Guest Essayist: Daniel A. Cotter


The Great Debates – Stephen A. Douglas (1813-1861)

Known as “the Little Giant,” Stephen A. Douglas was a politician from Illinois who designed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and served as a member of the House of Representatives and the Senate, and was the Democratic Party nominee for president against Abraham Lincoln in the election of 1860.  Lincoln and Douglas also faced each other during the 1858 race for Senator from Illinois, and the two engaged in a series of famous debates on the question of slavery and the future of our nation.  Named the Little Giant because he was small in stature, he was not little when it came to politics and his place in our history as a great debater.

Early Life and Rise in Politics

Born in Vermont, Stephan Arnold Douglass, he eventually dropped the second s.  Douglas’ father died when Douglas was a baby.  His mother remarried and they moved to western New York. Eventually Douglas made his way to Illinois and was admitted to the bar.  He courted Mary Todd, who married Lincoln, and the two faced off against each other on many other occasions.  In 1847, he and his wife, Martha Martin, moved to Chicago.

Douglas became active in Illinois politics in the Democratic Party, serving as State’s Attorney of Morgan County in 1834.  He served in the Illinois House of Representatives, served as Illinois Secretary of State and then at age 27, was appointed to a position as Associate Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court when the number of justices was expanded.  In 1843, Douglas was elected as a United States Representative and served in that capacity until 1847, after the Illinois General Assembly voted elected him as a United States Senator.  Douglas would serve the rest of his public career in that position, serving from 1847 until June 3, 1861, when he died at the age of 48.

Congressional Work

In 1850, a sectional crisis ensued when California was admitted as a free state with no slaveholding state admitted at the same time.  Douglas was a strong advocate for compromise, supporting the efforts of Henry Clay.  Clay was a political rival, but Douglas took Clay’s bill for a compromise that had failed to garner adequate support and split it into separate bills, helping to navigate the successful approval of the Compromise of 1850, which reaffirmed the compromise on territories and slavery from the Missouri Compromise.

Douglas strongly advocated popular sovereignty, allowing the people rather than the national government to determine positions on slavery.  Lincoln used this position to try to distinguish himself in 1858 in the United States Senator race.  In 1854, Douglas invoked popular sovereignty during a dispute over the admission of the Nebraska Territory.

Various proposals for a transcontinental railroad were being made, with one potential route going through Chicago that would benefit Douglas.  Southern leaders offered a deal to Douglas- they would support the central route that went through Chicago if Douglas allowed slavery in the new territories.  The agreement effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850.  Douglas defended his position with popular sovereignty, winning over many from the north.  Lincoln criticized Douglas’ position in a series of speeches. Despite some critiques, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, effectively overruling the Missouri Compromise.

In 1856, Douglas was a candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination but was not the nominee.  In 1857, the United States Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, striking down key provisions of the Missouri and 1850 Compromises and made the Kansas-Nebraska Act largely moot.  Douglas attempted to take a weak position on the decision to keep support from both the North and the South.

Douglas faced Senate reelection in 1859 by the Illinois legislature. Douglas represented the Democrats and the Republicans chose Lincoln.  The two eventually agreed to a series of a joint appearances, which became known as the Lincoln-Douglas Debates.  Douglas stood behind his popular sovereignty views.  Lincoln argued that slavery was a moral issue that the nation must decide.  In what became known as his “House Divided” speech, Lincoln stated in June 1858 (prior to the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, but consistent message):

“A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure, permanently, half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing or all the other. “

In one of the speeches, at Galesburg, Illinois, Douglas asserted the Declaration of Independence did not apply to non-whites, stating, “This Government was made by our fathers on the white basis.”

At a debate in Freeport, Illinois, Lincoln pressed Douglas on his support of Dred Scott. Douglas took the position that the Supreme Court had explicitly prohibited states from not allowing slavery, but people of Territories had the ability to exclude slavery by “unfriendly legislation.”  This position came to be known as the Freeport Doctrine and Douglas was re-elected to the Senate, defeating Lincoln.


In the Presidential election of 1860, the two nemeses would face off again.  Douglas was the Democratic nominee, but the split on slavery positions resulted in splintering of the Democrats, with Southern Democrats nominating John C. Breckinridge and the Constitutional Union Party nominated John Bell.  Lincoln won and the Southern states quickly seceded.  Post-election, Douglas attempted to make compromise to avert secession and denounced it.  Douglas died on June 3, 1861, of typhoid fever.

Dan Cotter is a partner at Latimer LeVay Fyock LLC and an adjunct professor at The John Marshall Law School, where he teaches SCOTUS Judicial Biographies. He is in the process of writing a book on the seventeen Chief Justices.  He is also a past president of The Chicago Bar Association. The article contains his opinions and is not to be attributed to anyone else.


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