawyer was confining to a young man eager to make his fortune. In 1833, he decided to go west, clearly intent on finding a place where he could obtain a law license in less time. Douglas finally settled in Jacksonville, Illinois, after brief stops in Cleveland and St. Louis. After a winter spent reading and studying, Douglas obtained his law license in 1834.
. [he] continued to derive income from the plantation while consistently denying that he ever personally owned slaves.
Douglas married his first wife, Martha Martin, in 1847 and moved his home to Chicago. A year later, Martha’s father, Colonel Robert Martin, died and Martha inherited a cotton plantation with 100 slaves in Lawrence County, Mississippi. As part of the bequest, Douglas received one-third of the profits as compensation for managing the plantation. When Martha died in 1853, Douglas, acting as executor of her estate and guardian of their minor children, continued to derive income from the plantation while consistently denying that he ever personally owned slaves. He argued that his was a familial trust that honor bound him to respect for the sake of his children. However, his parsing did not satisfying his critics and he consistently had to defend himself against accusations of hypocrisy and self-serving political rhetoric.
Douglas’s position on slavery is one debated by historians. In an oft-quoted comment, Douglas claimed not to care whether slavery “was voted up or down, only that the decision be left to local majorities.” But his ambiguous position on the institution and the fact that he continued to own slaves, caused him political problems even into the famous debates with Abraham Lincoln in an 1858 campaign for the U.S. Senate. Lincoln pressured Douglas to say definitively whether he believed slavery to be morally right. Douglas argued that the question was moot because the Constitution of the United States allowed slavery to exist. He believed that only a state, through the voice of its inhabitants and their elected legislatures, had the right to decide to allow slavery within its borders. Out of this position grew Douglas’s idea of “popular sovereignty.”
Douglas’s irrevocable link with Kansas began when he championed the repeal of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The Mexican War and the annexation of Texas again raised the issue of expansion of slavery into the new territories. Douglas’s Compromise of 1850 allowed two territories, Utah and New Mexico (both were territories formed out of the Mexican Cession of 1848) to decide whether to allow slavery within their borders at the time of their entry into the Union. Douglas believed that popular sovereignty would defuse the tension between the proslavery and antislavery factions. At issue was the balance of power in the U.S. Senate, and the Compromise of 1850 provided a possibility of preserving the delicate balance that existed between free and slaveholding states.
“There can be no neutrals in the war, only patriots – or traitors.”
Then in 1854, with Congress under pressure to provide more free land for settlement, Douglas introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act. While the official purpose was to open the area for settlement, Douglas’s other agenda was to build a transcontinental railway from Chicago to the Gulf of Mexico. Unforeseen was how antislavery and proslavery factions would flood into the new territories to skew the vote in favor of their position. Violence broke out across the Missouri-Kansas border and the resulting struggle earned Kansas the sobriquet “Bleeding Kansas.” The political fallout from the Border Wars, combined with other inflaming events including John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry and the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, eventually resulted in Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 and the South’s secession from the Union.
Stephen Douglas was flexible in his position on many political issues but consistent in his belief that the Constitution was the law of the land. Secession was an anathema to him. He said after Fort Sumter, “There can be no neutrals in the war, only patriots – or traitors.” He supported Lincoln’s decision to respond to the attack on Fort Sumter and his call for 75,000 volunteers to counter the rebellion. At Lincoln’s request he visited several states, including the border states, giving speeches in support of the Union cause. Whether he ever understood the link between his policies and the South’s decision to secede is uncertain. Also speculative is how he would have reacted to the Emancipation Proclamation – an act that even Lincoln worried the Supreme Court would find unconstitutional.
These are unanswered questions of history. Stephen Douglas died of an attack of “acute rheumatism” in Chicago on June 3, 1861. He was 48 years old. A monument completed in 1883 near the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago marks his tomb.
Stephen A. Douglas Chapter
Our chapter was organized March 2, 1923, as the Douglas County Chapter. The original chapter name was changed to Stephen A. Douglas Chapter on March 2, 1932. The legislature of 1859 gave the county the name of Douglas in honor of the legislator and United States Senator, Stephen A. Douglas, so the chapter accepted his name also.
In 1934, members dressed in colonial costumes and served as hostesses in the DAR room at the World’s Fair in Chicago.
Our chapter maintains the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) room at the Douglas County Court House. When the court house was built in 1913, GAR members asked for that a room be set aside for patriotic organizations to hold meetings. The GAR met there until 1935 when the last GAR veteran requested that the supervision and maintenance of the room and its artifacts be placed in charge of the Stephen A. Douglas Chapter. Since then, our chapter has maintained the room and held several meetings there. The room is now open to the public during court house hours, and chapter members volunteer as docents.
In 1965 Rosa Helm Overturf was honored at Continental Congress when her daughter, Mrs. Charles Johnson, Chaplain General of NSDAR, placed a flag in her honor at the Kansas Chapel at National Headquarters.
Stephen A. Douglas Chapter sponsors DAR Good citizen awards in all of our six county high schools, honoring the winners and their parents at a February luncheon. Awards are also presented to the winners of the American History essay contest winners at that time. Each spring we present awards to the Outstanding Student in American History at all six of our eighth grade schools in the county. During Constitution Week (September 17-23), you will find displays at local libraries and businesses.
Although small in number, the Stephen A. Douglas Chapter has always supported the National Society objectives: to promote historical preservation, education, and patriotism. Two of our members have served as state officers and all chapter members are true to our National motto: God, Home, and Country.
State Regent visit, April 2013
Veterans Day Parade, November 2014
A complex path to opposing the Confederacy
As the leading northern Democrat in Congress, Douglas sponsored the Compromise of 1850, which included the Fugitive Slave Law — putting northerners in the position of slave-catchers and provoking resistance which “sometimes boiled over into riots and revolts” in northern cities.
A few years later, Douglas sponsored the Kansas-Nebraska Act, leaving the question of whether the states would allow slavery up to local voters. This reflected Douglas’s doctrine of “popular sovereignty.” Slave states rejected the concept, since slave-owners were not eager to move into newly-forming states where the possibility of outlawing slavery existed.
Again, the measure failed to conciliate sectional discord. Instead it led to brutal battles between pro- and anti-slavery settlers in “Bleeding Kansas,” which riled up both abolitionists and northern Free Soilers, who didn’t directly oppose slavery in the South but wanted it excluded from new territories in the West.
In 1857, a small group of pro-slavery Kansans passed the Lecompton Constitution establishing slavery in Kansas, and Democratic President James Buchanan accepted the constitution, declaring Kansas “as much a slave state as Georgia and South Carolina.” Douglas dramatically broke with the Democratic administration, calling the constitution a “fraudulent submission” and siding with congressional Republicans to oppose its ratification.
In 1857, the U.S. Supreme Court issued the odious Dred Scott decision, declaring that African Americans had no right to U.S. citizenship and that states had no power to exclude slavery from their own borders. After initially urging respect for the decision, Douglas challenged it the next year in his debates with Lincoln. His Freeport Doctrine argued states did have the power to reject slavery. Southern Democrats termed it the “Freeport Heresy.”
These issues came to a head in the 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston, South Carolina. Southern delegates demanded a platform endorsing the Dred Scott decision and supporting legislation protecting slavery in future states. The Douglas Democrats refused to accept these demands — not out of principle, but because they knew they would turn northern voters against the party. The southerners walked out and nominated a competing candidate for president. That probably ended Douglas’s presidential hopes.
During the campaign, Douglas warned of the danger of secession and spoke strongly against it. In North Carolina he called for “hanging every man who takes up arms against [the Constitution].” By October, it was clear Douglas had no path to electoral victory, and he changed tack, travelling to Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama to campaign not for his election but against secession.
After Lincoln was inaugurated and Charleston was shelled by Confederate forces, the new president consulted his old rival over the proclamation he was issuing. Douglas said he approved every word — except instead of calling for 75,000 volunteers to fight for the Union, he urged Lincoln to call for 200,000.
In contrast to northern “Peace Democrats,” Douglas helped bring his constituency — in some respects similar to Lincoln’s, homesteaders and family farmers who feared competition from slave labor — to support the fight against the Confederacy. Ultimately that fight required a range of forces, from enslaved people who revolted against their bondage and abolitionists to Free Soilers and Douglas-style Unionists.
Stephen A. Douglas - HISTORY
Stephen A. Douglas neither inherited nor owned slaves. When on the day after he married Martha Denny Martin of North Carolina his new father in law offered him a 3,000-acre plantation and 150 slaves in Mississippi. Douglas declined the gift. Robert Martin appreciated his new son-in-law’s principles and political circumstances, which also played in Douglas’s decision. Martin held his Mississippi slave property until his death on May 25, 1848.
In his “Last Will and Testament,” filed on November 23, 1847, in the Rockingham County Courthouse in North Carolina, Martin reminded his daughter “that her husband does not desire to own this kind of property.” He directed that “all my (Mississippi) lands and plantations . . .and all the Negroes I now own” convey directly to her under her “full and complete control.” (“ROBERT MARTIN Last Will & Testament, Rockingham County, NC, Will Book C, Pages 69-73)
Mississippi law at the time prohibited Douglas from any claim of ownership in his wife’s plantation or slaves. The law provided that any property of a married women, no matter how she acquired it, was hers exclusively and not subject to the control or disposal by her husband. (Allen Johnson, Stephen A. Douglas: A Study in American Politics. New York: MacMillan, 1908, 150.)
As Martin’s will ordered, when Martha Martin Douglas died on January 18, 1853, sons Robert Martin Douglas, 3, and Stephen Arnold Douglas Jr., 2, became sole heirs to the Mississippi slave properties. Under the same Mississippi law, Douglas now could manage the property for which he could derive up to 30 percent of the net proceeds. A Mississippi court in 1857 awarded Douglas guardianship of the sons to enable Douglas to sell the property and reinvest in a more productive Mississippi plantation. (Frank E. Stephens, “Stephen A. Douglas,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. Springfield, 1924., 644-645)
Douglas never owned slaves.
Douglas, and Abraham Lincoln like him, used the vernacular of their day, which bespoke its racism and white supremacy. Lincoln argued the cause of white supremacy in Ottawa, Charleston, and Quincy in his 1858 debates with Douglas. (‘www.nps.gov/liho/learn/historyculture/debates.htm). Douglas’s remarks at Charleston were similar. (Ibid) Both Lincoln and Douglas, agreed, however, that whatever inequality they might see in whites and blacks did not preclude the black from the rights and privileges to which he was entitled under the constitution. Douglas and Lincoln addressed that in their debate at Ottawa. (‘www.nps.gov/liho/learn/historyculture/debate1.htm)
Said Lincoln: “. . .In the right to eat the bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas, and the equal of every living man.”
Said Douglas: “. . .I hold that humanity and Christianity both require that the negro shall have and enjoy every right, every privilege, and every immunity consistent with the safety of the society in which he lives.” (Ibid)
Douglas’s was not a voice for slavery but a voice for the nation’s expansion. In that quest, he found slavery attached to every argument and every bill. His promise to those who elected him from Western Illinois in 1843 was that he would “build an ocean-bound republic” without red lines on a map. When he arrived in Washington, D.C., in December 1843 the youngest congressman in the new 28th Congress, only the states of Arkansas and Missouri had been organized west of the Mississippi River. Douglas’s vision of an ocean-bound republic would take in Texas and Oregon and after the Mexican-American War the 550,000-square-mile Mexican Cession. Organizing these territories for the nation would remove the red lines Douglas described that pointed to the interests of Britain, France, Mexico, and Spain on the continent.
Finally, Nebraska. One of Douglas’s first bills, H.R. 444, introduced on December 17, 1844, sought to organize the Nebraska territory. Over the next ten years, he tried again and again to bring in Nebraska. And each time, he sought to use the Missouri Compromise line to ameliorate the growing dissension over slavery—and it was always slavery—by extending it. Each attempt failed. Meanwhile, Douglas saw settlers in Oregon, which the federal government refused to organize, write a constitution to organize themselves—without slavery. It was for Douglas evidence that given the alternatives, settlers would choose freedom over slavery. They wrote freedom into their constitutions. There was more history for that. When his adopted state of Illinois tried to mount a constitutional convention in 1824 to make Illinois a slave state, Illinois voters rejected the idea by a ratio of 53 to 47. (Theodore Calvin Pease, Illinois Election Returns, 1818-1848. Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1923, 27)
Douglas came to see that the people of territories seeking organizations would always choose freedom over slavery. It happened. And continued to happen. He would see it not only in Oregon, but in California, New Mexico, and Arizona. Others would follow. Douglas finally warned his southern colleagues that the settlement of the West would produce 17 new states. All of them, he warned, would come in free. (Congressional Glove, 31st Congress, 1st Session, Appendix, 371.)
Douglas would not allow his southern colleagues to the North for the ultimate failure of slavery. In a rare revelation of sentiments for the man who, to compromise, held his bargaining chips close to the vest, Douglas in a debate on April 20, 1848, said, “In the North it is not expected that we should take the position that slavery is a positive good—a positive blessing. If we did assume such a position, it would be a very pertinent inquiry, why do you not adopt this institution? We have moulded our institutions at the North as we have thought proper and now we say to you of the South, if slavery be a blessing, it is your blessing if it be a curse, it is your curse enjoy it—on you rest all the responsibility!” (Congressional Globe, 30th Congress, 1st Session, Appendix, 507)
Reg Ankrom, Author of “Stephen A. Douglas,: The Political Apprenticeship, 1833-1844” and “Stephen A. Douglas, Western Man: The Early Years in Congress, 1844-1850”
The first sentence of the last paragraph should read, “Douglas would not allow his southern colleagues to blame the North. . . .”
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