Douglas Defends Himself, Part One

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Salmon P. Chase asked for a week’s delay on consideration of the KansasNebraska Act so the Senate could read the thing. He also privately worried that Stephen Douglas meant to slip something wild and radical through before the northern public could wake up and make its displeasure known. Certainly Douglas’ ever-changing bill and the frequent private conferences that preceded those changes, whether with F Street, Archibald Dixon, or even the final meeting with Franklin Pierce, could not inspire confidence. Douglas yielded to Chase’s request and then read the Appeal of the Independent Democrats, written the day before Chase asked for more time. He took that as a base betrayal of trust even on top of the Appeal’s accusations about his motives.

The Little Giant came out swinging when debate opened on January 30, 1854. So many Representatives came to see the fireworks that the House lacked a quorum. I’ve dealt with some of his response in prior posts (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and important considerations), but he said more that deserves attention. Douglas began with a masterpiece of finely crafted pious hypocrisy. The Appeal

bears date Sunday, January 22, 1854. Thus it appears that, on the holy Sabbath, while other Senators were engaged in attending divine worship, these Abolition confederates were assembled in secret conclave, plotting by wheat means they should deceive the people of the United States, and prostrate the character of a brother Senators. This was done on the Sabbath day, and by a set of politicians, to advantage their own political and ambitious purposes, in the name of our holy religion.

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

True enough, Chase and the others met on Sunday and he wrote the Appeal then. The same Sunday, Stephen Douglas went up to the White House and got Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War, to pull Pierce away from observing that same Sabbath, to twist his arm until he committed to supporting Douglas’s final bill. While the Appeal’s religious language, much of which I’ve skipped over, left its authors open to charges of impiety the Little Giant had the wrong man if he thought Salmon P. Chase ignored his religious obligations. Chase grew up with his uncle Philander, an Episcopalian bishop despite the name that leaves us smirking or scratching our heads. He rarely missed a Sunday. Douglas, by contrast, rarely found a pew.

The insult probably stung Chase, but Douglas had more than that to say. Chase would have the nation believe that the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery. Douglas retorted that whatever the law said, it did not:

You prohibited slavery there by law, but you did not exclude it in fact. Illinois was a part of the northwest territory. With the exception of a few French and white settlements, it was a vast wilderness, filled with hostile savages, when the ordinance of 1787 was adopted. Yes, sir, when Illinois was organized into a territorial government it established and protected slavery, and maintained it in spite of your ordinance, and in defiance of its express prohibition. It is a curious fact, that so long as Congress said the territory of Illinois should not have slavery, she actually had it; and on the very day when you withdrew your congressional prohibition, the people of Illinois, of their own free will and accord, provided for a system of emancipation.

Douglas had the right of it. Despite what Chase said, and what most of us probably learn in school, the Northwest Ordinance did not effectively ban slavery from its jurisdiction. The Land of Lincoln once kept slaves.

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