Kansas-Nebraska: The Fight in the House

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton (D-MO)

Stephen Douglas, with Franklin Pierce’s help, committed the Democracy to passing his Kansas-Nebraska Act despite the House’s delaying tactics. They put the party machinery to work, twisting arms and greasing wheels with patronage. By May 8, Douglas thought he had a majority and opted to dig Kansas-Nebraska out of its legislative grave by bringing up and tabling all fifty bills ahead of it. That dragged on for fifteen days. The speeches meant probably even less in the House than they did in the Senate as the larger body inherently reduces the influence of each ordinary member, but each speech consumed time and every hour spent debating meant one less hour of the session spent voting on the bill. But they spoke anyway. Politicians must register their approval or disapproval and many men considered vital principles at stake.

Thomas Hart Benton, still convinced the agitation on slavery brought no good to either section, proceeded to burn all the bridges he might have taken to regain his Senate seat:

What is the excuse for all this turmoil and mischief? We are told it is to keep the question of slavery out of Congress! Great God! It was out of Congress completely, entirely, and forever out of Congress, unless Congress dragged it in by breaking down the sacred laws which settled it! The question was settled and done with. There was not an inch square in the Union on which it could be raised without a breach of compromise.

Congressional non-interference, to which Douglas and others insisted they aspired, Congress had achieved in 1850. Between the Northwest Ordinance, the Missouri Compromise, the territorial acts for Oregon, Utah, and New Mexico, and California’s statehood, Congress completely settled the matter. Only by breaking past compacts could Congress interfere in slavery. So why did it need to pass this new law touching on slavery, if Congress wanted only to keep its hands off slavery?

Benton had the facts with him and for four hours held forth against the signature issue of his home state, knowing very well that the Missouri legislature would never send him back to the Senate after all of this. But Benton put a bullet into Andrew Jackson back in the day. He could take a frustrated ambition in the twilight of his life. Old Bullion got a bit more than that when his district declined to reelect him and then Missouri at large rejected him for governor in 1856.

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens (Former Whig, now Constitutional Unionist-GA)

Douglas himself took the floor on occasion. Georgia’s, and the Georgia Platform’s, Alexander Stephens served as the parliamentary manager and chief debater on his side. Gaunt and bloodless, Georgia planter cut a strange figure. He lacked the eloquence and wit that other politicians of his age reveled in. He replaced it with direct, cold, dry recitations of facts and logical dissections, like Mr. Spock by way of the nineteenth century. The cold exterior hid a bitter partisan who, in his own words, applied whip and spur to force Kansas-Nebraska through.

Stephens informed the House that the South never accepted the Missouri Compromise. Back in 1820 the sections did not have a meeting of the minds; the North plainly defeated the South and forced its will upon the section. When the North would not take that victory for enough in 1850 and extend the 36°30′ line to the Pacific, the South considered the treaty broken and itself free to reopen the issue. Each place should choose for itself, as 1820 and 1850 proved how poorly Congress chose. Furthermore, Stephens pressed, the North, with its immigrant-fattened population twice that of the South, would surely have every advantage in populating new territories. Did Northern men think their constituents too lazy to win such a slanted fight? The South essentially conceded fighting at a great disadvantage and the North would not even accept the contest then. What would it take?

Despite all the screws to which Pierce, Davis, Cushing, and Douglas put to the Northern Democracy, everyone knew they contended over a small number of votes. The tension running so high and a win at least conceivable for both sides, restraint went out the window. A group trying to run a filibuster openly taunted various Southerners. They returned the favor. At one point an angry crowd surrounded the ringleader, Ohio’s Lewis D. Campbell, weapons drawn. Others restrained a Virginia member from playing some chin music on him. The Speaker, Kentucky’s Linn Boyd, intervened just in time to order the arrest of the Virginian by the sergeant-at-arms and adjourn before someone could spill blood.

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