The Dixon Amendment

Robert Morse Taliaferro Hunter (D-VA)

Robert Morse Taliaferro Hunter (D-VA)

Representative Phillip Phillips, a Democrat from Alabama, went to F Street to voice his objections to Stephen Douglas’ not quite complete repeal of the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery in the future Nebraska Territory. He spoke with Robert Hunter of Virginia, David Rice Atchison’s F Street housemate. Hunter in turn went to Atchison, who arranged a meeting with Douglas. That did not make Phillips any less opposed to Douglas’ soft repeal, but the men shared a party and he opted to work inside the party system to get what he wanted.

Over in the Senate, Kentucky Whig Archibald Dixon had no such scruples. Quite the opposite, he wanted fireworks to help prove to the South that Whiggery could be as safe for slavery as the Democracy. A discreet meeting that secured his objectives behind closed doors would not make for much of a campaign speech. The night of January 15, 1854, Dixon told his wife to fetch pen and paper and take dictation. Dixon would beat the Southern Democracy at its own game, exceeding F Street’s ambitions and daring them to go against him. Then he and his embattled fellow Whigs could go home with such a remarkable proslavery triumph that their disgruntled constituents would flock back to their banner.

The next day, Monday the 16th, Dixon went public that amendment:

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

Sec. 22. And be it further enacted, That so much of the 8th section of an act approved March 6, 1820, entitled “An act to authorize the people of the Missouri Territory to form a constitution and State government, and for the admission of such State into the Union on an equal footing with the original States, and to prohibit slavery in certain Territories” as declares “That in all that territory ceded by France to the United States, under the name of Louisiana, which lies north of 36 degrees 30 minutes north latitude, slavery and involuntary servitude, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the parties shall have been duly convicted, shall be forever prohibited,” shall not be so construed as to apply to the Territory contemplated by this act, or to any other Territory of the United states; but that the citizens of the several States or Territories shall be at liberty to take and hold their slaves within any of the Territories of the United States, or of the states to be formed therefrom, as if the said act, entitled as aforesaid, and approved as aforesaid, had never been passed.

That bears a little unpacking. Essentially the amendment says that the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery is null and void not just in the future Kansas and Nebraska, but in the whole of the Louisiana purchase land from the northern border of modern Oklahoma all the way north to Canada and west to the Rockies, except for the portions of it already organized as free states. Then Dixon went one further and stretched the repeal everywhere a state government did not already exist, if a bit more ambiguously. That could leave slaveholders free to take their human property into the free soil of Oregon Territory, Washington Territory, and Minnesota Territory just as much as it permitted them to take slaves and slavery across the Missouri River.

John C. Breckinridge, then in the House but later a Vice-President, Senator, and the Lower South’s choice for President in 1860, wondered why no one had thought of such a thing before. His fellow Southern Democrats realized the danger if the Whigs really could pull off this kind of proslavery triumph. What could they dot, stand against it and let the Whigs do to them what they had done to the Whigs? No one wanted to go back to sharing much of the South instead of dominating it and might, if the Whigs could press the advantage, end up all but dead in the section. The proslavery caucus made the best they could of it by flocking to support the Dixon amendment. Clerical errors would satisfy them no longer.

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