1902 Encyclopedia > Stephen Arnold Douglas

Stephen Arnold Douglas
American statesman
(1813-61)




STEPHEN ARNOLD DOUGLAS, (1813-1861), an American statesman, was born at Brandon, in the State of Vermont, on the 23d April 1813. His father, a physician, died when he was still an infant, and in his youth he had to struggle with poverty. He was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker, but his health failed, and he quitted the employment after a year and a half. He next studied for three years at the academy of Canandaigua, giving special attention in the latter part of his course to law. In 1833 he went west to seek his fortune, and settled in Jacksonsville, Illinois. Here he supported himself for a few months by acting as an auctioneer's clerk and keeping a school. Called to the bar in March 1834, he quickly obtained a large and lucrative practice, and so early as the following year was elected attorney-general of the State. In December 1835 he was elected a member of the legislature, in 1837 he was appointed registrar of the land office at Springfield, and in December 1840 he became secretary of state of Illinois. He was a judge of the supreme court of Illinois from 1841 till November 1843, when he resigned the office in order tc stand a candidate for Congress in the Democratic interest. In 1837 he had failed to secure his return by a minority of 5 in a total vote of 36,000 ; on this occasion he was successful, being elected by a majority of 400. He took an active share in the Oregon controversy, asserting his unalterable determination not to " yield up one inch " of the Territory to Great Britain, and advocating its occupa-tion by a military force. He was also a leading promoter of the measures which resulted in the annexation of Texas and in the Mexican war. Being chairman of the Territorial committee at first in Congress and then in the Senate, to which he was elected in March 1847, it fell to him to in-troduce the bills for admitting Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, California, and Oregon into the Union, and for organizing the Territories of Minnesota, Oregon, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, Kansas, and Nebraska. On the keenly dis-puted question of the permission of slavery in theTerritories, Douglas advocated, if he was not the first to promulgate, what came to be known as the " popular sovereignty doctrine," by which each territory was to be left to decide the matter for itself in the same manner as a State. The bill for organizing the Territories of Kansas and Nebraska, which Douglas reported in January 1854, caused great popular excitement, as it repealed the Missouri compromise, and declared the people of " any State or Territory " " free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to the constitution of the United States." There was great indignation throughout the free states; and Douglas, as the chief promoter of the measure, was hanged or burned in effigy in many places. In 1852, and again in 1856, he was a candidate for the presidency in the National Democratic Convention, and though on both occasions he was unsuccessful, he received strong support. In 1857 he distinguished himself by his vigorous opposition to the admission of Kansas into the Union under the Lecompton constitution, which he maintained to be fraudulent. In the following year he was engaged in a close and very exciting contest for the senatorship with Abraham Lincoln, who was the Bepublican candidate. The popular vote was against him, but in the legislature vote he secured his return by 54 to 46. Douglas paid great attention to the local affairs of Illinois, and he was the chief promoter of the Illinois Central Railroad. In 1860 he was again one of the Democratic candidates for the presidency, and received a large popular vote, but he was very feebly supported in the electoral college. On the outbreak of the civil war he denounced secession as criminal, and was one of the strongest advocates of main-taining the integrity of the Union at all hazards. He delivered frequent addresses in this sense after the adjourn-ment of Congress, and during his last illness he dictated a letter for publication urging all patriotic men to sustain the Union and the constitution. He died at Chicago on the 3d June 1861.







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