While most folks have heard of the Lincoln-Douglas debates and some are familiar with “The Little Giant” nickname, that’s usually the extant of their knowledge of Stephen Douglas. Particularly from residents of Illinois, however, Douglas deserves a little more attention.
“The Little Giant” moniker refers to his short stature – he was only five foot four – as well as to his standing in political circles where he was well-respected. Douglas served in the Illinois House of Representatives, the United States House of Representatives and the United States Senate. He was also States’ Attorney, Illinois Secretary of State and an associate justice of the Illinois Supreme Court. Douglas also ran for President against Abraham Lincoln in 1860, but the famous debates actually occurred in 1858 when the two men were both seeking election to the Senate. Douglas didn’t win the Presidential race, but he did win the Senate seat.
Stephen Douglas and the slavery issue are much discussed. He wrote the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 which inflamed the Republican Party and helped polarize the northern and southern states. Douglas wasn’t really pro-slavery, but he wasn’t really anti-slavery either. In fact, he was in possession of slaves inherited from his first wife who owned a cotton plantation.
Douglas bought lots of land in Chicago and intended to make a good profit on it once the railroads started reaching across the Mississippi River. For that to happen, he needed to move along the laws that would open up Kansas and Nebraska to settlement. Illinois, whom Douglas represented in Washington, was a slave-free state and so Douglas was expected to prohibit slavery in the new territories. But he needed the support of southern lawmakers to get the bill passed and they of course wanted to allow slavery.
Trying to fill his role as the ultimate compromiser, Douglas proposed that the residents of those territories be given the right to determine whether they would or would not allow slavery. Besides, he figured the climate was such that southern-style plantations would never take hold in Nebraska and so slaves wouldn’t even be needed, making the whole debate moot.
Douglas’s attempts to compromise backfired and the fall-out became more fuel to the fire that was smoldering between the North and the South. By the time President Lincoln took office 150 years this month, the Confederate States had already declared succession.
He may have lost the Presidency to Lincoln, but Douglas wasn’t about to lose the country. He immediately turned all of his considerable energy toward supporting the new President and reconciliation. Unfortunately, he contracted typhoid fever and died just a few weeks after the Civil War began at the age of 48.