Stephen Douglas and Applied Popular Sovereignty
by Bruce L. Brager
At noon, December 5, 1853, the first session of the 33rd Congress opened. Very
few senators had over six years seniority. "Unlike the men they displaced,
whose national perspective had been born of long service, the new senators were
more inclined to follow their own personal and sectional dictates."
The same day the session began, Senator Augustus Caeser Dodge, of Iowa,
introduced a bill authorizing the formal organization of a territorial
government for Nebraska. A similar bill had been defeated in the previous
congress. Expediting construction of a "northern route" for the hotly debated
intercontinental railroad was the major reason for wanting to organize the
territory. The Nebraska bill was referred to the Senate Committee on
Territories, under the chairmanship of Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Democrat of
An immediate problem for Douglas, who wrote the formal January 4, 1854 report
on the bill, and the revised text of the bill, was how to handle the
proposed territory's location. It lay above the "Missouri Compromise line,"
north of which slavery was not permitted. The Compromise of 1850, the not
totally popular "Armistice of 1850", had already added a state and two
territories without reference to the Missouri Compromise Line. Southern support
for the bill would be at risk if the strict geographical dividing line between
slave and free states was to be revived.
By the time the bill eventually passed on May 25, 1854, it created two
territories, Kansas and Nebraska. With the passing of this bill, the concept of
“popular sovereignty” was introduced to the public. Douglas later described
this concept as:
"The principle, under our political system, … that every distinct political
Community, loyal to the Constitution and the Union, is entitled to all the
rights, privileges, and immunities of self-government in respect to their local
concerns and internal policy, subject only to the Constitution of the United
An amendment to the bill specifically repealed the Missouri Compromise and its
geographic limitation on slavery in the territories. Though he had not
introduced the amendment, during the course of the debate Douglas stated that
"I do not like, I never did like, the system of legislation on our part, by
which a geographical line, in violation of the laws of nature, and climate, and
soil, and of the laws of God, should be run to establish institutions for a
people." Douglas considered slavery the most dangerous American political
issue. However, he chose to focus his corrective efforts on the agitation over
slavery, seeking to solve the problem by taking slavery out of national
politics - by letting the people of each state choose their own "domestic"
institutions. Despite his experience in local Illinois politics, Douglas did
not realize that it would be far harder to moderate local politics.
Comprehensive in most of its elements, the Kansas Nebraska Act failed
to specify when the people of the two territories would vote on whether to
allow slavery - at the time of application for statehood or earlier. The Act
also failed to set voter eligibility standards. As a result, Kansas (lying just
west of a slave state, Missouri, saw a rush of settlers.
Northerners moved first. William H. Seward of New York told the Senate, just
after the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed the House, "We will engage in
competition for the soil of Kansas, and God give the victory to the side which
is strongest in numbers as it is in the right."
Southern leaders took Northern bombast very seriously. More free states would
tip the balance in the Senate. With slavery seeming to be on the decline in
several border states, this might eventually lead to a situation where three
quarters of the states were free states, enough to pass a Constitutional
amendment banning slavery. Perhaps more importantly, expansion of slivery was
seen as a way of dispersing the rapidly growing slave population, and lessening
the chances of slave rebellion, the greatest Southern fear.
Southerners saw Northern efforts in Kansas as a threat. Senator David Atchison
of Missouri, for one, warned Southerners to match Northern efforts, to move to
Kansas and to vote. In November of 1854, Atchison helped lead several thousand
Missourians to vote in the first territorial election. 1,700 fraudulent ballots
(according to a later Congressional investigation) led to election of a
pro-slavery delegate to Congress. A census taken soon after the election
showed that sixty percent of legitimate Kansas settlers came from Missouri.
Atchison's side probably would have won anyway.
The pro-slavery forces outdid themselves in the March 1855 elections for a
territorial legislature. The same census which gave the origins of Kansas
settlers listed 2,905 legal voters among the legitimate residents. Election
returns showed that over 6,300 votes were cast in easily electing a pro-slavery
The presidentially appointed territorial governor, Andrew Reeder, provoked by
the violent behavior of the pro-slavery elements, had changed since his arrival
from sympathy t towards opposition to slavery.
Reeder ordered new elections in about a third of the Kansas districts, most of
which were won by free soil candidates. When the legislature met in July 1855,
though, it seated the original winners. Reeder went to Washington, to try and
get President Franklin Pierce to bring some order to the situation in Kansas.
However, as a result of pressure from Southern supporters, Reeder lost his job.
By the fall of 1855, legitimate free state settlers in Kansas outnumbered
pro-slavery elements. They intended neither to obey the slave code laws nor
recognize the legislature that passed them. A free soil convention met in
Topeka in October, drafting a free state constitution and calling for new
legislative elections. By January of 1856, Kansas had a second legislature
meeting in Topeka - unofficial, though representing a majority of actual
After a violent fall, a harsh winter kept things quiet - for a while. In May,
1856, the pro-slavery Kansas Judge Samuel Lecompte, organized a grand jury and
had it indict members of the Topeka legislature for treason. A group of 800
Missourians, trusted by Lecompte, was deputized as a posse to arrest the
indicted legislators living in Lawrence. The free-soil leaders decided not to
resist, though the legislators fled Lawrence. The Missourians entered the town,
destroying its two newspaper offices, hotel and the home of the elected
Sumner and Brooks
Violence was not limited to Kansas. On May 19 and 20, just before the attack on
Lawrence, Senator Charles Sumner from Massachusetts spoke before the Senate. He
called his speech "The Crime Against Kansas." Sumner had warned that he would
speak with passion - an accurate warning. His passion exceeded his taste and
judgment, even in the view of some of the Republican press commenting on the
speech. Stephen Douglas was one target of insulting attacks by Sumner. While
listening to Sumner speak, after being unable to ignore the speech, Douglas was
heard to mutter "That damn fool will get himself killed by some other damn
Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina was a particular target of attack for
Sumner. At one point Sumner accused Butler of having taken the "harlot" slavery
as a "mistress." A few days after the speech, Congressman Preston Brooks of
South Carolina, a cousin of Butler, approached Sumner, seated at his desk on
the floor of the Senate. He told Sumner the speech was "a libel on South
Carolina, and Mr. Butler . . . Brooks then started hitting Sumner over the head
with a gold-headed cane. Sumner became entangled in his desk, unable to rise
until he yanked the desk off its hinges. Brooks hit him more than thirty times,
until Sumner was finally rescued. Sumner missed several years' work in the
Senate, during which time he was re-elected.
In Kansas, immediate retaliation occurred for the Lawrence attack, and the
Sumner beating. A 56 year old abolitionist named John Brown, believing in the
Biblical eye for an eye, decided to take revenge. He and some of his sons were
members of a free-state militia company on its way to Lawrence when that attack
occurred. Brown was already in a rage when the news of the near murder of
Senator Sumner reached him. He figured that pro-slavery men had killed at least
five anti-slavery men since the troubles began. On the night of May 24-25,
therefore, Brown, four of his sons and three other men abducted five
pro[-]slavery settlers, picked at random. The five were murdered; their skulls
split open with broadswords.
The culminating Kansas political crisis began in January 1857. The pro-slavery
legislature enacted a bill calling for what was effectively a rigged
constitutional convention. More significantly, the bill also provided that the
new constitution would take effect without a public referendum. The delegates
would be elected in June of that year.
Governor John C. Geary, later a successful Northern Civil War General, the
second governor since Reeder, had come to Kansas anti-abolition but been
converted by the blatant and ruthless behavior of the pro-slavery elements -
greatly outdoing similar behavior on the part of the anti-slavery people. Geary
immediately vetoed the convention bill, only to have the veto easily over -
ridden by the legislature. Despite his success in temporarily quelling violence
the fall before, Geary now had had enough. With his life threatened, and unable
to accomplish anything further, Geary resigned on March 4, 1857.
Buchanan offered the governor's job to Robert J. Walker of Mississippi. After
consulting with Douglas, Walker accepted. Walker arrived in Kansas the end of
May, accepting that there was a free soil majority among Kansas voters, but
also that he was too late to change what he acknowledged was an unfair election
system. Free soil men ignored Walker's plea for them to participate anyway.
Only 2,200 of the 9,250 registered voters participated, and pro-slavery
elements won all seats in the convention.
Walker strongly favored a referendum for the resulting constitution. At first,
the new President, James Buchanan, supported a referendum. The majority of
national Southern leaders, knowing the likely results of such a referendum,
began to put pressure on Buchanan to back down on his support. Walker further
outraged the Southerners by his actions after the election for the next Kansas
legislature, which took place before the convention met. He threw out massively
fraudulent returns, and certified a free soil legislature.
The Lecompton convention created what was basically a standard state
constitution. But it also guaranteed slavery. The entire document could not be
amended for seven years. The slavery clause could never be amended The
constitution would be sent to Congress, with a petition for statehood, without
On November 7, the convention changed its mind and decided to call for a
referendum on the "Constitution with Slavery," or the "Constitution with No
Slavery." The "no slavery" clause did not actually ban slavery, just the
importation of new slaves into Kansas. Walker was sure Buchanan would reject
the "vile fraud." Buchanan, sympathetic to the South, had already buckled under
Southern pressure to support the Lecompton constitution.
Stephen Douglas and Lecompton
Stephen Douglas left Chicago in late November, 1857, headed to what he knew
would be a fight in Washington. Walker, who would not return to Kansas, had
already spoken to Buchanan and learned the President was going to back down. He
went to New York and informed Douglas of the results of the meeting. On
December 3rd Douglas went to the White House to meet with Buchanan. He soon
began to argue with the President, warning him unsuccessfully that giving in on
Kansas would destroy the Democratic party in the North.
Buchanan's December State of the Union message to Congress praised the
constitutional procedures in Kansas as being fully in line with popular
sovereignty. Immediately after Buchanan's speech was read, Douglas announced
his support of most of the message. "...but in regard to one topic - that of
Kansas - I totally dissent from all that portion of the message which may
fairly be construed as approving of the proceedings of the Lecompton
On December 9th, Douglas spoke again. He stated that the Kansas-Nebraska Act,
and popular sovereignty, did not require just the issue of slavery to be
decided by the people. Aside from the fact that the Kansas convention had no
power to establish a government, the people were being required to vote for the
constitution, with or without slavery. They could not vote against the
constitution itself. The reason, Douglas accurately declared, was that
supporters knew they would lose a fair vote. Douglas went on to say that it was
not his business whether it was a good or bad constitution, as long as it did
not violate the Federal constitution and the fundamental principles of liberty.
Douglas ended by declaring that, "If this constitution is to be forced down our
throats, in violation of the fundamental principles of free government, under a
mode of submission that is a mockery and an insult, I will resist it to the
The "official" Kansas vote on the constitution took place on December 21, 1857.
Including 2,270 ballots later declared fraudulent, the constitution with
slavery won by a vote of 6,143 to 569. The Topeka Legislature scheduled its own
referendum, allowing people to vote on the entire constitution. This vote was
boycotted by the pro[-]slavery elements. The final result was 161 for the
constitution, 10,226 against the document. Congress now had two votes from
which to choose.
On February 2, 1858, Buchanan sent the Lecompton constitution to Congress with
a message recommending admission of Kansas as a slave state. Support for
Lecompton might have assured Douglas Southern support for the Democratic
nomination in 1860. However, the combination of Lecompton and the power of the
Republican Party in the Northern states would have given Douglas little chance
of any electoral success in the North. Douglas could also have remained silent.
However, he told the Senate that he could never vote to "force this
constitution down the throats of the people of Kansas, in opposition to their
wishes and in violation of our pledges."
During the debate, "Douglas by physical and mental force dominated the scene. A
host in himself, he was always ready to meet any onslaught, to answer any
argument." There was little chance of victory in the Senate, and Lecompton
was approved by a vote of 33 to 25. Douglas was better able to muster
anti-Lecompton forces in the House, winning by a vote of 120 to 112. A weak
compromise bill later passed, calling for a vote on the Lecompton constitution
-- guaranteed fair, but under the guise of settling some land issues. The
constitution lost by 11,300 to 1,788. Kansas was eventually admitted as a
state in January 1861.
Douglas arrived back in Washington, after closely beating Abraham Lincoln for
reelection to the Senate, for the "lame duck" session of Congress in December,
1858. He quickly discovered that the Southerners, and the administration, had a
long memory. They took revenge for Lecompton by removing Douglas as Chairman of
the important Senate Committee on Territories.
In 1860, most Southerners bolted the regular Democratic Party. Some radical
secessionists specifically wanted to elect Abraham Lincoln, to provoke a
breakup of the Union. Most Southerners, however, were motivated merely by
dislike of Douglas. But the effect was the same.
Douglas disliked disunion even more than the Republican Party. He made
preventing disunion, rather than his own victory, the focus of his campaign. He
toured the country, including the deep South, at political and personal risk
(and health risk, as Douglas died seven months after the election), mounting
the first national speaking campaign of a major political candidate. Should
Lincoln win, Douglas's message went (and he expected Lincoln to win), losing an
election was no reason to destroy the government. As Bruce Catton put it:
"... the greatness that had always hovered around his dogged trail descended
full upon him …. Douglas’ course of action alone was that of the
Political actions have to stand the final test of how things work out in the
long run. This may be unfair, as it holds political leaders accountable for
things they may not be able to anticipate. Then again, perhaps anticipating
should be part of the job description of political leaders. Perhaps they should
be judged on how well they acted not only with what they knew then but also
with what they should and could have known then and with what we know now. We
know how the Kansas-Nebraska Act turned out, the immediate local disaster for
the people of Kansas, the contribution to the major disaster of the American
Civil War. Why did Douglas make his mistake? Was his call for local control of
local institutions, seemingly in keeping with American tradition (and modern
trends) just an idea not sufficiently thought out, another example of the
historical law of unintended consequences? Douglas was neither the first nor
the last leader to make such an error. Was Douglas engaging in political
pandering, not knowing or disregarding the extreme risk to local peace and the
unity of the nation? Though he later made prodigious efforts to correct his
mistake, Douglas would not have been the first, nor would he be the last,
political leader to take a high risk action for short term gain.
Show Footnotes and
. Robert W. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas, New York: Oxford
University Press, 1973, page 402.
. Potter, David M., The Impending Crisis, New York: Harper and Row,
Publishers, 1976, page 151.
. Congressional Globe, 33rd Congress, 2nd session, app. 216.
. Potter, page 90.
. Stephen A. Douglas, "The Dividing Line Between Federal And Local
Authority: Popular Sovereignty in the Territories," Harper's New Monthly
Magazine, Volume XIX, June to November 1859, 1859 published compilation, page
. Congressional Globe, 33rd Congress, 1st session, pages 275-280.
. Congressional Globe, 31st Congress, 2nd session, app. 312, 32nd Congress,
1st session, page 1952. Johannsen, pages 154-155 and passim.
. Cong. Globe, 33rd Congress, 1st session, App. page 769.
. This theory was presented at the 1992 Civil War Institute lectures,
. James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom, New York: Oxford
University Press, 1988, pages 146-147.
. Ibid, and Johannsen, page 474.
. Ibid, pages 148-153.
. Quoted Johannsen, page 503.
. Stephen B. Oates, To Purge This Land With Blood, New York:
Harper and Row, Publishers, 1970, pages 126-137.
. Kenneth M. Stampp, America in 1857, New York, Oxford University
Press, 1990, pages 281-282.
. House Reports, 36th Congress, 1st Session, No 448 (serial 1071), pages
318 and 319.
. Quoted Johannsen, page 590.
. Congressional Globe, 35th Congress, 1st session, pages 14 - 22. Also
quoted and discussed in Johanssen, pages 588-592.
. Damon Wells, Stephen Douglas: The Last Years, Austin and London,
University of Texas Press, 1971, page 39; The Tribune and Almanac and Political
Register, 1859-1871, Tribune Almanac for 1859, pages 33 and 34.
. Congressional Globe, 35th Congress, 1st session, pages 14-19.
. Allan Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln: Volume I, New York:
Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950, page 277.
. McPherson, page 169.
. Johannsen, pages 685-689.
. Steven A. Channing, Crisis of Fear, New York: Simon and
Schuster, 1970, pages 207-208.
. William and Bruce Catton, Two Roads to Sumter, New York: McGraw
Hill Book Company, Inc., 1963, page 233.
Copyright © 2007 Bruce L. Brager.
Written by Bruce L. Brager. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Bruce L. Brager at:
About the author:
Bruce Brager is a writer specializing in military history, defense and foreign
policy. He is the author of ten published books and over fifty
Published online: 12/08/2007.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent
those of MHO.