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Stephen Douglas


U.S. Representative/Senator

DOUGLAS, Stephen Arnold, statesman, born in Brandon, Vermont, 23 April, 1813" died in Chicago, II1., 3 June, 1861. His father, a graduate of Middlebury College and a young physician of high standing, died suddenly when Stephen was two months old, and the widow with her two children retired to a farm neat' Brandon. Here her son lived with her until he was fifteen years of age, attending school during the three winter months and working on the farm the remainder of the year. Determined then to earn his own living, he went to Middlebury and became an apprentice at cabinetmaking. This trade he followed for about eighteen months, when he was forced to abandon it on account of impaired health, He then attended the academy at Brandon for about a year.  

In the autumn of 1830 he moved to New York state with his mother, who had married Gehazi Granger, of Ontario County, and attended the academy at Canandaigua until December, 1832, when he began the study of law; but, finding that his mother would be unable to support him through the long course of legal studies prescribed by the state, he determined upon going to the west, and on 24 June. 1833, set out for Cleveland, Ohio, where he was dangerously ill with fever for four months. He then visited Cincinnati, Louisville, St. Louis, and Jacksonville, II1., but failed to obtain employment. Finding his money exhausted, he walked to Winchester, where he arrived at night with only thirty-seven and a half cents. Here he secured three days' employment as clerk to an auctioneer at an administrator's sale, and was paid six dollars. During the sale he made so favorable an impression that he at once obtained a school of about forty pupils, whom he taught for three months. During this time he studied law at night, and on Saturdays practiced before justices of the peace.  

In March, 1834, he removed to Jacksonville, obtained his license, and began the regular practice of law. Two weeks thereafter he addressed a large Democratic meeting in defense of General Jackson's administration. In a short sketch of his early life, written in 1838, from which the foregoing facts have been taken, Mr. Douglas thus spoke of this event: "The excitement was intense, and I was rather severe in my remarks upon the opposition .... The next week the 'Patriot,' the organ of the opposition, devoted two entire columns to my speech, and me and continued the same course for two or three successive weeks. The necessary consequence was that I immediately became known to every man in the County, and was placed in such a situation as to be supported by one party and opposed by the other .... Within one week thereafter i received for collection demands to the amount of thousands of dollars from persons I had never seen or heard of .... How foolish, how impolitic, the indiscriminate abuse of political opponents whose humble condition or insignificance prevents the possibility of injury, and who may be greatly benefited by the notoriety thus acquired! • . . Indeed, I sincerely doubt whether I owe most to the kind and efficient support of my friends (and no man similarly situated ever had better and truer friends), or to the violent, reckless, and imprudent opposition of my enemies."  

During the remainder of the canvass Mr. Douglas bore a prominent part, and on the assembling of the legislature, although not yet twenty-two years of age, he was elected attorney general, an officer who then, in addition to his other duties, rode the metropolitan circuit. His opponent was General John J. Hardin. This office he resigned in December, 1835, having been elected to the lower house of the legislature, of which he was the youngest member. The mental vigor and capacity he there displayed, in striking contrast with his physical frame, which was then very slight, won for him the title of the "Little Giant," which followed him through life. In 1837 he was appointed register of the land office at Springfield. In 1838 he was the Democratic candidate for congress ; but his opponent was declared elected by a majority of five votes. Over fifty votes cast for Mr. Douglas were rejected by the canvassers because his name was misspelled.  

In December, 1840, he was appointed secretary of state of Illinois, and in the following February elected a judge of the Supreme Court. Here his decision of character was shown in the trial of Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. A mob had taken possession of the courtroom, intending to lynch the prisoner, and the officers of the court appeared powerless. In this emergency Judge Douglas saw a bystander idly looking on whose great strength and desperate courage were well known. Above the shouts of the rioters rose the voice of the judge appointing this man a special officer, and directing him to select his deputies and clear the courtroom. In ten minutes order was restored. In 1843 Judge Douglas was elected to congress by a majority of 400, and he was reelected in 1844 by 1,900, and again in 1846 by over 3,000: but before the term began he was chosen U. S. senator, and took his seat in the senate, 4 March, 1847. He was reelected in 1852 and 1858, and had served fourteen years in that body at the time of his death. His last senatorial canvass was remarkable from his joint discussions with Abraham Lincoln. Each was conceded to be the leader of his party and the fittest exponent of its principles, and the election of one or the other to the senate was the real issue of the contest, which was for members of the legislature.  

Mr. Buchanan's administration was understood to be hostile to Mr. Douglas. The result of the election showed a Republican popular majority of 4,000 ; but the Democrats returned a majority of eight members to the legislature, which secured Senator Douglas's reelection. In 1852, at the Democratic national convention in Baltimore, he was strongly supported for the presidential nomination, receiving a plurality on the thirtieth ballot. In 1856 he was again a candidate at the Democratic national convention in Cincinnati, his friends throughout the convention controlling more than enough votes to prevent any nomination under the two-third rule. On the sixteenth ballot he received 121 votes; but, as he was opposed to the principle of the two-third rule, he at once withdrew in favor of Buchanan, who had received a majority, thus securing his nomination. At the Democratic national convention in Charleston in 1860, on the first ballot he received 1451/2 votes out ()f 2521/2 cast. On the twenty-third ballot he received 1521/2 votes, which was not only a large majority of the votes cast, but also a majority of all those entitled to representation. the convention having adjourned to Baltimore, he received on the first ballot 1731 out of 1901/2 votes cast. On the second ballot he received 1811/2 votes out of 1941, and his nomination was then made unanimous. the seceding delegates nominated John C. Breckenridge.  

Abraham Lincoln was the nominee of the Republican Party, and John Bell of the Constitutional Union party. Of the electoral votes only twelve were cast for Douglas, although he received 1,375,157 of the popular votes, distributed through every state in the Union. Mr. Lincoln received 180 electoral votes and 1,866,352 Popular votes.  

From the age of twenty-one till his death, with the exception of about two years, Mr. Douglas's entire life was devoted to the public service. During his congressional career his name was prominently associated with numerous important measures, many of which were the offspring of his own mind or received its controlling impress. In the House of Representatives he maintained that the title of the United States to the whole of Oregon up to latitude 54° 40' N. was "clear and unquestionable." he declared that he "never would, now or hereafter, yield up one inch of Oregon either to Great Britain or any other government." He advocated the policy of giving notice to terminate the joint occupation, of establishing a territorial government over Oregon protected by a sufficient military force, and of putting the country at once in a state of preparation, so that if war should result from the assertion of our just rights we might drive " Great Britain and the last vestiges of royal authority from the continent of North America, and make the United States an ocean bound republic."  

In advocating the bill refunding the fine imposed on General Jackson by Judge Hall, he said : "I maintain that, in the exercise of the power of proclaiming martial law, General Jackson did not violate the constitution nor assume to himself any authority not fully authorized and legalized by his position, his duty, and the unavoidable necessity of the case His power was commensurate with his duty, and he was authorized to use the means essential to its performance. • . . There are exigencies in the history of nations when necessity becomes the paramount law, to which all other considerations must yield."  General Jackson personally thanked Mr. Douglas for this speech, and a copy of it was found among Jackson's papers endorsed by him: "This speech constitutes my defense."  

Mr. Douglas was among the earliest advocates of the annexation of Texas, and, after the treaty for that object had failed in the senate, he introduced joint resolutions having practically the same effect. As chairman of the committee on territories in 1846, he reported the joint resolution by which Texas was declared to be one of the United States, and he vigorously supported the administration of President Polk in the ensuing war with Mexico. He was for two years chairman of the committee on territories in the house (then its most important committee in view of the slavery question), and became chairman of the same committee in the senate immediately upon entering that body. This position he held for eleven years, until removed in December, 1858, on account of his opposition to some of the measures of President Buchanan's administration. During this time he reported and carried through the bills organizing the territories of Minnesota, Oregon, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, Kansas, and Nebraska, and also those for the admission of the states of Iowa, Wisconsin, California, Minnesota, and Oregon.  

On the question of slavery in the territories he early took the position, which he consistently maintained, that congress should not interfere, but that the people of each state and territory should be allowed to regulate their domestic institutions to suit themselves. In accordance with this principle he opposed the Wihnot proviso when it passed the House of Representatives in 1847, and afterward in the senate when it was offered as an amendment to the bill for the organization of the territory of Oregon. Although opposed to the principles involved in the Missouri compromise, he preferred, as it had been so long acquiesced in, to carry it out in good faith rather than expose the country to renewed sectional agitation; and hence, in August, 1848, he offered an amendment to the Oregon bill, extending the Missouri compromise line to the Pacific ocean, thus prohibiting slavery in all the' territory north of the parallel of 36° 30', and by implication tolerating it south of that line. This amendment was adopted in the senate by a large majority, receiving the support of every southern and several northern senators; but was defeated in the house by nearly a sectional vote. This action of the House of Representatives, which Mr. Douglas regarded as a practical repudiation of the principle of the Missouri compromise, together with the refusal of the senate to prohibit slavery in all the territories, gave rise to the sectional agitation of 1849'50, which was temporarily quieted by the legislation known as the "compromise measures of 1850," the most famous of which was the fugitive slave law.  

Mr. Douglas strongly supported these measures, the first four having been originally reported by him from the committee on territories. The two others, including the fugitive slave law, were added by the committee of thirteen, and the measures were reported back by its chairman, Henry Clay. On his return to Chicago, the City council passed resolutions denouncing him as a traitor, and the measures as violations of the law of God and of the constitution ; enjoining the City police to disregard the laws, and urging the citizens not to obey them. The next evening a large meeting of citizens was held, at which it was resolved to " defy death, the dungeon, and the grave," in resistance to the execution of the law. Mr. Douglas immediately appeared upon the stand, and announced that on the following evening he would speak at the same place in defense of his course. Accordingly, on 23 October, he defended the entire series of measures in a speech in which he defined their principles as follows: " These measures are predicated upon the great fundamental principle that every people ought to possess the right of framing and regulating their own internal concerns and domestic institutions in their own way These things are all confided by the constitution to each state to decide for itself, and I know of no reason wily the same principle should not be extended to the territories." This constituted the celebrated doctrine of " Popular Sovereignty," sometimes called by its opponents "squatter sovereignty" (see BUTTS,  ISAAC). At the close of his speech the meeting unanimously resolved to sustain all the compromise measures, including the fugitive slave law, and on the following evening the common council repealed their nullifying resolutions by a vote of twelve to one.  

In December, 1853, Mr. Douglas reported his celebrated bill to organize the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, which formed the issues upon which the Democratic and Republican parties became arrayed against each other. The passage of this bill caused intense excitement in the non-slaveholding states, and Mr. Douglas, as its author, was bitterly denounced. He said that he traveled from Washington to Chicago by the light of his own burning effigies. The controversy turned upon the following provision repealing the Missouri compromise" " Which, being inconsistent with the principle of nonintervention by congress with slavery in the states and territories, as recognized by the legislation of 1850 (commonly called the compromise measures), is hereby declared inoperative and void" it being the true intent and meaning of this act not to legislate slavery into any territory or state, nor to exclude it there from, but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to the constitution of the United States."  

In the congressional session of 1857'8 he denounced and opposed the Leeompton constitution, on the ground that "it was not the act of the people of Kansas, and did not embody their will." Mr. Douglas was remarkably successful in pro-rooting the interests of his own state during his congressional career. In 1848 he introduced and procured the passage of the bill granting to the state of Illinois the alternate sections of land along the line of the Illinois Central railroad, which so largely contributed to developing the resources and restoring the credit of the state. He was one of the earliest and warmest advocates of a railroad t<) the Pacific. In foreign policy he opposed the treaty with England limiting the territory of Oregon to the forty-ninth parallel. He also opposed the Trist peace treaty with Mexico. He opposed the ratification of the Clayton-Bulwer treaty, chiefly because it pledged the faith of the United States never to annex, colonize, or exercise dominion over any part of Central America.  

He maintained that the isthmus routes must be kept open as highways to the American possessions on the Pacific" that the time would come when the United States would be compelled to occupy Central America" and declared that he would never pledge the faith of the republic not to do in the future what its interests and safety might require. He also declared himself in favor of the acquisition of Cuba whenever it could be obtained consistently with the laws of nations and the honor of the United States. In 1855 he introduced a bill for the relief of the U. S. Supreme Court, giving circuit court powers to the district courts, requiring all the district judges in each circuit to meet once a year as an intermediate court of appeals under the presidency of a justice of the Supreme Court, and providing for appeals from the district courts to these intermediate courts, and thence to the Supreme Court, in cases involving large amounts. In 1857 he declared that the only solution of the Mormon question in Utah was to " repeal the organic act absolutely and unconditionally, blotting out of existence the territorial government, and bringing Utah under the sole and exclusive jurisdiction of the United States government."  

In 1858, and again in 1860, he visited the southern states, and made many speeches. Everywhere he boldly denied the right of secession, and maintained that, while this was a union of sovereign states independent in all local matters, they were bound together in an indissoluble compact by the constitution, which established a national government inherently possessing all powers essential to its own preservation. During the exciting session of 1860'1, Mr. Douglas, as a member of the commit, tee of thirteen, and on the floor of the senate, labored incessantly to avert civil war by any reasonable measures of adjustment, but at the beginning of hostilities he threw the whole weight of his influence in behalf of the Union, and gave Mr. Lincoln's administration an unfaltering support. In public speeches he denounced secession as crime and madness, and declared that if the new system of resistance by the sword and bayonet to the result of the blot box shall prevail in this country, "the history of the United States is already written in the history of Mexico." He said that "no one could be a true Democrat without being a patriot."  

In an address to the legislature of Illinois, delivered at its unanimous request, he urged the oblivion of all party differences, and appealed to his political friends and opponents to unite in support of the government. In a letter dictated for publication during his last illness, he said that but one course was left for patriotic men. and that was to sustain the government against all assailants. On his deathbed his last coherent words expressed an ardent wish for the preservation of the Union, and his dying message to his sons was to "obey the laws and uphold the constitution."  

Mr. Douglas was somewhat below the middle height, but strongly built, and capable of great mental and physical exertion. He was a ready and powerful speaker, discarding ornament in favor of simplicity and strength. Few equaled him in personal influence over the masses of the people, and none inspired more devoted friendship. While considering it the duty of congress to protect the rights of the slaveholding states, he was opposed to slavery itself. His first wife was the only child of a large slaveholder, who in his last will provided that, if Mrs. Douglas should die without issue, all her slaves should be freed and removed to Liberia at the expense of her estate, saying further that this provision was in accordance with the wishes of Judge Douglas, who would not consent to own a slave.  

He married, 7 April, 1847, Martha, daughter of Robert Martin, of Roekingham County, N. C., by whom he had three children, two of whom, Robert M. and Stephen A., both lawyers, are living (1887). She died 19 January 1853. He married, 20 November, 1856, Addle, daughter of James Madison Cutts, of Washington, D. C., who is now the wife of General Robert Williams, U.S.A. The spot on the bank of Lake Michigan in Chicago that Mr. Douglas had reserved for his future home was bought from his widow by the state, and there his remains he under a magnificent monument begun by private subscriptions and completed by the state of Illinois. It is surmounted by a statue executed by Leonard Volk. His life was written by James W. Sheehan (New York, 1860), and by Henry M. Flint (Philadelphia, 1860).

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