Stephen Douglas was a powerful political leader right before the Civil War. He was also a very skilled orator, most famous for his 1858 Debates with Abraham Lincoln.
He was born on April 23, 1813, in Brandon, Vermont, and educated in schools at Brandon and at Canandaigua, New York. He practiced law in Illinois, where he became a very succesful lawyer, legislative member (1836), state secretary (1840), and judge of the state supreme court (1841-1843).
Douglas was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served from 1843 until 1847. Douglas was soon nicknamed the Little Giant, for his small stature , yet great ability.
He fought for the annexation of Texas, supported the war with Mexico, and opposed compromise with Britain in the Oregon Territory. He became chairman of the Committee on Territories in the House, and, when elected to the U.S. Senate in 1847 by the state legislature, Douglas was chosen head of the Senate Committee on Territories.
He was in charge of legislation by which Minnesota, Oregon, New Mexico, Utah, Washington, Kansas, and Nebraska were constituted as territories and Texas, Florida, Wisconsin, Iowa, Minnesota, California, and Oregon were admitted to the Union as states. With Henry Clay, senator from Kentucky, he was mainly responsible for the Compromise of 1850. Douglas, however, brought about the reopening of the entire slavery question in 1854 by putting in the Kansas-Nebraska Act (the bills that established the territories of Kansas and Nebraska) the idea of popular sovereignty, which allowed citizens to vote on whether or not slavery would be allowed.
In 1858, while campaigning for the election of candidates for the state senate to ensure his selection for a third term as U.S. senator from Illinois, Douglas was opposed by Lincoln, and the two candidates met in a momentous series of debates on the slavery issue.
These debates were so impacting, there's a whole speech style called 'Lincoln-Douglas'. Douglas was re-elected, but the Lincoln candidates gained more popular votes, and Lincoln emerged with a better reputation.
In 1860 Douglas and Lincoln were opponents for the presidential election. Douglas had won the Democratic nomination, but Southern Democratic delegates had seceded and nominated the vice president, John Cabell Breckinridge, making Douglas lose the election, winning 12 electoral and 1,375,157 popular votes to 180 electoral and 1,866,352 popular votes for Lincoln.
He contracted typhoid fever while on a mission in the midwestern and border states to rally popular backing for the Union cause, and he died in Chicago on June 3, 1861.
credits: World Book, Ms. Panel, and my old U.S. History Book.