Tomb of Stephen A. Douglas
The 96-ft tall tomb that towers over the shore of Lake Michigan is the final resting place of Stephen A. Douglas, famous Illinois politician and rival of Abraham Lincoln. During his lifetime, Douglas was a powerful political figure not only in Illinois but in the rest of the United States. His tomb is now an Illinois State Historic Site, as well as a Chicago Landmark and a member of the National Register of Historic Places. Visitors can come and see the tomb on weekends from 9 to 5.
Backstory and Context
Stephen A. Douglas was born in Vermont in 1813 but, after studying law at the Canandaigua Academy in New York, moved to Illinois, where he opened his a law practice in the town of Jacksonville. Not long thereafter, Douglas entered the political arena; Douglas was elected to the state legislature in 1836. He went on to become a judge for the Illinois Supreme Court and member of the U.S. House of Representatives. Douglas gained a reputation as an eloquent and passionate public speaker. His speeches proved to be quite persuasive and compelling, and he soon gained the nickname "Little Giant" because of his small stature yet powerful presence.
Douglas demonstrated his deft political skills in his work towards securing a northern route for the Transcontinental Railroad, helping Chicago become a important train hub. His dealings simultaneously provided the town of Omaha a terrific opportunity to grow into a major city -- Omaha now exists in Douglas County for that reason. Douglas had a long history of involvement of railroad matters and invested heavily in Chicago's railroads. Thus, it is no surprise that he was a proponent of Chicago serving as the hub for a trans-continental railroad. As far back as 1845, when Douglas was a member of the US Congress, a New York merchant, Asa Whitney, proposed, on numerous occasions a railroad plan to the US Congress that would connect the Michigan railroads to Milwaukee – crossing Lake Michigan. Douglas passionately responded to the proposal in an open letter to Asa Whitney. Douglas stated that he was “unable to comprehend the reasons which induce you to fix your starting point at Milwaukee” and later argued that crossing Lake Michigan meant the trains would “be interrupted by ice about four months in the year, and during that time, the connexion [sic] with the Atlantic cities destroyed."1 Instead, he proposed a plan where trains from the East and West would converge in Chicago. Douglas also proposed the establishment of the Nebraska Territory and allowing a train to traverse it to the Rocky Mountains, then beyond to the Pacific.2 That plan failed in 1845, and again in 1853. However, by 1854, he had worked several railroad deals that benefited Chicago, often with the backing of New York businessmen – Chicago’s growth benefited New York.3
Also, in 1854, Douglas offered the South a deal when he proposed to split the Nebraska territory into two territories and let “popular sovereignty" dictate each territory's fate regarding the allowance of slavery. The possibility of enhanced political power with the addition of a new slave state enticed the southern states to vote yes on the measure. In return, Douglas helped secure a northern route for the Trans Continental Railroad. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, as it came to be known, explicitly repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820.4 , The results of this controversial act compounded the slave-expansion problem facing the U.S. since the late 1848 acquisition of land from Mexico after the US-Mexican War. The Kansas-Nebraska Act created political and regional upheaval that eventually propelled the country to civil war.
However, Douglas' name more famously is attached to his debates with his political rival, Abraham Lincoln, which started while the two men were running for the same position as United States Senator from Illinois in 1858. Douglas won the race and held the senate job until his death.
Lincoln and Douglas faced each other again during the heated presidential election of 1860. This time Douglas had to compete with two other candidates though, and Lincoln easily won the race. As the southern states began to secede from the Union after the election, Douglas fought hard to keep the country together, making speeches about the importance of the Union remaining intact and backing Lincoln when the Civil War began. However, Douglas died in 1861, only two months after the firing on Fort Sumter. He was buried in Chicago near Lake Michigan.
His tomb, which was designed by the sculptor Leonard Volk, began construction in 1866 and was completed in 1881. It contains a stone mausoleum, which houses a sarcophagus of marble from Vermont, bronze statues representing history, eloquence, and justice, and 46-ft columnn with a statue of Douglas on top of it. The park around the tomb can be visited any time of day, but visitors wanting to look inside the tomb must come during hours of operation. Staff at the tomb are available to answer any questions. ..
1 Robert W. Johannsen ed., The Letters of Stephen A. Douglas (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1961), 127-129. 2 Ibid., 131. 3 William Cronon, Nature’s Metropolis:Chicago and the Great West (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1991), 70. 4 The Missouri Compromise of 1820 forbade slavery north of 36 degrees, 36 minutes. Essentially, that latitude coincides with the Missouri-Arkansas border. Kansas was (and is) located north of that line. Additional Sources: "Northeast Region: Doulgas Tomb." Illinois Historic Preservation Agency. Accessed June 1, 2016. http://www.illinois.gov/ihpa/Experience/Sites/Northeast/Pages/Douglas-Tomb.aspx "Stephen Doulgas." Ohio History Central. Accessed June 1, 2016. http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Stephen_Douglas