Senator Stephen Douglas accomplished a bunch of noteworthy things during his life, but he's especially uber-famous for two of them: his campaign debates with some guy named Abraham Lincoln, and writing the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Yep: you don't debate Honest Abe without getting a mention in the history books out of it.
Those two things are related, and here's why: Lincoln thought Douglas' language in the Kansas-Nebraska Act on popular sovereignty was a complete cop-out and a huge pander to the awful pro-slavery South. Neither Lincoln nor Douglas were known for being all quiet and meek about their opinions, so this and their many other disagreements got a lot of air time…especially when they battled it out for a Senate seat in 1858 and then for the POTUSship in 1860.
Hold on, let's back this train up and get our context on.
Stephen A. Douglas was a career politician.
We don't mean that as an insult; we mean it as a statement of fact. From being elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1836 at the ripe old age of twenty-four to his typhoid-induced death in 1861, this dude was all up in the political world. He was a state representative, a U.S. Congressman, a U.S. Senator, a presidential candidate, and, for a long time, the leader of the Democratic Party.
He was also a State Attorney for a while, and later became the youngest Illinois Supreme Court Justice (he was just twenty-seven when he took that position).
No wonder his stint as a cabinet-maker's apprentice didn't work out. The dude's interests were clearly elsewhere.
Anyway, in addition to having a great résumé, Senator Douglas also had a large personality to go with it. He was nicknamed "Little Giant" because, even though he was under 5'5", he had a big ol' boomy voice and was crazy-aggressive about getting his fellow statesmen to go along with whatever he was pushing for.
This isn't an unusual phenomenon; every group has a Stephen Douglas in it. When everyone's already decided to go to the Asian fusion place again for spring rolls, he's that one friend who suddenly decides he's craving soft tacos and won't stop pushing it until the entire squad ends up eating at Happy Pablo's.
In this analogy, the squad is the United States Congress, and the Asian fusion place is the Missouri Compromise, just so we're all on the same page. Happy Pablo's soft tacos? Those will be playing the role of popular sovereignty.
Allow us to elaborate.
See, decisions had already been made. The Missouri Compromise was, and had been since 1820, the authority on slavery. It very clearly stated that, other than Missouri, no other state or territory above the 36th parallel could permit slavery. Everyone thought the issue was settled.
Of course, there'd been that itty-bitty special dispensation in 1850 that allowed California to enter the Union as a free state, thus upsetting the balance of free and slave states, but the rules of the Missouri Compromise still stood: no slavery above the 36th parallel. Period.
Then Stephen Douglas comes along with his popular sovereignty soft tacos, and suddenly the whole world was thrown off-kilter.
So what was up with this Stephen Douglas guy anyway, and why couldn't he just go along with the Missouri Compromise spring rolls like everybody else?
Well, in order to answer that question, we need to turn away from the lunch menu and focus instead on something less savory but infinitely more salacious: the high drama of the country's first transcontinental railroad.
Every politico worth his salt was trying to get the future railroad to come through his town as it made its way across the country, and Stephen Douglas was no different. He wanted that train to stop in Chicago…and he wanted it bad.
His counterparts in the South were equally committed to getting that train to end up in their neck of the woods, stopping somewhere like New Orleans.
But those sly Southern foxes wanted something else even more than the railroad: they wanted that ridiculous Missouri Compromise repealed. So they offered Senator Douglas a deal, saying they'd support his northern train route idea if he'd do them a solid and find a way for new territories north of the 36th parallel to allow slavery. And, being the politician that he was, Douglas agreed, even though he personally thought the whole institution of slavery was a horrible, horrible thing.
Let's understand something: it wasn't Douglas' first choice to repeal the Missouri Compromise. In the first version of this bill he'd written—the first of five, that is—the question of slavery wasn't addressed at all. But that bill, and three of its variations, failed to generate the excitement and votes needed to push it through. Douglas needed something to get his fellow elected officials on board. He needed a hook, a draw, something that both sides of the aisle could get behind and support.
And thus the concept of popular sovereignty was born.
Well, not born, really. The concept itself had already been around forever. All it means is that people should be able to decide for themselves how they're governed. Societies had been into that for ages already before Douglas started throwing the term around.
But throw it around he did, arguing to anyone and everyone that allowing voters to decide whether to allow slavery in new territories was the democratic thing to do. And wasn't the United States a democracy? Didn't it want to do democratic stuff? Wasn't allowing people to vote on issues that affect them the most democratic of all democratic things?
Of course it was, he assured everyone.
So if Congress would just go ahead and get those pesky Nebraska and Kansas territories organized, and if they'd allow the wonderfully democratic principle of popular sovereignty to make its way into the organization legislation, then everyone could quit hemming and hawing about slavery and get back to the real issue: building a transcontinental railroad. Maybe then all this talk about going to war and whatnot would stop.
Ah, the best-laid plans, right?
Because even though the act got approved, Douglas' popular sovereignty thing blew up into an enormous issue that led the country right into the very war Douglas was hoping to avoid.
The first transcontinental railroad was finally completed on May 10, 1869. Chicago was one of the major cities along journeys from the Northeast to California. We think the Little Giant would've been proud.