Ward Room
Covering Chicago's nine political influencers

Before Obama, the South Side's Favorite Son Was Stephen Douglas

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Before Obama, the South Side's Favorite Son Was Stephen Douglas

Two Chicago Democrats have been nominated for the presidency of the United States. Both lived in what is now Toni Preckwinkle's 4th Ward.

We all know about Barack Obama. The other is Stephen A. Douglas , who is buried under a 96-foot-tall monument on his old estate, Oakenwald, located on 35th Street, just west of Lake Shore Drive.

In one of local history’s great ironies, Douglas -- a man who defended slavery -- gave his name to the Douglas neighborhood, which became the heart of Chicago’s Black Belt.

His legacy creates a conundrum of sorts for Preckwinkle, who still deals with racial overtones today.

Douglas moved to Chicago in 1847, immediately after his election to the Senate. He settled on the South Side and immediately began buying up real estate. When Congress decided to build an east-west railroad, Douglas made a deal with the devil to bring it through Chicago. Southern senators wanted the railroad to run through their states, but Douglas bought them off by supporting the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which voided the Missouri Compromise by allowing new states to decide on slavery.

The new railroad made Chicago a metropolis. But the battles over slavery in Kansas and Nebraska hastened the Civil War. Douglas defeated Lincoln in the 1858 Senate election, but when both ran for president in 1860, Lincoln’s argument that the nation could not endure half-slave, half-free carried the day. Douglas was still trying to find middle ground when there was no middle ground left to stand on.

Fourth Ward alderman Toni Preckwinkle has mixed feelings about him, partly because Douglas was the architect of the Compromise of 1850, which included the worst law in American history, the Fugitive Slave Act.

“We were at the Abraham Lincoln Museum this week and one of the things that you’re reminded of is that basically, (Lincoln and Douglas) were the two sort of giants in the Midwest, political giants for the entire lives,“ Preckwinkle said. “I mean, they spent their lives battling each other and in the end, although I’m not a big fan of Stephen Douglas and his views on slavery, in the end, when the South seceded, he went around the country as a Democrat speaking in favor of preserving the union and supporting the president, and that actually ruined his health and he died.”

After Douglas’s death, in 1861, the state of Illinois set aside $75,000 to build a memorial that reflected the Little Giant’s stature as a politician. Although Douglas was only 5’4”, the bronze statue atop the pillar is nine feet tall. It gazes out over the city he helped make great, perhaps at the cost of his own greatness.

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