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07.15.05 Stephen A. Douglas, a biography by Robert W. Johannsen, published in 1973 by Oxford University Press.

Notes Concerning the Author:  

Robert W. Johannsen (1925-2011) was born in Portland Oregon, the son of Walter Johannsen and wife Hedwig Flemming Johannsen, and it was there and near there that he grew up.  He graduated from Washington High School in 1942 and attended Reed College for one year before he entered the Army and fought in Europe, using his math skills to advantage as a forward artillery field observer.  He returned to Reed College and graduated in 1948.  He received his Ph. D. degree in history from the University of Washington in 1953; then relocating to the University of Kansas to teach for 5 years.  He next moved to the University of Illinois where he taught for 40 years, completing a notable career, including the writing and publication of the Stephen A. Douglas biography.  He retired in 2,000 at the age of 75.  His expertise was in “19th century American history: the trans-Mississippi West, the age of Jackson, the Civil War and Reconstruction, and the Mexican War.”  His wife of 59 years was the former Lois Calderwood. 


Johannsen’s Stephen A. Douglas is a definitive work on the life of one of America’s most important political leaders.  For many years Douglas (1813-1861) was the leading Democrat in Illinois and the leading northern-States Democrat in the Federal Senate.  We need to understand Stephen Douglas to understand Illinois politics and we need to understand Illinois politics to understand Abraham Lincoln and his sudden rise to political power.  Douglas was a man of great ambition and it was that unbridled ambition that drove him to refuse the compromise that was needed to prevent the split into two sectional parties at the 1860 Democratic National Convention in Charleston, South Carolina.  That split made victory by the sectional Northern States Republican Party relatively easy for it to achieve.  With a minority of the vote, Abe Lincoln was elected President in November.  Douglas is known for the “Lincoln-Douglas” debates of 1858, more properly called the “Douglas-Lincoln” debates, because Douglas was  the most important Senator in Washington whereas Lincoln was merely a lawyer in a two-man office in Springfield, Illinois, albeit recognized as the leader of the Illinois Republican Party, which he had helped form two years earlier.  Political events were moving so rapidly in the years from 1854 (start of Bleeding Kansas) to 1860 (election of Lincoln and completion of the election of Republican Governors to every northern State).

Stephen A. Douglas was born in Brandon, Vermont in 1813.  Sadly, at the age of 2 months, the baby’s father, also named “Stephen Arnold, died.  Before many years passed the boy’s mother, Sally, left Brandon to live with her bachelor brother on a farm near Middlebury, and it would be Uncle Edward Fisk who would help raise the lad.  But Uncle Ed expected much work from teenage Stephen, limiting his access to school, and prompting the youngster to leave home.  So, at the age of 15 years “he set out from Middlebury on search of his fortune.”  He apprenticed in a woodworking shop and attended a college prep school known as Brandon Academy.  But, in the final analysis, Douglas had not severed family ties.  In 1830 a fellow from upstate New York named Julius Granger married Stephen’s sister Sarah, followed by the groom’s father coming back and marrying the bride’s mother.  This suited Stephen, age 17, and the young man moved with his new extended family to near Canandaigua, in upstate New York.  It was there, in Canandaigua, that Stephen developed his passion for politics.  And he was definitely an Andrew Jackson man, a bit of a maverick in the region known as the “Burned Over District,” where the Anti-Mason political movement exerted considerable power.   At the age of 20 years, Stephen needed greener pastures.  The west called.  He left New York State and, after looking about along the way, settled in Jacksonville, in central-western Illinois. 

At Jacksonville, he studied law and taught school.  In the span on only 4 months Stephen A. Douglas was admitted to the Illinois bar.  He would turn 21 in a few weeks.  He wanted to practice law and become a leader in the Illinois Democratic Party, the party of Andrew Jackson.  Backing candidates and working the lobby at the Illinois legislature, Douglas became very influential.  At the age of 22 he was elected States Attorney for the First Judicial District.  At the age of 23 he was elected to the Illinois Legislature.  He was approaching the age of 24 when President Van Buren appointed him Register of the Springfield Land Office.  At the age of 25 he failed in his bid for a seat in the Federal House, losing to Abe Lincoln’s law partner John Todd Stuart by only 36 votes.  It was at this time that Douglas and Lincoln started dating the same girl, Mary Todd, who was in Springfield on an extended visit with her sister, who was married to a very prominent Democrat.  Fortunately for Douglas, Abe would get to wed Mary, a marriage that would prove tumultuous.

At the age of 27 Douglas was appointed Secretary of State for Illinois.  At the age of 28 he was appointed Judge of the Fifth Judicial Circuit, which also meant that he sat on the State Supreme Court.  From that day forward, Stephen would be known as “Judge Douglas.”  But his career was headed toward Washington, D. C.  At the age of 30 years he was elected to the Federal House, taking his seat in December 1843.  He was re-elected several times and became Chairman of the House Committee on Territories. At the age of 33 he was elected to the Federal Senate, taking his seat in December 1847 at the age of 34, now as a married man, for, a few months earlier he had married 22-year-old Martha Martin, daughter of a “prosperous” North Carolina farmer (both Abe and Stephen married Southern girls). 

In the Federal Senate, Stephen Douglas was assigned to the Senate Committee on National Territories and rose to become Chairman.  It was in that capacity that he pushed through the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act, which, sadly, set the stage for “Bleeding Kansas,” and heightened the agitation that incited political sectionalism and gave rise to the Illinois Republican Party and the amazing political success of a Springfield lawyer by the name of Abraham Lincoln.

From 1854 on, Douglas was on the defensive.  The Democratic Party was being overrun in the Northern States by a variety of opposition political movements.  By 1856 those movements had coalesced into the Republican Party.  Failing to stunt the rise of the Republican Party, Douglas sought political survival by acting more like a Republican.  Yet he desperately wanted to get the Democratic nomination for Federal President.  He had not been feeling well.  His throat was giving him problems.  Whisky seemed to help.  He had a bit of surgery.  But he was dying of throat cancer (a medical problem he may or may not have understood).  He did not consider compromise with Southern Democrats to be a viable personal option.  He was stubborn.  The 1860 Democratic National Convention split at Charleston, South Carolina.  Republican victory across the Northern States was assured.  He died shortly after the start of Lincoln’s military campaign against Maryland, Kentucky, Missouri and 11 seceded States.

Availability of this Book

Robert W. Johannsen’s Stephen A. Douglas is available as a used book in hard cover and paperback.  It is not available as a Kindle e-book, but we hope someday that it will be.  You can get a digital scanned version by Google.  Prices for the paper books are rising.  A careful search and patience is advised.  Go to Amazon and other used book on-line sellers.