Stephen A Douglas – a summary

Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln were both from Illinois, both were politicians, and both courted Mary Todd.  There, the similarities seem to end.

Born in Brandon, Vermont to Stephen Arnold and Sarah Fisk Douglas, Stephen Douglas had a degree of formal education.  Enough, at least, to qualify him to work as an itinerant teacher after he migrated to Winchester, Illinois in 1833.  But schools in the American wilderness were only open for three months per year, and teachers’ pay was about three dollars per year for each student they taught.  Douglas began to study law and settled in Jacksonville, Illinois.

Public office

Stephen A DouglasNot long after, Douglas began his political career when he was appointed state’s attorney of Morgan County, Illinois.  It was the first of a string of public offices.  He was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives, appointed registrar of the Springfield, Illinois, land office, became the Illinois secretary of state, and was appointed associate justice to the Illinois Supreme Court in 1841 at the age of 27.

When Douglas was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1842, he resigned from the Illinois Supreme Court.  He was elected for a second term in 1844, but in 1846, he ran for United States Senate and won.

In March of 1847, he married Martha Martin, the daughter of a Mississippi plantation owner.  When his father-in-law died, Martha inherited the plantation, along with 100 slaves.  Her husband was appointed manager of the estate and received twenty per cent of the profits.  Douglas used the income to hire a manager and to advance his political career.  He and Martha moved to Chicago where they had two sons.  On 19 June 1853, Martha died giving birth to a daughter who also died.

Three years later, in 1856, Douglas married Adele Cutts.  Two years later, Adele suffered a miscarriage.  One year after that, she gave birth to a daughter named Ellen.  The child didn’t survive and Adele was weakened by the pregnancy.


Stephen A DouglasWhile in the senate, Douglas supported Henry Clay’s Missouri Compromise of 1850, legislation that Douglas would later overturn.  Clay’s Compromise was met with opposition.  It was Douglas who divided the bill and helped get each portion passed.

By 1852, Douglas was considered the leader of the Democratic party.  He sought the nomination for the Democratic presidential candidate, but was passed over for Franklin Pierce.  Douglas went back to the senate for another term, where he would eventually promote legislation the became known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  This was the bill that overturned the Missouri Compromise of 1850.  Douglas believed that the people should rule.  The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 promoted the concept of popular sovereignty, in which the people voted for the laws within their state, rather than having them dictated by the federal government.

Douglas’ stance cost him the 1855 senate election.  The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act had resulted in a realignment of both major political parties.  The Whig Party dissolved, with Whigs in the north joining ‘free soil’ Democrats to form the Republican party.  Democrats and Whigs in the south came together in what was known as the ‘Solid South.’

Douglas wasn’t deterred.  In 1856, he tried once again for the Democratic presidential nomination and lost.  He continued to hold middle ground between the free soil parties and the slave state parties with the popular sovereignty issue.  When the Dred Scot decision of 1857 made popular sovereignty irrelevant, Douglas was forced to choose a side.  He criticized President James Buchanan for trying to make Kansas a slave state, even though the citizens of Kansas had voted for free soil.  It won Douglas the support he had lost among Republicans and moderates in the north.  In 1858, when he once again ran for senate, he won, defeating Abraham Lincoln.


Abraham LincolnThe two men faced off again in 1859.  This time, Lincoln took a strategy that would associate his name with Stephen Douglas.  As Douglas traveled about the state giving speeches, Lincoln followed in his wake, giving speeches that responded to Douglas’ comments within a couple of days.  Douglas, feeling that he was being chased, agreed to seven joint appearances with Lincoln.  The Lincoln-Douglas debates would go down in history as the beginning of a political tradition.  He defeated Lincoln by a vote of 54 to 46.

In 1860, northern Democrats finally made Douglas their candidate for president.  Southern democrats who had split away named their own candidate, John C. Breckinridge.  It was considered undignified in the 1800s for a presidential candidate to make public appearances.  Douglas ignored the unwritten rule and went out the campaign trail himself.  But in October of 1860, Douglas told his secretary, “Mr. Lincoln is the next president. We must try to save the Union.  I will go south.”  Douglas did, traveling through the south, trying rally Union support.

When Lincoln received 120 votes to Douglas’s 12, Douglas urged the south to accept the man who had been duly elected as president.  He tried to arrange a compromise to avoid seccession, which he considered criminal, and began a strong advocate of holding the Union together.  He endorsed Lincoln’s call for troops after events at Fort Sumter in April 1861.  Lincoln, in turn, put his trust in Douglas, sending him to the border states and Midwest to rally support for the Union.

Douglas didn’t live to see the outcome of the American Civil War.  He died in Chicago, Illinois, on 3 June 1861 of typhoid fever.  He was buried on the shores of Lake Michigan.

LincolnKat Smutz

Abraham Lincoln: History In An Hour by Kat Smutz, published by Harper Press, and available in various digital formats, only $1.99 / 99p, and as downloadable audio.

See also The American Civil War: History In An Hour.