Kansas-Nebraska: The House Votes

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward in 1851

The fight for Kansas-Nebraska, with the Missouri Compromise repeal, began in the Senate in January of 1854. It wore on through February and into March before the Senate finally adopted the bill with a lopsided 37-14 margin, with only two southern Senators voting against it. The House promptly buried the bill under fifty others in the face of Northern outrage not just from the usual free soil suspects, but also from sober state governments, immigrants, and Northern clergy. For the first time, antislavery men had a genuine mass movement on their hands. But Stephen Douglas would not accept defeat after coming so close. Nor would the radicals who forced him into the repeal. Amid strife that came very near to actual violence, Alexander Stephens applied whip and spur on top of the patronage that Franklin Pierce dispensed to build a majority and table bill after bill until at last Kansas-Nebraska reached the top of the House’s schedule on May 22, 1854.

Fifteen days of debate had not cooled any passions, but the vote at last came. By a majority of thirteen votes, 113-100, the House approved the Kansas-Nebraska Act. That put the law into action, but the House that voted for it had a 156 sitting Democrats for a hefty 66.67% majority. Of those Democrats, only 101 voted aye. The other twelve votes came from southern Whigs. Without them, the vote would have turned the other way. As one would expect, the vote came in highly sectional. Northern Democrats supported the bill 44-42. The southern Democracy lined up 57-2. All northern Whiggery followed Seward in voting against it. Once again, the South’s disciplined majority proved able to force through legislation the more divided national majority opposed.

Caleb Cushing

Caleb Cushing

The Democracy could call that a win. Once more it proved to the South that it best protected the interests of slavery. But with the weight of the party machinery behind the bill, with Alexander Stephens breaking parliamentary kneecaps, Franklin Pierce greasing palms with patronage, Jefferson Davis and Caleb Cushing standing in the wings brandishing blackjacks the Democracy still nearly lost the thing. That kind of victory augured poorly for the party’s future, especially with so many of its newspapers in open rebellion and its Northern wing badly divided. A party might expect some defections on a controversial bill, but having made it a test of party loyalty the Democracy would ordinarily expect a healthy majority still. It found out then just how far that loyalty went in the face of Kansas-Nebraska: miles and miles in the South but a majority barely wider than a razor in the North.

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

And for what? Southerners knew that the bill they passed equivocated on slavery. The Missouri Compromise went into the dustbin of history, but a clear win for slavery did not replace it. A territorial government that could vote slavery in could also vote slavery out. Virginia’s John Singleton Millson, who joined Thomas Hart Benton as the lone southern Democrats who voted against the bill, cast his vote on those grounds. However much he wanted the unconstitutional Missouri Compromise done away with, the South accepted it because it also reserved to slavery new territories south of Missouri. Kansas-Nebraska did none of that. For all its exertions, the southern section won no guarantee, but only a potential win and a potential loss.

To enrage and unite the North undermined the South’s key advantage of unity in national politics. If the northern majority flexed its muscles on sectional lines as the South long had, the region had good reason to fear for the future of its central institution. A permanent majority could dictate almost any terms to a permanent minority, and the South risked bringing just that about in the name of securing only a chance at slavery in Kansas.

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