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Stephen A. Douglas

Stephen A. Douglas




Stephen A. DouglasAmong American leaders, who owe their influence to oratory, no one had a stronger hold on the affection of the people than Stephen A. Douglas. As an orator and debater he had but few if any equals, and the political debates which he held with Lincoln will ever challenge the admiration of American statesmen. Like Henry Clay among the Whigs, Douglas was the idol of the Democratic masses, and was an ardent advocate of "popular sovereignty."


Stephen Arnold Douglas was born at Brandon, Vermont, on the 23d of April, 1813. His father's somewhat early death compelled his mother to make her home with her brother all a farm. Here Stephen worked in the summer and attended school in the winner. At the age of fifteen he began to work for a cabinetmaker, and having saved a little money was able to enter all academy. In 1830 he removed with his mother to Canandaigua, New York, and there began the study of law. At the age of twenty he went westward, seeking a position which would give him the means of further study. At Winchester, Illinois, he taught school and studied law until he was admitted to the bar in 1834. He opened an office at Jackson, and was soon so popular that within a year he was made Attorney-general cf the State. Some months later he was elected to the legislature, and there obtained the name of "Little Giant, from the intellectual ability contained in his small person. He was already an effective stump-speaker and a leader of the Democratic Party in the State. In 1837 he was appointed registrar of the Land Office at Springfield.


As soon as Douglas was of the constitutional age for admission to Congress he was a candidate, but was defeated because in some ballots cast for him his name was misspelled. In the presidential campaign of 1840 he was specially active, traversing Illinois for seven months, and addressing more than two hundred political meetings. Douglas was then appointed Secretary of Stale for Illinois, and in the next year was elected by the legislature a judge of the Supreme Court. His courage was displayed in quelling a mob at the trial of Joseph Smith, the Mormon prophet. In 1843 Douglas, called again by his party to become a candidate for Congress, was elected. He was a strenuous upholder of the claims of the United States to Oregon, and a strong advocate of the annexation of Texas. He remained in the Lower House till 1847, when he was elected by the legislature to the United States Senate. He supported President Polk's administration in its war measures against Mexico. When the slavery question came to the front Douglas was in favor of redressing the grievances of the Southern States. He approved the compromises offered by Henry Clay, including the Fugitive Slave law. His course in regard to the latter was strongly denounced in Illinois, and he was obliged to defend it. Such was the power of his oratory that he was able not only to face, but to convert to his side, large gatherings of people who had assembled to disapprove his action. In 1852 he was a prominent candidate for the presidential nomination in the Democratic National Convention.


Douglas was well aware that some new policy must be adopted to reconcile the diverging views of the North and South. The latter required all increase of the area devoted to slavery the former was opposed to its extension. Douglas devised a method to accomplish this end by giving to actual settlers in all the Territories the right to decide whether slavery should be allowed in their new States or not. This doctrine of "popular sovereignty" was widely accepted as in conformity with American practice. It was embodied in the Kansas Nebraska bill of 1854, which practically repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The presentation of this measure, so far from producing harmony, aroused a whirlwind of antagonism. Douglas was denounced throughout the North, but his courage did not quail. When he returned to Chicago he endeavored to placate the enraged people, but his oratory was drowned in the outcries of a mob. This opposition was partly due to the fact that Douglas had already openly censured the "Know-Nothing," or Native American movement, which had recently manifested itself in various parts of the country.


In 1856 Douglas was again a candidate for the presidential nomination at the Democratic Convention in Cincinnati, and received a large vote; but when Buchanan obtained a majority Douglas withdrew in his favor, thus giving him the two-thirds required by the party rules. The struggle in Kansas between the anti-slavery and pro-slavery contestants was still raging fiercely. The latter had framed a Constitution at a Lecompton, and though it was rejected by a popular vote, still pressed for the admission of Kansas as a State under that Constitution. President Buchanan, like his predecessor Pierce, yielded to this pressure, and supported their efforts to have Kansas admitted as a slave State. But Douglas courageously resisted these violations of his doctrine of the absolute right of the people to decide their organic laws. Henceforth the influence of Buchanan's administration was turned against Douglas, even in his own Stale. But he retained the favor of the Democratic masses.


Douglas's senatorial term was drawing to a close in 1858, and he desired to secure a legislature favorable to his re-election. The Republicans prevailed upon Abraham Lincoln to lead the opposition in Illinois. These two effective speakers had already measured each other's strength in political campaigns, and Douglas had been the more successful, the State being Democratic. Arrangements were now made for a series of joint debates in the most important districts. Douglas displayed his customary brilliancy and shrewdness, but Lincoln pressed him home with questions which compelled him to disclose the true tendency of his doctrine. His answers were satisfactory to the Democrats of the North, but when reported at the South cut him off from the sympathy of its leaders. In the State of Illinois there was a popular majority of four thousand votes for Lincoln but owing to the unequal arrangement of legislative districts Douglas bad a majority in the legislature, and was returned to the Senate, In the Democratic Convention of 1860 Douglas was the most prominent candidate, but his speeches and answers in the debate with Lincoln had cut hi m off from the sympathy of the Southern leaders. The convention at Charleston divided without making a nomination as no candidate could secure the requisite two-thirds though Douglas had a decided majority, The later convention, held by adjournment at Baltimore, was composed chiefly of his partisans, and finally nominated him unanimously. The seceding delegates nominated John C. Breckenridge. Douglas received ', 375, 157 of the popular vote, yet only 12 electoral voles. Lincoln was elected by a plurality of the popular vote.


Douglas, in 1858 and again in 1860, traveled through the Southern States and made many speeches, earnestly deprecating secession, but his appeals were in vain. When Lincoln was inaugurated, Douglas gave him cordial support; and when the Civil War begun, he approved of the war to maintain the Union. His health had broken down, but he continued to urge upon his friends and followers to be loyal to the Constitution. He died in Chicago, on the 3d of June, 1861. In that city a splendid monument, surmounted by a statue by Volk, is erected to his memory.


Douglas was twice married: first, in 1847, to Martha, daughter of Colonel Martin, of North Carolina; and secondly, in 1856, to Adele, daughter of James M. Cutts, of Washington.


Great as was the popularity of Douglas and his activity in regard to all public matters, important as were the issues to which he devoted his strength, his faille, once so bright, has paled before that of his great rival, whom he seemed long to have eclipsed. Douglas is remembered rather as the competitor of Lincoln than as the typical Western statesman. The measures for which he labored have passed away, but his devotion to the Union is an enduring halo to his name.




We should not close our eyes to the fact that a great movement is in progress which threatens the existence or every absolute government in Europe. It will be a struggle between liberal and absolute principles-between republicanism and despotism. Are we to remain cold and indifferent spectators when the time of action shall arrive, and the exciting scene shall be presented to our view? Will it not become our duty to do whatever the interest, honor, and glory of our country may require, in pursuance of the law of nations to give encouragement to that great movement? Should we not recognize the independence of each republic as soon as it shall be established, open diplomatic intercourse form commercial treaties, and, in short, extend the right hand of fellowship, tendering an the courtesies and privileges Which should exist between friendly nations of the same political faith? I think that the bearing of this country should be such as to demonstrate to all mankind that America sympathizes with the popular movement against despotism Whenever and wherever made.


Something has been said about an alliance with England to restrain the march of Russia over the European continent. I am free to say that I desire no alliance with England or with any other crowned bead. I am not willing to acknowledge that America needs England as an ally to maintain the principles of our government. Nor am I willing to go to the rescue of England, to save her from the power of the autocrat until she assimilates her institutions to ours. Hers is a half-way house between despotism and republicanism. She is responsible as much as any power in Europe for the failure of the revolutionary movements which have occurred within the last four years. English diplomacy English intrigue, and English perfidy put down the revolution in Sicily and in Italy, and was the greatest barrier to its success even in Hungary. So long as England shall, by her diplomacy, attempt to defeat liberal movements in Europe, I am utterly averse to an alliance with her to sustain her monarch her nobles and her privileged classes.


I repeat, I desire no alliance with England. We require no assistance from her, and will yield none to her until she does justice to her own people. The peculiar position of our country requires that we should have an American policy in our foreign relations, based upon the principles of our own government, and adapted to the spirit of the age. We should sympathize with every liberal movement, recognize the independence of all republics, form commercial treaties, and open diplomatic relations with them, protest against all infractions of the law of nations, and hold ourselves ready to do whatever our duty may require when a case shall arise. -S. A. DOUGLAS.


Stephen A. Douglas

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