Missouri Slaverholders Respond

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Things looked good for Stephen Douglas’ dream or organizing Indian country for the white race, the transcontinental railroad, for his investments in real estate, and for his political aspirations. Even if the South got its revenge for his amendment that killed a southern route for the Pacific railroad, a new Congress meant new opportunities and over the summer between the 32nd Congress adjourning and the 33rd beginning momentum seemed to swing in the Little Giant’s favor. Douglas could go home with high hopes of success in the winter.

David Rice Atchison went home too. There the spokesman of Missouri valley slaveholders found his neighbors not at all pleased with his calculated surrender. Submitting to a ban on slavery meant at least the silent implication that it soiled its practitioners. Did Bourbon Dave really expect them to take that? They should not have to skulk about and steal Kansas, or accept exclusion from land practically within sight of their Missouri plantations. As much as we struggle to imagine it now, many believed slavery right and good and took attacks on it as attacks on their own good character. Plenty of abolitionists, if not always for the same reasons we would cite today, certainly agreed.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

On top of the insult came practical fears: if the railroad ran through enslaved Missouri from free Illinois to free Nebraska, every passing train would invite slaves to hop on and steal themselves freedom. Free soil Nebraska would invite a flood of free soil northerners to rush up to their border on a third side with their slave-stealing and slave-inciting ways. How could they sleep at night if they knew thieving abolitionists lived just down the road and would inflame their slaves to murderous rebellion?

With the book finally closed on slavery west of Missouri, southern immigration to that state’s own lightly enslaved land would ebb and into the gap might come more whites who wanted no slaves, Benton’s kind of people, who threatened to demographically transform not just the unsettled territory but Missouri too. With slave property so insecure and demand flagging, prices would plunge. Slaveholders would have to sell out before the price got too low to minimize their losses, thus driving the price down even further and deporting the slaves down to the Lower South where prices would remain higher in an economic death spiral. In just a few short years, Missouri could turn into a free state in all but name.

Allan Nevins quotes the St. Louis Republican on the matter:

If Nebraska be made a free Territory then will Missouri be surrounded on three sides by free territory, where there will always be men and means to assist in the escape of our slaves. … With the emissaries of abolitionists around us, and the facilities of escape so enlarged, this species of property would become insecure, if not valueless, in Missouri. The Free-Soilers and Abolitionists look to this result, and calculate upon the facilities which will be offered by the incorporation of this Territory with a provision against slavery, as a means of abolishing slavery in Missouri. This is the more evident from a pamphlet recently issued in new York, thousands of which have been scattered over this States, urging the incorporation of Nebraska Territory, with a provision against the introduction of slave property into it; and in the same pamphlet the reelection of Col. Benton to the United States Senate is urged with the understanding that he would support such a measure. … If this scheme be accomplished, then it is not too much to say that six millions of property will be rendered valueless by this single act of legislation.

Bourbon Dave, their senator, wanted to call down the apocalypse on them. Their own man, a Missouri valley planter, would ruin them all. What did they cheer his ousting of Benton for, if not the same closet abolitionism Atchison now courted himself?

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