The Appeal’s History Lesson, Part Six

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon Chase pointed his finger at Stephen Douglas, the villain who would profane the statute books with his dastardly repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Stephen Douglas pointed his finger at Salmon Chase and his fellow antislavery men for the same reason. Neither had all the facts on his side. Both, as people do, selected those facts which helped their argument and ignored or found reasons to excuse those that harmed it. Both men argued that a national policy on slavery existed, if with a few bumps and detours, from the earliest days of the Republic. Chase imagined a policy that limited slavery with an eye to its eventual end. Douglas imagined one where impersonal, natural lines of climate and geography made the decisions about slavery and then local governments recognized them.

But the Appeal of the Independent Democrats did not limit itself to questions of remote history. Chase took aim at Douglas’ preferred evasion:

It is said that the Territory of Nebraska sustains the same relations to slavery as did the territory acquired from Mexico prior to 1850, and that the pro-slavery clauses of the bill are necessary to carry into effect the compromises of that year.

No assertion can be more groundless.

Three acquisitions of territory have been made by treaty. The first was from France. Out of this territory have been created the three slave States of Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri, and the single free State of Iowa. The controversy which arose in relation to the then unorganized portion of this territory was closed in 1820 by the Missouri act, containing the slavery prohibition, as has already been stated. This controversy related only to the territory acquired from France. The act by which it was terminated was confined, by its own express terms, to the same territory, and had no relation to any other.

For Florida, the nation chose slavery. For the Mexican Cession:

The controversy which arose from this acquisition is fresh in the remembrance of the American people. Out of it sprung the acts of Congress, commonly known as the compromise measures of 1850, by one of which California was admitted as a free state; while two others, organizing the Territories of new Mexico and Utah, exposed all the residue of the recently acquired territory to the invasion of slavery.

These acts were never supposed to abrogate or touch the existing exclusion of slavery from what is now called Nebraska. Thea applied to the territory acquired from Mexico, and to that only. They were intended as a settlement of the controversy growing out of that acquisition, and of that controversy only. They must stand or fall on their own merits.

I probably sound too influenced by the last man I read here, but Chase has a point. Even if later on people came to see the Missouri Compromise as part of an unwritten constitution, the law only said what it said. As I’ve read the back and forth between the Appeal and Douglas’ rebuttal, both understandings strike me as at least reasonable. Certainly the nation never explicitly adopted a single policy on slavery. It chose complete exclusion in the Northwest Ordinance, but then territorial partition in the Missouri Compromise. It chose free expansion in the Southwest Ordinance, in Florida, and the Mississippi territory. One could call those decisions popular sovereignty. For California, which chose freedom, one could say the same. For Utah and New Mexico, the nation chose no policy at all.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

One can generalize any number of policies from the record, each with strong points for and against it. Chase and Douglas agreed on probably the hardest point to sustain: that a national policy existed at all.

Chase went on to point out that David Rice Atchison himself understood all of that and accepted the permanence of the Missouri Compromise just last March, quoting him directly:

It is evident that the Missouri compromise cannot be repealed. So far as that question is concerned, we might as well agree to the admission of this Territory now as next year, or five, or ten years hence.

Why would Atchison say such a thing, if he thought that he and his fellow senators repealed the Missouri Compromise three years before? Furthermore, Chase produced sections of the compromise acts that preserved the Missouri Compromise explicitly. He even dug up a section written by James Mason, Mr. Fugitive Slave Act, in the New Mexico territory act, repeating the extension of the compromise line across Texas, should Congress carve future states from it.

It is solemnly declared, in the very compromise acts, “that nothing herein contained shall be construed to impair or qualify” that prohibition of slavery north of 36°30′; and yet, in the face of this declaration, that sacred prohibition is said to be overthrown. Can presumption further go?

At least on the point that Congress repealed the Missouri Compromise in 1850, Douglas clearly and consciously lied.

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