A Clerical Error

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

On January 4, 1854, Stephen Douglas gave a virtual repeal to the Missouri Compromise to the F Street mess, opening the Nebraska territory he would organize to slavery. They saw it as so virtual that it amounted to no repeal at all, with some justification. Missouri’s David Rice Atchison threatened to oust Douglas from the Committee on Territories, claim the seat for himself, and ram through a bill that gave himself and his F Street friends all they wanted.

Douglas’s bill hit the Washington papers on January 7. On January 10, those same papers reprinted the bill with a new section, the twenty-first. This section passed the power to decide on slavery from Congress to the territorial government explicitly, enacting popular sovereignty at that stage. The Little Giant insisted that he wrote the bill with section twenty-one included. It disappeared through a clerical error. The section does exist in the archives, on blue paper and in Douglas’ hand, attached to the rest. But the notion that the Senate bureaucracy somehow lost the one section of the bill that conveniently included all the potentially explosive provisions asks too much of our credulity. Whether under direct pressure from F Street or realizing on his own at the eleventh hour that he had not given enough to win them over, Douglas clearly slid the section in after the bill’s second reading and printing.

The Little Giant had still more explaining to do. He meant to include section twenty-one all along, just trust him on it, but no one should be upset about its contents. After all, his bill only restated the provision of the Armistice that the territorial governments, not the Congress, had the power to decide for or against slavery in their jurisdiction. Some of the men who voted for the New Mexico and Utah bills in 1850 may have believed that, but most probably did not. Douglas himself despaired at the time that no consensus existed on whether those lands should have slavery or not or who should answer that question. Both territories interpreted congressional silence as authorization and passed slave codes later on, but the Congress had never specifically delegated that power to them and strictly speaking a territorial legislature had only the powers Congress explicitly gave it. Douglas now insisted that Congress  had and, by the way, that decision applied not just in the Mexican Cession but everywhere. Congress actually repealed the Missouri Compromise four years prior and just never noticed.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Though Atchison believed he voted to repeal the Missouri Compromise in 1850 no more than anybody else did, he accepted the concession. Douglas’ original bill would have stacked the deck against his slaveholding constituents by giving free soil Northerners years to flood into Nebraska and then outvote them. The Little Giant’s sheet of blue paper opened a window for Missouri slaveholders to rush across the border and vote for slavery as early as possible and then nail their colors to the mast until the free soilers gave up. If, technically, no slave could go to the territory until it passed a slave code, so what? White men would decide if it did and plenty of them stood ready to walk over from Missouri to make it happen so they could import their human property as soon as possible. In exchange for all of that, Bourbon Dave let the Little Giant get away with not quite owning up to the repeal. The Missouri Compromise still stood as at least a theoretical bar to slavery and Douglas could hide behind that fig leaf when he faced the North.

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