Douglas, Stephen A. (Stephen Arnold), 1813-1861

Alternative names
Birth 1813-04-23
Death 1861-06-03

Biographical notes:

Democratic leader, statesman.

From the description of Speeches, 1860, Oct. 11-Nov. 2. (New York University). WorldCat record id: 58663720

U.S. Senator from Illinois.

From the description of Papers, 1848-1861. (Duke University Library). WorldCat record id: 20736864

American Senator and Politician.

From the description of Letter signed : Washington, D.C., to James Sander of Jersey City, 1859 Aug. 31. (Unknown). WorldCat record id: 270538099

Eventually U.S. Representative and Senator from Illinois, in 1835 Douglas was state's attorney for the Morgan Circuit in Morgan County.

From the description of Bonds and petition, 1835. (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library). WorldCat record id: 706817369

Illinois politician, lawyer; Morgan County states attorney, 1835; Illinois state representative, 1836-1837; register, Springfield land office, 1837; Illinois secretary of state, 1840-1841; Illinois Supreme Court justice, 1841-1843; Illinois congressman, 1843-1847; U.S. senator, 1847-1861.

From the description of Documents, 1834-1837. (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library). WorldCat record id: 29647629

From the description of Letter: Washington, [D.C.], to J[ames] W[atson] Webb, 1851 Jan. 28. (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library). WorldCat record id: 29647669

From the description of Documents, 1836-1840. (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library). WorldCat record id: 29647634

From the description of Document [fragment], 1854. (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library). WorldCat record id: 29647616

From the description of Document: Springfield, Illinois, 1842 Dec. 31. (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library). WorldCat record id: 29647625

From the description of Letter: Washington, [D.C.], to John H. Pillsbury, Boston, [Mass.], 1859 July 13. (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library). WorldCat record id: 29647664

From the description of Copy-book: Brandon, Vermont, 1829. (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library). WorldCat record id: 29647614

From the description of Letter: Washington, [D.C.], to George N. Sanders, New York, 1859 Aug. 23. (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library). WorldCat record id: 29647659

From the description of Document, 1843 March 23. (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library). WorldCat record id: 29647619

From the description of Letter: Vandalia, Ill., to Levi Woodbury, 1839 Feb. 24. (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library). WorldCat record id: 29647651

From the description of Papers, 1836-1861. (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library). WorldCat record id: 29647676

From the description of Incoming correspondence and papers, 1843-1913. (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library). WorldCat record id: 29647643

From the description of Document: Green County, Ill., 1836 Sept. (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library). WorldCat record id: 29647623

From the description of Documents: [Sangamon County Circuit Court], 1839 May 24. (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library). WorldCat record id: 29647637

From the description of Letter: Washington, [D.C., to Lewis W. Ross], 1844 Jan. 2. (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library). WorldCat record id: 29647658

Attorney and Democratic politician Stephen Arnold Douglas (1813-1861) was born in Brandon, Vermont, to Stephen Arnold Douglas and Sarah Fisk. In 1833, he moved to Jacksonville, Illinois, where he studied law and was appointed State Attorney for Morgan County a year later. Douglas was elected to the Illinois State Legislature and became an associate justice of the Illinois Supreme Court in 1841. A year later, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and to the U.S. Senate in 1852. Following a famous contest with Abraham Lincoln, Douglas was reelected in 1858. His adherence to democratic principles influenced his work on the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In 1860, Douglas won the Democratic nomination for the U.S. presidency, but lost the election to Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln.

Source: “Douglas, Stephen Arnold.” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Accessed August 5, 2011.

From the guide to the Stephen Arnold Douglas Collection 2011-208., 1841, (Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin)

Illinois politician, lawyer. Morgan County states attorney, 1835; Illinois state representative, 1836-1837; register, Springfield land office, 1837; Illinois secretary of state, 1840-1841; Illinois Supreme Court justice, 1841-1843; Illinois congressman, 1843-1847; U.S. senator, 1847-1861.

Democratic candidate for U.S. president opposite Abraham Lincoln, 1860.

From the description of Legal documents, poll books, etc., 1825-1861. (Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library). WorldCat record id: 29647748

Stephen Arnold Douglass was born in Brandon, Vermont, on April 23, 1813. His father, physician Stephen Arnold Douglass, died when the baby was only two months old. His mother, Sarah Fiske Douglass, remarried to Gehazi Granger. In 1830, the Granger family moved from Vermont to upstate New York, where after a brief period at an academy Stephen Douglass began to read law under a locally prominent Democratic attorney. In 1833, Stephen made his way west to seek his career and fortune. After arriving in Quincy, Illinois, and operating a private school for a time, he secured a law license and set up practice in Jacksonville, Illinois. As he established the basis for a professional career, Stephen also changed the spelling of his last name from Douglass to Douglas.

Stephen A. Douglas first became politically known in Illinois as a staunch Democratic proponent of President Andrew Jackson. Between 1835 and 1840, Douglas held a succession of Illinois state offices, some of them concurrently, including state's attorney, state legislator, register of the Springfield land office, and secretary of state. In 1841, at the age of twenty-seven, he was elected to a seat on the Illinois Supreme Court. In 1836, he lost a disputed race for the U.S. House of Representatives by thirty-six popular votes. Four years later he lost a campaign for a U.S. Senate seat by five legislative votes. Only in 1843, running in a newly created congressional district, was Douglas able to win a seat in the House.

As a member of the House of Representatives, Douglas was among those urging an extension of United States territory from the Atlantic to the Pacific. He called for the annexation of Texas, the establishment of military posts along the Western emigrant trails, and organization of a Nebraska territorial government. By 1845, these and other strong expansionist positions had won Douglas the chairmanship of the House Committee on Territories.

Through a congressional colleague, Douglas met Martha Denny Martin (1825-1853), the daughter of a wealthy North Carolina planter and a member of a family long prominent in North Carolina political affairs. When Stephen and Martha were married in 1847, Robert Martin offered his new son-in-law his 2,500-acre plantation on the Pearl River in Lawrence County, Mississippi. Douglas declined the gift, but after Martin died a year later, the Pearl River plantation was bequeathed to Martha and any children she might have. Douglas was designated as the property manager and was allocated 20 per cent of the plantation's annual income for his services. Two children born to their marriage survived into adulthood, Robert Martin Douglas (1849-1917) and Stephen Arnold Douglas, Jr. (1850-1908).

In 1847, after only three years in the House of Representatives, Douglas was elected by the Illinois state legislature to a seat in the U.S. Senate, where he was made chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories. His position gave him an influential role in shaping all aspects of national policy affecting western lands, from the courts and post office to military posts and legislative powers. He also became quickly immersed in growing sectional disputes over the future of slavery. As a Senator from a state with a mix of strong anti-slavery and pro-slavery sentiment, and as the manager of a Mississippi plantation with more than 100 slaves, Douglas attempted to craft a political position that would avoid favoring either the North or South.

The first significant test of this policy, the Compromise of 1850, is usually credited to Henry Clay, but it owed a great deal to Douglas's political skills. To satisfy the North, California was admitted as a free state, and the slave trade was abolished in the District of Columbia; to reassure the South, the territories of New Mexico and Utah were organized without a prohibition of slavery, and a rigid fugitive slave law was enacted. Despite this careful attempt to placate both sides in the slavery controversy, the reaction to the Compromise in the North was immediate and hostile. Douglas came under fierce attack in his home state and was able to calm his supporters only by rushing back to Illinois to defend himself before the Chicago city council and the state legislature.

In 1853, Douglas sustained a grave personal loss when his wife Martha died following complications from the birth of a daughter. After their infant girl also died a few weeks later, a grieving Douglas decided to leave the country for an extended tour of Europe. His travels took him to London, Constantinople, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Paris, in the course of which he secured a number of diplomatic audiences and met Czar Nicholas I and Emperor Napoleon III.

Douglas's personal life did not recover its equilibrium until 1856, when he married twenty-one-year-old Rose Adele Cutts (1835-1899), known as Adele, whose father, James Madison Cutts, was a nephew of President James Madison and Dolley Madison. The new Mrs. Douglas accepted Douglas's two sons as her own and raised them with his approval in her own Catholic faith. Their infant daughter Ellen died shortly after birth in 1859. The Douglas's built an imposing townhouse in Washington just north of Capitol Hill, and it soon became renowned for lavish parties and receptions. Douglas's personal affairs also changed in other respects. In 1857, Douglas sold the family plantation on the Pearl River, which had been affected by flooding and poor crops and in partnership with James A. McHatton of Baton Rouge, moved the agricultural operation to a 2,000-acre property south of Greenville, Mississippi.

Throughout his career, Douglas maintained a strong interest in science, education, and technological improvements. In 1850, Douglas secured the passage of federal legislation supporting the Illinois Central Railroad route from Chicago down the Mississippi Valley to New Orleans, thus helping to make Chicago and Illinois a national center for industry and commerce. Douglas was an enthusiastic supporter of the Smithsonian Institution from the time of its founding and in 1854 was appointed a regent of the Smithsonian. In 1858 Douglas gave ten acres on the south side of Chicago to serve as the site of the newly organized University of Chicago; the land was part of his Oakenwald estate, where Douglas planned to develop an exclusive suburban neighborhood and erect his own residence.

Douglas's rising prominence in national affairs reached a crest in January 1854, when he introduced the Kansas-Nebraska bill to organize governments in the Kansas and Nebraska territories. In each territory, the question of slavery would be reserved until it entered the Union as a new state; at that time, the voting citizens would draw up a constitution and determine whether or not their state would permit slavery. The Kansas-Nebraska bill embodied Douglas's doctrine of popular sovereignty, according to which the voters in newly admitted states, not the federal government, would determine the future of slavery by exercising their democratic rights to self-government. Douglas also hoped that popular sovereignty would remove slavery from congressional debate and insulate the federal government from further sectional conflict. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, however, unleashed a new torrent of angry protest by Northern anti-slavery forces, who felt it opened the door to an expansion of slavery across the West. Douglas returned to Illinois to defend his position, touring the state for two months and twice trading opposing speeches with Abraham Lincoln, a former Whig legislator and congressman who reemerged on the political stage and became a spokesman for the new Republican Party.

In the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Douglas also found himself at odds with important elements of the national Democratic party. He had first attempted to gain the Democratic nomination for president in 1852. In 1856, he tried once again for the presidential nomination, but withdrew his name in favor of James Buchanan, who went on to win the election. The brief alliance between Buchanan and Douglas ended within a year, however, when a pro-slavery convention meeting in Lecompton, Kansas, drew up a constitution proposing statehood and protecting property in slavery. Buchanan supported the Lecompton constitution, but Douglas was determined to block it, arguing that its passage was fraudulent and did not express the will of the people in accordance with popular sovereignty. Although Douglas could not prevent congressional approval of the constitution, it was later rejected by the voters of Kansas.

The struggle over Kansas and the spread of slavery became the dominant theme in the Senate election campaign of 1858 in Illinois. Douglas was renominated by the Democrats, while Abraham Lincoln was selected as the Republican candidate. The campaign between Douglas and Lincoln gained unexpected attention when Lincoln pressed Douglas to agree to join in a series of debates. Staged in seven Illinois towns from August to October of 1858, the campaign debates between Douglas and Lincoln drew large crowds and generated detailed press coverage. Lincoln charged that Douglas was part of a slavery "dynasty" seeking to promote the spread of slavery over the entire nation. Douglas argued that Lincoln's "House Divided" speech had pushed the country to the brink of division and that popular sovereignty would resolve the slavery issue. On election day, the Republicans won a majority of the popular vote across the state; the Illinois legislature, however, remained in the hands of the Democrats, and Douglas was returned to Washington for another Senate term.

Douglas and Lincoln were to meet again in the tumultuous presidential election of 1860. Divisions within the Democratic Party had become so deep that when Democrats met first in Charleston and later in Baltimore for their nominating convention, the southern delegates walked out. Douglas was able to win the presidential nomination from the remaining northern delegates, but the breakaway Democrats turned to John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky as their candidate. The Constitutional Union party nominated John Bell of Tennessee, and the Republicans chose Abraham Lincoln to carry their banner, making the 1860 presidential election a four-way race.

Douglas was so concerned about the sectional division in the Democratic party and the potential rupture of the federal Union that he decided to break with precedent and campaign on his own behalf, the first presidential candidate in American history to do so. Frequently accompanied by Adele, Douglas campaigned through all parts of the country, from New England, New York, and Pennsylvania to Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, and Georgia. His desperate efforts to reunite the Democratic party, however, could not overcome the rapidly disintegrating political situation. In November 1860, none of the four presidential candidates secured a majority of the popular vote, but Abraham Lincoln carried the electoral college and won the White House.

In the months following the presidential election, Douglas returned to Washington to join the efforts to prevent the secession of the southern states, engaging in a series of private meetings with Lincoln to map strategy. When the Illinois state legislature went into special session, Douglas traveled to Springfield to make an impassioned speech rallying citizens to a defense of the Union. Several weeks later, while staying the Tremont House hotel in Chicago, Douglas fell ill, and his condition soon began to deteriorate. On June 3, 1861, with his wife, Adele, at his side, he died.

The funeral of Stephen A. Douglas was attended by more than 5,000 mourners. His body was laid to rest in a temporary tomb overlooking Lake Michigan, on the Oakenwald property that he had selected for his Chicago residence. In 1881, a permanent monument was erected on the site; its designer was Leonard W. Volk, whose wife was a cousin of Douglas and whose education as an artist had been sponsored by Douglas.

The Civil War had immediate and devastating effects on Douglas family estate. In 1862, Camp Douglas, a Union military prison, was established at the northern end of the Oakenwald property; it housed more than 26,000 captured Confederate soldiers, of which 6,000 died. The Douglas mansion in Washington was turned over to the Federal government, and it was converted into a military hospital for the duration of the conflict. In Mississippi, the Greenville plantation was raided by Union troops, and the entire cotton crop was lost. Douglas's two sons later attempted to recover compensation from the federal government, but without success.

After the war, Robert Martin Douglas graduated from Georgetown College, served as private secretary to President Ulysses S. Grant, and became a justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. Stephen A. Douglas, Jr., who also studied at Georgetown, moved from North Carolina to Chicago and became an attorney. Adele Cutts Douglas remarried in 1866 to Brevet Brigadier General Robert Williams, who later became Adjutant General of the U.S. Army; they had six children.

From the guide to the Douglas, Stephen A. Papers, 1764-1908, (Special Collections Research Center University of Chicago Library 1100 East 57th Street Chicago, Illinois 60637 U.S.A.)


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  • Cotton trade
  • Legal documents
  • Antislavery movements
  • Presidents--Election--1860
  • Nominations for office
  • Political Campaigns
  • Autographs
  • Kansas--Nebraska bill
  • Corn laws (Great Britain)
  • Patronage, Political
  • Slavery
  • Presidents--Nomination
  • Elections
  • Secession
  • Copybooks
  • Lawyers
  • Campaign speeches
  • Plantation life


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