Study Guide

Stephen A. Douglas in Compromise of 1850

By Henry Clay

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Stephen A. Douglas

You know when people's nickname for you is an oxymoron, you've achieved something. Not necessarily a good something, but something.

The "Little Giant" Stephen Douglas almost single-handedly got the Compromise of 1850 passed. When Henry Clay, the Compromise's author failed, Douglas was like "step aside Henry, I got this." And then he got it.

Big Head, Big Dreams

Little Stevie Douglas grew up on a farm in Vermont, descended from a long, long line of American Douglasses (he removed the second "s" later in life; no one's sure why). Like all of his later colleagues in Congress, he eventually studied law and became a lawyer.

Unlike some of the other Key Figures who worked on the Compromise of 1850, Douglas was actually a big fan of Andrew Jackson. Jackson's presidency is what got Douglas interested in politics, and after the young politician moved to Illinois, his mission was to get the principles of Jacksonian democracy enacted in his state.

After making a name for himself in the Illinois Democratic party, the little man known for his apparently large head became the youngest representative in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1843. Douglas moved to the Senate in 1846 and stayed there until his death.

Douglas was a lifelong supporter of Manifest Destiny and territorial expansion, stating that "You cannot fix bounds to the onward march of this great and growing country" (source). 

Master of Territories

While young Douglas was making a name for himself in Congress, the Great Triumvirate of Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun were having their final days in the spotlight. All three would be heavily involved in the Compromise of 1850, but Douglas, the one who really got the Compromise passed, represented the next generation of legislators that would take over for the old antebellum guard.

When the Compromise of 1850 was introduced, Douglas was the chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, which meant he was in charge of the committee dealing with the new frontier land the U.S. had just "acquired" from Mexico. This committee happened to be one of the most powerful of the many congressional committees, so when Douglas spoke, people listened (source).

Douglas was all about expanding the U.S. He supported any effort to bring in more land and states, so he was very invested in the passage of the Compromise (source).

After Daniel Webster's famous "Seventh of March" speech, and a much less compelling rebuttal speech by future secretary of state William Seward arguing for the total supremacy of the federal government, Douglas decided to publicly take the middle ground.

He assured the American people that any talk of secession was winding down, and things were generally more amicable in Congress. Given that the debate over the Compromise lasted for several more months, that statement may not have been entirely accurate, but coming from the respected Douglas, the public believed it.

Break it Down Now

Heard the phrase "bitten off more than they can chew"? That's basically what happened when Henry Clay tried to get the omnibus version of the Compromise of 1850 passed. Douglas, on the other hand, cut it up into little pieces to make it easier to digest.

After the omnibus bill failed, Douglas divided the bill into five parts. He formed a strategy to get each one of the parts passed by going after enough supporters for each section to get that piece of it approved.

For instance, he sought out northerners to pass the California statehood bill and the ban on slave trading in D.C. He went after southerners to support the Fugitive Slave Act and compensation for Texas for giving up part of the New Mexico territory.

He also didn't give people a lot of time to think about it. Every time a bill passed, he was right back pushing for the next piece. Between his persistence and people being frankly sick and tired of the whole business, Douglas managed to get the legislation passed in seven working days (source).

What did you do last week?

Popularity Contest

Douglas' big idea throughout his career was what he called "popular sovereignty." The premise was that instead of creating a new state as a slave state or a free state, Congress would leave it to the people in that state to make the decision as they created their new state constitution.

It was a way to avoid confrontation about slavery in Congress, by putting all the power (slash blame) in the hands of the people.

Douglas' attempts to actually implement popular sovereignty, though, were problematic. You see the beginnings of it in the Compromise of 1850, where Congress avoided making a decision about Utah and New Mexico. Later, Douglas would test the concept with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which voided the Missouri Compromise by allowing the states made out of the Nebraska territory to decide whether slavery would be OK or not.

This did not end well.

Violence erupted in Kansas and over 200 people were killed in the mayhem.

Despite the bloodshed, Douglas continued to promote popular sovereignty in his famous debates with Abraham Lincoln in their 1858 senatorial race. Those debates included Lincoln's famous "House Divided" speech. Douglas won the senate seat.

Ulterior Motives

There's evidence that Douglas's proposal for popular sovereignty in the Kansas-Nebraska Act had another, more corrupt, agenda. Douglas was a fan of expanding the rail system in the U.S. In particular, he was a fan of having a transcontinental railroad pass through Chicago, where he owned a considerable amount of land. If it so happened that a railroad connecting Chicago to the rest of the country caused the value of his land to go through the roof, well wouldn't that be a coincidence.

However, the southern states were lobbying for a transcontinental railroad, too. But they wanted it to pass through their territory. Hmm—what to do?

They struck a deal with Douglas. They'd allow Chicago to be a railroad hub if Douglas went easy on the South in the debate over the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Which he did.

Ain't No Middle Ground Wide Enough

We can't.

Douglas hoped that popular sovereignty would provide a middle ground between abolitionists and supporters of slavery; he thought that both sides were to blame for all the uproar about slavery and talk of disunion.

But the Kansas-Nebraska Act riled up the North so much that the anti-slavery folks formed a new political party: The Republicans. And in 1860, they put Abraham Lincoln in the White House, defeating Douglas, the Democratic candidate.

Fun fact: slavery wasn't the only thing Douglas and Lincoln fought over. Douglas was also a suitor of Mary Todd, who eventually married Lincoln.

Anyway, once the Civil War began, Douglas abandoned the middle road and threw his support behind the Union. President Lincoln sent him to the border states and northwest territories to drum up support for the Union cause. He died just a few months after the outbreak of the war, apparently due in part to the grueling assignment (source).

Don't feel too bad about Douglas, though. His stature as a statesman has abided over the years. In fact, it even grew. Alan Tudyk, who played Douglas in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is almost six feet tall.

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