Stephen Arnold Douglas (1813–1861)

Stephen Arnold Douglas (1813–1861) 

Known as the “Little Giant” because of his diminutive height, Stephen Arnold Douglas was Abraham Lincoln’s political archrival. An important member of Illinois state politics as a Democratic party organizer, Douglas’s political career began early. He served in the Illinois House of Representatives, but resigned his seat to accept President Van Buren’s appointment as Register of the Springfield Land Office. Douglas lobbied to add five members to the Illinois Supreme Court, and in 1841, served on the expanded Court.

Then, in 1843, Douglas resigned from the Court upon winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he embarked on an ambitious expansion of the nation’s territories. Three years later, Douglas won election to the U.S. Senate and became Chairman of the Committee on Territories, urging the extension of the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific Ocean.


Douglas saw the idea of “popular sovereignty”—allowing the inhabitants of the territories to decide the issue of slaveholder or free statehood—as a democratic solution to the expansion of slavery into the new territories. This principle was part of the Great Compromise of 1850. Pressed by settlers and the railroads, Douglas began the organization of the Nebraska Territory, intending to do so based on the principles of the Compromise of 1850.


This was a defining moment in Abraham Lincoln’s political growth: he saw the act as a covert method of spreading slavery into the new territories. The renamed Kansas-Nebraska Act called for the elimination of the restriction on slavery above the 36°30´ line, a restriction embedded in the Missouri Compromise. Lincoln’s view that this would lead to the nationalization of slavery was popular: “I could travel from Boston to Chicago by the light of my own effigy,” said Douglas.


By 1858, Lincoln wanted Douglas’s Senate seat. The two men agreed to a series of debates, one in each county of Illinois. The resulting Lincoln-Douglas debates were of great national interest. Douglas was a considerably more famous political figure at the time than his opponent. Lincoln’s participation served to elevate his national profile to the extent that he would emerge as the Republican presidential candidate in the election of 1860, running—and winning—against Douglas as the Democrat’s choice.


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