Douglas saw a marvelous opportunity at the end of 1853 to pursue his program and at the same time provide an issue that could unify the Democratic party. Like other Democratic politicians, he had been flooded with letters indicating that the party’s voting strength was dissolving and that only active promotion of a distinctively Democratic program could save it.…Western development through three bills that were linked together in Douglas’s mind – organization of Nebraska, a Pacific railroad bill with government land grants, and a homestead bill to encourage settlement – could serve as the necessary program. It would be distinctive because the Whigs had traditionally been reluctant to develop the West.
Douglas realized that he would have to make a concession to the South by substituting popular sovereignty for the Missouri Compromise prohibition against slavery, but he saw even in that an opportunity to put the Democratic stamp on the territorial bill. The Democrats had long pushed popular sovereignty as the proper solution for slavery in the territories, and the party was pledged to the principles of the 1850 Compromise in their 1852 platform. Why not assert that the solution of 1850 was meant to apply to all the territories, not just Utah and New Mexico? A decision by settlers in the territory would prevent sectional strife in Congress, but, even more important from Douglas’s point of view, the principle of self-government, freedom from congressional dictation, was a way to reaffirm the Democratic party’s commitment to the republican tenant of popular rule just when people were worrying that political parties and government were beyond popular control.