The experience not only aroused his ambition for a career in politics but also stimulated his interest in an education. In 1830 he moved with his family to upstate New York where he entered Canandaigua Academy, studying the Latin and Greek classics, mathematics, and English literature. Canandaigua was a cultural center of swirling ferment and unrest. The recently completed Erie Canal had opened the region to economic development, and the area was alive with a spirit of reform and change that Douglas could neither ignore nor resist.
Douglas's dilemma became clear in 1854 when the issue of slavery in the territories was revived by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Written and introduced by Douglas, the act organized two new territories out of the old Louisiana Purchase area. Although slavery had been barred from the region by the 1820 Missouri Compromise, Douglas nonetheless provided for popular sovereignty...Southerners, however, pressed him for an explicit repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and Douglas agreed in order to secure the bill's passage, although he predicted it would raise a "hell of a storm." Antislavery opponents denounced the repeal as a "gross violation of a sacred pledge" and a betrayal of freedom made to promote Douglas's ambitions.
In Douglas’s view, it was popular sovereignty that enabled Manifest Destiny to operate successfully. Moreover, territorial expansion was necessary to keep the American experiment in self-government alive – his solution to a Gordian knot of democratic equality – because population pressure, now abetted by European immigration, consumed available land and ruined prospects for proprietorship….And Douglas had an awesome vision for future expansion: when the time came, the United States would have to absorb Cuba, Mexico, and Canada, and even then American expansion would not cease. His objection to the slavery controversy was that it interfered with the acquisition of new lands. If Americans kept to the principle of popular sovereignty, that interference would disappear.
Douglas and his organization never exactly laid out their plan to capture the election, but certain parts of it can be deduced. He expected to reinvigorate the northern party and again win the northern states that had once hoisted the Jacksonian banner – Maine, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut, and the Great Lake states. He knew Pennsylvania, New York, and New Jersey were more problematic, but not lost. He expected to take much of the South – Missouri, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Alabama, and Georgia. Perhaps his hopes were so high because of the illustrious people enlisting in his cause, like Alexander H. Stephens, and because his correspondence from these states was so promising. Early in the campaign, he misjudged the appeal of the Breckinridge Democratic Party, believing that the party could only win South Carolina and Mississippi. The rest of the South, he felt, belonged to the Constitutional Union Party. Behind these estimates was a reasoning based on the election of 1856. Then Buchanan had won because the Republicans had not captured the Fillmore vote (Know-Nothings), and many conservatives had voted for the Democrats. He would hammer a campaign message that he stood for conservatism and abhorred sectionalism, thereby swaying the Fillmore voters to his standard.
The Hon. Stephen Arnold Douglas, United States Senator from the State of Illinois, died at nine o’clock yesterday morning, in the city of Chicago, after an illness of several days.
No other public man in this country has filled so large a page of its history or stood so prominently before the people’s gaze for the last ten years as did Mr. Douglas. As United States Senator, as the acknowledged leader of the democratic party before its scission into factions, as prominent candidate before National Conventions for the office of Chief Magistrate of the republic, as nominee of the Baltimore Convention in 1860 for that office, and as the ablest and most unyielding opponent of the measures of the last administration, he attracted the largest share of public attention; and while some denounced and others applauded the positions which he assumed and sustained, none were indifferent to them. His abilities and [illegible] forbad such a thing as indifference to his course. And even now, when the toga has yielded to the sword, and when the debates of the Senate have been transferred to another arena, even in these times men looked with interest and curiosity to what was to be the course of Senator Douglas. That course was clearly enough indicated. When rebellion raised its crest, and when the national flag was lowered from Fort Sumter, he frankly and patriotically recognized there was but one course left open to the administration, and that was to crush out the rebellion at the cannon’s mouth and at the bayonet’s point. To that policy he gave he gave his hearty support, and would have lent his influence, his wealth, and his arm if necessary. The offer to him of a major general’s commission was even spoken of; but the inexorable fates had rule it otherwise – perhaps in kindness to him – for who knows whether his achievements in the field would have done honor to the laurels he had won in the Senate?
For the last fourteen years, ever since 1847, Mr. Douglas has occupied a seat in the Senate of the United States, and, from his promptitude and readiness in debate, his forcible manner, his thorough knowledge of parliamentary rules, and his practical familiarity with the questions that presented themselves, he had come to be recognized as the leader of the democratic party in that body, and one of its ablest members.
Mr. Douglas – more familiarly known as the “Little Giant of the West,” the diminutive having reference to his size, and the gigantic to his intellect – was born in the town of Brandon, in the State of Vermont, on the 23rd of April, 1813, and was therefore, at the time of his death, only in the forty-ninth year of his age. His father whose given name he bore, was a native of Ressoiner county, in this State, had removed in early life to Vermont, and was educated at Middlebury College. He was a physician of some eminence, but he died young, leaving two children, one of whom – the late Senator – was then but two months old. For the first fourteen years of his life he lived with his mother and a bachelor uncle in the Green Mountain State; but the uncle having taken to himself a wife, it became necessary for young Stephen to look out for himself, his mother and sister – but eighteen months his senior – and so he apprenticed himself to learn the trade of a cabinetmaker, in Middlebury. At this trade he remained for a couple of years, though not with the same employer, until finally he wearied of it, and thought rather of procuring a good education. His mother and sister having meanwhile married and moved to Ontario county, New York, he joined the Canandaigua Academy and entered upon a course of classical studies, and at the same time studied law with the Messre. Hubble, in that village. While there he seems to have evinced a fondness for politics. In 1833 he moved to Illinois, and for some time taught school in the village of Winchester, in that State. It is said that when he arrived there he had but thirty-seven and a half cents in his pocket. While earning a living by teaching school he continued his legal studies, and was finally admitted to the bar in the Spring of 1834. In the following year, when he was but twenty-two years old, the Legislature elected him State’s Attorney, which office he resigned in 1836 to hake his seat in the Legislature. He was the youngest member of the House, but soon distinguished himself by his industry and ability. The first position of importance which he took in legislation was in opposing the extension of the wild-cat banking system. But the majority was carried, and in a year or so afterwards all the banks suspended specie payment, thus proving the wisdom of his course. He was also a prominent advocate of railroad measures, and of [illegible] the railroads completely in the power of the State. He subsequently held for a short time the post of Receiver of the Land Office at Springfield, Illinois. He became a prominent politician, ran for Congress in 1838, was beaten by five votes, stumped the State for Van Buren against Harrison, and made the acquaintance of the whole people. In December, 1840, he was elected Secretary of State for Illinois, and in the following February – while he was but twenty-eight years of age – he was elected by joint vote of the Legislature a Judge of the Supreme Court. Hence his familiar title of “Judge.”
He was twice elected to the House of Representatives at Washington, but he only sat there one Congress; for before the next Congress opened, and after his election, he was chosen to the United States Senate, and from that time – 1847 - he has been one of the most distinguished members of that body.
While he was a member of the lower house, Mr. Douglas took strong ground on the question of our Oregon boundary. He belonged to the “fifty-four forty or fight” party.
Like all Western men, Mr. Douglas always favored the granting of money by Congress for internal improvements, always voted for River and Harbor bills, voted for the Independent treasury bill, and has always repudiated the power of Congress over the question of citizenship in the States. He supported the Mexican war, opposed the Wilmot proviso, and expressed himself in favor of the extension of the Missouri Compromise [illegible] to the Pacific. He has also been a friend to a Homestead bill.
During Mr. Pierce’s administration the Kansas-Nebraska agitation came up. Mr. Douglas was Chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, and in that capacity reported and engineered the final passage of that measure, which repealed the Missouri Compromise line, reopened the whole slavery agitation, produced civil war in Kansas, brought out such men as Titus and Pato, and Sheriff Jones and Oseawatomie Brown, and other such disturbers of the public peace, gave rise to the Harper’s ferry outbreak, and has now eventuated in civil war. In fact, the Nebraska bill, with its monstrosity of squatter sovereignty, has proved to be the political Pandora’s box of the Union.
In the Thirty-fifth Congress Mr. Douglass arrayed himself against the administration of Mr. Buchanan, in the matter of the admission of Kansas under the Lecompton constitution, and led a schism in both houses of sufficient strength to defeat the measure as originally presented, and to have the whole matter referred back to the people of the Territory – under the bill known as the English Compromise bill – for their vote on entering into the Union under the Lecompton constitution. The question went before the people of Kansas, and by an overwhelming vote they rejected the Lecompton constitution, preferring to remain in a territorial condition rather than enter as a State under that instrument.
As a consequence, the personal and political relations of Mr. Douglas to the last administration were most bitterly hostile. The ensuring State elections in Illinois furnished opportunity for the manifestation of that spirit. The Legislature to be elected would have the choice of a Senator to fill the place of Mr. Douglas, whose term was then about to expire, and if the republicans carried the State his chance of a re-election was gone. He therefore stumped every county in the State, having to make [illegible] not only against the administration, but against the republicans, whose choice for Senator was Abraham Lincoln, now President of the United States. Douglas’ party succeeded, and Douglas was elected for another Senatorial term.
Mr. Douglas and his friends calculated to a certainty upon his receiving the nomination of the democratic party for the Presidency, at the Democratic National Convention held in Charleston last summer. And so he most probably would had not the ultra Southern wing of that party, under the leadership of Yancey and [illegible], withdrawn from the Convention and rendered an adjournment to Baltimore necessary. Even then it was thought probable that the split in the party would be healed, and that the secessionists would come back and abide by the fairly expressed will of the Convention. But that was not their game. They had a double object in view, and, failing in the one, they calculated to succeed in the other.
Mr. Douglas had given unpardonable offence to the South in blocking up the game of making Kansas a slave State in spite of the wishes of its inhabitants. That crime in him could never be condoned, and must be wiped out in his political destruction. Mr. Douglas fell at once from the position of universal favorite in the South to that of being regarded and treated as its worst enemy. He was deprived of the Chairmanship of the Committee on Territories in the Senate, and there seemed to be a steady fixed purpose in the minds of the Southern delegates to the Charleston Convention to defeat his nomination to the Presidency at all hazards. That was one of their two great objects. The other was to divide the democratic party, so as to insure the election of the republican candidate, and give them the pretence which they had been so long looking for, of gutting up a Southern confederacy. Mr. Douglas got the nomination at Baltimore after the seceders had withdrawn. The latter organized a Southern Democratic Convention in the same city, and nominated John C. Breckinridge for the Presidency, while the republicans put in nomination the present incumbent of that office. Of course Mr. Douglas recognized from the start the desperate helplessness of his case. The Southern States were certain with a few exceptions, to give heir electoral votes to Breckinridge; the Northern and Western States equally sure to give theirs to Lincoln. But still, with a despairing energy worthy of success, he went into the contest, making stump speeches through the Eastern, Middle, and some of the Southern States. The result was that he got the nine electoral votes of Missouri and three out of the seven electoral votes of New Jersey. There is little doubt that had it not been for the actions of the Southern conspirators in dividing the democratic party, Mr. Douglas would have been borne into the White House on the 4th of March last in place of Mr. Lincoln, whom he had but two years before defeated in the struggle for the Illinois Senatorship.
Notwithstanding the failure of his Presidential aspirations, Mr. Douglas served during the last session of Congress with his accustomed zeal and ability, although illness caused him to be frequently absent from his seat in the Senate. He was in favor of the Crittenden or any other moderate compromise, even after the delivery of Mr. Lincoln’s inaugural address he made a speech in the Senate taking the ground that the inaugural meant conciliation, not coercion. However, when the time for [illegible] had passed, and when it became evident that the only means of saving the republic was by the exercise of military power of the government, he accepted the alternative, and gave personal assurances to Mr. Lincoln of his approval and endorsement of the war policy.
This may be said to be his last public act – the close of his brilliant career. He retired from Washington to Chicago, where he was possessed of large property, and there he sickened and died. His remains will be taken to Washington for interment.
Mr. Douglas was twice married. He married first, in April, 1847, Miss Martin, the only daughter of Colonel Robert martin, of Rockingham county, North Carolina, by whom he has left several children, who inherit from their mother a large property in Southern lands and slaves. And again, in the winter of 1856-7, he married Miss Cutts, of Washington, a young, handsome, and accomplished lady, who survives him.