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Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
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Sunday, March 3

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"Senator Douglas is of world-wide renown. All the anxious politicians of his party, or who have been of his party for years past, have been looking upon him as certainly, at no distant day, to be the President of the United States. They have seen in his round, jolly, fruitful face, post offices, land offices, marshalships, and cabinet appointments, chargeships and foreign missions, bursting and sprouting out in wonderful exuberance ready to be laid hold of by their greedy hands."
-- Abraham Lincoln, in a speech at Springfield, IL, July 17, 1858.

Stephen Arnold Douglas was born in Brandon, Vermont, on April 23, 1813. As a boy, he apprenticed for several years to a cabinetmaker, but he took an early interest in politics and left the cabinetmaking trade to go to school and study law.

In 1833, he left Vermont and headed west, eventually settling in Jacksonville, Illinois, where he was admitted to the bar in 1834. Just two years later, Douglas was elected to the state legislature, beginning his long career as a politician. In 1840 he was appointed to the Illinois Supreme Court, becoming, at age 28, the youngest judge to sit on the state's highest court. Then, in 1843, he became one of the youngest members of Congress when he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

During his two terms as a congressman, Douglas quickly established himself as a leader of the Democratic Party. He was a firm believer in the idea of Manifest Destiny, supporting the annexation of Texas and the westward expansion of the country. It was also during the negotiations to annex Texas that Douglas began to formulate his doctrine of Popular Sovereignty which held that the status of a state seeking admittance to the U.S. as either a slave or free state should be determined by the settlers themselves. This doctrine was fully realized in 1854 with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill.

In the early 1840s, Douglas also began investing in Chicago real estate, purchasing 70 acres of land along Lake Michigan between the present day 31st through 35th Streets, now part of the Bronzeville neighborhood. He built his estate, named Oakenwald, at 34 E. 35th Street. In keeping with his expansionist beliefs, Douglas was a strong supporter of the development of the first transcontinental railway, and he reaped the benefits of his real estate investments when he sold part of his land to the Illinois Central Railroad.

Douglas was first elected senator in 1847, but it is his re-election campaign in 1858 for which he is perhaps best remembered today. The Republican candidate for the Illinois senate seat that year was Abraham Lincoln, and Douglas engaged Lincoln in a series of debates around Illinois, now collectively known simply as the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Although Douglas won his re-election that year, the debates are remembered for gaining Lincoln national prominence. Two years later, Douglas and Lincoln would face off again as candidates for President, and I hope I don't have to tell you how that ended.

Stephen A. Douglas died in Chicago in 1861 at the age of 48. He was initially buried in a brick vault at his Oakenwald estate on 35th Street. Plans for the monumental Stephen A. Douglas tomb that now stands on the former site of his estate began shortly after his death, but the tomb wasn't completed until 1881. The granite structure was designed by sculptor Leonard Volk and consists of a 46-foot column topped by a nearly 10-foot-tall statue of Douglas. Four bas-reliefs depicting scenes from his life cover the base of the monument, and sculptures symbolizing the four pillars of Douglas's life (History, Justice, Eloquence and Illinois) sit at each corner of the tomb.

The tomb, officially located at 636 E. 35th Street, is open daily to visitors from 9am to 5pm but closed on holidays.


Bernstein, Arnie. Hoofs and Guns of the Storm: Chicago's Civil War Connections. Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 2003.

Hucke, Matt. Douglas Memorial Park. Information about Douglas and his tomb from the companion website to Graveyards of Chicago.

Hucke, Matt and Ursula Bielski. Graveyards of Chicago: The People, History, Art and Lore of Cook County Cemeteries. Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 1999.

Lincoln-Douglas Debates. Read the full text of the speeches of the Lincoln-Douglas debates courtesy of

Chicago Authors: First Lines

"Nine times out of ten, I'm a nice guy. I believe in nonviolence, intellectual discourse, artistic freedom and all that other jazz. Though I wouldn't go so far as to say I'm open-minded. Like I tell my comrade, Sarah, open-mindedness can be a crutch. And objective distance? That's a sucker's game."
--Isaac Adamson, from Hokkaido Popsicle

Isaac Adamson is the author of the cult-hit Billy Chaka novels which include Tokyo Suckerpunch, Hokkaido Popsicle and Dreaming Pachinko. He grew up in Fort Collins, Colorado but is currently residing in Chicago. You can find out more at

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Andrew / April 8, 2004 4:09 PM

I had no idea Stephen Douglas was buried here. I assumed he was somewhere downstate.

Alice / April 8, 2004 4:45 PM

Ha. I'm glad I'm not the only one. I didn't know either until I happened across a mention of it and thought, Wha-?, which, of course, in my mind meant it would make a perfect column topic since I admit I often use this space as a way to correct my own embarrassing ignorance about Chicago history. :)


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