Douglas, Stephen A. (Douglass)

Born: 1813-04-23 Brandon, Vermont

Died: 1861-06-03 Chicago, Illinois

Alternate name: Douglass

In 1830, Douglas and his family settled in upstate New York where he attended the Canandaigua Academy before leaving in 1833 to study law with a local attorney. In November 1833, Douglas moved to Illinois, where he taught school and studied law, gaining admission to the bar in March 1834. He then settled in Jacksonville, where he began practicing law and served as state's attorney for the First Judicial Circuit from 1835 to 1836. Voters elected him as a Democrat to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1836 and, in March 1837, he moved to Springfield to become the register of the local U.S. General Land Office. Douglas became Illinois secretary of state in November 1840 but resigned three months later. The state legislature appointed him to the Illinois Supreme Court in 1841; at the age of twenty-seven, he became the youngest person to have served on that court. During his brief tenure, Douglas was a justice in twenty-four cases Abraham Lincoln argued before the Supreme Court. In 1843, Douglas won election to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served for two terms. In 1846 and again in 1853, Douglas won election to the U.S. Senate, where he became a powerful and influential national figure in the Democratic Party.

Widely known as the "Little Giant" due to his small stature and dominant presence, Douglas was a champion of the doctrine of popular sovereignty and played a leading role in the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. During the ensuing controversy over Kansas' slave status, Douglas went against the Democratic Buchanan administration by rejecting the Lecompton constitution, which led to a brief flirtation with the Republican Party and division within the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, Douglas won reelection to the U.S. Senate in 1858 over Abraham Lincoln. This heated campaign included the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates that gave Lincoln national recognition. In 1860, Douglas ran against Lincoln for the Presidency. While Democrats in northern states generally voted for Douglas, those in southern states voted for John C. Breckinridge, splitting the Democratic vote and enabling Lincoln's electoral triumph. After the election, Douglas served on the Committee of Thirteen and supported the ill-fated Crittenden resolution in an attempt to save the Union. He voiced his support for the Lincoln administration, however, and on April 25, 1861, he delivered one of his most famous pro-Union speeches in Springfield, Illinois, at the state capitol building. He contracted typhoid fever and died shortly thereafter.

Usher F. Linder, Reminiscences of the Early Bench and Bar of Illinois (Chicago: The Chicago Legal News, 1879), 76-82; John M. Palmer, ed., The Bench and Bar of Illinois: Historical and Reminiscent (Chicago: Lewis, 1899), 1:37-38; Allen Johnson, "Douglas, Stephen Arnold," Dictionary of American Biography (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1964), 3:1:397-403; Robert W. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973); Mark E. Neely Jr., The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia (New York: McGraw Hill, 1982), 84-88; Allen Johnson, Stephen A. Douglas: A Study in American Politics (New York: MacMillan, 1908); Robert W. Johannsen, The Frontier, the Union, and Stephen A. Douglas (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989); Robert W. Johannsen, "Douglas, Stephen Arnold," American National Biography, ed. by John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 6:805-8. Illustration courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, IL.