Southern Moderates go Ultra

Phillip Phillips (D-AL)

Phillip Phillips (D-AL)

David Rice Atchison and the F Street Mess let Stephen Douglas partially off the hook. He didn’t get away with selling them an empty promise, but they would pretend along with him that they repealed the Missouri Compromise and let slavery into the Nebraska territory back in 1850. That gave Missouri slaveholders an opening to rush in, throw together a quick vote to institute slavery, and steal Nebraska away from the free soil hordes threatening to encircle the state. With F Street appeased, and victory so near less than a year before on far less congenial grounds, Douglas had to imagine the bill would sail through the Senate and House and arrive safely on Franklin Pierce’s desk for the expected signature. The Little Giant had the far right Senate patriarchs on his side. A few far left abolitionists could not kill the bill and most of the more moderate left wanted the railroad that it would facilitate. The North would howl a bit, but if it got over the Fugitive Slave Act then it could get over this.

But Douglas’ bill irritated others. Leaving the Missouri Compromise in place, if only on a technicality, sounded too much like leaving Mexican abolition in place in the Southwest. That technical, theoretical concession could swiftly turn into a real loss as it had with California. The Democrats’ Washington Sentinel, official printer for the Senate at a time when the job came with very lucrative patronage and thus went to party loyalists careful to keep with current orthodoxies, sounded the alarm on January 14. This new attack from the proslavery right came not from extremists, but more moderate Southerners less sanguine about the potential of a small group of slaveholders to filibuster and claim jump their way across the great plains. Phillip Phillips (D-AL), rose in the House to make that point and lobbied F Street for a full repeal of the Missouri Compromise.

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

The occupant of Henry Clay’s old seat, Kentucky’s Archibald Dixon, rose in the Senate on the same grounds. Far from a fire-eater, Dixon represented a species already endangered in 1854: the Southern Whig. The Texas and the Armistice had proved the Democracy far safer for slavery than Whiggery. Dixon wanted to get out ahead of the Democrats and revitalize his party while, of course, also securing his own political future. He argued that Clay’s first great compromise had laid an albatross on the nation by establishing the precedent for Congress deciding on slavery in the territories. The Armistice reversed that to the Union’s benefit and Dixon would go one step further and so banish slavery from the national discourse forever. The old order could come again.

In all of that, Dixon sat firmly in the tradition of nationally minded conservatives. Since the nation’s founding they preferred to defer solutions to a future generation and sweep unavoidable tensions under the rug. Men from Thomas Jefferson on down to Benton, Zachary Taylor, and Douglas himself had tried much the same but each compromise only provoked the backlash it aimed to avoid. Seward claimed, rather implausibly, after the fact that he put Dixon up to it in hopes of maneuvering the Democrats into damaging proslavery extremism and so provoking a potent pro-Compromise backlash. After going in a year from accepting the compromise of a generation to demanding its previously unthinkable overthrow, they hardly needed his help.

In earlier times, a Northern Whig of Seward’s stature might have gone the other way and dumped enough cold water on Dixon to save at least a scrap of the Missouri Compromise. A decade of anti-slavery politics had both alienated the two halves of Whiggery and made the Southern half too vulnerable for its Northern twin to moderate it any longer. Even if he wanted to, Seward couldn’t have restrained Dixon.

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