U.S. senator Stephen Arnold Douglas (1813-1861), the foremost leader of the Democratic party in the decade preceding the Civil War, was Lincoln's political rival for the presidency.
Stephen A. Douglas was born in Brandon, Vt., on April 23, 1813. His father's early death meant Stephen's dependence on a bachelor uncle and later, a detested apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker. When his mother remarried and went to Canandaigua, N. Y., Stephen followed. He attended the academy there, developed a formidable talent as a debater, and became an ardent follower of Andrew Jackson.
Douglas made up for his short stature (5 feet 4 inches) in aggressiveness, audacity, and consuming political ambition. When he said farewell to his mother at 20, he promised to return "on his way to Congress," a prediction he made good 10 years later. He settled in Illinois, where he became a teacher. He taught himself law with borrowed books, became active in the Democratic party, and at 27 was a member of the Illinois State Supreme Court, the youngest ever to attain that office. He was called Judge Douglas thereafter.
Elected to the House of Representatives in 1843 and to the Senate in 1847, Douglas became a power in all legislation having to do with territories in the West. Known as the "Little Giant" because of his massive head, heavy brown hair, broad shoulders, and booming voice, he soon won the reputation of being the most formidable legislative pugilist in Washington. His enemies called him ruthless; his admirers strove to make him president.
In 1847 Douglas married Martha Denny Martin. The following year she inherited a Mississippi plantation with 150 slaves; by the terms of his father-in-law's will, Douglas was made manager. Though he always denied ownership of any slaves himself, he did manage the plantation up to his death, and there is little doubt that he looked upon his own marriage as symbolic of a successful bridging of North and South. When his wife, after having two sons, died in childbirth, he became depressed and turned for a time to liquor. A tour abroad rejuvenated his spirits, and in 1856 he married the beautiful Adèle Cutts, another Southern woman.
Though privately Douglas held slavery to be "a curse beyond computation," publicly he pronounced it a matter "of climate, of political economy, of self-interest, not a question of legislation." It was good for Louisiana, he said, but bad for illinois. Essentially proslavery in his legislation, he voted against abolition petitions, favored the annexation of Texas, helped Henry Clay push through the Compromise of 1850, and encouraged the purchase of Cuba to make a new slave state.
Douglas's failure to reckon with the enormity of the slavery evil, and the growing Northern resentment against it, led him to devise in 1854 what modern historian Allan Nevins called "the worst Pandora's box in our history." In planning for two new states, Kansas and Nebraska, he insisted that the slavery issue be resolved by the settlers themselves rather than by Congress, thus repudiating the 20-year-old Missouri Compromise. Southern extremists saw in this "squatter sovereignty" doctrine an opportunity to make Kansas a slave state, though a majority of the actual settlers were against slavery. Missourians crossed the border at election time to overwhelm the polls and vote in a proslavery government. The antislavery majority set up a rival government in Topeka, and soon there was a small but bloody civil was in Kansas. Douglas was denounced by the abolitionists. Charles Sumner in the Senate called him the squire of slavery, "ready to do all its humiliating offices."
When President James Buchanan recognized the proslavery government in Kansas, Douglas, angered by the misuse of his popular-sovereignty doctrine, denounced the President in 1857, thereby alienating his friends in the South and damaging his presidential chances. But his Kansas-Nebraska Bill had also alienated his antislavery followers in illinois, who charged him with conniving with railroad speculators. In 1858 he went home to face a difficult reelection battle, with Abraham Lincoln as his opponent.
In his famous debates with Lincoln, Douglas opposed African American citizenship in any form and attacked as "monstrous heresy" Lincoln's insistence that "the Negro and the white man are made equal by the Declaration of Independence and by Divine Providence." Douglas held that African Americans "belong to an inferior race and must always occupy an inferior position." Lincoln denounced Douglas's popular-sovereignty idea as "a mere deceitful pretense for the benefit of slavery" and emphasized the callousness of Douglas's statement: "When the struggle is between the white man and the Negro, I am for the white man; when it is between the Negro and the crocodile, I am for the Negro."
Douglas barely won the senatorial election, but the debates won national recognition for his rival. In 1860, when Lincoln was nominated for president on the Republican ticket, Douglas said of him to Republicans, "Gentlemen, you have nominated a very able and a very honest man."
Douglas expected to be nominated for president in the Democratic convention in Charleston, but a block of Southerners bolted the party, nominating instead John C. Breckinridge. The remaining Democrats nominated Douglas at a second convention in Baltimore. A fourth convention, organized by the Constitutional Union party, nominated John Bell. Douglas suspected that the four-candidate election would ensure Lincoln's victory but nevertheless campaigned vigorously, urging support for the Union he loved. "I wish to God," he said in New York City, "that we had an Old Hickory now alive in order that he might hang Northern and Southern traitors on the same gallows." In the South he deplored secession, which he said would make it necessary for his children to obtain a passport to visit the graves of their ancestors.
A Douglas feared, Lincoln's victory brought the immediate secession of South Carolina from the Union, and other states quickly followed. Douglas still labored for compromises to restore the Union, and he urged Lincoln to support a projected 13th Amendment which would guarantee that slavery would never be tampered with in the slave states. The firing on Ft. Sumter on Jan. 9, 1861, by Confederate forces ended his compromise efforts. He now swung behind Lincoln, urging a vigorous war effort and rallying Northern Democrats to the cause of the Union.
Douglas contracted typhoid fever and died June 3, 1861. Thus Lincoln lost his ablest rival at precisely the moment in history when he was most needed.
The bulk of Douglas's papers are at the University of Chicago, with additional letters in the illinois State Historical Society Library and the Chicago Historical Society. The brief Autobiography of Stephen A. Douglas (1913) and a volume of his letters, The Letters of Stephen A. Douglas, edited by Robert W. Johannsen (1961), are good source materials. The earliest good biography is Allen Johnson, Stephen A. Douglas: A Study in American Politics (1908). George Fort Milton in The Eve of Conflict: Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless War (1934) proves to be the most sympathetic of all the biographers and contends that, had Douglas been elected president in 1860, he would have prevented the Civil War. The same thesis in echoed in Gerald M. Capers, Stephen A. Douglas: Defender of the Union, edited by Oscar Handlin (1959). Historians are more critical of Douglas than these laudatory biographers. □