The U.S.-Mexican War propelled Stephen Douglas and Jefferson Davis to the pinnacles of power but triggered a new round of sectional conflict that shook the Democratic Party to its core. Davis’s celebrated military service won him a seat in the U.S. Senate, where he fought to protect slaveholders’ property rights throughout the nation’s massive new western domain. Douglas joined him in the Senate as the self-appointed spokesman for a vast western constituency stretching from the Great Lakes to the Pacific Ocean. As they attempted to govern the Mexican Cession and the Oregon Territory, Davis and Douglas grappled with portentous questions about democracy, property rights, and the Union. Douglas embraced popular sovereignty as a means to preserve white men’s self-government, but Davis denounced it as a cloaked free soil doctrine and demanded positive federal protection for property in human beings. Their conflict escalated until Douglas helped broker the Compromise of 1850. Douglas hailed the compromise as a permanent basis for sectional peace, while Davis’s dogged resistance to the measure briefly upended his career.
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