Douglas Joins the U.S. Senate

After three years in the House of Representatives, Douglas was eager to move on to the Senate.

By 1846, his base in the Illinois state legislature was strong enough to secure his election by a vote of 100 to 45. Douglas took his seat in the Senate, and when the 30th Congress was organized in December 1847, he was made chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories.

To the irritation of some of his Senate colleagues, Douglas interpreted the charge of his committee in the broadest possible terms. Territorial matters, in his view, included every aspect of national policy for western lands, from the courts and post office to military posts and legislative powers. His goal was to ensure the most rapid and effective organization of territorial governments so that American political institutions could be solidly planted in the undeveloped western expanse.

Known as the "Little Giant," Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas (1813-1861) fought for passage of the Compromise of 1850 to preserve the Union and avoid civil war. Douglas then undid his own handiwork by promoting the Kansas-Nebraska Act to enable westward expansion in the young nation. "You cannot fetter the limbs of the young giant," he told the Senate. To Douglas' dismay, the act further divided the nation over the issue of slavery, spurring the creation of the Republican Party and the rise of Abraham Lincoln.