Senator Stephen Arnold Douglas
"this Union can exist forever divided into free and slave states, as our fathers made it, if the Constitution be preserved inviolate." -- S.A. Douglas, 1859
As a young lawyer, Stephen A. Douglas came to Illinois in 1833. In the coming years, he was to become Chicago's foremost politician, a judge, senator, and presidential candidate, who gave his life to keep his country out of war.
Unable to find work upon settling in the small town of Meredosia, Douglas became a schoolteacher in nearby Winchester. After four years, he became state's attorney for Morgan county, and was soon elected to the state legislature. In the years that followed, he held numerous positions, including Illinois Secretary of State and judge of the state Supreme Court.
In 1846, he won election to the U.S. Senate by calling for the federal government to cede land to the state and pay for a north-south railroad. He moved to Chicago the following year, proposed that the railroad be extended to Chicago, and fought for it in Congress with the help of fellow Democrat Congressman John Wentworth. The success of their efforts in 1850 ensured Chicago's future as the most important city in the West.
During Douglas' time in the Senate, one issue was becoming more and more decisive: slavery. Even within the Northern states, there were bitter debates between those who would abolish slavery everywhere and those who sought to preserve the Union at all costs. Douglas was one of the latter. As a states-rights advocate, he favored allowing the South to continue the practice of slavery. He was instrumental in the passing of the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which dictated that "popular sovereignty" would decide the issue of slavery in each new territory.
Above: Douglas in the Senate
Refusing to support anything that would permit slavery to grow, a former friend and ally of Douglas left the Democrats and joined the new Republican party. Douglas saw the defection of the abolitionist "Long John" Wentworth as a betrayal, and the two remained bitter enemies for the rest of their lives.
In 1858, a up-and-coming politican made an attempt to unseat Senator Douglas. Downstate lawyer Abraham Lincoln ran for the Senate as a Republican, and challenged the senator to a series of debates. For Douglas, it was a no-win situation. He himself was nationally known, and the debates would only serve to draw attention to his opponent. Nevertheless, he accepted the challenge and agreed to a series of seven debates. Both men were excellent speakers, but the debates are generally held to have been won by Lincoln, who adopted an extreme anti-slavery position. The election results were very close, and although Lincoln had a slightly larger share of the popular vote, Douglas was reelected by the state legislature.
The two battled again in 1860. Douglas was the Democratic party's candidate for president, and Lincoln the Republican candidate. Southern Democrats, however, had given their support to another Democrat, Kentucky Senator John C. Breckinridge. This split in the Democratic party cost Douglas the presidency. Lincoln won every northern state, Breckenridge won easily in the south, with only Missouri and part of New Jersey voting for Douglas.
Although he had lost, Douglas still desired, more than anything, to preserve the Union. He threw his support behind the Republican President-elect, and traveled across the country urging that the states remain united. When war became inevitable, he returned to Chicago and there inspired the city's Irish community to support the President's call for volunteers.
Douglas' hard work to preserve his country took its toll on his health. At the age of forty-eight, on June 3, 1861, the "Little Giant" died of pneumonia.