Stephen Arnold Douglas made a name for himself well before the Civil War. His views would become very controversial and his debates all across the state of Illinois against a tall, lanky up-and-coming lawyer-turned politician named Abraham Lincoln put them both on the map. He was “vertically challenged” as some would say about a less-than-tall person, but his stature grew by leaps and bounds in the years preceding the Civil War. He was admired by President Lincoln and called upon during the beginning of Lincoln’s presidency for valuable advice and counsel.
Born on April 23, 1813 in Brandon, Vermont, his name was actually Arnold Douglass. He took his father’s name as a youth and would eventually drop one s from his last name. He aspired to teach first and moved from Vermont at the age of 20 for a teaching position in Illinois. He opened his own private school, charging $3 per pupil. Enjoying the space and freedom that Illinois afforded him, he put his roots there and began to study law.
Douglas would marry twice, his first wife, Martha Martin, dying in childbirth, with the child to follow. Two sons had been born healthy and were heartbroken at the loss of their mother. Soon after, Douglas married Adele Cutts. It is worth noting that Stephen Douglas and Mary Todd were an item before she began seeing Abraham Lincoln.
Douglas’s political career started early. He was appointed Illinois State Attorney at 22 and became an Associate Justice of the Illinois Supreme Court by 27. After working tirelessly on an expansionism ticket, he was elected a United State Senator in 1846. He saw himself as President but lost to Franklin Pierce for the presidential nomination in 1852.
His fight was always “for the people” and truly believed a good Democrat left matters of importance to the people, not the central government. So it was no surprise when the lines divided the Kansas and Nebraska territories, Douglas screamed “Popular Sovereignty” must decide the issue. It was up to the people, he declared, to determine whether to come into the Union as pro-slavery or anti-slavery.
Popular Sovereignty among other things sparked a series of very well-publicized debates in 1858 between Abraham Lincoln and Douglas, both vying for the same Senate seat. Heated in some cities but gaining an audience throughout, Douglas won the seat but he knew he was only thrusting Abraham Lincoln into a spotlight he deserved. And Stephen Douglas was intuitive enough to step aside to let Lincoln be seen.
Douglas worked diligently during the Election of 1860 to get his name on the ticket, but as Northern and Southern Democrats began to fracture, much like the country would by the end of the year, the Little Giant knew that Lincoln would become President and did all he could to make that happen and stand behind his former adversary. He always hated the extremists and constantly spoke against abolitionists in the North and disunionists in the South.
After Lincoln’s election and the call for troops, Stephen Douglas spoke in the border states to rally support for the Union cause. He was not destined to remain long as a shadow behind Lincoln. He contracted typhoid and died in June 1861. He was buried on the shores of Lake Michigan.
Today, the Brandon Museum sits on the site of Stephen A. Douglas’s birthplace in Brandon, Vermont. It is a new museum, only opening in 2010. The museum tells the story of anti-slavery in New England and recounts Douglas’s very active and important life in the political scene of ante-bellum America.
The Stephen A. Douglas birthplace is located on Route 7, next to the Baptist Church at the corner of Routes 7 and 73 West. The street address is 4 Grove St. The Brandon Museum is open daily from mid-May through mid-October from 11 am – 4 pm. For more information, contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org.