Stephen Douglas’ plan, however unusual, to use a volunteer military force to settle the Indian country hit a wall in early 1852. What about the Indians? They had the legal title to the land and the United States at least maintained a fiction that Indian tribes counted for something like separate nations which it had some duty to treat as equals. Texans in the House, who rarely entertained such scruples, suddenly discovered a passionate concern for the rights of those Indian tribes to their lands. Backers of the southern route for the Pacific railroad had not given up the ghost and happily opposed the measure on the grounds that if they could not have their railroad, nobody could have a railroad.
And what about slavery? In 1820, the Missouri Compromise barred slavery forever from the land Douglas would make into the Nebraska Territory. Thirty years on, a compromise passed by giants that had only just departed the Congress and gone to their graves and in the presence of surviving Founding Fathers had a sacred gloss about it. President James Monroe polled his Cabinet on the issue. They came out in support of the compromise’s restriction on slavery. Among them sat Monroe’s Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun. When the Mexican Cession and the Oregon Country came into the United States, conservatives flocked to the idea of simply extending the Missouri Compromise line to the ocean. The Polk administration supported it. Stephen Douglas stood for it in the House. Much of the South, as late as 1848, saw the line Henry Clay drew across the West as a suitable, constitutional, and final settlement on slavery.
The free soilers would not stand for the line any longer. In that, they certainly upset the status quo. Past generations of historians have painted Wilmot and his proviso as a gratuitous provocation that prompted proslavery men to rethink their interpretation of the Constitution. They did, but the same proslavery men also demanded the annexation of enslaved Texas with its claims well above the Compromise line. They upset it still further by annexing Texas by joint resolution instead of treaty and by taking it in as a state instead of having it pass through some stage of territorial administration that might have included revising its borders to better conform to the Compromise line. One need not have a modern person’s loathing of slavery to see proslavery politicians playing fast and loose with the established order well before Wilmot.
By 1852, many proslavery men followed Calhoun in deciding that the Constitution granted Congress no power at all over slavery in the territories. Quite the opposite! As the Union consisted of equal states, which held the territories as their joint property, excluding slavery meant excluding Southerners. That exclusion meant inequality and rejected the very foundation on which the government, the white South now discovered, rested. One could not make the identification of the South with slavery any more explicit than that. They opposed Douglas’ bill on those grounds and the session ran out before the Little Giant could find a way around them or a way to please them.
Forget picking a railroad route; Congress couldn’t even get a bill through to organize the land to build it on.