David Rice Atchison and his F Street housemates dug their feet in against Stephen Douglas’ bill to organize the Indian country as Nebraska Territory. Congress reserved that land to freedom under the Missouri Compromise thirty years before and for that reason the South had spent most of a decade killing any bill that would open it to white settlement and thus make it into free states down the road. But by 1854 they must have felt like they swam against the tide of history. Some settlers from Missouri and Iowa already lived on the land illegally. The West, at the time meaning the states bordering the Mississippi, clamored for a railroad to the Pacific and the rest of the nation largely wanted to give it to them. They needed only agree on the specifics. Against that tide, Atchison himself briefly yielded at the end of the last Congress. But he returned, after getting an earful from his angry constituents, committed to stopping Douglas unless he could collect a pound of flesh for slavery.
By 1854, the Democracy had withered in the North. It did not have the same degree of problem that the Whigs did in the South, but by proving itself the safest party for slavery it had alienated many of its Northern supporters. The party’s decline in the North put men like Douglas increasingly at the mercy of proslavery extremists like Atchison. As the party’s rising star in the North, the Little Giant did not make it his business to crusade against them. He cared little about slavery and so yielding to its advocates cost him nothing personally. Politics requires uncomfortable compromises, but a compromise that advanced slavery didn’t even amount to that for Douglas. He needed only give ground on something unimportant to him to get what he really wanted: the West opened to white settlement. Furthermore, in opposing the Missouri Compromise prohibition on slavery, Atchison appealed to Douglas on grounds he had long supported: popular sovereignty.
Putting on Douglas’ shoes for a moment, this looks less like a hard bargain than a great deal. Douglas gets what he really wants though a just slightly altered means and then gets more on top of it by having his favorite doctrine adopted as the law of the land. No fool, Douglas knew that appeasing F Street would have some political costs in the North. He underestimated those costs, but he knew enough to sound out ways to make his bill acceptable to F Street and the South without also burning all the bridges in the North. The man who managed passage of the Armistice had sailed those waters before and could do it again.
On January 4, 1854, Douglas’ committee reported out not Iowa Senator Dodge’s bill that had begun the previous March as Illinois Senator Douglas’ bill, but rather a new measure entirely. It would organize Nebraska but remained mute on slavery except for the provision, quoted by Allan Nevins:
And when admitted as a State or States, the said Territory, or any portion of the same, shall be received into the Union, with or without slavery, as their constitution may prescribe at the time of their admission.
The committee attached a report to the bill saying that they had no consensus on whether the Missouri Compromise ban stood or not. Douglas called it a virtual repeal as the bill at least contemplated slavery on the land. He replicated the language of the New Mexico and Utah territorial bills, neither explicitly enacting popular sovereignty nor repudiating it.
Repeal of the Missouri Compromise in full seemed impossible. When Atchison said he had no hope that it would ever fall, no Senator rose to gainsay him. If the South could withstand that ambiguity on New Mexico and Utah, and already accepted far worse for slavery on the Great Plains, surely the section could tolerate the same in Nebraska. In fact, even Douglas’ virtual repeal offered more than proslavery men could have hoped for just a year prior. Surely that would satisfy F Street.