The Appeal’s History Lesson, Part Four

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Salmon P. Chase insisted, with some justification, that despite the Missouri Compromise’s status as ordinary law, as easily overturned as any other law, it constituted a sacred pact that ought to remain inviolate. Many certainly saw it that way, including plenty of southern radicals. They might gripe about how the Constitution did not, in their minds, permit any kind of slavery ban, but they also saw it as a fixed part of American life. For a generation, both sections accepted that modus vivendi. They lived under it and no calamity came, except to those consigned to slavery. But Stephen Douglas, traitor and deceiver, worked his fell arts in secret to tear down that pillar of the Republic, to usurp the rights of free white men, and condemn their posterity to misery and poverty heaped high for the enrichment of a pack of slaveholding tyrants.

This prompted the Little Giant to rise with a history lesson of his own. The Louisiana Purchase reintroduced the issue of slavery to the national scene by adding to the nation’s territory land not spoken for. The Northwest Ordinance, Southwest Ordinance, and Mississippi territorial legislation had done their work and established a precedent of geographic partition. Southernmost Louisiana, the part we would recognize as the state, already had an extensive slave system. Law did not introduce it, but simply recognized it as existing. That left the remainder of the territory, with a much smaller slave population more tenuously established, in question.

The Territory of Missouri having been left in that legal condition, positive opposition was made to the bill to organize a State government, with a view to its admission into the Union; and a Senator from my State, Mr. Jesse B. Thomas, introduced an amendment […] in which it was provided that slavery should be prohibited north of 36°30′ north latitude, in all that country which we had acquired from France.

And why the line?

Was it not to go back to the original policy of prescribing boundaries to the limitation of free institutions, and of slave institutions, by geographical line, in order to avoid all controversy in Congress upon the subject? Hence they extended that geographical line through all the territory purchased from France, which was as far as our possessions then reached. It was not simply to settle the question on that piece of country, but it was to carry out a great principle, by extending that dividing line as far west as our territory went, and running it onward on each new acquisition of territory. True, the express enactment of the Missouri compromise act, only covered the territory acquired from France; but the principles of the act, the objects of its adoption, the reasons in its support, required that it should be extended indefinitely westward, so far as our territory might go, whenever new purchases should be made.

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

I don’t know that the men of 1820 imagined the line extending all the way to the Pacific. They might have done. Douglas plausibly notes that when they drew the line across the territory bought from the French, that included all the territory not yet parceled out to freedom or slavery. They had no reason just then to extend it further, and legislation over territory outside the United States might have provoked unfriendly response from the nations who had legal claim to it. Twenty-five years later, in 1845, Stephen Douglas himself thought so. James K. Polk agreed. A broad conservative consensus rested on extending the line across Texas and the Mexican Cession.

Thus stood the question up to 1845, when the joint resolution for the annexation of Texas passed. There was inserted int hat provision, suggested in the first instance and brought before the House of Representatives by myself, extending the Missouri compromise line indefinitely westward through the territory of Texas. Why did I bring forward that proposition? Why did the Congress of the United States adopt it? Not because it was of the least practical importance, so far as the question of slavery within the limits of Texas was concerned, for no man ever dreamed that it had any practical effect there. Then why was it brought forward? It was for the purpose of preserving the principle, in order that it might be extended still further westward, even to the Pacific ocean, whenever we should acquire the country that far.

Douglas clearly contemplated that extension back in 1845, when he liked the prospect of San Francisco for the western end of a transcontinental railroad. I see no reason to doubt his sincerity here. The Texas resolution provided for the division of the Lone Star Republic’s claimed lands, little of which it actually then controlled, into as many as four new states. Contrary to popular myth, Texas cannot practically divide itself at will. It has powers identical to any other state to suggest a division and refer the matter to Congress. Congress then decides, with only the proviso that when slicing up extant states those states must agree to the partition. The new states then must seek admission to the Union just like any other.

So Stephen Douglas, traditionalist, stood for the sacred principles of the Missouri Compromise. He, whatever the Kansas-Nebraska Act said, did not overturn that apple cart. He did not break Constitutional faith. What kind of villain would do that?

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