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Douglas, Stephen Arnold (1813–1861)

As United States senator from Illinois and chairman of the Committee on Territories between 1847 and 1859, Stephen Douglas is important for his role in debates concerning the expansion of slavery. During the late 1840s he articulated the doctrine of "popular sovereignty," which asserted that the federal government should leave legislation regarding slavery to the discretion of individual states. Douglas sought to institute this doctrine through the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which he pushed through Congress in 1854. Douglas's bill was perceived as a threat by Northern abolitionists and working class whites because it implied a repeal of the Missouri Compromise (1820).

Debate over the Kansas-Nebraska bill preoccupied the nation as Whitman composed the first edition of Leaves of Grass, but he did not explicitly mention Douglas until four years later, during the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Writing for the Brooklyn Daily Times in 1858, Whitman editorialized that "of the two, Mr. Lincoln seems to have had the advantage thus far in the war of words" (Whitman 96). Nonetheless, Douglas won re-election to the Senate and earned a place in Whitman's esteem. Whitman wrote that Douglas's election represented "a victory of the independent representative over the party dictator" (98). This remark is less a jibe at Lincoln's position in the Republican party than an expression of respect for Douglas, who had become a maverick within the Democratic party. Whitman's appreciation of Douglas's victory reflects a transitional phase in his own political loyalties. Like Douglas's, Whitman's lifelong loyalty to the Democratic party was being tested by the Democrats' strong proslavery stance. Though both men opposed slavery, they also yearned for a compromise that might preserve the Union. In this respect, Douglas's advocacy of popular sovereignty is analogous to Whitman's free-soilism. When national unity proved impossible to maintain, Douglas advised a vigorous prosecution of war and supported his rival from Illinois, Abraham Lincoln.


Erkkila, Betsy. Whitman the Political Poet. New York: Oxford UP, 1989.

Johannsen, Robert W. Stephen A. Douglas. New York: Oxford UP, 1973.

Reynolds, David S. Walt Whitman's America: A Cultural Biography. New York: Knopf, 1995.

Whitman, Walt. I Sit and Look Out: Editorials from the Brooklyn Daily Times. Ed. Emory Holloway and Vernolian Schwarz. New York: Columbia UP, 1932.

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