Why did Atchison Surrender? Part Two

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

On March 3, 1853, Missouri’s proslavery radical in the Senate, David Rice Atchsion, unexpectedly yielded his previous objections to organizing Nebraska to his state’s west as free soil. The Missouri Compromise required just that and Stephen Douglas’ frequent bills to organize the land left it in place. Atchison rejected the Missouri Compromise and the Northwest Ordinance before it for their restrictions on slavery, a power he thought the Constitution sanctioned no more than it did cancelling elections. Even when Atchison surrendered, as he put it, to the inevitable white settlement, he reiterated his objections. He could not help that Congress had barred slavery and saw no hope of ever rolling back the prohibition.

Fair enough, but Atchison could have delayed the inevitable. He could have done as and the rest of the South’s senators preferred and left Nebraska permanently unorganized and in the hands of the Indians. That would inevitably have meant the Pacific railroad ran through the Lower South, a prospect much appreciated by the pocketbooks of certain investors. Without Nebraska, the railroad had nowhere else to cross the continent. But that would also have put the railroad outside Atchison’s Missouri. That may have factored into Old Bourbon’s surrender, as the central route for a transcontinental railroad put him in the very unusual position of agreeing with Thomas Hart Benton.

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton (D-MO)

Benton might have the answer. Atchison forced him out of the Senate, but Benton lacked the generosity in defeat to lay down and die or, at the very least, to retire. He won a seat in the House and came right back to Washington. Benton knew Atchison had to stand for reelection in 1854 and Old Bullion would love nothing more than to return to the Senate by knocking Atchison off his perch there. He still had plenty of friends and supporters in Missouri, men who didn’t much care for Atchison’s Lower South style of slavery agitation. By forcing Benton out, Atchison painted a target on his back and gave his enemies plenty of ammunition.

Atchison could count on Missouri’s proslavery elements. By ousting Benton he gave them the biggest victory they could hope for in state politics. He could afford to disappoint them some by moderating his stance on Nebraska. Who would they support instead? Benton, to their minds a closet abolitionist? Not likely. Bourbon Dave could hope to neutralize some of Benton’s attacks on him by going soft on Nebraska and maybe even pick up some of his less devoted supporters. Easing up, at least temporarily, in a situation where Atchison could plausibly claim precedent tied his hands made good political sense and a man with the skills to organize the bipartisan movement to oust Benton had to see the opportunity. He stood to lose little to nothing by yielding this once.

Political calculation makes much more sense than finding Atchison’s reasons at the bottom of his bottle. It fits with the tenor of Missouri politics and with Benton’s continued presence and threat to him. Though they often expressed themselves in dogmatic tones, even the most extreme proslavery politicians could make hard choices and sacrifice stated principles for practical gains. If Calhoun could both preach states’ rights and demand Congress force Northern states to censor their mail, or inveigh against internal improvements but support a Pacific railroad that dwarfed all the rest, Bourbon Dave could curse restrictions on slavery with one breath and give join the yeas for organizing a new free territory with the next.

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