How History Shaped My Mystery: The Remarkable Rivalry of Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas
Stephen Douglas was a towering figure of the mid-19th century in every sense but the literal one. Standing barely five feet tall, Douglas acquired the moniker “Little Giant” early in his public life, and he kept it until his death. And his outsized life fully justified the nickname.
Born into modest circumstances in Vermont and apprenticed to a cabinet maker after his father’s early death, Douglas soon headed west to seek his fortune. He landed in Illinois, where he knew not a soul, and took the state by storm. Though largely self-educated, he began as an itinerant teacher and soon went into politics. He became state’s attorney by age 21, secretary of state by age 26, and a justice on the Illinois Supreme Court at the ripe old age of 27.
Douglas was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1844 at age 30, a position he would hold for the rest of his life. In the Senate, Douglas became the leading proponent for the doctrine of “popular sovereignty”—letting the people of each state decide important issues for themselves—which in the highly charged politics of the time equated to supporting the right of the southern states to maintain slavery.
Today, Douglas’s life is inextricably tied to a figure who was towering in every sense, including the literal one: Abraham Lincoln. The landmark Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858, conducted during the Senate contest between the two rivals, set a standard for serious public discourse over matters of intense political disagreement that is well-remembered—though little emulated—today. At the time, Douglas prevailed, fending off Lincoln’s challenge and keeping his Senate seat. Two years later, the men faced each other again, this time in the presidential election of 1860. Lincoln, of course, won that round—and won history.
Much less well-known is the fact that Lincoln and Douglas had been fiercely intertwined rivals—legal, political, and romantic rivals—for more than two decades before their famous 1858 debates….
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