Should We Honor Confederate Soldiers?

The Confederate Memorial Monument at the Alabama Capitol. Jefferson Davis laid its cornerstone.

The Confederate Memorial Monument at the Alabama Capitol. Jefferson Davis laid its cornerstone.

Gentle Readers, I need a short break from the Congressional Globe transcripts and have meant to write about this since last week. So here goes.

I take my title from Brooks Simpson’s post asking the same question. I don’t think we should, but the question warrants some unpacking. Not honoring Confederate soldiers does not also entail that we should go around smashing up their headstones, installing sewers that empty into their graves, dig them up and throw their remains in the garbage, bulldoze their battlefield memorials, or anything like that. It does not require that we endlessly castigate them. It certainly doesn’t require that we adopt a hostile attitude toward their descendants, who no more chose their ancestors than the rest of us did.

I say that we should not honor these men because the word implies something more than recognition or understanding. It carries with it a kind of endorsement. Honoring someone entails celebrating them and their deeds, paying tribute. Only the great war of rebellion to defend and preserve slavery brings all of those men, and probably some women, together. Whatever their individual motives, whatever sacrifices they endured, however that war traumatized them, they signed on to armies pledged to the cause of slavery. I don’t know how, short of some very selective attention, one separates them from their ultimate cause.

But even if we can, should we? I know that some people have a very strong emotional commitment to the idea of the military as a noble profession, perhaps the noblest. They would probably argue that these men demonstrated great bravery and endured great sacrifices and that warrants our respect. I don’t agree because you can say that about every soldier who goes off to war, whether the soldier joined on to steal Cuba, to break away from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, or to purge Europe of Jews, Communists, Roma, Homosexuals, and other allegedly inferior people. From that one could pivot to saying that the soldiers fought for what they believed in. Probably they did, but what did they believe in, precisely? I can think of a great many ideals, some of which I just listed, that don’t deserve celebration, let alone fighting and killing for.

All of this talking around the fact, however heartfelt, does something that I would think most people insistent on honoring Confederate soldiers would find very problematic indeed. It sidesteps the question of what they did fight for and ignores what individual motives may have impelled them to take up arms. Does one really honor a person by reducing them to a blank icon for veneration? Perhaps so, but it seems very strange to me. They did not make people out of marble in the past, but of flesh and blood just like they do now. I confess that my personal inclinations run very much the opposite direction, but my intense antipathy for the Confederacy’s cause does not demand that I turn every man in gray into a bloodthirsty devil or every Union man into a moral titan.

Ultimately I don’t think that any of the dead deserve honoring. We owe the dead nothing; they’ve had all that they could ever be given and have no use for more. But we owe ourselves the truth about the dead, their times, their virtues and faults. They, like us, had their share of great humanitarians and great villains. Like us, the great and good among them could have horrifying personal failings and the scorned and infamous could have surprising moments of humanity. Their times produced our own, but are not our own. They did not simply rehearse our struggles, but had their own. We should imagine them complexly.

I suppose all of this amounts to saying that we would do better to understand the dead than to honor them. In turn that deeper understanding of the past can deepen our understanding of the present and the long, difficult road from there to here.

Bell’s Dissent, Part Three

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Part 1, 2)

John Bell came out against Kansas-Nebraska after carefully voting for it at every procedural step along the way. Whatever his reasons, I grant him a little slack there. His wing of his party supported the bill and the least one should expect from party members is that they vote with the party in the preliminaries, even if they vote against the final bill. If one has no expectation of at least that, in what way does the group really qualify as a political party? Bell did vote against the bill when it really counted, even if he could have easily voted for it and changed nothing about the outcome.

In explaining why, Bell first insisted that the territory had nowhere near enough white settlers to justify organization. Congress traditionally waited for quite a few more. His second objection involved the Indians, just as Houston’s concerns did:

My second objection to the Nebraska bill of the last session was, that it proposed to organize a territorial government, and to throw open for settlement the whole extent of the country lying west of Missouri and Iowa, which is now Indian territory, guarded and protected against the intrusion of a white population by a statute of thirty sections, besides the faith of treaties applicable to numerous emigrant tribes; thus bringing an unnecessary pressure upon the while Indian tribes, and tending to drive them to desperation, by the destruction of the principal source of their subsistence, the buffalo, which, you know, sir, will disappear upon the first clear crack of the frontier rifle, and the ominous appearance of the settler in the neighborhood of their haunts.

That happened, of course, though the buffalo managed to narrowly survive it. The buffalo once ranged as far east as Pennsylvania, down into Mexico, and as far north as Alaska. By 1890, all of 750 remained. Likewise who could argue with the proposition that Indians turned decidedly hostile to whites when whites broke their word, stole land, and otherwise mistreated them? Even if one saw Indians as hopeless savages, as many nineteenth century Americans did, their wrath could imperil isolated white settlers. If Kansas and Nebraska turned into a killing ground for white pioneers, that defeated the whole purpose of opening them to settlement.

Bell, like Houston, had a personal investment here. In his days in the House, Bell chaired the Committee on Indian Affairs and wrote the Indian Removal Act. In addition to worrying about the national honor, he probably saw the matter as touching on his own. He wrote the law that promised the Indians lands west of the Mississippi forever and now Stephen Douglas proposed taking those lands away. But, as befitting the author of the aforementioned law, Bell did not have Houston’s bleeding heart:

I have always differed from my friend from Texas, [Mr. Houston,] and others, who have maintained that the Indian race is susceptible of as high a development of their mental faculties as the white race, and that all their misfortunes are to be attributed to the encroachments of the white man upon their lands. I have never been so hopeful of the results of the experiments which are making to civilize and elevate their condition. I have always held the opinion, that all the Government can do for them, under any plan which may be adopted to wean them from their ancestral habits, and to induce them to cultivate the arts of civilized life, will have no other result than to postpone the period of their final extinction; and that, in the meantime, imbecility, despondency, and indolence, will be their characteristic traits. I believe that the highest development of the Indian character is only to be found in their normal or primitive condition, and before their proud spirit has been bowed by conquest.

Bell’s preferred Indian policy then involved something like sending them far away from white people and waiting for them to die out. They needed their reservations largely to ensure the safety and peace of white Americans.

Bell’s Dissent, Part Two

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Part One.)

Tennessee’s John Bell objected to Douglas’ previous bill a year ago, even without the repeal of the Missouri Compromise written into it. Bell waited until a late hour, the day of the vote, to give full vent to his opinions. In the interim, by his own admission, Bell voted with the majority of the South on every stage of the Kansas-Nebraska act’s journey through the Senate machinery. He knew a majority of them supported repealing the Missouri Compromise, but Bell did not want to rush to a conclusion on the matter himself. Probably Bell also hoped the coalition for the bill would fall apart and spare him having to go out on a limb and face the united wrath of the Southern Whigs and the Democracy. Several times in his remarks he takes pains to emphasize his sympathy with his fellow Southerners and lash out at abolitionists. Ultimately, Bell decided he could not stand with the South:

My first objection to the Nebraska bill of the last session of congress was, that there was no necessity for the measure; that it was a novelty in the legislation of this country; that as far back as I remembered it was an anomally [sic] in the practice of the Government to propose to organize territorial governments over a large extent of territory in which there were no white inhabitants. I mean no white inhabitants except those who were the officials of the Government, soldiers, missionaries, or licensed traders; no white population to demand the protection and security of a territorial government. On looking over the report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, I find the statement, that as late as October last, there were but three white men in the whole of that vast territory, except the class already alluded to. There may be four or five hundred, or more, now, for anything that I know; but I still think and maintain that this measure is uncalled for at this time.

In short, Bell saw the whole bill as needless. Organize a government for four or five hundred whites? Who lived there in defiance of the Non-Intercourse Act? That hardly looked then, or now, like a dire emergency which warranted both haste and disregard for deep sectional understandings. Bell granted the wisdom of having a chain of white settlement connecting the old West along the Mississippi to the new West along the Pacific, but that could wait. California did not appear in immediate danger of falling to a resurgent Mexico, declaring its independence, or some other drastic step.

If settling the west with white farmers mattered, and it did to nineteenth century white Americans, then it warranted doing the job correctly. The United States had settled procedures for all of this and one of them involved waiting for substantial white settlement before establishing a territorial government. Stephen Douglas wanted to establish the government before the whites arrived, completely contrary to the usual way of doing things and establish a government for the benefit and protection of, essentially, nobody in the hopes that its presence would draw in the settlers. The whole situation looked curiously backwards.

Bell’s Dissent, Part One

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

Unlike Sam Houston (12345, 6), Tennessee’s John Bell waited until the eleventh hour before delivering his big speech against the KansasNebraska Act. Both men, probably from the start, knew that they couldn’t change much. Douglas had the F Street patriarchs behind him and they largely controlled the Senate. He also had the party apparatus working for him, thanks to Pierce’s coerced support. Does all of that mean Houston’s and Bell’s, and indeed everyone else’s, speeches meant nothing?

Maybe. You can’t go into the Congressional Globe and read these men for long without realizing how madly they loved the sound of their own voices. I very much doubt any modern Senate speeches make any real difference in votes, unless someone makes a gaffe that could hurt come reelection time. People simply do not change their positions, especially on weighty issues, on a dime. The men in the Senate then cared about slavery and the Missouri Compromise as much as senators do any major issue today.  Houston, Bell, and all the rest clearly spoke with an eye toward the newspapers and posterity more than their peers. But at the same time, back then they actually lived in Washington, often together, for the duration of sessions and so probably had a lot more opportunity to influence one another than today’s politicians that fly home every Wednesday or Thursday.

Rising on March 3, in the session that ended with the Senate’s vote on the bill, John Bell did not expect his remarks to change minds. He began in resignation:

I feel greatly embarrassed in undertaking to address the Senate at this time, particularly since the sentiment of the body has been so decidedly expressed, not only in regard to the feature which is considered the most important in the bill, but in regard to every other to which I propose to address my remarks. I regret, sir, that I feel under any necessity to trespass at all upon the attention of the Senate, upon this subject; and particularly when I observe the solicitude of the friends of the bill for its immediate passage. But the relations in which I stand to this measure, I think, forbid me to forebear. My own self-respect would forbid that I should forebear, however painful it may be to me to express any views in opposition to a measure which seems to commend itself to the almost unanimous approval and support of my southern friends.

Bell reminded the Senate that he opposed even the repeal-free version of the bill that came up last Congress. He sat on the Committee on Territories, but had not supported changing the bill to include the repeal. When it came up before them, Bell was not in town. Still, the bill came through his committee and Bell had some explaining to do if he wanted to oppose it:

I saw that the objections I had urged to the Nebraska bill of the last session of Congress would apply to the measure then before the committee; and my impressions against the expedience of introducing any clause affecting the Missouri Compromise were strong; but as I had not considered the proposition in all its aspects, I agreed that the amendment might be reported; but as the honorable chairman of the committee will do me the justice to admit, I did so with the express reservation of the privilege of opposing the passage of the bill, if, upon careful examination of the subject, I should feel it my duty to do so.

I can only speculate, but this all has a whiff of Bell never expecting the bill to come near passage and so passing the buck back in committee. At any rate, Douglas agreed that Bell had his reservations and reserved the option to vote against the committee’s work. Bell proceeded to do just that.

Houston’s Dissent, Part Six

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Previous Parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

I ended yesterday with Sam Houston asking what calamity befell that justified abandoning a solemn constitutional pact between the sections, the Missouri Compromise, and opening the Great Plains to slavery. No such need had existed in far more dangerous times for the Union, all of four years prior. In that case, no prior settlement explicitly covered slavery in the Mexican Cession.

Houston would probably have joined Douglas in condemning free soil men like David Wilmot for getting in the way of extending the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific. Douglas repeated that charge to defend himself on Kansas-Nebraska. The argument over whether or not the free soilers opened Pandora’s box in the late 1840s could go around in circles forever. Many, though not all, of them opposed the Mexican War on the grounds that taking land from Mexico inherently reopened the issue, so they could point their fingers right back at the pro-war and proslavery contingent.

One could make a case either way.  Southern politicians, with rare exceptions like Thomas Hart Benton, had their fingers fairly glued to antislavery politics. The abolitionists provoked. They agitated. To satisfy Southern honor, they must manfully resist. They acted, they offended, and the South could not help but respond. The more moderate, and secure in their seats, might pretend to be above it all and point their fingers both ways. Houston would have none of that and set his sights on overthrowing that comfortable Southern orthodoxy:

at one time it was apprehended that the class of politicians in our country, denominated as Abolitionists, would attempt to agitate, and, if possible, to procure a repeal of the fugitive slave law. That was threatened in the newspapers. The New York Tribune, among others, denounced that law, and proclaimed to the world that it would wage unceasing war upon it until its repeal was accomplished. But, sir, that discordant note had died away before this Congress had assembled. The requiem of Abolition seemed to have been sung. If there were ultras in the South, their dissatisfaction were silenced; they had acquiesced in this great healing measure; and the wounds which had afflicted the body-politic were cicatrized and well. I rejoiced in it; every patriot in the land rejoiced in it.

I had to look it up: citatrized means healed by scarring.

Houston would hear no abolitionist blaming this time. No David Wilmot came forward to provoke confrontation. They could not pin this one on Salmon P. Chase, who wrote only to oppose a measure already before the Congress. This matter did not involve Southern pride, for Houston if not for others. It did not touch on the prickly honor of slaveholders. It did not come out of genuine ambiguities or changed circumstance. The offensive came from from the South. In Kansas-Nebraska, Southern radicals had a purely gratuitous, invented crisis. He would not stand for it:

if it were opposing the whole world, with the convictions of my mind and heart, I would oppose to the last by all means of rational resistance the repeal of the Missouri compromise, because I deem it essential to the preservation of this Union, and to the very existence of the South. It has heretofore operated as a wall of fire to us. it is a guarantee for our institutions. Repeal it, and there will be no line of demarkation. Repeal it, and you are putting the knife to the throat of the South, and it will be drawn. No event o the future is more visible to my perception that that, if the Missouri compromise is repealed, at some future day the South will be overwhelmed.

Houston’s Dissent, Part Five

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston opposed Stephen Douglas’ reopening of Kansas and Nebraska to slavery out of concern for the Indians, personal sentiment, and political commitment. He cared about the Indians from his time living among them and marrying one. He personally signed on to the Missouri Compromise and voted for its extension over Oregon. He saw Texas as legally obliged to hew to it by the terms of its annexation and Houston had probably a better claim than anybody then alive to the title Mr. Texas. He believed the Missouri Compromise right, proper, and vitally important to keeping the peace and keeping the Union. The law brought the United States prosperity and peace enough to call it providential and proclaim it a solemn compact.

When politicians, then or now, get mystical about work they or they predecessors did it bears a closer look. No shortage of elected officials have invented sacred pledges and solemn compacts that “everyone agreed to” out of thin air. Houston knew as much and brought out the evidence. Between the Missouri Compromise and the Armistice, Congress settled the slavery question. Everyone at the time thought so. They wrote it into the Democratic party platform:

Resolved, That the Democratic party will resist all attempts at renewing, in Congress or out of it, the agitation of the slavery question, under whatever shape or color the attempt may be made.

Franklin Pierce signed on to that platform in a letter declaring that he did so not out of obligation, but because he genuinely agreed with it. In his inaugural, he said:

I fervently hope that the question is at rest, and that no sectional, or ambitious, or fanatical excitement may again threaten the durability of our institutions or obscure the light of our prosperity.

Houston applauded all of that:

I had hoped that so long as I might be connected with this Government, or even in the shades of retirement, if I should have the felicity of reaching them in quiet, I might live in peace, under my own vine and fig tree, with none in all the land to disturb me by agitation.

At the time, nobody thought the Missouri Compromise repealed. It and the Armistice together finished all debate. Everyone lined up to support it, except the fire-eaters and abolitionists. Neither of those, nor both together, comprised a majority of Americans. They voted for Franklin Pierce on those grounds. They voted for the Democracy on those grounds. They lived under that law, even if they grumbled a bit about it. It sounds very much like a consensus.

Then, if that was a finality at that time, why is it not a finality now? What harm has resulted from the Missouri compromise from that time to the present? What new intelligence has sprung upon us? What new light has dawned which requires the annihilation of a solemn compact made between the two sections of this Republic, and from which harmony has resulted?

What could possibly have happened in a mere four years to warrant reopening the slavery question, when everyone save some radicals on either side considered it closed? And then go on to rail against traitor Democrats who stuck closer to the party platform from outside the party than the law’s proponents did within it? Houston asked a question that Stephen Douglas couldn’t answer with his fairy tale about how Congress secretly, even accidentally, repealed the Missouri compromise in 1850. Nor, of course, could he tell the Senate that F Street, Phillip Phillips, and Archibald Dixon twisted his arm until agreed to do it.


Fair warning: this post has little to nothing to do with the Civil War, slavery, or any of that. That content will be back come Monday or, if I get inspired in the heat of the moment, sooner.

One of the first adult books I recall buying was a historical atlas. Back in the day, I asked for a globe for Christmas. That was around 1989, so it stopped matching the actual world rather quickly. I asked for another one.  I once bought a world almanac* and went to the country section, made a list of countries I did not know on sight, and looked them all up on a large world map. When I inherited a collection of National Geographic many years ago, I went through and extracted all the maps. A few years ago I got the DVD collection and started randomly paging through. Way back in the 1890s I found a map of the western United States marking things I did not recognize so I started reading the article accompanying it. Penetrating the rather academic nineteenth century prose took a bit, but I eventually realized that the Geographic, as it liked to call itself in those days, had given me a map of the state of land survey in the West.

I smiled and clapped my hands like a little boy (yes, really) because that map told me so much about late nineteenth century America. If the land was not surveyed, it wasn’t generally for sale and certainly was not heavily settled by white people. Across it I found places marked “little known.” Those tiny, and not so tiny, bits of terra incognita existed even in a nation on the verge of declaring its frontier closed. Even knowing how big a country I live in, and how much harder a time one had getting around it in the era before freeways and airplanes, that still amazes me a bit.

So yeah, I love maps. I really love historical maps. Hank Green brought that to mind today:

But I had another fun encounter with historical mapping. Yesterday I went out and picked up the September issue of National Geographic. I’ve somehow never gotten around to subscribing, but I pick up a few each year. I got this one because it promised a poster of the world without any permanent ice, a prospect both horrifying and fascinating. I’ve seen such maps before online, but I really wanted to have a great big one I could put up on my wall. I got home and immediately pulled out the map insert. I opened it and found…very little in the way of blue seas. Instead I had a mostly white world map. Furthermore, the map did not seem up to National Geographic’s modern standards. It was very plain and cramped. I almost put it up, but happened on the legend hiding in the South Pacific. There the map called itself:

The World prepared especially for The National Geographic Magazine, Gilbert Grosvenor, Editor, showing the political divisions, including those established after the World War.

It’s a reprint, because this is National Geographic’s 125th anniversary year. This one dates to 1922 and comes dripping with details about the world the year my grandfather turned eight. Trunk line railroads share space with airplane routes of three kinds (in operation, authorized but not yet in operation, and flown but not yet commercially adopted) and the average limit of icebergs and pack ice.

But overall, the map is about political borders for a very interesting era indeed. The World War has just ended. The great European land empires have gone, torn apart by their indigenous nationalist movements and the victorious Entente, but the European and American overseas empires still stand. In the South Pacific, the Japanese have a League of Nations mandate over the islands they took from the Germans. Their orange color also spreads over Korea, labeled Choson (Korea), An inch or two further over, China is much smaller. Partitioned out from it are Mongolia, which was an imperial possession until not long before, Inner Mongolia (Outer Mongolia is the one we have on our maps.), Tibet, and Sinkiang.

Did most Westerners in 1922 really understand those as separate places from China? I know they generally lived under Imperial remit in a kind of quasi-feudal situation before the Chinese Civil War really kicked into high gear, and that the British had launched independent diplomatic missions into Tibet in the nineteenth century, but I didn’t realize it that they saw it as a separate nation so early on. I thought that came later, in the 1930s or 1940s.

Africa, of course, wears European colors. Only Ethiopia and Liberia can claim native rule, and Liberia’s claim is a bit shaky. American rubber interests really ran the nation.

Over in Europe I find the more familiar time capsule, a map that matches quite closely the one any student of the Second World War knows with its Polish Corridor, but the border of Poland stretches up oddly as territory that Poland seized from Lithuania a few years earlier hasn’t yet been incorporated. Down in Greece, the map captures a brief moment in time: The Entente gave the Greeks large parcels of land on what we would call the Turkish coast. The Turks did not stand for that or other concessions forced on the Ottoman Empire, tossed the Sultan out, and waged a successful war to reverse most of them, leaving Turkey with its modern boundaries. By the end of 1922, they had won that war. The treaty to end it would come in the middle of 1923. A year later, or two years prior, this map would be entirely different.

Maybe you require a little bit of cartographic obsession to appreciate it, but there’s an amazing amount of data in this map. It’s still our world, with all the continents in the right places and almost all of the nations familiar to Americans, but at the same time so profoundly alien despite less than a century between then and now.

*If I have any younger readers, you might not know about these books. I think they still get printed, but the internet ate up a lot of their usefulness. Imagine a giant book full of statistics and facts about science, geography, and so forth updated yearly. Most also had color inserts with maps of the world, broken down by continent, national flags, and things like that.

Houston’s Dissent, Part Four

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston had more than concern for the Indianspersonal sentiment, or political commitment to keep him faithful to the Missouri Compromise. I’ve mentioned before that he saw it as critical to the Union’s survival, but the man himself wrote well and at length on the subject. Houston called himself a conservative and approached the question with a conservative’s firm belief that upsetting the status quo would lead to disaster. At the time, one could dismiss that. Conservatives of every era make very similar arguments about just about everything. The decade that followed, however, proved his fears justified.

what must be the consequence if an attempt to repeal the Missouri compromise is urged upon us? Will it produce no excitement? Has it produced none? If my opposition to a measure which I conceive fraught with danger to the whole section from which I come is misconstrued to be agitation, I am responsible to my constituents. Can any one doubt that agitation will be consequent upon the adopt of the measure? Has not the Missouri compromise been of great benefit to the country? Has it not wrought wonderful changes? For more than a third of a century it has given comparative peace and tranquility to us to an extent which would never have been enjoyed had that compact not been entered into. I can well recollect the scenes which transpired at its adoption. I know what fearful apprehensions were entertained by the most sagacious, patriotic, and wise men in the land. Those apprehensions were entertained for the safety and preservation of this Union; and when that pacification was completed; when the compact was solemnly entered into between North and South, it was ratified by the national will. It was not resisted by one Legislature in the States, nor was it opposed by individuals.

Houston could have added that the Armistice measures back in 1850 never garnered such acceptance. Even radicals like Calhoun and the fire-eaters would fume, protest, and then accept the Missouri Compromise. If they could take half the nation, they could live with it despite all the talk and conspiracy about secession.

But Houston saw more than just sectional peace in the Missouri Compromise:

it has been of vast importance to the prosperity and glory of this country from that time to the present. Its results are impressed upon the American mind and heart, and the nation’s feelings and pride have united in sanctioning the benefits resulting from the adoption of that measure. It is a compact, a solemn compact.

Houston also credited the Compromise with allowing the nation to expand to the Pacific, the American population to grow, and the nation’s rapid economic growth. The Union that Henry Clay saved in 1820 did all of that and could only do it because the Great Compromiser saved it.

Now Stephen Douglas wanted to throw all that away. From that, to Houston, only ruin could come. With hindsight, we can only nod along and then remind ourselves that from all the death and destruction came the end of slavery. That justifies a considerable amount of ruin that often gets lost in conventional regrets. But at the time, Houston must have sounded very much like a politician stuck in the past, an old crank doddering about obsolete orthodoxies. Only one other Southern senator voted as he did. To other proslavery men, Kansas-Nebraska meant the chance to regain what they and their fathers wrongly gave away: their rights to the whole of the nation.

Houston’s Dissent, Part Three

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston stood up for the Indians and the Missouri Compromise. That might make him sound like a Southern Salmon P. Chase, and both men came up in the Democratic party, but Houston owned slaves. He had a bleeding heart for Indians, in a nineteenth century kind of way, but slavery did not much bother him. Nor did its defense much excite him. Houston, an old school Jackson man, cared about the Union. To him, the Chases and Calhouns alike upset the Union’s peace and stained its bonds. They did so gratuitously, as the Union ensured both freedom and slavery, and perversely as if one side abandoned the settlements that served the Union well then the other would do so and throw the whole matter into question. For Houston, the sensible, conservative solution came from Henry Clay in 1820: maintain the Missouri Compromise peace and the Union would endure. Given how the 1850s progressed, he had a point.

But Houston had more than ideological loyalty to the Missouri Compromise. He saw himself as personally committed to it. He quoted one of his own letters, to Carolina-born California colonizer turned Mexican land buyer James Gadsden on the subject:

As a Texan, I could not consistently have voted otherwise. The compromise forms a part of the constitution of that State, and her Senators in Congress must be bound by it so long as it constitutes a portion of her organic law. Upon her citizens, her officers and agents, in whatever capacity they may be acting, it rests with paramount authority, which admits of no waiver or dispensation.

Houston raised one of the same points that Chase had. The joint resolution that annexed Texas, which the people of Texas ratified in a referendum, allowed slavery. But should Texas later have its territory divided, that portion north of the Missouri Compromise line would fall under its provisions and be allowed no slavery.

The Missouri compromise has been repeatedly recognized and acted upon by Congress as a solemn compact between the States; and as such, it has received the sanction of each individual member of the Confederacy. I consider that the vital interests of all the States, and especially of the South, are dependent, in a great degree, upon the preservation and sacred observance of that compact. Texas, in adopting the compromise line, in compliance with the imperative demand of the other States, as a part of the price of her admission, surrendered more than one third of her territory in latitudinal extent, her right to continue the institution of slavery. This sacrifice was exacted by the southern as well as by the northern States. The sacrifice was received at the hands of Texas, and among the solemn guarantees then made to her in behalf of the Union, to the full benefit of which she is now entitled, that of preserving the Missouri compromise is, in my humble judgment, not the least in value.

Houston’s italics.

Thomas Rusk (D-TX)

Thomas Rusk (D-TX)

Houston’s fellow Texan, Thomas Jefferson Rusk, felt no particular obligation to hew to the Missouri Compromise and voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Houston did. He called it a solemn compact, words differing little from Chase’s preferred sacred pledge. Like Chase, and everyone else in Congress and the nation at large at the time, Houston did not think that the Armistice measures repealed it.

I took my ground early upon the compromise bill of 1850. I am not behind any man in devotion to it. But, previous to its adoption, I had taken my position on the Missouri compromise, and I stand there established as firmly as I now stand upon the compromise of 1850. I am the only Senator upon this floor who voted “straight out,” as they say, for every measure of the final compromise, and then for the whole collectively. […] When I voted for that, I did not suppose that I was voting to repeal the Missouri compromise.

Only one other Senator shared Houston’s distinction and he had left the Senate in the interim. If anybody in the Senate stood for the Armistice, Sam Houston did. And now Stephen Douglas, who could not match his record, stood to lecture the Senate about how they had repealed the Missouri Compromise in those votes and never noticed it? Not likely! Houston came to much the same position that Chase did on the law, even if he arrived there from a very different place.

Houston’s Dissent, Part Two

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Houston began his objection to the KansasNebraska Act by speaking at length about the injustices that Stephen Douglas and the act’s supporters would inflict upon the Indians to whom the United States had pledged that land in perpetuity. They could have it forever…unless white American decided it wanted the Indian country after all. That same story played out constantly, virtually from Jamestown onward. The colonists revolted against the British at least in part because London placed limits on how far inland they could settle, on behalf of the Indians. Houston had personal ties to the Cherokee nation and a political record that made his concern convincing, if still tightly bound to nineteenth century convictions that doing right by the Indians meant converting them to Christianity and convincing them to live as white men did.

The majority of Houston’s remarks concern the importance of the United States keeping its promises to the Indian tribes. At times, his words come across as very modern. Then a paragraph or so later Houston reminds the reader that his principles don’t mesh very well with those of modern multiculturalism. He called the bill needless, as the land in question belonged to the Indians and had no white settlers. He objected to pushing organization of Kansas, Nebraska, and the repeal of the Missouri Compromise into a single bill.

They are not to be separated, I presume, sir; and as my position in relation to the repeal of the Missouri compromise, if unexplained, might not exactly be comprehended, I must speak of it. This subject is not a new one to me. I have met it of old, not in its present phase, but in one equally as formidable and imposing as on the present occasion. Although I stood alone in the South, with the exception of a southwestern senator, [Mr. Benton, of Missouri] I expressed my opinion, and voted my principles upon it.

Houston reminded the Senate that he walked the walk on the Missouri Compromise: None of Oregon extended below its line so he voted to have the territory free. He took the political knocks for that and stuck to his guns. He opposed Douglas’ last Nebraska bill, even though it didn’t touch on the Missouri compromise, out of his sympathy with the Indians. If anything, the new bill reached farther. For that, Houston already had the Southern press attacking him. He quoted the Richmond Inquirer on the matter:

What objects Mr. Houston has in view, and what excuses he may have to attempt to gratify them, I know not. Nothing can justify this treachery; nor can anything save the traitor from the deep damnation which such treason may merit. It will, however, effect no injury; and its impotency will but add to its infamy. The man who deserts at this crisis-one affecting the future destiny of half the continent, and the perpetuity of the Union-will be consigned to a proper fate. The South, with a blush of shame, and the North with secret delight, will alike look without sympathy to the execration of a man who is destitute either of the power to benefit or to injure. ‘Hissing, but stingless,’ let the viper crawl.

The Senate gave him a round of laughter for that one. But Sam Houston didn’t take that personally. He wouldn’t lower himself to hate like that editor, who talked so much about slime. If he left any of that slime on his track, Sam Houston would just step over it. The Senate laughed at that news too. But whatever slings and arrows of editorial comment, even from a paper he knew from his Virginia childhood, Sam Houston would stick with the Missouri compromise.