He was admitted to the bar at Jacksonville, Ill., in 1834. After holding various state and local offices he became a U.S. Representative in 1843, and from 1847 until his death was a U.S. Senator. In the Senate, Douglas was made chairman of the Committee on Territories, an all-important post in the next decade because of the growing battle over the issue of slavery in the territories. For the Compromise of 1850, Douglas drafted the bills instituting territorial government in New Mexico and Utah, whose citizens were left free to act for themselves on all subjects of legislation (including slavery) not inconsistent with the Constitution. This was the essence of Douglas's doctrine of popular sovereignty (a phrase he coined later, in 1854), or Squatter Sovereignty, as its opponents contemptuously called it.
In the early 1850s, when expanding settlement and the great desire for a transcontinental railroad to the Pacific focused attention on the Nebraska region, Douglas proposed a bill in which, as in New Mexico and Utah, all questions of slavery were left to the residents of the new territory. A conference of leaders changed the bill to provide for two territories rather than one, and in this form the Kansas-Nebraska Act became law in 1854. Douglas believed that popular sovereignty would unite the northern and southern wings of the Democratic party and at the same time settle the slavery issue peacefully. But he had not foreseen the bitter contest that would develop between proslavery and Free-State settlers in Kansas. In his report on the Kansas situation he blamed the organized interference of interests outside the territory for the failure of popular sovereignty.
When James Buchanan decided to support the proslavery Lecompton Constitution (see under Lecompton), on which only the proslavery forces in Kansas had voted, Douglas rebelled and in one of his major speeches denounced both the Lecompton Constitution and Buchanan, whom he had formerly supported. It was a courageous and spectacular stand, but his enemies held, unfairly, that Douglas was motivated by political expediency, for he was coming up for reelection in 1858.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.