Why did Atchison Surrender? Part Three

 

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Drink did not play a substantial role in Missouri senator David Rice Atchison’s sudden about-face on permitting Congress to organize a free territory of Nebraska to his state’s West, or at least no more role than it played in Bourbon Dave’s previous decision otherwise. His battle with Missouri’s ex-senator Thomas Hart Benton certainly did factor in. Having not so long before worked Missouri politics to oust Benton from his seat, Atchison had to know that Benton could use the same trick on him. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, and the rest of the radicals could fume from deeply enslaved states. Atchison lacked that luxury and knew it well enough that for a decade he chose to focus his objections to an organized Nebraska around the plight of the Indians that white settlement would displace and dispossess. That didn’t stop Bourbon Dave from inveighing against the Missouri Compromise, the Northwest Ordinance, the Wilmot Proviso, or just about anything else that limited slavery but could at least gave him a small measure of plausible deniability. He cared about the Indians, so Atchison couldn’t be a complete proslavery obsessive, right?

By 1853, Atchison had given up on caring about the Indians and, ostensibly, about having free soil on a third side of Missouri. Or had he? Say Douglas’ bill passed and a free Nebraska grew on Missouri’s western flank. Who would enforce the ban on slavery there? Atchison’s supporters in the Missouri river gray belt sat just across the border. They grew hemp and tobacco in areas immediately adjacent to the virgin lands that the bill would open to them, lands watered by the same river and enjoying the same climate. Would they really stay away? Most western migration came from areas directly adjacent to newly opened lands and for the future Kansas, that meant Missouri slave country. If planters came with their slaves, who would evict them?

Certainly not the Army, even if such an eviction would not have caused a firestorm. It tolerated quite well the illegal settlement of Missouri slaveholders and their supporters around Fort Leavenworth and likewise could stir itself to evict those free soil men who came across the river from Council Bluffs, Iowa. Under the Non-Intercourse Act of 1834, the Army had the power and legal responsibility to evict any whites settling in Indian country. In the March, 1853 debates all parties acknowledged that any settlers in the territory lived there illegally. Yet the Army did nothing. The new land would have no police and only a governor dispatched from Washington. If the Army would not remove the illegal settlers, would a future territorial government really evict legal settlers with illegal property?

Henry S. Geyer (Whig-MO)

Henry S. Geyer (Whig-MO)

Probably not. When the Northwest Ordinance barred slavery from the land north of the Ohio, it did not stop slaveholders from coming up out of Kentucky and Virginia with their human property and establishing rather Southern-style societies on the territory’s margins. Congress neglected to make any law to evict them and they arrived in Illinois in sufficient numbers that the Land of Lincoln came fairly close to making itself a slave state. Instead for some time it had black “apprentices”. Knowing that, and realizing the practical limits of federal writ in the sparsely populated West, Atchison could have simply expected slaveholders to do their work with or without legal sanction and steal Nebraska for slavery just as filibusters tried to steal Cuba, Nicaragua, parts of Mexico, and had successfully stolen Texas.

Whether or not Atchison had it in mind when he yielded before Douglas at the beginning of March, 1853, he took it on himself to lead the Missouri filibusters once the chance came a few years later. But for now, the time ran out on Douglas’ bill. Even with Bourbon Dave supporting the Little Giant, the measure went down 23-17, with the South opposed 19-2. Only his fellow Missourian, Henry S. Geyer, voted with Atchison.

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