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Stephen A. Douglas

Stephen A. Douglas was aptly labeled “a steam engine in breeches” by one of his contemporaries. A man of enormous energy, Douglas rose from rural obscurity to political prominence in a few years. He championed railroad construction in his adopted state of Illinois, and he promoted the creation of a national railroad network focused on Chicago from his seat in the United States Senate.

Stephen Douglas was born on April 24, 1813, in Brandon, Vermont. In 1830, his family moved to upstate New York, where he attended Canandaigua Academy. Three years later he left this institution to study the law by attaching himself, rather like an apprentice, to the office of a local lawyer. Frustrated by the time it took to qualify for the bar in New York state, he traveled widely and settled in Jacksonville, Illinois, just as the Prairie State was beginning to grow.


In 1834 he was admitted to the bar in Illinois and rose rapidly through the local Democratic party ranks.

Douglas served as state’s attorney in 1835 and as a member of the legislature in 1836, consistently championing railroads as a means of developing the economy of Illinois. In 1837, he lobbied for passage of the Internal Improvements Bill for the state, and railroad construction began. A line from the Illinois River Jacksonville was completed and later extended to the state capital at Springfield. However, the economic depression of 1837 plunged the state into debt, halting railroad building and causing Illinois to default on the loans obtained to develop a railroad network.

In 1846, Douglas entered the United States Senate and worked his way onto the powerful Committee on Territories. In 1850 he submitted a bill to Congress calling on the federal government to make a land grant to the State of Illinois to fund the proposed Illinois Central Railroad. This bill passed, granting the company alternate sections, six to the mile, to be sold to the public to encourage settlement. The company promised to pay the state a set rate of interest and to carry federal officials free of charge. To extend this line, which ran from Freeport to Cairo, to the Gulf of Mexico, a similar land grant was made to the Mobile and Ohio Railroad.

In recognition of his services promoting railroad construction, Douglas was one of the guests on the first train to run over the newly completed Erie Railroad in 1851. Three years later Douglas engineered passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act to organize the territories west of the Missouri River. He wished for the rapid settlement of the region, and Douglas thereby expected to convince Congress to select a central route for the first transcontinental railroad. Douglas intended this line to begin in Chicago, where he and his principal political backers owned land. The controversies surrounding this Act undermined his plans, however, and the transcontinental would not come to fruition until 1869, eight years after his death. He died in 1861, exhausted from years of labor and disillusioned by his loss in the presidential race of 1860 to Abraham Lincoln, but his dedication to promoting railroads left a lasting legacy.

For additional information, visit:

History.Com: Stephen Douglas

PBS: Stephen Douglas The Kansas-Nebraska Act

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