Bourbon Dave for a free Nebraska

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

However convenient or sincere, the anti-Nebraska contingent in Congress did not yield their scruples about the Constitution or the fate of the plains Indians lightly. But Stephen Douglas had been working on the issue for nearly a decade, his bills always carefully silent on slavery in the new territories and so leaving the Missouri Compromise in effect. Sessions might run out, but the 32nd Congress sat until March 4, 1854. The second session began on December 6, 1852 and would run until March 3, 1853. A short session made for a crowded calendar, but the House Committee on Territories reported out a bill organizing the Nebraska Territory in February.  The initial version called it the Territory of Platte, but the committee chair sent it on to the House as Nebraska. That chair, William A. Richardson, went a ways back with his friend Douglas. He occupied the seat Douglas vacated to join the Senate.

Like Douglas’ own past efforts, the House bill said nothing on slavery and so assumed the Missouri Compromise held. Proslavery Representatives would not stand for that, but even with slaves granting them 3/5 more people than their laws called human beings for most any other purpose the South had no majority to block it even if the region aligned unanimously against the expansion of free soil. The vote came down 98-43 (69.50% in favor) but that lopsided majority came from 80 (81%) northerners. The South supplied 30 (69.77%) against the bill. The House could pass a constitutional amendment with that solid a majority, much to the horror of Calhoun in his final days.

Douglas put the matter before the Senate on February 17, 1853. It went on the calendar for the final day of the session and reached the Senate that night, amid the usual rush and confusion of a session’s final moments. Thomas Rusk (D-TX), of railroad bill fame, rose at once to object:

I hope that bill will not be taken up. It will lead to discussion beyond all question.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Someone had to say it. Taking his cue, David Rice Atchison rose to speak:

Perhaps there is not a State in the Union more deeply interested in this question than the State of Missouri. If not the largest, I will say the best portion of that territory, perhaps the only portion of it that in half a century will become a State, lies immediately west of the state of Missouri. It is only a question of time whether we will organize the territory at this session of Congress, or whether we will do it at the next session; and for my own part I acknowledge now, as the Senator from Illinois well knows, when I came to this city, at the beginning of the last session, I was perhaps as much opposed to the proposition as the Senator from Texas now is. The Senator from Iowa knows it; and it was for reasons which I will not now mention or suggest. But, sir, I have upon reflection and investigation in my own mind and from the opinions of others -my constituents whose opinions I am bound to respect- come to the conclusion that now is the time for organization of this Territory.

Did Missouri’s unlikely proslavery radical really assent to free soil on three sides of his state? The bill before the Senate would wrap enslaved Missouri, including its most heavily enslaved portions, in a coat of free soil to which those slaves could steal themselves. Had the man who pushed Thomas Hart Benton out of the Senate for his insufficient fealty to slavery now turned around and decided his old enemy had the right of it after all?

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