Once Upon a Time

Stephen A. Douglas' 1843 victory was hard fought

Stephen A. Douglas rented this house at Third and York streets while working as a circuit judge in Quincy. | Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County
Posted: Aug. 1, 2020 12:01 am Updated: Aug. 1, 2020 11:46 pm

This is the first article in a series of three about Stephen A. Douglas.


On the chilly morning in November 1843 that he left his rented home at Third and York in Quincy for Washington, D.C., 30-year-old Stephen A. Douglas checked to make sure he had with him his prized possession.

It was his "Certificate of Election to the U.S. House of Representatives," which Illinois Secretary of State Thompson Campbell had signed to verify his election over Quincy lawyer Orville Hickman Browning in August. It was the credential he would need to be seated a U.S. representative when the 28th Congress convened in December.

Browning had represented the Whig Party and Douglas the Democrats in that election. It was considered the hardest-fought campaign of the seven congressional races in Illinois that year. For 40 days beginning in mid-June to the election on Aug. 7, they traveled together, dined together, lodged together and debated each other daily for up to five hours. At Browning's insistence, Sundays were excluded.

Their joint debates extended over the 11 counties of the Fifth Congressional District, Illinois' largest, in Western Illinois. Each man considered the other formidable. They had known each other since they served in the Tenth General Assembly at Vandalia in 1835 and 1836. Along with state representatives Abraham Lincoln and John Todd Stuart of Sangamon County, they lodged at the same boardinghouse. Douglas was a representative from Morgan County and Browning a senator from Adams County. Each was alarmed by the mania for public works that was capped by a statewide internal improvements convention that met at the Vandalia statehouse a few days before the Assembly convened in December 1835. Each opposed the plan of Lincoln and his Sangamon County colleagues to turn the demand for projects to their advantage. Lincoln's "Long Nine," so called because their average height was over 6 feet, gave their votes to every public works project for each elected representative who promised in return to vote to move the state capital to Springfield.

The Sangamon delegation won the capital but nearly bankrupted the state in doing so. It took Gov. Thomas Ford, a prosecutor in Quincy between 1830 and 1835 and elected governor in 1842, with Douglas' help, to find a way to keep the state from bankruptcy and restore its credit.

Fiscally conservative, Browning was one of eight state senators who voted against internal improvements. Douglas had attempted to stall Lincoln's logrolling but was outmaneuvered. Douglas' chokehold on Lincoln was his threat to reveal a promise Lincoln made to his constituents that he failed to keep. Lincoln trumped him, however, by telling Douglas' project-hungry constituents that their legislator was not representing their interests. Morgan County voters sent Douglas an "instruction" to vote for internal improvements or resign. Under the Jacksonian "doctrine of instruction" of the time, Douglas had to do one or the other. Ambitious and with the scent of higher office in his nostrils, he voted for internal improvements.

Browning used that vote against Douglas during their congressional campaign of 1843. As the Democratic leader, Browning charged, Douglas was largely responsible for internal improvement costs that burdened the state. Douglas responded that he had tried to slow the logrolling in Vandalia and argued that he had voted only as his constituents had instructed. Browning repeated the charge at every stop.

Browning envied the rapport Douglas had with his audiences and regretted that he was unable to emulate it. As a circuit judge in Quincy, Douglas for nearly three years had traveled throughout the circuit's 11 counties. His judicial district's boundaries were similar to the congressional district's.

He had a capacious memory for the names of nearly every person he met on his circuit and every baby whose forehead he kissed. He had learned how sweetly their own names sounded to his constituents and how grateful they were to the politician who could remember them. He knew why his constituents were attached to him.

In an autobiographical sketch, Douglas wrote, "I live with my constituents, eat with my constituents, drink with them, lodge with them, pray with them, laugh, hunt, dance and work with them. I eat their corn dodgers and fried bacon and sleep two in a bed with them."

That was not in Browning's character. Although he was well known and a highly esteemed lawyer, there was an air of superiority about him that he could not shake, even when he exchanged his ruffled-sleeved white shirts for Kentucky blue denim. Browning was not loved, said Gustave Koerner, a leading German immigrant who served with him in the Legislature.

Browning and Douglas finished the campaign with debates in Liberty, Clayton, Houston and Marcelline. Browning admitted that he was exhausted. The Quincy Whig reported he had taken to bed "dangerously ill." The newspaper complained that the Democrats were circulating a rumor that Browning had died.

Legislative redistricting that followed Illinois' booming population denied the almost 5,000 Mormon votes that Prophet Joseph Smith had promised Douglas in 1841. The southern border of Hancock County was drawn as the boundary between the Fifth and the new Sixth Congressional District. Though Douglas did not get those votes, he persuaded Smith to deliver them to Democrat Joseph Hoge, who won in the Sixth District.

Fifth District voters chose Douglas by 461 votes, 8,641 to 8,180. It was the narrowest margin of victory of the congressional contests. Douglas' Democrats won every congressional seat except the First's, where his old nemesis John J. Hardin of Jacksonville, a nephew of Henry Clay, won. Browning won Adams County by 358 votes.

As they began their 1843 contest, Browning and Douglas promised each other they would not violate "courtesies and proprieties of life." They would not allow their campaigns to become personal. Years later, as a U.S. senator, Browning in his eulogy at Douglas' death on June 3, 1861, remembered their 1843 campaign.

"I am proud to say that the compact was kept on both sides. During the campaign, not one unkind word or discourteous act passed between us and we closed the canvass with the friendly relations which had previously subsisted undisturbed, and maintained them, without interruption, to the day of his death."


Reg Ankrom is a member of the Historical Society of Quincy and Adams County. He is a local historian, author of a prize-winning biography of U.S. Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, and a frequent speaker on Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and antebellum America. His second book about Douglas will be published this year.



Ankrom, Reg. "Stephen A. Douglas: The Political Apprenticeship, 1833-1843." Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland Publishing Co., 2015, pp. 88, 182-184.


"Quincy's Gov. Ford Saves State's Reputation," Quincy Herald-Whig. April 15, 2014, p. 5.


Baxter, Maurice Baxter. "Orville H. Browning." Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1957, pp. 43, 44, 51.


Browning, Orville Hickman. "Address of Mr. Browning of Illinois," Addresses on the Death of Hon. Stephen A. Douglas, Delivered in the Senate and House of Representatives on Tuesday, July 9, 1861. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1861, p. 27.


Ford, Thomas. "A History of Illinois from Its Commencement as a State in 1818 to 1847." Chicago: Lakeside Press, 1945, p. 2:154.


Miller, Richard Lawrence. "Lincoln and His World: Prairie Politician, 1834-1842." Mechanicsburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 2008, p. 103.


Milton, George Fort. "Eve of Conflict: Stephen A. Douglas and the Needless War." Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1934, p. 21.


Pease, Theodore Calvin. "Illinois Election Returns, 1818-1848." Springfield: Illinois State Historical Society, 1923, p. 139.


Pratt, Harry E. "The Division of Sangamon County," Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. Springfield: Phillips Brothers Printers, 1954, p. 403.


Quincy Daily Whig, Aug. 9, 1843, p. 2.


Simon, Paul. "Lincoln's Preparation for Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years." Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971, p. 90.