The Kansas-Nebraska Act: The Stakes According to the Appeal

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase (Free Soil-OH)

For everyone playing at home, yes it did take this many posts for me to notice that I’ve been misspelling Nebraska in the post titles. That’s what I get for not noticing once and then using the copy post function to carry over the tags and category for the series. I’ve fixed it now, but I hope it entertained everyone while present. Bloggers are but mortal.

But back to the nineteenth century, where Stephen Douglas vented his outrage at Salmon P. Chase’s Appeal of the Independent Democrats. Though the document might not have changed the world overnight, probably did not galvanize Southern support any more than the act itself would have, and certainly didn’t inspire resistance to Douglas’ and F Street’s repeal of the Missouri Compromise in the Kansas-Nebraska Act where none previously existed, it did express real fears felt by many in the North. Thus it deserves a closer look.

Chase began with language one might expect from a fire-eater:

As Senators and Representatives in the Congress of the United States, it is our duty to warn our constituents whenever imminent danger menaces the freedom of our institutions or the permanency of our Union.

Such danger, as we firmly believe, now impends, and we earnestly solicit your prompt attention to it.

Chase told his readers that last Congress, a Nebraska bill came up. That bill would organize the territory, but also preserve the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery within it. It passed the House and went to the Senate, where the session expired before it came to a vote. So far, so good.  But then the bill returned in the present Congress, expanded and rewritten such that it

will open all the unorganized territory of the Union to the ingress of slavery.

No more free territories, of course, meant no more free states. Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington, as already organized territories, might still come in free but that only made for three more free states. All the vast plains could supply many more slave states. Chase left no one wondering what he thought about all this:

We arraign this bill as a gross violation of a sacred pledge; as a criminal betrayal of precious rights; as part and parcel of an atrocious plot to exclude from a vast unoccupied region immigrants from the Old World, and free laborers from our own states, and convert it into a dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves.

Abolitionists consistently had trouble getting white Americans worked up about the horrors of slavery. Antislavery men of the free soil stripe didn’t necessarily care about those, let alone disinterested Northern whites. They cared very much, however, about their own rights as free white men. The bill threatened, Chase said, to give away an area more than three thousand miles in circumference, four hundred and eighty-five thousand square miles, and more than twelve times as large as his native Ohio.

This immense region, occupying the very heart of the North American continent, and larger, by thirty-three thousand square miles, than all the existing free states, excluding California–this immense region, well watered and fertile, through which the middle and northern routes from the Atlantic to the Pacific must pass–this immense region, embracing all the unorganized territory of the nation, except the comparatively insignificant district of Indian territory north of the Red river and between Arkansas and Texas, and now for more than thirty years regarded by the common consent of the American people as consecrated to freedom by statute and by compact–this immense region, the bill now before the Senate, without reason and without excuse, but in flagrant disregard of sound policy and sacred faith, purposes to open to slavery.

Chase could have oversold his point. Nothing in its text made the Missouri Compromise a sacred pact, only ordinary legislation. Congress did not, and as a matter of law probably could not, bind future Congresses from revising or repealing it. But it did have thirty years of tradition, half the nation’s history under the Constitution, behind it. The Monroe Cabinet, including Calhoun, endorsed its constitutionality. Not even a year before, everyone from Chase himself to David Rice Atchison considered the law something close to inviolate. Southerners might gripe about it, but they also accepted that the law would not change. They could live with it and even, after the Mexican War, proposed extending the Missouri Compromise line and its ban on slavery across the Mexican Cession. Henry Clay’s first compromise represented, if not quite a constitutional amendment, then at least something more than a temporary consensus. North and South alike saw the Missouri Compromise, slavery ban and all, as a fixed, regular, ordinary part of the American system of government.

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