Sunday at the White House

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Stephen Douglas began the week of January 16, 1854 convinced he had a bill that would pass the Senate and open Nebraska to white settlement. Phillip Phillips and Archibald Dixon promptly told him that he did not. But Douglas made concessions that turned his more modest, ambiguous stand on slavery into a deeply radical repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Three decades hallowed that settlement’s ban on slavery in the great majority of the Louisiana Purchase outside Missouri and north of its southern border. Again and again conservatives sought to resolve sectional strife over slavery simply by extending its provisions. Douglas allowed the machinations of southern proslavery politics to draw him from the safe ground into wild new frontiers of radicalism. But Douglas made his peace with the radicals and by that weekend had a new version of his bill ready to deliver to the Senate.

That did not mean that everything smelled of roses, though. Douglas had done his capitulating in secret. He and F Street worked in the classic smoke-filled backroom model of politics. Though the bill would implement popular sovereignty, the concept’s originator and Douglas’ friend, Northwestern power Lewis Cass, had nothing to do with it. As late as that Friday the Washington Union, a Democratic party organ, published attacks on Dixon’s amendment and the general principle of repealing the Missouri Compromise.

Lewis Cass

Lewis Cass (D-MI)

In the White House, Cass joined most of Pierce’s Cabinet in opposing the bill. Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War, and James Dobbin, Secretary of the Navy, stood for the repeal but the rest of the Cabinet aligned closer to old hands like Cass and Secretary of State James Marcy. The fog of history, as with the filibusters and James Gadsden’s commission, obscures what actually happened and raises doubts about who actually made the final decisions in the Pierce administration but it appears they wrote and handed over to Douglas an alternative measure that would toss the decision on whether the Missouri Compromise could stand to the Supreme Court and omit any particulars about when popular sovereignty might occur. That ambiguity worked for the Armistice, after all. Douglas took the proposal to F Street, where Atchison, Hunter, and Mason rejected it.

Douglas and the F Streeters knew that such a radical bill invited a firestorm. If Pierce remained against it they might have a harder time with the Democratic caucus, even with the F Street patriarchs twisting arms. The President might even veto the bill. Once they decided late Saturday night that they would go ahead, they needed the White House on their side. They also laid down the law for the Union, which published an endorsement of the repeal in its Sunday edition.

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis

The next day they set out to secure that support. Pierce disliked doing business on Sundays, even postponing taking his oath of office for a day to avoid it. He might simply turn away a gaggle of senators, so they reached out to Jefferson Davis. Douglas picked up Atchison and they went together with Mason, Hunter, John C. Breckinridge, and Phillips to the White House. Davis went on and convinced Pierce to see them. He first met with Douglas and Atchison, then all the rest joined in.

Pierce, probably with considerable reluctance but not much less beholden to F Street than Douglas, agreed to support the repeal. Douglas even made him put it in writing. Aside from Davis, he had none of his usual advisers on hand. Pierce demanded, however, that they consult with Secretary Marcy before going ahead. The party happily agreed, found Marcy not at home, and decided they had done their due diligence. The next day, Monday the 23rd, they put the matter before the Senate.

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