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Senator Stephen Douglas Dies

June 3, 1861

Image of Stephen Douglas

On June 3, 1861, Illinois senator Stephen Douglas died in a Chicago hotel room after an exhausting effort to rally public support for the Union. 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 Senate in 1847. When Henry Clay’s omnibus compromise of 1850 seemed on the verge of collapse, it was Senator Douglas who 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. Seeking to gain Southern support for a railroad that would run from Chicago to the West Coast, Douglas sponsored the Kansas-Nebraska Act. That act repealed the Missouri Compromise and left the issue of slavery in the western territories up to the settlers themselves.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 to 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 C. Breckinridge. With the Democratic Party split, Douglas lost the presidency to his old rival, Abe Lincoln.

During the presidential campaign, Douglas conducted a national speaking tour that left him physically and mentally exhausted. Rather than rest, however, he threw himself into efforts to find one more compromise to keep the South from seceding. After the Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861, Douglas realized that the time for compromise had ended. He declared, “There can be no neutrals in this war; only patriots and traitors.”

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 in Chicago on May 1. Worn out from his efforts, his health steadily declined. He died in his hotel room on June 3, 1861, at the age of 48, and might be listed as one of the first casualties of the Civil War.