Stephen Arnold Douglas (1813-1861) was born in Brandon, Vermont. He received a basic education, became employed in farm work and, briefly, teaching. At age 20 he moved to Illinois, his home for the remainder of his life.
Douglas began practicing law in 1834, followed quickly by political ventures, including the office of Illinois attorney general, two years in the state legislature and an unsuccessful run for Congress. In 1840, Douglas became Illinois Secretary of State, then served as a judge on the state supreme court from 1841 to 1843. He was elected to the House of Representatives in 1843 and to the Senate in 1847.
Known as the “Little Giant” for his diminutive size but towering will, Douglas played a major role in most of the major public issues of his day. He was an ardent expansionist, advocating the annexation of Cuba and the entirety of the Oregon Territory. He was a supporter of the Mexican War. In the Senate Douglas chaired the influential Committee on Territories, which guided territories to statehood. When the United States Senate rejected the set of provisions that Henry Clay had fashioned to address the sectional crisis of 1850, Douglas skillfully separated the bills and secured their passage as the Compromise of 1850.
In the wake of the Compromise, Douglas increasingly called for Americans to use the doctrine of "popular sovereignty" as the solution to the thorny issue of slavery in the territories. Douglas saw popular sovereignty, which asked the settlers of federal territories to decide the status (free or slave) under which they would join the Union, as a way to remove the issue of slavery's expansion from national politics. But its application in practice led to a violent struggle between pro-slavery and free-soil settlers hoping to add the new state of Kansas to their portion of the Union. As events in Kansas degenerated into increasingly fierce conflict, Douglas broke ranks with the administration of President James Buchanan, a Democrat who had declared his support of a proslavery minority who had seized power in Kansas.
In 1858 Douglas stood as one of the Democratic Party's national leaders. When he sought reelection to he faced the Republican Abraham Lincoln, a prominent Springfield lawyer, former legislator, and former Congressman. Although Douglas won the election, the debates made Lincoln a spokesman for northerners opposing the extension of slavery in the western territories and a national political figure.
In 1860 Douglas won the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, but only after the party had splintered into fragments unable to carry the national election in the fall. First meeting in Charleston, South Carolina, party delegates dissolved their convention when they were unable to agree on a candidate. Many southerners rejected Douglas' notion of "popular sovereignty" as an insufficient guarantee of their right to bring slave property into the territories. Only after these "fire eaters" had broken with the party to nominate their own candidate, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky, was Douglas able to secure the necessary two-thirds vote for nomination at a rump convention held in Baltimore.
Despite his political stature, Douglas found little success in the election of 1860. The majority of northerners moved to support Lincoln, who had surprisingly won the Republican nomination. The Deep South, long the core of the Democratic Party, swung around to support Breckinridge in large majorities. And John Bell, a representative of the new Constitutional Union Party, won the support of Upper South states hoping to defuse the crisis with a platform of "the Union as it is and the Constitution as it is." Douglas won only twelve electoral votes to Lincoln's 180, Breckinridge's 72, and Bell's 39.
In 1861 Douglas passed away after contracting typhus.