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.


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.

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?

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.

The Appeal’s History Lesson, Part Two

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase recruited Thomas Jefferson as his tepid, always cautious ally in protesting the KansasNebraska Act. He wanted the Jefferson who kept slavery out of the Northwest Territory, including his Ohio home, but that Jefferson never damned slavery except in private or anonymously. He treasured the life slavery gave him with all its luxuries and privileges, even as he complained that the habits of mastery took their toll on the master’s character. Chase ignored that. Maybe he forgot in haste. Maybe he “forgot” to avoid having to water down his manifesto with an explanation of complexities that his audience might find offensive. When we make real people our heroes, we must grapple with their capacity for contradiction, for concessions we find abhorrent, and for the limits of their times and circumstances. Admitting Jefferson’s contradictions and his endless ability to yield his antislavery ideals in order to maintain his reputation as a loyal southerner would compromise that point and might rouse readers who believed in the heroic Jefferson against Chase.

Chase did not finish with Jefferson in 1787. He pressed on to the Louisiana Purchase:

In 1803, Louisiana was acquired by purchase from France. At that time there were some twenty five or thirty thousand slaves in this Territory, most of them within what is now the State of Louisiana; a few only, further north, on the west bank of the Mississippi. Congress, instead or providing for the abolition of slavery in this new Territory, permitted its continuance. In 1812 the State of Louisiana was organized and admitted into the Union with slavery.

In 1818, six years later, the inhabitants of the Territory of Missouri applied to Congress for authority to form a State constitution, and for admission into the Union. There were, at that time, in the whole territory acquired from France, outside of the State of Louisiana, not three thousand slaves.

There was no apology in the circumstances of the country for the continuance of slavery. The original national policy was against it, and not the less, the plain language of the treaty under which the territory had been acquired from France.

The national policy Chase refers to, of course, proved neither national nor a policy. The same men who barred slavery from the Northwest Territory permitted it in Tennessee and Mississippi. Thomas Jefferson tried to get a national policy through the Confederation Congress, but failed by a single vote. Even then, the entire Southern delegation save for one man voted against his plan. This sounds rather less like a national policy than a sectional one: areas adjacent to the South and settled chiefly by Southerners would have slavery.

But Chase’s citation of the Louisiana Treaty drew my eye. Did it really adopt a policy for the territory of abolition? I searched its text. The words “slave,” “slavery,” “abolition,” “emancipation,” and “manumission” do not appear at all. The word “free” appears once, in Article III:

The inhabitants of the ceded territory shall be incorporated in the Union of the United States and admitted as soon as possible according to the principles of the federal Constitution to the enjoyment of all these rights, advantages and immunities of citizens of the United States, and in the mean time they shall be maintained and protected in the free enjoyment of their liberty, property and the Religion which they profess.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

The same article includes the main substantive reference to private property, which at the time surely included resident slaves. Chase might argue that the slaves in Louisiana counted as inhabitants and so the treaty granted them “free enjoyment of their liberty” but that really stretches matters. The guarantees extended under the federal constitution very clearly did not include liberty for slaves in 1854, let alone 1803. If they did, every slave in the Union could have sued for freedom at will and expected to receive it. Some slaves did, but only if they had some exceptional grounds, like residence in a state that freed any slaves who came within its bounds for a period of time, on which to assert they deserved it. At the very least, Chase reaches far for his point. It looks very much like he dreamed it up. As understood at the time, private property in the United States included slaves. The treaty thus guarantees not abolition of slavery, but its continuance and security.

Douglas noticed. He cited the 1805 bill authorizing territorial government for Louisiana, which extended all of the Northwest Ordinance except its slavery ban to the new territory, just as it had to the Southwest Territory and Mississippi Territory. The Congress only extended the Northwest Ordinance’s slavery ban over territories that had already been under it up through 1820. When prior law did not reserve the land to freedom, Congress did not choose to free it later. If not by deliberate policy then at least by custom, the early Republic assumed slavery national and freedom reserved to locales set aside for it in 1787.

The SHPG and Lee Atwater

Over on CW Crossroads, Brooks Simpson has the latest adventures of the Facebook comments at the Southern Heritage Preservation Group. They concern themselves with proper displays of the Confederate flag (everywhere they can put it, or applaud someone else putting it) and offenses against (white, Christian, conservative) Southern heritage. That heritage, for mysterious reasons, revolves entirely around the middle portion of the 1800s. One would think nothing interesting, praiseworthy, or worthy of preservation happened after. So far as I can tell, they mostly work to preserve certain unflattering stereotypes about the South. People like this do exist, but not just in the South. So do other sorts of people, not just outside the South. I think the comments speak for themselves.

I think that we can go too far with patting ourselves on the back for making these men and women into a minority. Race relations in the United States have improved, but they have improved before and then taken a hard turn backwards. Improvement does not mean perfection; we can still do better. Too often history focuses on the happy stories with good endings and neglects those periods of backlash and retrenchment. The SHPG tells a part of that story. Few people, caught up on the wrong side of a major social or political change, suddenly decide they had it wrong and go over to the other side. Instead most of them just get quieter and find ways to rebrand their old school politics as something unrelated. This can happen through normal social mechanisms, but often conscious choices of political actors play a role:

You start in 1954 by saying ‘Nigger, nigger, nigger.’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘Nigger.’ That hurts you. It backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states rights and all that stuff and you get so abstract. Now you talk about cutting taxes and these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that’s part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract and that coded, we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. Obviously sitting around saying we want to cut taxes and we want this, is a lot more abstract than even the busing thing and a hell of a lot more abstract than nigger nigger. So anyway you look at it, race is coming on the back burner.

The SHPG certainly does not speak for the South, or even the white South. But to some degree they speak to the seedy underbelly of a style of politics once very overt that lives on, if not as healthily as it used to, under other guises and in all parts of the country.

The Appeal’s History Lesson, Part One

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Having laid out the stakes on KansasNebraska, Free Soil Senator Salmon P. Chase pressed on to a history lesson. According to Chase, Douglas, F Street, and Franklin Pierce’s White House would do more than just give over the vast plains to slavery and thus bar them to white yeoman farmers and immigrants. They would break historical faith to do so, betraying laws and institutions as ancient as any in the United States. Almost literally, Chase (born January 13, 1808) accused Douglas (born April 23, 1814) of breaking the faith of their fathers. While Free Soil men might know in their bones that Douglas and the rest of the Kansas-Nebraska party meant all of that, Chase wrote the Appeal for a broad audience and so took pains to place himself firmly in an antislavery tradition as old as the Republic:

The original settled policy of the United States, clearly indicated by the Jefferson proviso of 1784, and by the ordinance of 1787, was non-extension of slavery.

I had to look up the 1784 reference. In 1784, Virginia set itself the task of writing a new constitution. Jefferson penned a very gradual emancipation amendment for it. Slaves born after 1800, then sixteen years hence, might after a term of years have their freedom. I have this from William W. Freehling’s The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854. Freehling does not say, unless I’ve missed it in the end notes, how many years later slaves could hope for their freedom under that amendment, but Jefferson elsewhere preferred twenty-one years. The Sage of Monticello, forty-one years young, Jefferson had the brash courage of youth: he put someone else up to introducing his amendment and discreetly seconded it. When his spokesman received Virginia’s opprobrium as a traitor to his country, Jefferson dodged the worst of it. His reputation might never have recovered, had he come forward as the true author.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

I should say that Chase probably did not refer to that incident. But the episode provides an interesting contrast for the one he probably did mean. Still in the full flower of his youthful exuberance, in the very same year Jefferson did something far more astonishing than suggest maybe freeing a few slaves thirty-seven years hence. On March 1, 1784, Jefferson proposed to the Confederation Congress that the states relinquish their claims on lands west of the Appalachians to the Confederation government. Those territories would then in time join the Confederation as new states. Jefferson suggested a ban on slavery in all the new territories from the Great Lakes all the way down to Mississippi. If adopted, his plan would have made Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi all into states as free as Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, or Michigan.

Or so went the plan. The cotton boom would still have demanded the extension of slavery and doubtless Jefferson would then have advised repealing the ban at the first sign of resistance. He always took pains to yield to slaveholder objections. But Jefferson’s vision might have briefly come to pass. He found a lone Southern supporter and had the North on his side…except for one sick New Jersey delegate who stayed home when it came up for a vote.

Jefferson ultimately got half a loaf in 1787. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, kept slavery from the future Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. It did not, however, remove any slaves already there. Words pledged the Northwest Territory to freedom but the facts on the ground included a fair bit of residual slavery. Years later, John Brown would claim that seeing a slave whipped in modern Ohio set him against the institution.

Jefferson’s half a loaf, the free half of the West north of the Ohio, sits comfortably in Chase’s narrative. He and his fellows could cast himself as Jefferson men carrying on Jeffersonian traditions. Most Americans learn about the Northwest Ordinance, slavery ban and all, in school. My school, and I imagine many others, neglect the Southwest Ordinance. That law covered the Southwest Territory, modern Tennessee. The hallowed prose, from Jefferson’s pen and repeated all the way up through the Wilmot Proviso, that

There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted

appeared nowhere in the Southwest Ordinance. Every other part of the Northwest Ordinance carried over, including a legal obligation for residents to return fugitive slaves to their owners.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

If the founders intended to contain and confine slavery, as Chase insisted, Douglas rightly noted they chose rather strange methods. Douglas noted the Southwest Ordinance passing without the language of its Northwest counterpart, permitting slavery. In 1798, the founders forgot their supposed principles again by enacting another slavery-permitting clone of the Northwest Ordinance for Mississippi. So Douglas answered back:

you find upon the statute-books under Washington and the early Presidents, provisions of law showing that in the southwestern territories the right to hold slaves was clearly implied or recognized, while in the northwest territories it was prohibited. The only conclusion that can be fairly and honestly drawn from that legislation is, that it was the policy of the fathers of the Republic to prescribe a line of demarkation [sic] between free territories and slaveholding territories by a natural or a geographical line, being sure to make that line correspond, as near as might be, to the laws of climate, of production, and probably of all those other causes that would control the institution and make it either desirable or undesirable to the people inhabiting the respective territories.

Chase and his fellow Jefferson Men seized the sage of Monticello as a totem, but they got the Virginia slaveholder along with the conflicted, cautious, procrastinating antislavery man.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act: The Stakes According to the Appeal

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase (Free Soil-OH)

For everyone playing at home, yes it did take this many posts for me to notice that I’ve been misspelling Nebraska in the post titles. That’s what I get for not noticing once and then using the copy post function to carry over the tags and category for the series. I’ve fixed it now, but I hope it entertained everyone while present. Bloggers are but mortal.

But back to the nineteenth century, where Stephen Douglas vented his outrage at Salmon P. Chase’s Appeal of the Independent Democrats. Though the document might not have changed the world overnight, probably did not galvanize Southern support any more than the act itself would have, and certainly didn’t inspire resistance to Douglas’ and F Street’s repeal of the Missouri Compromise in the Kansas-Nebraska Act where none previously existed, it did express real fears felt by many in the North. Thus it deserves a closer look.

Chase began with language one might expect from a fire-eater:

As Senators and Representatives in the Congress of the United States, it is our duty to warn our constituents whenever imminent danger menaces the freedom of our institutions or the permanency of our Union.

Such danger, as we firmly believe, now impends, and we earnestly solicit your prompt attention to it.

Chase told his readers that last Congress, a Nebraska bill came up. That bill would organize the territory, but also preserve the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery within it. It passed the House and went to the Senate, where the session expired before it came to a vote. So far, so good.  But then the bill returned in the present Congress, expanded and rewritten such that it

will open all the unorganized territory of the Union to the ingress of slavery.

No more free territories, of course, meant no more free states. Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington, as already organized territories, might still come in free but that only made for three more free states. All the vast plains could supply many more slave states. Chase left no one wondering what he thought about all this:

We arraign this bill as a gross violation of a sacred pledge; as a criminal betrayal of precious rights; as part and parcel of an atrocious plot to exclude from a vast unoccupied region immigrants from the Old World, and free laborers from our own states, and convert it into a dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves.

Abolitionists consistently had trouble getting white Americans worked up about the horrors of slavery. Antislavery men of the free soil stripe didn’t necessarily care about those, let alone disinterested Northern whites. They cared very much, however, about their own rights as free white men. The bill threatened, Chase said, to give away an area more than three thousand miles in circumference, four hundred and eighty-five thousand square miles, and more than twelve times as large as his native Ohio.

This immense region, occupying the very heart of the North American continent, and larger, by thirty-three thousand square miles, than all the existing free states, excluding California–this immense region, well watered and fertile, through which the middle and northern routes from the Atlantic to the Pacific must pass–this immense region, embracing all the unorganized territory of the nation, except the comparatively insignificant district of Indian territory north of the Red river and between Arkansas and Texas, and now for more than thirty years regarded by the common consent of the American people as consecrated to freedom by statute and by compact–this immense region, the bill now before the Senate, without reason and without excuse, but in flagrant disregard of sound policy and sacred faith, purposes to open to slavery.

Chase could have oversold his point. Nothing in its text made the Missouri Compromise a sacred pact, only ordinary legislation. Congress did not, and as a matter of law probably could not, bind future Congresses from revising or repealing it. But it did have thirty years of tradition, half the nation’s history under the Constitution, behind it. The Monroe Cabinet, including Calhoun, endorsed its constitutionality. Not even a year before, everyone from Chase himself to David Rice Atchison considered the law something close to inviolate. Southerners might gripe about it, but they also accepted that the law would not change. They could live with it and even, after the Mexican War, proposed extending the Missouri Compromise line and its ban on slavery across the Mexican Cession. Henry Clay’s first compromise represented, if not quite a constitutional amendment, then at least something more than a temporary consensus. North and South alike saw the Missouri Compromise, slavery ban and all, as a fixed, regular, ordinary part of the American system of government.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act: Writing the Appeal

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

On Sunday, January 22, 1854, Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, Phillip Phillips, and the F Street patriarchs met with Franklin Pierce, told him about their repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and then got his written pledge to support it. But while they twisted the president’s arm, antislavery men met elsewhere in Washington. They could read the writing on the wall, even if they didn’t have the final version of Douglas’ bill on hand. Douglas’s original bill smelled fishy and Charles Sumner offered an amendment to reaffirm the Missouri Compromise. Then came the “clerical error“. Nobody missed the significance of Archibald Dixon’s amendment.

Someone had to do something and six congressmen appointed themselves the someones of the moment: Senators Salmon P. Chase (Free Soil-OH) and Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA), and representatives Gerrit Smith (Free Soil-NY), Joshua R. Giddings (Free Soil-OH), Edward Wade (Free Soil-OH), and Alexander De Witt (Free Soil-MA). Chase, who knew something about writing manifestos from writing the Free Soil platform in 1848, did most of the work in turning a draft by Giddings, initially meant for consumption only in Ohio, into a national statement.

Chase worked in haste to get the Appeal into the papers and so the national discourse before debate began. That haste meant some historical errors, which Douglas would pounce upon, and left him with little time to gauge likely reaction to his writing. A vehement attack on slaveholders and the northern men who would compromise with them, signed only by a small group of abolitionists, most from the same state, did not have the makings of a national movement. Some more moderate voices who opposed the bill might have helped greatly, but Chase’s rhetoric ensured that he would receive no such signatures. Allan Nevins accuses the work of solidifying Southern support behind Douglas, but that seems hard to credit. The natural tenor of Southern loyalty politics would have demanded that any politician who wanted to keep his seat rally behind this latest radical proslavery advance. Who would give his opponent in the next election the charge that he voted to deny the South its share of the national trust and national future? If not Chase’s Appeal, then fears for reelection would have likely done the same work. The North hardly needed more cause to object than the South did to consent and major papers had already turned on the act by the time the Appeal hit the presses.

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

In addition to outraging the South, Chase sent Douglas into a fury. He believed that Chase honestly requested a week to consider the bill before debating it. Then he got a copy of the Appeal from a correspondent in Ohio and read treachery into it. The Little Giant went to his grave believing that Chase and Sumner asked delay only to let them hijack national debate with lies and heap slanders upon him. He needed only see the date of publication to know they had the Appeal up their sleeves when the moved for a week of consideration.

But did they? However extreme the Appeal’s language, it spoke to an honest and real fear in the white North that politicians would sell their share of the nation’s trust in a corrupt backroom deal. Fears that proslavery politicians conspired to subvert national institutions had lived in antislavery circles for ages, even if such conspiracies usually boiled down to a disciplined, unified minority using its power to subvert majority aims through normal political processes. The timing might seem to indict Chase and Sumner’s motives as well, but they could not have known that Douglas would agree to give the Senate a week. They may very well have expected to begin debate that day.

Both parties undertook something a little like, but ultimately different from, conspiracy: Douglas with F Street and Pierce and Chase and Sumner with their four cohorts, but in each case they connived only to plot strategy and compose legislation and its response. They worked in secret, but only temporarily so and only to ends and with means that they made public in short order. That doesn’t make for much of a conspiracy, whether the one Douglas saw working against him or the one Chase, Sumner, et al saw working against them.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act: Opposition

A contemporary map of the territories. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

A contemporary map of the territories. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

The Kansas-Nebraska Act changed forms rapidly. I have tried to keep up with that in the various posts, but a summary timeline might help:

  • Wednesday, January 4, 1854: Douglas introduces a new version of the Nebraska bill, repeating the slavery language used in the New Mexico and Utah territorial bills and leaving the Missouri Compromise untouched.
  • Tuesday, January 10, 1854: Douglas adds a section he claims “clerical error” omitted to the bill, which more strongly passed the slavery buck to territorial legislatures but still did not repeal the Missouri Compromise. Phillip Phillips and other Democrats begin to lean on Douglas to make more concessions.
  • Sunday, January 15, 1854: Dixon dictates his amendment to the Nebraska bill to his wife.
  • Monday, January 16, 1854: Archibald Dixon submits his radical repeal amendment to the bill.
  • Wednesday, January 18, 1854: Douglas goes for his fateful carriage ride with Dixon and comes out committed to repeal of the Missouri Compromise. On or about the same time, Douglas agrees to split the territory into Kansas and Nebraska.
  • Thursday, January 19, 1854: Douglas agrees to let Phillip Phillips write the slavery language for the bill, asking him to find the least radical phrasing that F Street will approve.
  • Friday, January 20, 1854: The Washington Union prints its last editorial condemning the repeal plan.
  • Saturday, January 21, 1854: The Pierce cabinet meets and most disapprove of repealing the compromise. They suggest to Douglas that he refer the matter to the courts. F Street rejects the idea. Late this night, the committee decide they have a workable bill with the repeal language and the territorial split in place, and resolve to report it out Monday.
  • Sunday, January 22, 1854: Douglas, the F Streeters, and Jefferson Davis call on Pierce and strongarm him into signing off on the repeal. The Washington Union endorses repeal and soon calls supporting it a test of party loyalty.
  • Monday, January 23, 1854: Douglas introduces the final form of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
  • Tuesday, January 24, 1854: Douglas moved for the Senate to consider his new bill. Dixon announced his support as a proslavery man. The Senate agreed to hold off for a week so that members could read the bill thoroughly.
  • Monday, January 30, 1854: The Senate opens debate on the bill.

For much of this time, deliberation happened in secret. F Street approved the repeal language in a literal smoke-filled back room. Douglas and Dixon rode alone together on that fateful carriage ride. Phillip Phillips pleaded with F Street in private. The speed and secrecy had meant little initial outcry. But the various revisions to the bill and all the activity drew some attention. Douglas and Pierce had to expect a northern democratic revolt and antislavery men did not nod at the wheel, as Stephen Douglas archly noted when he rose to open debate on the bill on January 30th:

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

It will be born in mind that the Senator from Ohio [Mr. Chase], then objected to consideration of the bill, and asked for its postponement until this day, on the ground that there had not been time to understand and consider its provisions; and the Senator from Massachusetts [Mr. Sumner] suggested that the postponement be for one week, for that purpose. These suggestions seeming to be reasonable to Senators around me, I yielded to their request, and consented to the postponment of the bill until this day.

Sir, little did I suppose at the time that I granted that act of courtesy to those two Senators, that they had drafted and published to the world a document, over their own signatures, in which they arraigned me as having been guilty of a criminal betrayal of my trust, as having been guilty of an act of bad faith, and been engaged in an atrocious plot against the cause of free government. Little did I suppose that those two Senators had been guilty of such conduct when they called upon me to grant that courtesy, to give them an opportunity of investigating the substitute reported from the committee. I have since discovered that on that very morning the National Era, the Abolition organ in this city, contained an address, signed by certain Abolition confederates, to the people, in which the bill is grossly misrepresented, in which the action of the members of the committee is grossly falsified, in which our motives are arraigned, and our characters calumniated. And, sir, what is more, I find that there was a postscript added to the address, published that very morning, in which the principal amendment reported by the committee was set out, and then coarse epithets applied to me by name.

Douglas referred to a manifesto titled Appeal of the Independent Democrats in Congress to the People of the United States: Shall slavery be permitted in Nebraska? The full text appears elusive online, but it begins in the Congressional Globe for the 33rd Congress on page 281. I use the archive fairly extensively, but direct linking to it seems not to work very well. The previous link is the best I can do. Sorry.