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Stephen Douglas

U. S. Congressman and Senator whose views on slavery became the focus of a series of famous debates

Stephen Arnold Douglas

Stephen Arnold Douglas was born in Brandon, Vermont, on April 23, 1813. He was educated in the common schools and completed preparatory studies in Brandon Academy. His father trained him to be a cabinetmaker, but Stephen wanted to become an attorney. He began studying for a legal career at the Canandaigua Academy in New York in 1832, but left before graduating. In 1833 he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, where he served as a schoolteacher while continuing to study the law. He eventually moved to Winchester, Illinois, where he passed the Illinois bar exam in 1834. He opened his own law practice in Jacksonville, Illinois, that same year.

Douglas' political career began in 1835, when he was elected State's Attorney for the Morgan County Circuit. In 1836, he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives, where he served until 1837, after which he served as Register of the Land Office at Springfield. Hoping for a more prominent position in government, Douglas ran for the U. S. House of Representatives in 1838, but was unsuccessful. In 1840, Douglas was appointed Illinois Secretary of State, in which position he served until 1841. That same year, he was also elected as a judge of the Illinois Supreme Court, where he served until 1843.

In 1843, Douglas was elected as a Democrat to the U. S. House of Representatives. He served in the House until 1847, when he resigned to take a seat in the U. S. Senate. He went on to serve in the Senate until his death in 1861. While serving in the House and Senate, Douglas played an important role in resolving differences between Northerners and Southerners over the issue of slavery. He supported the Compromise of 1850 (Missouri Compromise), and sponsored the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The latter act, which allowed the eligible voters in new territories to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery, became the focus of a series of debates Douglas had with Abraham Lincoln during his Senate re-election campaign of 1858.

An unsuccessful candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1852 and 1856, Douglas captured the party's nomination in 1860. Once again pitted against Abraham Lincoln, Douglas again had to defend his belief that individual states should determine whether to allow slavery within their own borders. This time, however, his arguments failed him and he lost the election to Lincoln. Gracious in defeat, Douglas offered his services to President Lincoln after the outbreak of the Civil War, and toured border states to rouse enthusiasm for the Union cause.

Stephen Douglas died of typhoid in Chicago, on June 3, 1861. He is interred at Douglas Tomb State Historic Site, near Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.


Biographical Directory of the U.S. Congress
Illinois in the Civil War
Ohio History Central

See Also

Lincoln-Douglas Debates
Kansas-Nebraska Act
Abraham Lincoln
Civil War

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The Robinson Library >> United States >> Middle 19th Century >> Biography, A-Z

This page was last updated on September 28, 2018.