Burying the Bill

A contemporary map of the territories. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

A contemporary map of the territories. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

Whatever Sam Houston (123456), John Bell (123456789), Salmon P. Chase (1,2345678910), Charles Sumner, or William Seward said against it, the Kansas-Nebraska bill passed the Senate. Usually when slavery stepped into the limelight, getting bills through the Senate took more doing so one might think that Stephen Douglas had smooth sailing from the vote on the morning of March 4 over to Franklin Pierce’s desk. But the repeal of the Missouri Compromise turned the law from one that first proposed to open up land for new free states into a bill that opened land for new slave states. southern opposition, so powerful in the Senate, had successfully transformed a clean and relatively uncontroversial bill into the proslavery cause of the moment. Southern senators, save for Bell and Houston, lined up to vote for the valentine they wrote themselves.

That same dynamic worked the other way in the House, with its northern majority. The same passions that drove the Senate debate played out here. Salmon P. Chase’s Appeal of the Independent Democrats had the signatures of representatives on it and those men, if signing only for themselves, expressed broad fears in doing so. Fears about the slavepower, with its undue influence on national events thanks to the Senate and the 3/5 Compromise, combined smoothly with the fact that Douglas persisted in claiming that the nation abandoned the Missouri Compromise in 1850. The North as a whole had never done any such thing. Stephen Douglas himself knew that it hadn’t, but kept up the story. That could only make him look more suspect of secret plans. What really went on when Douglas went to F Street? Or to the White House? With the benefit of distance, we can see that Douglas engaged in relatively ordinary political horse trading but at the time and with the nation’s future very much in doubt, he had to look like an Accomplished Architect of Ruin.

The United States after the Kansas-Nebraska Act. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

The United States after the Kansas-Nebraska Act. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

And this from a Congress the North seated on a status quo platform? What happened to the finality of the Compromise acts? With northerners already chafing under the Fugitive Slave Act and the ways it forced them to compromise their democratic institutions in the name of slavery, they now had to accept yet more? While asked to swallow all of this, the North also had to deal with the spectacle of repeated attempts to steal Cuba (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), Nicaragua (1, 2, 3), and James Gadsden’s expedition to buy enough land from Mexico for still more slave states (1, 2, 3). If Kansas went for slavery, then with it and Missouri as a firewall New Mexico and Utah would soon adopt the institution. Gadsden’s newly purchased land would inevitably become a new slave state or states. From North of the Ohio river and the Mason-Dixon line, it looked very much like the South had commenced an open campaign to pack the Congress with slave states, undo the hard-fought status quo, and abolish free soil. If they took Kansas and Nebraska, why not Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, or Indiana?

If the South declared war on freedom, the North would fight. Northerners by and large had accepted a nation half free and half slave. Only a hated minority of abolitionists proposed uprooting slavery in states where it already existed. Now southern men would not give them the same courtesy. Few northern men would stand for that. They would not lightly sell their future or surrender their freedom to a band of slaveholding aristocrats, who would degrade their labor by putting it in competition with slave labor.

The northern majority in the House knew that.  On March 21, 1854, the House referred the Senate’s bill to committee. Normally it would go to the Committee on Territories, but the House referred it to the Committee of the Whole and buried it under a pile of other bills in the hope that it would never come to a vote. Maybe they could ride this all out.



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