On April 23, 1813, in Brandon, Vermont, Stephen Arnold Douglas was born. Douglas was a “fierce nationalist” (Holt) who spent his entire life trying to maintain and extend the Union. He was also a life-long believer in the “popular sovereignty” (Holt) idea, which was the idea that nations and other localities had the right to decide their own structures for themselves in a fashion that they would establish alone. In line with this opinion, Douglas also promoted the idea of continental exceptionalism, where federal states could be immediately formed to “promote rapid settlement” after territories have been annexed (Holt). His career in politics included being both a Congressman and then Senator from Illinois. He also challenged Abraham Lincoln in the Presidential election of 1860.
Douglas started his public service career holding various state and local offices in Illinois until finally being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1843 (Lagasse). He held this office until 1847 when he was elected to the Senate. During his years as Congressman and Senator, Douglas favored measures that would speed up the settlement of new areas and territories including liberal immigration laws, easy terms for the purchase of land, and federal aid to the railroads (Holt). In line with his expansionist mindset, Douglas spoke in favor of the annexation of Texas in 1844, and demanded the whole of the Oregon territory be annexed even though it might lead to war with England (Holt). However, the legislation for which he will most often be remembered was one of the most “controversial and divisive” (Holt) of the 1850’s, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The final version of the Kansas-Nebraska Act which was enacted, “which organized two territories, repealed the Missouri Compromise, and applied popular sovereignty to those territories, although it left vague at what time settlers could make the decision” (Holt) was not the law that Douglas had envisioned but he did his best to defend it when it came under attack.
Largely due to what he saw as a Union in crisis, Douglas decided to run for the Democratic nomination for President in 1852 and 1856 but was not successful in his bid until the election of 1860. His opponent, Abraham Lincoln, a relative newcomer to the political scene, proved to be a formidable debater during the seven debates held in the run up to the election where he gained the national recognition that would propel him on to the White House. Douglas was not popular with Southern Democrats because of his stance of popular sovereignty and had to fight to obtain the nomination of the party. Even though Douglas was willing to sacrifice the inclusion of his belief in popular sovereignty in the Democratic platform in 1860 (Holt), the party was already fractured along lines that divided the Northern and Southern Democrats mostly over the issue of slavery. Surrendering his popular sovereignty stance got him support of Northern Democrats, and ultimately the nomination of the party, but he also campaigned heavily in the Southern states “in an effort to prevent secession” (Holt) if Lincoln won.
Even though Stephen Douglas proposed and supported many of the nation-building legislative acts of the mid-19th century, his legacy is largely overlooked by history in the shadows of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. Called one of the greatest orators of his day, Douglas is often a footnote in history. However, historians in recent years have stated that Douglas “was one of the few men of pre–Civil War era with a truly national vision” (Lagasse) and that his vision was ultimately overcome by circumstances beyond his control.
Holt, Michael F. “Douglas, Stephen Arnold (1813–61).” The New Encyclopedia of the American West, edited by Howard R. Lamar, Yale University Press, 1998. Credo Reference, http://ezproxy.apus.edu/login?url=http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/americanwest/douglas_stephen_arnold_1813_61/0. Accessed 12 Jan 2017.
Lagasse, Paul. “Douglas, Stephen Arnold.” The Columbia Encyclopedia, Columbia University, and, Columbia University Press, 2016. Credo Reference, http://ezproxy.apus.edu/login?url=http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/columency/douglas_stephen_arnold/0. Accessed 12 Jan 2017.