Why did Atchison Surrender? Part One

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Stephen Douglas rushed his bill to organize the Nebraska Territory with slavery unmentioned, and thus excluded by the Missouri Compromise, into the eleventh hour of the short second session of the 32nd Congress. He found unexpected help in the person of David Rice Atchison, ordinarily a proslavery extremist. When historical figures change their positions suddenly, just as with modern politicians, one must wonder why. Past bills died due to lack of Southern support in the Senate precisely because the Missouri Compromise forbade slavery on the lands. While Missouri slaveholders, and their senator, had the most keenly personal felt and personal reasons to stand against such a bill they hardly stood alone.

What happened to Bourbon Dave? The answer might come from his nickname. Atchison liked his whiskey. The late hour, the rush, and the more freewheeling spirit toward the end of a session all argue that he might have lubricated his principles a bit more than usual. It would make for a good story but like historical interpretations that reset on the people in question lacking brainpower, I hesitate to adopt it. People of less than stellar intellectual powers often rise to prominence and sometimes their limitations do matter a great deal, but we do them and ourselves a disservice to assume any act that we can’t immediately explain arises from the actors’ limitations alone. To say it bluntly: even the most foolish or most vice-ridden people can have reasons aside their faults for what they do. We don’t assume Atchison found reason to support slavery in his bottle. Why would we assume it of the contrary?

That said, in all fairness Atchison might have wondered himself. In the same speech where Bourbon Dave declared his reluctant surrender to the inevitable settling, and thus organization, of Nebraska, he wandered off to commend the people of eastern Tennessee who he saw as likely settlers and then:

I have said about as much as I intended to say, and a great deal more.

The Congressional Globe reports laughter. Could the other senators present hear some slurring, spot a sway in Atchison’s step, or smell him from across the room? Possibly, but they could also take Atchison’s line as a joke about his own long-winded oration. Furthermore, with the clock running out every minute Atchison spoke could reduce the odds of the bill reaching a vote before midnight when the session expired. Bourbon Dave might have meant just what he said: that he went on too long and inadvertently undermined himself.

Atchison certainly exerted enough effort in supporting the bill that we can dismiss his position as insincere. Thomas Rusk of Texas objected that clearing the Indians from Nebraska would force them down on south where they would then

scalp the women and children upon the borders of Texas.

Bourbon Dave answered that Texas could trust the Indians living beside Missouri, Arkansas, and Iowa. They did not raid or otherwise menace whites of any age or sex. In fact, they made a buffer between white America and the wild plains Indians that Rusk really ought to fear.

If Atchison changed his mind only for show, why engage the objections instead of leaving that to Stephen Douglas? Others can disagree, and I defer to the experts,  but on the balance it seems more likely that Atchison made a calculated, sincere decision to support the bill and organize a free Nebraska at the close of the 32nd Congress.

But if not drink, then what prompted Atchison to throw in with Douglas? More on that tomorrow.

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