The Little Giant Yields Again

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas (D-IL)

In the middle of January, 1854, Illinois’ Stephen Douglas stood on the edge of realizing his dream of a decade: organizing and opening the Indian country west of Iowa and Missouri to white settlement as the Territory of Nebraska. White settlers would flood in to fulfill the national and their racial destiny, largely the same thing to white nineteenth century Americans, by filling the continent. Their settlement would naturally facilitate the building of the Pacific railroad the Little Giant had wanted just as long. Even if the Congress could not agree on particulars, having a territorial government to survey the land and white settlers rushing in would give the railroad movement one less obstacle and one more reason to declare their great work both inevitable and necessary. Douglas had neutralized the Senate’s powerful proslavery bloc, led by Missouri’s David Rice Atchison, with considerable concessions. Douglas’ victory for his race would also revitalize the Democratic party in the North, where it largely bore the cross of the Armistice measures. It would boost his stock, already high, as a national politician with dreams of the White House. It would quite likely personally enrich him. The stars aligned in the Little Giant’s favor, then abruptly reversed direction.

Phillip Phillips (D-AL)

Phillip Phillips (D-AL)

Alabama’s Phillip Phillips ran to F Street to tell his fellow Democrats Douglas did not give them enough. Douglas wrangled in private with Phillips and F Street. In public, Kentucky Whig Archibald Dixon blindsided Douglas with a more radical still amendment to wipe out all the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery. Dixon went further, not just annulling the ban in the territory roughly west of Iowa and Missouri, but reaching all the way up to Canada and at least by implication overruling the ban in the Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington Territories. Dixon asked too much of Douglas on January 16. His amendment went past removing a ban on slavery, effectively legalizing it until the territory sought statehood. Already Douglas heard rumblings in the North about what he proposed, and now Dixon had the South at his back and came demanding more.

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

For two days Douglas fretted about giving the South too much. At least when he claimed Congress dismantled the Missouri Compromise four years prior, he could pass the buck to a different Congress and a younger Little Giant. Dixon would strip all the precious ambiguity that F Street had allowed Douglas from the bill. The Kentuckian submitted his amendment on Monday and that Wednesday Douglas picked him up for a carriage ride. They rode around Washington for some time and Dixon bent Douglas’ ear until the Little Giant decided he had no choice but to yield, telling Dixon:

By God, sir, you are right, and I will incorporate it in my bill, though I know it will raise a hell of a storm.

On Thursday, Douglas reached out to Phillips. They tasked him with drafting an amendment to end the Missouri Compromise, begging him to do it in the least explosive way. When he had a draft, Douglas told him to run it by F Street for final approval. That came on Friday, when the F Streeters convened in the smoke-filled back room of the Patent Office. Phillips’ amendment left the Missouri Compromise not quite absolutely repealed, but inoperative in the future Kansas and Nebraska. Minnesota, Missouri Compromise land, could retain its slavery ban. So could distant Oregon and Washington, which Dixon might have enslaved.

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