Stephen Douglas

Engraved portrait of Senator Stephen Douglas
Senator Stephen Douglas. Stock Montage/Getty Images

Stephen Douglas was an influential senator from Illinois who became one of the powerful politicians in America during the decade preceding the Civil War. He was involved in major legislation, including the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act, and was Abraham Lincoln's opponent in a landmark series of political debates in 1858.

Douglas ran for president against Lincoln in the election of 1860, and died the following year, just as the Civil War was beginning.

And while he is remembered mostly for having been a perennial opponent of Lincoln, his influence on American political life in the 1850s was profound.

Early Life

Stephen Douglas was born into a well-educated New England family, though Stephen's life was changed profoundly when his father, a doctor, died suddenly when Stephen was two months old. As a teenager Stephen was apprenticed to a cabinetmaker so he would learn a trade, and he hated the work.

The election of 1828, when Andrew Jackson defeated the reelection bid of John Quincy Adams, fascinated the 15-year-old Douglas. He adopted Jackson as his personal hero.

The education requirements for being a lawyer were considerably less stringent in the west, so Douglas, at the age of 20, set out westward from his home in upstate New York. He eventually settled in Illinois, and trained with a local lawyer and became qualified to practice law in Illinois just before his 21st birthday.

Political Career

Douglas's rise in Illinois politics was sudden, a great contrast to the man who would always be his rival, Abraham Lincoln.

In Washington, Douglas became known as a tireless worker and crafty political strategist. After being elected to the Senate he took a place on the very powerful Committee on the Territories, and he made sure he was involved in critical decisions involving western territories and new states that may come into the Union.

With the exception of the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates, Douglas is best known for his work on the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Douglas thought the legislation might lessen tensions over slavery. In fact, it had the opposite effect.

Rivalry With Lincoln

The Kansas-Nebraska Act spurred Abraham Lincoln, who had put aside political ambitions, to oppose Douglas.

In 1858 Lincoln ran for the US Senate seat held by Douglas, and they faced off in a series of seven debates. The debates were actually quite nasty at times. At one point, Douglas made up a story designed to inflame the crowd, claiming that the famed abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglas had been seen in Illinois, traveling the state in a carriage in the company of two white women.

While Lincoln may have been considered the victor of the debates in the view of history, Douglas won the 1858 senatorial election. He ran against Lincoln in a four-way race for president in 1860, and of course Lincoln won.

Douglas threw his support behind Lincoln in the earliest days of the Civil War, but died soon after.

While Douglas is most often remembered as a rival of Lincoln, someone who antagonized and inspired him, during most of their lives Douglas was far more famous and was considered more successful and powerful.