A Democratic Senator from Illinois and presidential candidate, Douglas
fashioned his party's major attempt to avert disunion during the American
sectional crisis. Douglas was born in Vermont in 1813 and migrated to
Illinois at the age of twenty. Making a fortune in land speculation, he
turned to politics, winning election to the Illinois State Legislature
in 1836, the House of Representatives in 1842, and the Senate in 1846.
By 1853 he had taken up the cause of popular sovereignty, or a policy
of allowing territories to decide upon the matter of slavery for themselves.
Douglas hoped that this return to local control would remove the divisive
slavery issue from national politics, but instead it only enraged northerners,
including not only abolitionists but also many of his own Democratic constituents.
Douglas' Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 began the process of organizing the
two territories for statehood on this principle. The result was a bloody,
internecine struggle between pro-slavery and free-soil partisans in Kansas.
Republican orators like Lincoln began to find appreciative audiences when
they suggested that popular sovereignty really represented a part of a
larger southern conspiracy to throw open the entire Union to slavery.
In 1858 Douglas defended his Senate seat in a series of historic debates
with his challenger Lincoln. Here the two men articulated two distinct
visions of the Union and slavery's place in it. Lincoln argued that the
Declaration of Independence guaranteed African-Americans the same basic
rights as whites, even if the two groups were not social, moral and intellectual
equals. Douglas, for his part, rejected any notion of black equality and
appealed to Illinoisians' racist sentiments. While Lincoln bluntly demanded
that slavery be contained in the South and not allowed to expand into
the West, Douglas hoped that popular sovereignty would make the issue
a political moot point. While Douglas retained his seat in the election,
the debates made Lincoln a noted figure in the Republican Party and enabled
him to seek the presidency in 1860. Douglas died in 1861, several months
after his own failed presidential bid.
For more information about politics in the 19th century, please look at Lincoln/Net's Getting the Message Out! National Political Campaign Materials, 1840-1860 Web site.