Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas (1813-1861) was known as “the Little Giant” because his political stature far exceeded his height of five-foot-four. Douglas had been a prominent national figure since his first election to the U.S. Senate in 1847.
When Henry Clay’s omnibus compromise of 1850 seemed on the verge of collapse, Senator Douglas took the bill apart and built separate coalitions around each of its key provisions, ensuring passage of the compromise that kept the Union together for another decade.
But then, in 1854, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, Douglas undid his accomplishment with a serious miscalculation. Douglas sponsored the Kansas-Nebraska Act to seek Southern support for a railroad running from Chicago to the West Coast. That act repealed the Missouri Compromise and left the issue of slavery in the western territories up to the settlers themselves. Douglas called this “popular sovereignty.” All it did was spark a civil war on the frontier. Outraged Northern reaction against the bill led to the creation of the Republican Party.
In 1858 Douglas ran for reelection to the Senate against Republican candidate Abraham Lincoln. Although Douglas defeated Lincoln, national publicity from their famous debates propelled Lincoln to the Republican presidential nomination in 1860. Douglas won the Democratic presidential nomination that year, but Southern Democrats broke from the party to nominate Vice President John Cabell Breckinridge (1821-1875). With the Democratic Party split, Douglas lost the presidency to his old rival, Abraham.
During the presidential campaign, Douglas conducted a national speaking tour that left him physically and mentally exhausted. Rather than rest, he threw himself into his efforts to find one more compromise to keep the South from seceding.
After the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter, South Carolina, starting the Civil War on April 12, 1861, Douglas realized that the time for compromise was over. He declared, “There can be no neutrals in this war; only patriots and traitors.”
Lincoln decided to proclaim a state of rebellion and called for 75,000 troops to suppress it. Douglas reviewed and endorsed the proclamation before it was issued. He suggested only one change: Lincoln should call for 200,000 troops. “You do not know the dishonest purposes of those men as well as I do,” he told the president.
Standing squarely behind President Lincoln and the Union, Douglas told the Illinois Legislature, then controlled by his political opponents: “You all know that I am a very good partisan fighter in partisan times. And I trust you will find me equally a good patriot when the country is in danger.”
Traveling back to Illinois, he stopped to make speeches throughout the Midwest, rallying Northern Democrats to stand behind Lincoln and the Union. When he addressed the Illinois state legislature, which was then filled with his political opponents, he told them: “You all know that I am a very good partisan fighter in partisan times. And I trust you will find me equally a good patriot when the country is in danger.” They gave him a cheering, standing ovation.
Senator Douglas addressed his last public audience on May 1 in Chicago.
Douglas had erected a modest cottage on his lakeshore property at 636 East 35th Street in Chicago. He rented it to a tenant.
Douglas and his wife, Rose Adèle Cutts Douglas, took their usual rooms at the Tremont House III (1850-1871), at the southeast corner of Lake and Dearborn Streets, and prepared for a much-needed rest. The Tremont House III served as the Douglas‘ Chicago home for several years. Worn out from his efforts, his health quickly declined. He did not leave the hotel before dying a month later. Douglas died from typhoid fever at the Tremont on June 3, 1861, at the age of 48.
Many online sources claim Douglas died at his "estate" at 636 East 35th Street in Chicago. Today, the peoperty is now the Stephen A. Douglas Tomb and Monument Park.
Additional Reading: President Lincoln's Philosophies were Democratic; When and Why did the Parties Switch Platforms?
Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.