Thursday, April 23, 2009

April 23: “Every man must be for the United States or against it.”

Do you know who this is?
-He once courted Mary Todd, who later married Abraham Lincoln
-He owned a plantation in Mississippi.
-The give-away hint: His nickname was ‘The Little Giant”.

He was a mover and shaker in American politics during the mid-19th century. He was a northerner, but owned a plantation and slaves. The man he defeated in a Senate race was the man who beat him in the contest for the Presidency.

Stephen Arnold Douglas would become famous as a U.S. Senator from Illinois, but he was born in Brandon, Vermont on April 23, 1813. His parents were Stephen Arnold and Sarah Fisk Douglass. His father, a practicing physician, died when Stephen was an infant, and his mother moved in with her father and a bachelor brother with her two children. She could not afford to send her children to a private school, and he would be educated in common schools, and would complete his preparatory studies at Brandon Academy.

Young Stephen was ambitious, and anxious to achieve and education so he could provide for himself and his family. In 1828, at the age of 15, he was apprenticed at a cabinet maker, hoping to make enough money to allow him to go to college. It was during this year that he became politically inspired during the campaign of General Andrew Jackson. He became a life-long Democrat. Two years later his family moved to Canandaigua, New York, where he was able to study at the Canandaigua Academy. While he began to study law at the Academy, he ran out of money and would not make any further attempts at formal education. By 1834 he had migrated west, settling briefly in Cleveland, Ohio, then on to Illinois. At Winchester, Illinois he taught school for three months, and then was admitted to the bar as a lawyer. He opened an office in Jacksonville, Illinois in 1834, and was so successful that a year later he was a leader in the state’s Democratic party, and was elected as State Attorney for Morgan County, Illinois – all by the time he was twenty-two years old.

He would write to relatives in Vermont in 1833, claiming: "I have become a Western man, have imbibed Western feelings principles and interests and have selected Illinois as the favorite place of my adoption." It was in Illinois he would court Mary Todd – who eventually married Abraham Lincoln – and in 1847 he married Martha Martin, who brought into their marriage a large cotton plantation in Mississippi worked by slaves. The Illinois politician tried to distance himself from owning a plantation by hiring a manager, and using the profits from the plantation to help fund his political career. His wife died in 1853, leaving Stephen with two small sons. Three years later he married 20-year-old Adele Cutts, great-niece of Dolley Madison.

Stephen grew rapidly in the political arena. In 1836 he was elected to serve a term in the Illinois House of Representatives, was appointed in 1841 as the youngest state Supreme Court judge the state , and was elected to the US Congress, serving from 1843 – 1847. In 1846 Stephen would drop the final “s” from his family name. He was elected to three terms as US Senator, serving from 1847 to 1861, his service ending with his death.

It was during the 1840s that he gained the nickname of the "Little Giant." He was 5’ 4” in height, and weighed a little over ninety pounds, but he had broad shoulders and a large head. He was a scrappy fighter and hard worker, and – though unpolished in his oratory and often using jerky gestures – he became one of the most popular orators in Illinois.

The burning, consuming issue of the era was slavery. While a member of the U.S. House of Representative, Stephen established his stance on the issue: that the Congress had no constitutional right to restrict the extension of slavery other than the agreement that was made in the Missouri Compromise of 1820. While he opposed slavery, he both advocated states rights and was a Unionist.

While in the Senate, Stephen would attempt to put the divisive issue of slavery to rest – but would instead fan the fires that would unleash increased divisiveness that would ultimately lead to the civil war.

When the U.S. victory in the Mexican War reopened the issue of slavery in the territories in the late 1840’s, two opposing viewpoints clashed: The Southern view that slavery should be allowed to expand into the newly acquired territories because the Constitution protected property; while the Northern view was that the federal government could ban slavery in the new territories. Stephen tried to take a middle path, one that seemed to truly espouse democracy: let the settlers vote whether to allow slavery or not, a concept called popular sovereignty. This was applied to the territories of Utah and New Mexico with the Compromise of 1850.

By trying to apply this concept to the newly organized Kansas-Nebraska territories – formerly part of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 – four years later, Stephen reopened the public debate on slavery.

As a Senator, Stephen was an early advocate of the concept of a transcontinental railroad. He would become a powerful advocate of a northern rail route, which would go through Chicago, then westward, eventually to California. The railways were rapidly becoming the mark of prosperity of cities, states – and regions of the county. There was, however, a southern route as well – a route perhaps more feasible than the one he proposed. The desire to have a northern route was one of the motivating factors behind the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 – a bitterly divisive act because it inflamed the north through ending the Missouri Compromise, allowing slavery into territories forbidden to it for a generation.

Sectional politics would come to dominate the national political scene; pro- and anti-slavery forces would loot and kill in Kansas territory; and split the Democratic party along sectional lines. While he would later develop the Freeport Doctrine in one of his famous debates with Abraham Lincoln during the 1858 Senate race – a doctrine which argued that citizens in the territories could refuse to pass laws called ‘slave codes’ that supported and protected slavery. With no legal protection, he felt slave owners would not move into a territory where their investment in slaves was not protected. However, this continued to fuel the fires of sectionalism.

Stephen would win the Senatorial race in 1858 against Lincoln, but would lose the 1860 Presidential election. The Democratic Party was to badly split along sectional lines to work together to win the election. Stephen would represent the northern wing of the party.

After the election he urged the South to accept the new president, and tried to work out a compromise to keep the South in the Union. As war broke out, he declared secession as a criminal act, and took a trip – at Lincoln’s request – to the border states and Midwest to promote support for the Union. He told his listeners: “There are only two sides to this question. Every man must be for the United States or against it. There can be no neutrals in this war; only patriots and traitors.”

Stephen would not see beyond the opening stage of the bloody civil war that consumed the nation from 1861 – 1865. He suffered through a short illness, dying at Chicago, Illinois, on June 3, 1861, at the age of forty-eight. His last words to his children were, "to obey the laws and support the constitution of the United States."

01. Portrait, Stephen Douglas: Library of Congress, call number LC-USZ62-110141
02. Adele Cutts Douglas: Library of Congress, call number LC-BH82- 5368 B
03. Political Cartoon, Currier and Ives, 1860: Library of Congress, Alfred Whital collection, call number lprbscsm scsm0781
04. Monument, Monument Park, Chicago: Library of Congress, call number DN-0086536

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