The Kansas-Nebraska Act: Writing the Appeal

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

On Sunday, January 22, 1854, Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, Phillip Phillips, and the F Street patriarchs met with Franklin Pierce, told him about their repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and then got his written pledge to support it. But while they twisted the president’s arm, antislavery men met elsewhere in Washington. They could read the writing on the wall, even if they didn’t have the final version of Douglas’ bill on hand. Douglas’s original bill smelled fishy and Charles Sumner offered an amendment to reaffirm the Missouri Compromise. Then came the “clerical error“. Nobody missed the significance of Archibald Dixon’s amendment.

Someone had to do something and six congressmen appointed themselves the someones of the moment: Senators Salmon P. Chase (Free Soil-OH) and Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA), and representatives Gerrit Smith (Free Soil-NY), Joshua R. Giddings (Free Soil-OH), Edward Wade (Free Soil-OH), and Alexander De Witt (Free Soil-MA). Chase, who knew something about writing manifestos from writing the Free Soil platform in 1848, did most of the work in turning a draft by Giddings, initially meant for consumption only in Ohio, into a national statement.

Chase worked in haste to get the Appeal into the papers and so the national discourse before debate began. That haste meant some historical errors, which Douglas would pounce upon, and left him with little time to gauge likely reaction to his writing. A vehement attack on slaveholders and the northern men who would compromise with them, signed only by a small group of abolitionists, most from the same state, did not have the makings of a national movement. Some more moderate voices who opposed the bill might have helped greatly, but Chase’s rhetoric ensured that he would receive no such signatures. Allan Nevins accuses the work of solidifying Southern support behind Douglas, but that seems hard to credit. The natural tenor of Southern loyalty politics would have demanded that any politician who wanted to keep his seat rally behind this latest radical proslavery advance. Who would give his opponent in the next election the charge that he voted to deny the South its share of the national trust and national future? If not Chase’s Appeal, then fears for reelection would have likely done the same work. The North hardly needed more cause to object than the South did to consent and major papers had already turned on the act by the time the Appeal hit the presses.

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

In addition to outraging the South, Chase sent Douglas into a fury. He believed that Chase honestly requested a week to consider the bill before debating it. Then he got a copy of the Appeal from a correspondent in Ohio and read treachery into it. The Little Giant went to his grave believing that Chase and Sumner asked delay only to let them hijack national debate with lies and heap slanders upon him. He needed only see the date of publication to know they had the Appeal up their sleeves when the moved for a week of consideration.

But did they? However extreme the Appeal’s language, it spoke to an honest and real fear in the white North that politicians would sell their share of the nation’s trust in a corrupt backroom deal. Fears that proslavery politicians conspired to subvert national institutions had lived in antislavery circles for ages, even if such conspiracies usually boiled down to a disciplined, unified minority using its power to subvert majority aims through normal political processes. The timing might seem to indict Chase and Sumner’s motives as well, but they could not have known that Douglas would agree to give the Senate a week. They may very well have expected to begin debate that day.

Both parties undertook something a little like, but ultimately different from, conspiracy: Douglas with F Street and Pierce and Chase and Sumner with their four cohorts, but in each case they connived only to plot strategy and compose legislation and its response. They worked in secret, but only temporarily so and only to ends and with means that they made public in short order. That doesn’t make for much of a conspiracy, whether the one Douglas saw working against him or the one Chase, Sumner, et al saw working against them.

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