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Stephen Douglas and the Slavery Issue

Brad Anderson
Oregon High School, Oregon

During the mid-1800s, Stephen A. Douglas had a great deal of influence on issues dealing with slavery in the United States. Douglas's views and plans on what to do with slavery did undergo changes, because his basic goal was to save the Union.

Douglas first became involved with the slavery issue when he proposed what to do with slavery in the land won by the United States in the Mexican War. Douglas wanted to develop the West, and he also wanted to start a transcontinental railroad that would have Chicago as its terminus. Southern senators hoped that New Orleans, St. Louis, or Memphis would become the eastern railroad terminus. To please these senators, Douglas proposed the principle of popular sovereignty in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It allowed citizens of the new territories to decide if they wanted to enter the Union as a slave state or a free state. Douglas thought popular sovereignty would solve the slavery problem. Instead, it greatly displeased many northerners.

The Dred Scott case, which was about a black man who claimed he was a free man since he resided in a free state, had a profound effect on Douglas and his ideas. In 1857 the Supreme Court ruled that, regardless of his residency, Scott was a slave. It also ruled that since Congress had no power to prohibit slavery in a territory, neither did the government of that territory. This outraged Douglas, who had labored so hard to protect his party's strength in the North by invoking popular sovereignty.

President James Buchanan further angered Douglas and antislavery forces by recommending that Kansas allow slavery under the Lecompton Constitution. Most observers, including Stephen Douglas, believed that the Lecompton Constitution had been obtained fraudulently because the anti-slavery majority in Kansas had previously rejected the constitution in a referendum. Douglas thought that admitting Kansas under the Lecompton Constitution would be a mere parody of popular sovereignty and an embarrassment to the party in most of the North. Infuriated, Douglas broke with Buchanan and the southern Democrats and mobilized western Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives to defeat the Lecompton Constitution. Kansas finally entered the Union as a free state in 1861, after secession was well under way and many southern representatives had left Congress.

Historians have traditionally regarded the series of seven Lincoln-Douglas Debates between Stephen Douglas, who was bidding for reelection to the Senate, and Abraham Lincoln, who had offered the challenge of these debates to Douglas, as among the most significant events in American political history. The debaters attracted national interest because of Douglas's prominence and his break with President Buchanan's administration.

During these debates Lincoln attacked slavery. He doubted African Americans' capacities for equality and explicitly rejected formulas that would give them social and political equality. But he declared that blacks were entitled to the same rights granted to whites by the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln also challenged Douglas on how he could accept the Dred Scott decision and at the same time advocate popular sovereignty.

Douglas responded by reformulating popular sovereignty. In this doctrine, which became known as the Freeport Doctrine, because it was stated first in Freeport, Illinois, Douglas asserted that settlers could exclude slavery from a territory by not adopting local legislation to protect it. In other words, he claimed that even if territorial governments followed the Supreme Court decision in Dred Scott and did not prohibit slavery, municipalities could still do so by failing to support slavery. This furthered his view that demography and geography would make the victory of slavery in the territory almost impossible. To Southerners this doctrine meant that they could be denied the victory they won in the Dred Scott case.

Douglas was reelected to the Senate by a narrow margin in the state legislature, but Lincoln virtually discredited popular sovereignty in Illinois. Douglas's victory resulted form overrepresentation in the legislature of the staunchly Democratic counties in southern Illinois rather than any popularity he might have gained from his Freeport speech.

In 1860 Douglas ran against Lincoln again, this time for the presidency. Douglas, however, was not the only Democrat running for office. The Democratic Party split its votes among three candidates and Republican Abraham Lincoln won the election. Douglas then offered his services to Lincoln during the Civil War and toured the border states to arouse enthusiasm for the Union cause. On this trip Stephen A. Douglas, a man whose life had always been concerned with slavery, died.[From Kenneth C. Davis, Don't Know Much About the Civil War; Stewart Sifakis, Who Was Who in the Civil War.]


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