David Rice Atchison returned to Missouri fresh off his surprising about face on permitting a free territory to his state’s west. There he found Missouri slaveholders quite irate. It appeared, as he joked in the Senate, that he had said too much. His old enemy, Thomas Hart Benton, insisted that Bourbon Dave had betrayed the South. This after ten long years of Atchison standing in the way of letting nonslaveholding Missourians settle Nebraska. Benton could argue that even in surrendering Atchison kept up his real opposition to a free Nebraska, as his vote did not move the South to drop its opposition to another free territory and left the land closed to white settlement. Whatever Bourbon Dave did, however he did it, Missouri lost. The state should do the sensible thing and replace Atchison with Benton in the Senate. Old Bullion, after all, came right out and told people he would not go to great lengths to save slavery any more than he would go to great lengths to destroy it.
Facing Benton’s assault from the right, left, and center, and the outrage of his own supporters, Atchison decided to revise his earlier calculations. He told Missouri that, whatever happened back in March in the Senate, he stood with the South and slavery. He emulated Benton’s campaign, taking to the stump to prove his bona fides. He would not suffer the risks of a free territory to Missouri’s west after all. Speaking in Weston, just over the river from the future Kansas, Atchison declared he would rather see the land “sink in hell” than see it free. His supporters agreed, writing to steel his resolve. One turned the racial and intellectual mores of nineteenth century America on their heads, proclaiming he preferred Indians to white abolitionists if he had his choice of neighbors. In the same speech he came out for a Pacific railroad reaching from Kansas City or St. Joseph, through the Kansas river valley. Supporters of a more northerly route, through the Platte valley and had lately courted Benton’s patronage and their illegal settlement opposite Council Bluffs endorsed his railroad vision.
All of this may sound very partisan and certainly Old Bullion and Bourbon Dave each yearned to prevail over the other come the 1854 elections. But both men understood their battle also as one about the future of the West and thus the future of the United States. If the rest of the West remained closed to slavery, it could only dwindle. Radical dreams to seize more of Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua, or other territory south of the border for slavery involved far more risk than securing the institution’s future on land already within the nation’s bounds. Even if Nebraska did not become a second Mississippi, lightly enslaved states could still produce proslavery radicals. Atchison only had to look in the mirror to know that. A new slave state would undo the loss from admitting California free and undivided. If the South could score a few more slave states, it could buy decades of insurance.
Benton knew all of that too. A free Nebraska would weaken slavery in Missouri, setting it on the road to extinction in the future. If Missouri could roll slavery back, why not Arkansas or Texas? The nation could quarantine slavery away from its future and over long years drown it out under a tide of free states without strife and without straining the Union. More urgently, radicals like Atchison provoked the North to new antislavery heights. They played with fire and would surely burn the Union if not put soundly in their place. The future of the nation depended on it.
Atchison bent over backwards to give Benton ammunition. He came out for repealing the Missouri Compromise. Their blood up, Missouri slaveholders agreed and a meeting pledged that should Congress open Nebraska to settlement they would bring slavery to it “whatever sacrifice of blood or treasure.”