Stephen A. Douglas (1813-61)

Stephen A. Douglas, 1860
Stephen A. Douglas, 1860

Like Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas moved west as a young man. Born and educated in Vermont, he settled first in New York State, and then moved to Jacksonville, Illinois, in 1833. He was admitted to the bar and rose rapidly in Democratic party politics, serving in the state legislature and Congress and winning election to the Senate in 1847.

Douglas was the last great political leader to build a career on sectional compromise. It was he, more than any other legislator, who shepherded the Compromise of 1850 through Congress. Douglas soon emerged as the nation's most powerful statesman.

Popular sovereignty, the principle with which Douglas's career became identified, sought to remove the divisive slavery issue from national politics. Only this, he believed, would keep sectional antagonism from destroying the Democratic Party and the Union, while encouraging the rapid settlement and development of the West. Douglas's failure to reach the presidency or to hold the Democratic Party together indicated that sectional compromise was no longer possible.

During the secession crisis, Douglas warned Southerners that Northern Democrats would stand with the federal government in a civil war. He died in June 1861, soon after pledging his support to Lincoln's efforts to resist the Southern rebellion.

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