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Stephen A. Douglas: A Featured Biography

[Stephen A. Douglas]

Known as “the Little Giant” because his political stature far exceeded his height of five-foot-four, Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas remained a prominent national figure from his first election to the Senate in 1847 until his death in 1861. When the Compromise of 1850, an omnibus bill proposed by Henry Clay, seemed on the verge of collapse, Senator Douglas took the bill apart and built separate coalitions around each of its key provisions, ensuring its passage and holding the Union together. Douglas then undid his own handiwork by promoting the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. Designed to promote expansion into western territories, the act further divided the nation over the issue of slavery, spurred the creation of the modern Republican Party, and hastened the rise of Abraham Lincoln. In 1860 Douglas was one of four major candidates for the presidency, running on a Northern Democratic ticket, but he lost the election to his old rival, Abe Lincoln. When Confederates fired on Fort Sumter in April 1861, Douglas put aside old rivalries and joined Lincoln to support the Union cause. “There can be no neutrals in this war," he declared, "only patriots and traitors.” As Douglas rallied Northern Democrats to support the president, his health steadily declined. He died in his hotel room on June 3, 1861, at the age of 48.