Douglas, Stephen A. (1813–1861)

AuthorPaul Finkelman

Page 812

An Illinois lawyer and judge, Stephen Arnold Douglas served in the HOUSE OF REPRESENTATIVES (1843?1847) and the SENATE (1847?1861), where he chaired the powerful committee on the TERRITORIES from 1847 until 1859. Throughout his career Douglas was a strong Democratic partisan who advocated western expansion, railroad development, and compromise on slavery. A major political figure throughout the 1850s, Douglas closed his career with his losing presidential campaign in 1860. When the CIVIL WAR began Douglas rallied to the cause of the Union despite his hostility toward Lincoln and his familial and residual political ties to the South.

Throughout his career Douglas attempted to finesse the issue of SLAVERY IN THE TERRITORIES while supporting territorial acquisition and western settlement. Douglas hoped such a policy would lead to a presidential nomination from a united Democratic party. Practical politics dovetailed with Douglas's personal beliefs that blacks were inferior to whites, that slavery was a legitimate institution deserving of constitutional and political protection, and that ABOLITIONISTS were troublemakers or worse.

The key to Douglas's program was POPULAR SOVEREIGNTY, which would allow settlers to decide the slavery issue for themselves, and thus not require Congress, and the national Democratic party, to take a position on slavery in any particular territory. Ultimately, Douglas's position proved costly. Proslavery Democrats eventually demanded federal protection for slavery in the territories and opposed any Democrat who would not support them. On the other hand, Northerners, in Illinois and elsewhere, came to oppose the spread of slavery into the western territories. By 1858 Douglas discovered he could not satisfy the voters at home and remain a viable presidential candidate in the South.

As early as 1844?1845 Douglas had advocated that settlers in the West be allowed to decide for themselves the status of slavery. In Congress he urged the organization of the Oregon Territory without slavery because settlers there did not want slavery. In the House and Senate Douglas enthusiastically supported all American claims in Oregon and the Mexican War, and he opposed the WILMOT PROVISO. As chairman of the Committee on the Territories, Douglas secured the organization of the Oregon and Minnesota territories without slavery. In August 1850, Douglas resurrected the compromise measures of HENRY CLAY'S "Omnibus...

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