The Appeal’s History Lesson, Part Five

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Salmon P. Chase, free soil senator from Ohio, charged Stephen Douglas with breaking a sacred, if unwritten, constitutional pact with his Kansas-Nebraska act. His arraignment, the Appeal of the Independent Democrats, traced a sometimes questionable, sometimes outright false history of slavery and the law in the early Republic. But even had Chase gotten everything right and exaggerated none of it, he only established policy up to 1820. There he found his real subject in the Missouri Compromise’s slavery ban. He argued, quite reasonably, that both sections treated that compromise as a final, perpetual settlement in principle of the slavery issue. Stephen Douglas agreed. Radicals like David Rice Atchison concurred. In defending himself, Douglas put up his own Missouri Compromise bona fides. No one ever dreamed of repealing the Missouri Compromise…until someone did. What dastardly villain did that dirty deed? Not Stephen Douglas:

Then, sir, in 1848 we acquired from Mexico the country between the Rio Del Norte and the Pacific ocean. Immediately after that acquisition, the Senate, on my own motion, voted into a bill a provision to extend the Missouri compromise indefinitely westward to the Pacific ocean, in the same sense, and with the same understanding with which it was originally adopted. That provision passed this body by a decided majority-I think by ten at least-and went to the House of Representatives, and was defeated there by northern votes.

Now, sir, let us pause and consider for a moment. The first time that the principles of the Missouri compromise were ever abandoned, the first time they were ever rejected by Congress, was by the defeat of that provision in the House of Representatives in 1848. By whom was that defeat effected? By northern votes, with Free Soil proclivities. It was the defeat of that Missouri compromise that reopened the slavery agitation with all its fury. It was the defeat of that Missouri compromise that created the tremendous struggle of 1850. It was the defeat of that Missouri compromise that created the necessity for making a new compromise in 1850. Had we been faithful to the principles of the Missouri compromise in 1848, this question would not have arisen. Who was it that was faithless? I undertake to say it was the very men who now insist that the Missouri compromise was a solemn compact, and should never be violated or departed from. Every man who is now assailing the principle of the bill under consideration, so far as I am advised, was opposed to the Missouri compromise in 1848. The very men who now arraign me for a departure from the Missouri compromise, are the men who successfully violated it, repudiated it, and caused it to be superseded by the compromise measures of 1850. Sir, it is with rather bad grace that the men who proved false themselves, should charge upon me and others, who were ever faithful, the responsibilities and consequences of their own treachery.

David Wilmot, author of the insult to the South

David Wilmot

The hateful sinners against the constitutional faith of their fathers? Northern antislavery men who rallied to the despicable banner of diabolical David Wilmot.

Douglas told the truth, mostly. Free Soil men did reject the Missouri Compromise in 1850. But they rejected it for the Mexican Cession, not for the Louisiana Purchase. Douglas omitted also that Mexican law forbade slavery in that land, so Wilmot could plausibly argue that he simply wanted to keep existing law in place there. Likewise, California asked for admission to the Union as a free state. Would Douglas, Mr. Popular Sovereignty, have imposed slavery upon it? And despite his protests to the contrary few, if any, men who voted for the compromise measures in 1850 understood their votes as throwing away the Missouri Compromise. They made a new settlement for the Southwest, but not a new national order.

Furthermore, Texas annexation and the Mexican War had drawn opposition, if not quite so much as later measures did, from Free Soil quarters on the grounds that by adding territory to the nation they reopened the slavery question that the Missouri Compromise had closed. Douglas, a proud expansionist, would never say as much but the fact remains that adding territory with an uncertain future to the United States inherently raised the question of whether it would have slavery. Douglas and his fellow manifest destiny true believers, even before 1850 and Kansas-Nebraska, at least deserve a generous portion of the blame he tried to pin entirely to Chase, Wilmot, and the rest of the Free Soil contingent.

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