Stephen Arnold Douglas

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Stephen Arnold Douglas

Brandon, Rutland County, Vermont, USA
Death 3 Jun 1861 (aged 48)
Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, USA
Burial Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, USA
Plot Inside Douglas monument
Memorial ID 295 View Source
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US Congressman, US Senator, and Democratic Presidential Candidate. A member of the Democratic party, he served in the US House of Representatives from Illinois's 5th district for two consecutive terms from March 1843 until March 1847 and in the US Senate from Illinois from for three consecutive terms from march 1847 until his death in June 1861. Nicknamed the "Little Giant" due to his short stature, he was a forceful and dominant figure in US politics during the mid-1800s he is remembered for the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates that took place in Illinois in 1858. Born Arnold Douglass, he dropped the second "s" from his name some years later and took the first name of his father Stephen. In 1833 he migrated to Winchester, Illinois where he served as an itinerant teacher and opened a school for three months at three dollars a pupil. He also studied law, and moved in Jacksonville, Illinois, and later to Springfield, Illinois. In 1834 he was appointed as State's Attorney of Morgan County and served until 1836. Over the next few years, he became a leader of the dominant Illinois Democrats. He was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives, was appointed registrar of the Springfield Land Office, became Illinois Secretary of State, and was appointed an associate justice of the Illinois Supreme Court in 1841. He resigned from the Court upon being elected to the US House of Representatives in 1843, and was re-elected in 1844. In 1846 he was elected to the US Senate by the Illinois General Assembly. He briefly courted Mary Todd (who married Abraham Lincoln instead) and in March 1847 he married Martha Martin, the 21-year-old daughter of wealthy Colonel Robert Martin of North Carolina. They moved to Chicago, Illinois in the summer of 1847. The following year her father died and bequeathed Martha a 2,500-acre cotton plantation with 100 slaves on the Pearl River in Lawrence County, Mississippi and Douglas was appointed the property manager but, as a senator of the free state of Illinois, and with presidential aspirations, he found the Southern plantation presented difficulties and created distance by hiring a manager to operate the plantation and rarely made visits there. During the sectional crisis of 1850, he was one of the strongest advocates of compromise. He supported the proposals of Henry Clay, despite their partisan differences (Clay was a Whig). But Clay's "omnibus" bill for the Compromise of 1850 was defeated and there being a majority who were opposed to various parts of it. He stepped in and divided the parts of the Compromise into separate bills, each of which had majority support, though a different majority for each, and thus the Compromise was passed. By 1852 he was considered one of the Democrats' national leaders. He contended for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1852, but was passed over for "dark horse" Franklin Pierce. In January 1853 his wife died after the birth of her third child, a daughter, who also died a few weeks later. After his re-election to the US Senate in 1853, he set off a tremendous political upheaval with the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. Nebraska Territory, west of Missouri, was then being settled, and Congress needed to provide territorial organization for the region. During this time, various proposals for a transcontinental railroad to California had been offered. One was for a southern route, from New Orleans; another was for a central route, from Chicago. He owned real estate in Chicago which was expected to boom if the central route was adopted. Southern leaders proposed a deal by which they would support the central route if slavery was permitted in the new Territories and he agreed. In the first version of the Act, he allowed for the Territories to choose slave or free status at statehood, but the Southerners demanded immediate permission for slavery there (an implicit repeal of that part of the Missouri and 1850 Compromises). He discovered a "clerical error", and revised the Act to suit and it was passed by Congress in spite of its high unpopularity in the North. In 1856 he was again a candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination, and received strong support at the convention, but again was passed over in favor of James Buchanan. In November of that year he married a second time, to 20-year-old Adele Cutts, a southern woman from Washington DC, who was the daughter of James Madison Cutts of Washington, D.C., nephew of former President James Madison. He continued to steer a middle course on the slavery issue. His "popular sovereignty" doctrine that slavery should be decided on locally by states and territories was satisfactory to Southerners who didn't want outside interference with slavery and Northerners who didn't want to take sides over it. In 1857 the US Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott decision, which declared that under the Constitution, neither Congress nor a Territorial legislature created by Congress had the power to prohibit slavery in a Territory. This struck down key elements of the Missouri and 1850 Compromises, made the Kansas-Nebraska Act irrelevant, and denied the basis of "popular sovereignty." He was faced an ugly dilemma: If he rejected Dred Scott, he would lose Southern support he needed for the presidential election of 1860. If he embraced Dred Scott, he would lose northern support. He attempted to avoid both hazards, issuing a tepid endorsement of the decision, while continuing to assert popular sovereignty without explicitly saying the US Supreme Court was wrong. When President James Buchanan and his Southern allies tried to get Kansas admitted as a slave state, he firmly opposed it thus restored his standing with the moderates of the North. In 1858 he ran again for US Senate and this time he was opposed by the Republican challenger, Abraham Lincoln. He traveled the state, making speeches for the Democratic ticket and Lincoln followed him around the state, answering each speech with one of his own a day or two later. After several such incidents, he agreed to seven formal joint appearances with Lincoln, now known as the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Each candidate attacked the other on their particular views however, in their second debate at Freeport, Illinois, Lincoln forced him to commit himself on the question of Dred Scott versus popular sovereignty. If he answered "No", he would fully endorse Dred Scott, and would alienate Illinoisans and other Northerners. If he answered "Yes", he would reject Dred Scott, and would alienate Southerners. Douglas made one last attempt to square the circle. He declared that while the Supreme Court had barred explicit prohibition of slavery, that didn't really matter, because the people of a Territory could exclude slavery in practice by "unfriendly legislation". This was called the Freeport Doctrine and it was enough to satisfy Illinoisans, and he was re-elected to the US Senate. The Freeport Doctrine was vehemently rejected by most Southerners and he was denounced Douglas as no better than an abolitionist. He was the obvious nominee for the Democrats in the election of 1860 but he lost his Southern support, who bolted and nominated Vice President Jon C. Breckenridge. He won the Democratic nomination but with the Democratic Party split, the Republican challenger Abraham Lincoln defeated him and won the presidential election. He denounced secession as criminal and was one of the strongest advocates of maintaining the integrity of the Union at all hazards. He urged the South to acquiesce to Lincoln's election, and tried to arrange a compromise which would avert secession. As late as Christmas 1860, he wrote to Alexander H. Stephens and offered to support the annexation of Mexico as slave territory. After the South's bombardment of Fort Sumter, South Carolina in April 1861, he endorsed Lincoln's proclamation of a state of rebellion and call for 75,000 troops to suppress it. Two months later he contracted typhoid fever and died at the age of 48. After his death, his friends created the Douglas Monument Association and sculptor Leonard Volk was commissioned to design the monument. The Memorial and tomb were completed in 1883. A statue in his honor was erected at the site of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas Debate in Freeport, Illinois. He was portrayed by actor Milburn Stone in 1939 20th Century Fox film "Young Mr. Lincoln." The following year, actor Gene Lockhart portrayed him in the RKO film "Abe Lincoln in Illinois." In 1957 actor Walter Coy played his role in the episode "Springfield Incident" of CBS's "The 20th Century Fox Hour." Most recently, actor Alan Tudyk portrayed him in a cameo appearance in dark fantasy action film "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" (2012).

Bio by: William Bjornstad

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APRIL 23, 1813
JUNE 3, 1861
Tell my Children to obey the Laws and uphold the Constitution.



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  • Maintained by: Find a Grave
  • Added: 31 Dec 2000
  • Find a Grave Memorial 295
  • Find a Grave, database and images ( : accessed ), memorial page for Stephen Arnold Douglas (23 Apr 1813–3 Jun 1861), Find a Grave Memorial ID 295, citing Stephen A. Douglas Tomb, Chicago, Cook County, Illinois, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave .