Open main menu

The New International Encyclopædia/Douglas, Stephen Arnold

DOUGLAS, Stephen Arnold (1813-1861), An eminent American political leader. He was born in Brandon, Vt., April 23, 1813. He passed his boyhood in his native State and in western New York; went to Illinois in 1833; taught school and studied law for a year; was admitted to the bar in 1834, and began practice in Jacksonville. Within a year he was elected State's attorney for the most important judicial circuit in Illinois, and his rise thenceforward was rapid and brilliant. In 1836 he was elected to the Lower House of the State Legislature, and in the following year was made register of the Federal land office at Springfield. In 1838 he was an unsuccessful Democratic candidate for Congress, but in January, 1841, was appointed Secretary of State of Illinois, which position, however, he resigned within a month to take a seat on the bench of the Supreme Court of the State. After two years he resigned this position also, and thereafter served in Congress, first as a Representative (from 1843 to 1847), and then as a Senator, from 1847 until his death. In figure, he was below the middle height, but his frame was vigorous and his manner impressive. “Little Giant,” says Schouler, “he was presently called for, being both able and adroit in policy and full of resources, he gave the image of power under close compression.” As chairman of the Committee on Territories, first in the House and then in the Senate, his position was peculiarly important. He favored the annexation of Texas and the Mexican War. opposed the Wilmot Proviso (q.v.), defended the Compromise measures of 1850, and upheld the extreme demands for the Oregon Territory. He became especially conspicuous, however, through his proposal and advocacy of the doctrine of ‘popular sovereignty,’ or ‘squatter sovereignty,’ which denied the power of the Federal Government to legislate on slavery within the Territories, and recognized the right of the people of each Territory to legislate upon the subject for themselves. This doctrine, first announced by Lewis Cass (q.v.), in December, 1847, was definitely formulated by Douglas in 1854, when he presented the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, which precipitated anew the struggle over the extension of slavery in the national Territories. The bill, in its first draft, also in precise terms announced the doctrine that the Missouri Compromise had been superseded by the Compromise of 1850, and, although nothing in the statutes warranted such an assertion, its political effect was great and immediate. The passage of the act brought upon Douglas much harsh criticism throughout the North, and indicated, on the other hand, the increasing strength of the upholders of slavery. (See Kansas-Nebraska Bill.) Douglas now became, more than ever, a national force. Nevertheless, in 1856, as in 1852, he failed to secure the Presidential nomination. His campaign in 1858 for the election of the State Legislature, which was to name his successor in the Senate, led to the famous debates with Lincoln, in which the problems of slavery were thoroughly discussed and the foundation laid for the national reputation of his opponent. Douglas secured a reëlection to the Senate, but his position had become so altered through his opposition to the recognition of the Lecompton Constitution in Kansas and by reason of his ‘Freeport Doctrine’ (see Freeport, Ill.), that in 1860 he was unacceptable to Southern Democrats as a Presidential candidate. However, the Northern Democrats would not support for the Presidency a man holding the prevailing Southern views on slavery. This brought about a sectional division of the nominating convention and the subsequent nomination of Douglas for the Presidency by his Northern followers assembled in Baltimore. In the ensuing election, he received only twelve eleetoral votes, but his popular vote was next to that of Lincoln. His influence continued to be strong, and his hearty support of Lincoln's administration upon the outbreak of the Civil War was of powerful effect in the defense of the Union. He died June 3, 1861, at Chicago, Ill. There is a campaign Life of Stephen A. Douglas, by J. W. Sheahan (New York, 1860), and a much more critical review of Douglas's career is given in volumes i. and ii. of Rhodes's History of the United States from the Compromise of 1850 (New York, 1893 —). Consult, also, the brief biography, Stephen Arnold Douglas (Boston, 1902), by W. G. Brown, in the “Riverside Biographical Series.”