F Street Demands Better

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

To appease the F Street proslavery crowd and get the Nebraska territory organized, Stephen Douglas agreed to do what most of them thought impossible all of a year before: repeal the Missouri Compromise. Famously indifferent to slavery and knowing he needed the support of the F Streeters to get his bill through, Douglas needed little persuading. He expected some backlash in the North for conceding to slavery land that a generation of tradition and the first great sectional settlement reserved for freedom, but he could weather that just as he’d weathered opposition to the Armistice measures. In time, he must have expected, antislavery objections would produce their own backlash and everything would settle back down.

But Douglas offered not a full, complete, explicit repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Instead he duplicated the language of the Utah and New Mexico bills which neither excluded nor introduced slavery and neither endorsed nor repudiated popular sovereignty. He offered F Street only the legal guarantee that Congress would admit states carved out of the Nebraska territory with or without slavery, however they came before it. As Congress would have to vote again anyway when those future states asked for admission to the Union, that guarantee did not mean much. Everybody from Abraham Lincoln and William Seward to Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens agreed that a state could institute or abolish slavery as it willed.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

As Douglas’ bill remained silent on slavery at the territorial stage, when the people who would eventually vote on whether or not the future states would allow it, how many slaveholders would really come? Would they take their expensive human property into a territory that might deprive them of it just a few years down the road and so force them to give it up at great loss or to hurry back across the state line with it? Slaves cost a lot of money to risk so casually. A Carolina lowcountry rice magnate might have hundreds and not miss a few, but the great slaveholders had little reason to move into Nebraska to begin with. Most future Nebraska slaveholders would probably come with few slaves who represented a far greater portion of their total wealth. A slave cost then something akin to what a house might cost to an ordinary American today. Who would risk losing that kind of asset on top of the usual risks of going to the frontier?

The F Streeters thought that even if some slaveholders would take that risk, they would not take it in great enough numbers to swing any future state or territorial votes their way. Douglas’ virtual repeal amounted to an empty promise that would leave the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery intact. F Street made its displeasure known in short order. A year later, Atchison claimed that Douglas’ bill broke promises the Little Giant made to him. In retaliation, he threatened to take from Douglas his cherished chair of the Committee on Territories, plant himself in the Little Giant’s place, and report out a bill that gave Bourbon Dave and the South everything they wanted.

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