One of the most noted statesman of the day was the subject of this narrative. Short, thickset, and muscular in person, and strong in intellect Stephen A. Douglass came to be known as ‘The Little Giant.’
For many years he held a very conspicuous place in the political history of the republic. He was a native of the ‘Green Mountain State,’ being born at Brandon, April 23d, 1813. When he was about two months old his father, who was a physician, died, and his mother removed to a small farm, where Stephen remained until he was about fifteen years old. Having received a common school education he was very anxious to take a college course, but this being impossible, he determined thereafter to earn his own living. He accordingly apprenticed himself to a cabinet-maker, but his health would not allow the pursuit of this business, and he was compelled to abandon the undertaking.
When he was possibly able he removed to Illinois. Upon his arrival in Jacksonville his entire wealth consisted of the sum of thirty-seven cents. He determined to start a school at a place called Winchester, some fifteen miles from Jacksonville, and as he had little money, walked the entire distance. Arriving in Winchester the first sight that met his eyes was a crowd assembled at an auction, and he secured employment for the time being as clerk for the auctioneer. For this service, which lasted three days, he received $6, and with this sum he started a school, which occupied his attention during the day.
For two years previous he had studied law during his SPARE MOMENTS; much of his time nights was now devoted to the completion of his legal studies. Being admitted to the bar during the following year, 1834, he opened an office and began practicing in the higher courts where he was eminently successful, acquiring a lucrative practice, and he was elected attorney-general of the state before he was twenty-two.
He soon became a member of the legislature, taking his seat as the youngest member in that body. He was the Democratic nominee for Congress before he had acquired the required age, however, his twenty-fifth birthday occurred before election, thus this obstacle was removed. In his district a most spirited canvass took place, and out of over thirty-five thousand votes cast, his opponent was declared elected by only five. He was appointed register of the land office at Springfield, but resigned this position in 1889. He became Secretary of State the following year, and in 1841 was elected a judge of the Supreme Court at the age of twenty-eight. This position he also resigned two years after to represent his district in congress where he was returned by successive elections until 1848.
He was recognized as one of the able members while in the national legislature, and his speeches on the Oregon question are models. He next became a Senator from his State, and supported President Polk in the Mexican war. As is well-known he was the father of the Kansas-Nebraska act, popularly known as ‘Squatter Sovereignty,’ carrying the measure through in spite of great opposition.
He was a strong candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1852, and his strength was still more developed four years later when he was the favorite candidate save one, James Buchanan, who finally received the honor. At the end of the next four years he was nominated by the convention meeting at Charleston, and was the unanimous choice of the northern wing of the Democracy, but bitterly opposed by the Southern faction, who nominated Mr. Breckinridge at a separate convention. This caused a split in the Democratic vote, and Mr. Lincoln was elected on a minority of the total vote cast.
Stephen A. Douglass however, like Webster and Clay, needed not the honor of occupying the presidential chair to make his name illustrious. He was remarkably successful in the promotion of his State’s interest in Congress. To him is due the credit of securing the splendid grant of land which brought about the successful operation of the Illinois Central railroad which contributed so much toward the weakened resources of the State. As previously stated, Mr. Douglass was defeated by Mr. Lincoln, yet at the outbreak of the civil war his voice was heard in earnest pleas for the Union, declaring that if this system of resistance by the sword, when defeated at the ballot-box was persisted in, then “The history of the United States is already written in the history of Mexico.”
He most strongly denounced secession as a crime and characterized it as madness. His dying words were in defence of the Union. To say that Mr. Douglass was a wonderful man is the least that can be said, while more could be added in his praise with propriety. As an orator he was graceful, and possessed natural qualities which carried an audience by storm. He died June 3rd, 1861, at the outbreak of the civil war. Had he lived no one would have rendered more valuable assistance in the suppression of that gigantic rebellion than would Stephen A. Douglass.
But it was in the great political debate between himself and Abraham Lincoln that Mr. Douglass gained his greatest notoriety as well as Lincoln himself. The details of this debate will be seen in our sketch of Mr. Lincoln.