The Appeal’s History Lesson, Part Three

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

In The Appeal of the Independent Democrats, Salmon P. Chase protested the Kansas Nebraska Act’s opening of the territories named in its title, which then reached all the way to the Rockies and north to Canada, to slavery. This violated both national tradition and a sacred, quasi-constitutional pact. To prove it, he made questionable claims about the intent and policy of the founders and outright false claims about the Louisiana Purchase. Stephen Douglas easily spotted both and called them out in his response. But those controversies aside, Chase at last moved on to the covenant that Douglas had so profaned.

I have talked about the Missouri Compromise a great deal but never written a proper summary of it. In brief, Missouri had the population and sought admission as a new state in 1818. New York’s James Tallmadge amended the bill to admit Missouri, prohibiting the import of new slaves to the state and freeing all slaves within born after its statehood when they turned twenty-five. It would have ended slavery in Missouri in a generation, except for a residual population of slaves born too early to fall under the law. This provoked a firestorm that could, at times, sound a bit like something from the 1850s. Henry Clay eventually drafted a compromise that saved Missouri for slavery but prohibited it everywhere else north of that state’s southern border. The Missouri Compromise spoke for every inch of land within the bounds of the United States not yet divided out between slavery and freedom.

As Chase puts it:

The question of the constitutionality of this prohibition was submitted by President Monroe to his Cabinet. John Quincy Adams was then Secretary of State; John C. Calhoun was Secretary of War; William H. Crawford was Secretary of the Treasury; and William Wirt was Attorney-General. Each of these eminent men, three of them being from slave States, gave a written opinion, affirming its constitutionality, and therefore the act received the sanction of the President himself, also from a slave State.

Nothing is more certain in history than the fact that Missouri could not have been admitted as a slave State had not certain members from the free States been reconciled to the measure by the incorporation of this prohibition into the act of admission. Nothing is more certain than that this prohibition has been regarded and accepted by the whole country as a solemn compact against the extension of slavery into any part of the territory acquired from France, lying north of 3630′, and not included in the new State of Missouri. The same act-let it be ever remembered-which authorized the formation of a constitution for the State, without a clause forbidding slavery, consecrated, beyond question, and beyond honest recall, the whole remainder of the territory to freedom and free institutions forever. For more than thirty years-during more than half the period of our national existence under our present Constitution-this compact has been universally regarded and acted upon as inviolable American law. In conformity with it, Iowa was admitted as a free State, and Minnesota has been organized as a free Territory.

Chase did not imagine the consent of Monroe’s Cabinet, Calhoun included. Furthermore, as late as the previous March no less a radical proslavery man than David Rice Atchison regarded the Missouri Compromise as unfortunate and unconstitutional, but also essentially inviolate.  Even if Henry Clay’s slavery ban only legally had the same status as any other piece of legislation, custom had hallowed it for a generation.  Earlier that month, Douglas privately and sincerely told others that nobody planned to repeal it. He aimed to give Atchison and F Street a fig leaf or two to go home with that left the ban essentially intact. Then F Street balked. Then Phillip Phillips and Archibald Dixon went radical.

Douglas defended himself with a history lesson of his own, which will come tomorrow.

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