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 Congress actually repealed the Missouri Compromise four years prior and just never noticed.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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F Street Demands Better

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

To appease the F Street proslavery crowd and get the Nebraska territory organized, Stephen Douglas agreed to do what most of them thought impossible all of a year before: repeal the Missouri Compromise. Famously indifferent to slavery and knowing he needed the support of the F Streeters to get his bill through, Douglas needed little persuading. He expected some backlash in the North for conceding to slavery land that a generation of tradition and the first great sectional settlement reserved for freedom, but he could weather that just as he’d weathered opposition to the Armistice measures. In time, he must have expected, antislavery objections would produce their own backlash and everything would settle back down.

But Douglas offered not a full, complete, explicit repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Instead he duplicated the language of the Utah and New Mexico bills which neither excluded nor introduced slavery and neither endorsed nor repudiated popular sovereignty. He offered F Street only the legal guarantee that Congress would admit states carved out of the Nebraska territory with or without slavery, however they came before it. As Congress would have to vote again anyway when those future states asked for admission to the Union, that guarantee did not mean much. Everybody from Abraham Lincoln and William Seward to Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens agreed that a state could institute or abolish slavery as it willed.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

As Douglas’ bill remained silent on slavery at the territorial stage, when the people who would eventually vote on whether or not the future states would allow it, how many slaveholders would really come? Would they take their expensive human property into a territory that might deprive them of it just a few years down the road and so force them to give it up at great loss or to hurry back across the state line with it? Slaves cost a lot of money to risk so casually. A Carolina lowcountry rice magnate might have hundreds and not miss a few, but the great slaveholders had little reason to move into Nebraska to begin with. Most future Nebraska slaveholders would probably come with few slaves who represented a far greater portion of their total wealth. A slave cost then something akin to what a house might cost to an ordinary American today. Who would risk losing that kind of asset on top of the usual risks of going to the frontier?

The F Streeters thought that even if some slaveholders would take that risk, they would not take it in great enough numbers to swing any future state or territorial votes their way. Douglas’ virtual repeal amounted to an empty promise that would leave the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery intact. F Street made its displeasure known in short order. A year later, Atchison claimed that Douglas’ bill broke promises the Little Giant made to him. In retaliation, he threatened to take from Douglas his cherished chair of the Committee on Territories, plant himself in the Little Giant’s place, and report out a bill that gave Bourbon Dave and the South everything they wanted.

Appeasing F Street

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

David Rice Atchison and his F Street housemates dug their feet in against Stephen Douglas’ bill to organize the Indian country as Nebraska Territory. Congress reserved that land to freedom under the Missouri Compromise thirty years before and for that reason the South had spent most of a decade killing any bill that would open it to white settlement and thus make it into free states down the road. But by 1854 they must have felt like they swam against the tide of history. Some settlers from Missouri and Iowa already lived on the land illegally. The West, at the time meaning the states bordering the Mississippi, clamored for a railroad to the Pacific and the rest of the nation largely wanted to give it to them. They needed only agree on the specifics. Against that tide, Atchison himself briefly yielded at the end of the last Congress. But he returned, after getting an earful from his angry constituents, committed to stopping Douglas unless he could collect a pound of flesh for slavery.

By 1854, the Democracy had withered in the North. It did not have the same degree of problem that the Whigs did in the South, but by proving itself the safest party for slavery it had alienated many of its Northern supporters. The party’s decline in the North put men like Douglas increasingly at the mercy of proslavery extremists like Atchison. As the party’s rising star in the North, the Little Giant did not make it his business to crusade against them. He cared little about slavery and so yielding to its advocates cost him nothing personally. Politics requires uncomfortable compromises, but a compromise that advanced slavery didn’t even amount to that for Douglas. He needed only give ground on something unimportant to him to get what he really wanted: the West opened to white settlement. Furthermore, in opposing the Missouri Compromise prohibition on slavery, Atchison appealed to Douglas on grounds he had long supported: popular sovereignty.

Putting on Douglas’ shoes for a moment, this looks less like a hard bargain than a great deal. Douglas gets what he really wants though a just slightly altered means and then gets more on top of it by having his favorite doctrine adopted as the law of the land. No fool, Douglas knew that appeasing F Street would have some political costs in the North. He underestimated those costs, but he knew enough to sound out ways to make his bill acceptable to F Street and the South without also burning all the bridges in the North. The man who managed passage of the Armistice had sailed those waters before and could do it again.

On January 4, 1854, Douglas’ committee reported out not Iowa Senator Dodge’s bill that had begun the previous March as Illinois Senator Douglas’ bill, but rather a new measure entirely. It would organize Nebraska but remained mute on slavery except for the provision, quoted by Allan Nevins:

And when admitted as a State or States, the said Territory, or any portion of the same, shall be received into the Union, with or without slavery, as their constitution may prescribe at the time of their admission.

The committee attached a report to the bill saying that they had no consensus on whether the Missouri Compromise ban stood or not. Douglas called it a virtual repeal as the bill at least contemplated slavery on the land. He replicated the language of the New Mexico and Utah territorial bills, neither explicitly enacting popular sovereignty nor repudiating it.

Repeal of the Missouri Compromise in full seemed impossible. When Atchison said he had no hope that it would ever fall, no Senator rose to gainsay him. If the South could withstand that ambiguity on New Mexico and Utah, and already accepted far worse for slavery on the Great Plains, surely the section could tolerate the same in Nebraska. In fact, even Douglas’ virtual repeal offered more than proslavery men could have hoped for just a year prior. Surely that would satisfy F Street.

The F Street Mess

Augustus Caesar Dodge (D-IA)

Augustus Caesar Dodge (D-IA)

Chastened and committed once more to proslavery extremes, David Rice Atchison returned to Washington for the 33rd Congress in December, 1853. His Democratic party had control of both chambers by a safe margin and Bourbon Dave took his place as President pro tempore of the Senate. Even if Atchison had pulled back from his earlier surrender, he had the clout to get a Nebraska bill through and the momentum seemed to press for just that. Iowa’s Augustus Caesar Dodge submitted the same bill that passed the House last Congress, the Douglas-approved legislation that would leave the Missouri Compromise in place. The Senate referred it to Douglas’ Committee on Territories.

Bourbon Dave had influence and he returned to Washington determined to use it against Douglas’ free Nebraska bill, beginning with his housemates. In an era before airplanes or easy rail travel, members of Congress went to Washington to stay. For the length of a session, they would hear from their constituents through letters, newspapers, and the telegraph, but not in person unless the constituents came to them. As people naturally do, they congregated with like-minded sorts to create little homes away from home. Some preferred to live alone, but many threw together to rent a boarding house they then called a mess. Atchison lived, amid house slaves and Senators, in a mess on F Street. His housemates included Virginia’s Robert M. T. Hunter, chairman of the Senate Finance committee, and James Mason of Fugitive Slave Act fame, chair of the Foreign Affairs committee and South Carolina’s Andrew P. Butler, chair of the Judiciary committee. Atchison bent their ears about Missouri’s vulnerabilities and how a free Nebraska could mean the end of Missourian slavery. Furthermore he assured them that he had a practical issue, not just one touching on the South’s always prickly sense of honor. Hemp and tobacco would grow in Nebraska territory just as they did across the border in Missouri.

James Mason

James Mason (D-VA)

The F Street mess had some reservations. They did not all see a rosy future for slavery in the future Kansas, or for that matter in Missouri. Even if Atchison had it right and plantations could creep up the Missouri river they could not hope to match the huge profits of the cotton kingdom. Maybe, even if it presented greater risk, the South would do better to concede Nebraska and look to enslaving New Mexico, Utah, or a section of Mexico proper stolen away fair and square. Perhaps old man Calhoun even had the right of it and they should focus not on regaining a majority but instead on ensuring a permanent slave power veto on all national laws to preserve the slavery they had.

But the mess had other things on its mind than just the practicalities. Restriction on slavery entailed its immorality. One does not embrace laws to ban things one approves of and so accepting the restriction meant at least implicitly accepting that slavery deserved banning. No Southern politician could lightly court that impression, lest he face a firestorm back home. The Missouri Compromise, they decided, had to go because as long as it stood it declared Southerners inferior just as the Wilmot Proviso did, unclean lepers that belonged not in the nation’s future but on the dustbin of history. Douglas’ old bill, now revived by Dodge for the new Congress, could not stand. If the Little Giant wanted Nebraska, he would have to win over the F Street patriarchs.

Bourbon Dave Reverts to Type

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison returned to Missouri fresh off his surprising about face on permitting a free territory to his state’s west. There he found Missouri slaveholders quite irate. It appeared, as he joked in the Senate, that he had said too much. His old enemy, Thomas Hart Benton, insisted that Bourbon Dave had betrayed the South. This after ten long years of Atchison standing in the way of letting nonslaveholding Missourians settle Nebraska. Benton could argue that even in surrendering Atchison kept up his real opposition to a free Nebraska, as his vote did not move the South to drop its opposition to another free territory and left the land closed to white settlement. Whatever Bourbon Dave did, however he did it, Missouri lost. The state should do the sensible thing and replace Atchison with Benton in the Senate. Old Bullion, after all, came right out and told people he would not go to great lengths to save slavery any more than he would go to great lengths to destroy it.

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

Facing Benton’s assault from the right, left, and center, and the outrage of his own supporters, Atchison decided to revise his earlier calculations. He told Missouri that, whatever happened back in March in the Senate, he stood with the South and slavery. He emulated Benton’s campaign, taking to the stump to prove his bona fides. He would not suffer the risks of a free territory to Missouri’s west after all. Speaking in Weston, just over the river from the future Kansas, Atchison declared he would rather see the land “sink in hell” than see it free. His supporters agreed, writing to steel his resolve. One turned the racial and intellectual mores of nineteenth century America on their heads, proclaiming he preferred Indians to white abolitionists if he had his choice of neighbors. In the same speech he came out for a Pacific railroad reaching from Kansas City or St. Joseph, through the Kansas river valley. Supporters of a more northerly route, through the Platte valley and had lately courted Benton’s patronage and their illegal settlement opposite Council Bluffs endorsed his railroad vision.

All of this may sound very partisan and certainly Old Bullion and Bourbon Dave each yearned to prevail over the other come the 1854 elections. But both men understood their battle also as one about the future of the West and thus the future of the United States. If the rest of the West remained closed to slavery, it could only dwindle. Radical dreams to seize more of Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua, or other territory south of the border for slavery involved far more risk than securing the institution’s future on land already within the nation’s bounds. Even if Nebraska did not become a second Mississippi, lightly enslaved states could still produce proslavery radicals. Atchison only had to look in the mirror to know that. A new slave state would undo the loss from admitting California free and undivided. If the South could score a few more slave states, it could buy decades of insurance.

Benton knew all of that too. A free Nebraska would weaken slavery in Missouri, setting it on the road to extinction in the future. If Missouri could roll slavery back, why not Arkansas or Texas? The nation could quarantine slavery away from its future and over long years drown it out under a tide of free states without strife and without straining the Union. More urgently, radicals like Atchison provoked the North to new antislavery heights. They played with fire and would surely burn the Union if not put soundly in their place. The future of the nation depended on it.

Atchison bent over backwards to give Benton ammunition. He came out for repealing the Missouri Compromise. Their blood up, Missouri slaveholders agreed and a meeting pledged that should Congress open Nebraska to settlement they would bring slavery to it “whatever sacrifice of blood or treasure.”

Missouri Slaverholders Respond

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Things looked good for Stephen Douglas’ dream or organizing Indian country for the white race, the transcontinental railroad, for his investments in real estate, and for his political aspirations. Even if the South got its revenge for his amendment that killed a southern route for the Pacific railroad, a new Congress meant new opportunities and over the summer between the 32nd Congress adjourning and the 33rd beginning momentum seemed to swing in the Little Giant’s favor. Douglas could go home with high hopes of success in the winter.

David Rice Atchison went home too. There the spokesman of Missouri valley slaveholders found his neighbors not at all pleased with his calculated surrender. Submitting to a ban on slavery meant at least the silent implication that it soiled its practitioners. Did Bourbon Dave really expect them to take that? They should not have to skulk about and steal Kansas, or accept exclusion from land practically within sight of their Missouri plantations. As much as we struggle to imagine it now, many believed slavery right and good and took attacks on it as attacks on their own good character. Plenty of abolitionists, if not always for the same reasons we would cite today, certainly agreed.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

On top of the insult came practical fears: if the railroad ran through enslaved Missouri from free Illinois to free Nebraska, every passing train would invite slaves to hop on and steal themselves freedom. Free soil Nebraska would invite a flood of free soil northerners to rush up to their border on a third side with their slave-stealing and slave-inciting ways. How could they sleep at night if they knew thieving abolitionists lived just down the road and would inflame their slaves to murderous rebellion?

With the book finally closed on slavery west of Missouri, southern immigration to that state’s own lightly enslaved land would ebb and into the gap might come more whites who wanted no slaves, Benton’s kind of people, who threatened to demographically transform not just the unsettled territory but Missouri too. With slave property so insecure and demand flagging, prices would plunge. Slaveholders would have to sell out before the price got too low to minimize their losses, thus driving the price down even further and deporting the slaves down to the Lower South where prices would remain higher in an economic death spiral. In just a few short years, Missouri could turn into a free state in all but name.

Allan Nevins quotes the St. Louis Republican on the matter:

If Nebraska be made a free Territory then will Missouri be surrounded on three sides by free territory, where there will always be men and means to assist in the escape of our slaves. … With the emissaries of abolitionists around us, and the facilities of escape so enlarged, this species of property would become insecure, if not valueless, in Missouri. The Free-Soilers and Abolitionists look to this result, and calculate upon the facilities which will be offered by the incorporation of this Territory with a provision against slavery, as a means of abolishing slavery in Missouri. This is the more evident from a pamphlet recently issued in new York, thousands of which have been scattered over this States, urging the incorporation of Nebraska Territory, with a provision against the introduction of slave property into it; and in the same pamphlet the reelection of Col. Benton to the United States Senate is urged with the understanding that he would support such a measure. … If this scheme be accomplished, then it is not too much to say that six millions of property will be rendered valueless by this single act of legislation.

Bourbon Dave, their senator, wanted to call down the apocalypse on them. Their own man, a Missouri valley planter, would ruin them all. What did they cheer his ousting of Benton for, if not the same closet abolitionism Atchison now courted himself?

Good Omens for the 33rd Congress

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

The short session closed on March 3, 1853 and with it the 32nd Congress ended. That brought an end to Stephen Douglas’ latest attempt to organize the territory west of Missouri and Iowa, but for whatever reasons and whatever his constitutional scruples, one of Douglas’ most persistent Southern foes gave way. David Rice Atchison, proslavery firebrand, switched to Douglas’ side. Bills to organize the Indian country as Nebraska Territory passed the House before so the Little Giant had good reason to think they would again in the 33rd Congress come December.  The Senators from Texas opposed the bill only in terms of timing and disposing properly of Indian title to the land first. Even in the rush at the end of the 32nd Congress, Douglas only lost 23-17. If Douglas could get Sam Houston and Thomas Jefferson Rusk, both returning for the new Congress, to join the yeas he would have 21-19. The focus on extinguishing Indian title to the land and resigned acquiescence to the Missouri Compromise’s ban on slavery augured no proslavery firestorm. The Armistice held.

That given, Douglas must have expected an easy time of shaking loose a few more Southern senators. Franklin Pierce, always an eager expansionist, gave Douglas a hand by dispatching George Manypenny to negotiate with the Indians. Allan Nevins describes his results in Ordeal of the Union, volume two, A House Dividing:

treaties were shortly concluded with the main tribes north of Kansas River (the Otoe, Iowa, Kickapoo, Delaware, and others), under which about 11,500,000 acres were ceded to the United States; most of this land being unconditionally transferred and therefore subject to preemption, but 634,500 acres being given up on condition that the government pay the proceeds of sales to the tribes. Treaties were also presently written with tribes south of the Kansas ceding slightly more than 2,000,000 acres, all but a bout 208,000 acres of which were subject to preemption. It remained only for the Senate to ratify these treaties, and for the Indian Office to take steps to have reservations and selections of land made for the Indian.

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

The Indians would have a place to go, so they would not be thrown on the Texas hinterlands to menace white Texans. That ought to please Thomas Rusk and salve Sam Houston’s conscience. It would also give Tennessee’s John Bell something to think about, as he opposed the bill out of concern about Indian claims and on the grounds that ample land remained unsettled in existing territories. With all of that, why did the nation even need to organize the territory just then? Come winter, Bell had the harder task of standing up to suggest taking from white America lands the Indians agreed to give up.  Put in that position, with a fait accompli before him, would Bell decide to stand against everything nineteenth century white America called progress? His state lay close enough that some of its citizens would probably move into the open lands given the chance, and in the March debate he said that expected they would. If Bell joined Atchison and the Texans, Douglas had three new votes in his column and the whip count went 20-19. Surely a skilled, influential senator like Stephen Douglas could scare up two more votes. The yea vote would cost them little and they could tell angry proslavery constituents that the ironclad Missouri Compromise bound their hands, just as Bourbon Dave could.

As the summer of 1853 rolled on, it looked more and more like David Rice Atchison had it right: white settlement of Nebraska would happen soon whatever Congress did, so better vote through territorial organization now. The inevitable had come.

Why did Atchison Surrender? Part Three

 

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Drink did not play a substantial role in Missouri senator David Rice Atchison’s sudden about-face on permitting Congress to organize a free territory of Nebraska to his state’s West, or at least no more role than it played in Bourbon Dave’s previous decision otherwise. His battle with Missouri’s ex-senator Thomas Hart Benton certainly did factor in. Having not so long before worked Missouri politics to oust Benton from his seat, Atchison had to know that Benton could use the same trick on him. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, and the rest of the radicals could fume from deeply enslaved states. Atchison lacked that luxury and knew it well enough that for a decade he chose to focus his objections to an organized Nebraska around the plight of the Indians that white settlement would displace and dispossess. That didn’t stop Bourbon Dave from inveighing against the Missouri Compromise, the Northwest Ordinance, the Wilmot Proviso, or just about anything else that limited slavery but could at least gave him a small measure of plausible deniability. He cared about the Indians, so Atchison couldn’t be a complete proslavery obsessive, right?

By 1853, Atchison had given up on caring about the Indians and, ostensibly, about having free soil on a third side of Missouri. Or had he? Say Douglas’ bill passed and a free Nebraska grew on Missouri’s western flank. Who would enforce the ban on slavery there? Atchison’s supporters in the Missouri river gray belt sat just across the border. They grew hemp and tobacco in areas immediately adjacent to the virgin lands that the bill would open to them, lands watered by the same river and enjoying the same climate. Would they really stay away? Most western migration came from areas directly adjacent to newly opened lands and for the future Kansas, that meant Missouri slave country. If planters came with their slaves, who would evict them?

Certainly not the Army, even if such an eviction would not have caused a firestorm. It tolerated quite well the illegal settlement of Missouri slaveholders and their supporters around Fort Leavenworth and likewise could stir itself to evict those free soil men who came across the river from Council Bluffs, Iowa. Under the Non-Intercourse Act of 1834, the Army had the power and legal responsibility to evict any whites settling in Indian country. In the March, 1853 debates all parties acknowledged that any settlers in the territory lived there illegally. Yet the Army did nothing. The new land would have no police and only a governor dispatched from Washington. If the Army would not remove the illegal settlers, would a future territorial government really evict legal settlers with illegal property?

Henry S. Geyer (Whig-MO)

Henry S. Geyer (Whig-MO)

Probably not. When the Northwest Ordinance barred slavery from the land north of the Ohio, it did not stop slaveholders from coming up out of Kentucky and Virginia with their human property and establishing rather Southern-style societies on the territory’s margins. Congress neglected to make any law to evict them and they arrived in Illinois in sufficient numbers that the Land of Lincoln came fairly close to making itself a slave state. Instead for some time it had black “apprentices”. Knowing that, and realizing the practical limits of federal writ in the sparsely populated West, Atchison could have simply expected slaveholders to do their work with or without legal sanction and steal Nebraska for slavery just as filibusters tried to steal Cuba, Nicaragua, parts of Mexico, and had successfully stolen Texas.

Whether or not Atchison had it in mind when he yielded before Douglas at the beginning of March, 1853, he took it on himself to lead the Missouri filibusters once the chance came a few years later. But for now, the time ran out on Douglas’ bill. Even with Bourbon Dave supporting the Little Giant, the measure went down 23-17, with the South opposed 19-2. Only his fellow Missourian, Henry S. Geyer, voted with Atchison.

Why did Atchison Surrender? Part Two

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

On March 3, 1853, Missouri’s proslavery radical in the Senate, David Rice Atchsion, unexpectedly yielded his previous objections to organizing Nebraska to his state’s west as free soil. The Missouri Compromise required just that and Stephen Douglas’ frequent bills to organize the land left it in place. Atchison rejected the Missouri Compromise and the Northwest Ordinance before it for their restrictions on slavery, a power he thought the Constitution sanctioned no more than it did cancelling elections. Even when Atchison surrendered, as he put it, to the inevitable white settlement, he reiterated his objections. He could not help that Congress had barred slavery and saw no hope of ever rolling back the prohibition.

Fair enough, but Atchison could have delayed the inevitable. He could have done as and the rest of the South’s senators preferred and left Nebraska permanently unorganized and in the hands of the Indians. That would inevitably have meant the Pacific railroad ran through the Lower South, a prospect much appreciated by the pocketbooks of certain investors. Without Nebraska, the railroad had nowhere else to cross the continent. But that would also have put the railroad outside Atchison’s Missouri. That may have factored into Old Bourbon’s surrender, as the central route for a transcontinental railroad put him in the very unusual position of agreeing with Thomas Hart Benton.

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton (D-MO)

Benton might have the answer. Atchison forced him out of the Senate, but Benton lacked the generosity in defeat to lay down and die or, at the very least, to retire. He won a seat in the House and came right back to Washington. Benton knew Atchison had to stand for reelection in 1854 and Old Bullion would love nothing more than to return to the Senate by knocking Atchison off his perch there. He still had plenty of friends and supporters in Missouri, men who didn’t much care for Atchison’s Lower South style of slavery agitation. By forcing Benton out, Atchison painted a target on his back and gave his enemies plenty of ammunition.

Atchison could count on Missouri’s proslavery elements. By ousting Benton he gave them the biggest victory they could hope for in state politics. He could afford to disappoint them some by moderating his stance on Nebraska. Who would they support instead? Benton, to their minds a closet abolitionist? Not likely. Bourbon Dave could hope to neutralize some of Benton’s attacks on him by going soft on Nebraska and maybe even pick up some of his less devoted supporters. Easing up, at least temporarily, in a situation where Atchison could plausibly claim precedent tied his hands made good political sense and a man with the skills to organize the bipartisan movement to oust Benton had to see the opportunity. He stood to lose little to nothing by yielding this once.

Political calculation makes much more sense than finding Atchison’s reasons at the bottom of his bottle. It fits with the tenor of Missouri politics and with Benton’s continued presence and threat to him. Though they often expressed themselves in dogmatic tones, even the most extreme proslavery politicians could make hard choices and sacrifice stated principles for practical gains. If Calhoun could both preach states’ rights and demand Congress force Northern states to censor their mail, or inveigh against internal improvements but support a Pacific railroad that dwarfed all the rest, Bourbon Dave could curse restrictions on slavery with one breath and give join the yeas for organizing a new free territory with the next.

For the Fourth

Frederick Douglass, one of the nation's most famous fugitive slaves

Frederick Douglass

I intended to leave the Fourth of July unmarked. Patriotic holidays don’t do much for me. But Civil War Emancipation reminded me of Frederick Douglass’ speech on the occasion in 1852:

Friends and citizens, I need not enter further into the causes which led to this anniversary. Many of you understand them better than I do. You could instruct me in regard to them. That is a branch of knowledge in which you feel, perhaps, a much deeper interest than your speaker. The causes which led to the separation of the colonies from the British crown have never lacked for a tongue. They have all been taught in your common schools, narrated at your firesides, unfolded from your pulpits, and thundered from your legislative halls, and are as familiar to you as household words. They form the staple of your national poetry and eloquence.

I remember, also, that, as a people, Americans are remarkably familiar with all facts which make in their own favor. This is esteemed by some as a national trait—perhaps a national weakness. It is a fact, that whatever makes for the wealth or for the reputation of Americans, and can be had cheap! will be found by Americans. I shall not be charged with slandering Americans, if I say I think the American side of any question may be safely left in American hands.

Again and again Douglass speaks, to his largely white audience, about your freedoms, your rights, your nation and your holiday. Because

I am not included within the pale of this glorious anniversary! Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. —The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me. This Fourth [of] July is yours, not mineYou may rejoice, I must mourn. To drag a man in fetters into the grand illuminated temple of liberty, and call upon him to join you in joyous anthems, were inhuman mockery and sacrilegious irony. Do you mean, citizens, to mock me, by asking me to speak to-day? If so, there is a parallel to your conduct. And let me warn you that it is dangerous to copy the example of a nation whose crimes, lowering up to heaven, were thrown down by the breath of the Almighty, burying that nation in irrecoverable ruin! I can to-day take up the plaintive lament of a peeled and woe-smitten people!

“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down. Yea! we wept when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there, they that carried us away captive, required of us a song; and they who wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion. How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”

Fellow-citizens; above your national, tumultuous joy, I hear the mournful wail of millions! whose chains, heavy and grievous yesterday, are, to-day, rendered more intolerable by the jubilee shouts that reach them. If I do forget, if I do not faithfully remember those bleeding children of sorrow this day, “may my right hand forget her cunning, and may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth!” To forget them, to pass lightly over their wrongs, and to chime in with the popular theme, would be treason most scandalous and shocking, and would make me a reproach before God and the world. My subject, then fellow-citizens, is AMERICAN SLAVERY. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July!

Slavery is gone but the many injustices that remain, continue, and even get invented anew. They dulled my enthusiasm for the subject long ago. Celebrating “America” doesn’t make much sense to me, as America includes not just the First Amendment or free elections, but also slavery and segregation. Quietly passing over the ugly bits of the national past and present feels perverse to me, like calling a mass murderer a great humanitarian if one ignores all the mass murdering. I suppose we can put the good and bad on different sides of a scale, but they don’t really cancel each other out. Free elections, the vote for women, and emancipation all happened. So did slavery, lynching, Indian removal, and all the rest. We can’t give back the years and lives lost and undo the suffering from wrongs done. They are America too, writ large in as much blood as watered any battlefield.

I don’t mean to say that everyone celebrating today ignores or trivializes the bad parts, but too often they do get lost as Americans bask in the glory of…us. Don’t let me stop you from celebrating if you want to, but if you don’t normally maybe today can also be a day to try to put yourself in the shoes of someone like Douglass and imagine what the Fourth looks like from there. I don’t think Americans as a whole do enough of that.