Stephen Arnold Douglas
Stephen A. Douglas, the Northern Democratic nominee for president in the election of 1860, sits for a daguerreotype portrait at Mathew Brady's photographic studio sometime between 1844 and 1860. Born in Vermont in 1813, Douglas moved to western Illinois as a young man and became a major figure in the Democratic Party there, elected as a U.S. congressman from 1843 to 1847, and U.S. senator from 1847 to 1861. For a brief time he courted Mary Todd, who would marry Abraham Lincoln, his prime adversary in the 1860 U.S. presidential election. (In 1847 Douglas married Martha Martin, a wealthy southerner who controlled a plantation and slaves in Mississippi. She died six years later and Douglas remarried, this time to 20-year-old Adele Cutts, a grand niece of Dolly Madison, the former first lady of the United States.)
The author of both the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, Douglas was a moderate who advocated "popular sovereignty," or the right of territories and newly admitted states to decide for themselves the question of slavery. Douglas unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for U.S. president in both 1852 and 1856, and finally achieved his goal in 1860, though the party was splintered over his selection. The party's convention began in Charleston, South Carolina, on April 23, 1860, and Douglas's challenge was to placate the so-called fire-eaters of the party's Deep South wing—who pressed for a strong pro-slavery platform and threatened secession if they did not get it—while avoiding the appearance that these radicals held him hostage, which would have hurt his support among Northerners. After passionate debate, the gathering failed to produce a candidate, so a second convention took place in June 1860, in Baltimore, Maryland, where Douglas was selected; but the fire-eaters walked out of the convention and gathered at the so-called Seceders' Convention where they nominated John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky as the Southern Democratic candidate.
Crippled by a divided Democratic Party—in addition to a Constitutional Unionist candidate who siphoned off additional support in the South—Douglas was defeated by the Republican Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln's victory provoked the secession crisis, and Douglas fought for a compromise to prevent war. "Are we prepared in our hearts for war with our own brethren and kin?" he argued with his Senate colleagues. Douglas died in Chicago on June 3, 1861, not long after the Civil War erupted.