Stephen Douglas rose on January 30, 1854 to defend himself against the accusations Salmon P. Chase made in the Appeal of the Independent Democrats (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). In that defense, he insisted that Chase had the whole history of the slavery problem wrong, and used his native Illinois (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and addendum) as the case study to prove it. Contrary to Chase’s claims, Illinois practiced slavery. Then, later, Illinois chose on its own to abolish the institution. The Northwest Ordinance did not stop them from having a try at slavery and did not force them to give it up. Illinois did both itself. Popular sovereignty, the Little Giant’s favorite solution to the slavery question, did its work even if it had not yet gained that name. Douglas went on to tell the Senate that much the same story played out in Indiana and even, on a much smaller scale, in Ohio. It went on after to play out again in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota.
He had a point. The Old Northwest did flirt with slavery. Its southern fringe had a largely southern population that brought their slavery-oriented culture with them in the first wave of settlement. But Douglas offered more to those outraged by his repeal of the Missouri Compromise. They could do more than hope for the best from local, democratic governments. The decision on slavery, he always said, came down to a question of climate and geography. White men could not work in the tropics, but black men could. Thus while the South needed slavery and could count it a positive good, the North did not and could dispense with it. Politicians did not really make the decision, but rather ratified the clear verdict of nature. So Douglas did not really propose to enslave Kansas, Nebraska, or any other territory. It just happened, like the weather. The fact that the vote came rather close and both sides hotly contested the issue at the time, despite the alleged clear verdict of nature, Douglas simply ignored.
It all just happened unless, of course, Abolitionists got in the way and tried to force things. Maybe in the stormy years around 1850, Congress imposed antislavery in the Oregon territory bill. But Congress had left Oregon without government for years. One grew up anyway and prohibited slavery on its own before Congress got involved. Much the same happened in California:
How was it in regard to California? Every one of these abolition confederates who have thus arraigned me and the Committee on Territories before the country, who have misrepresented our position, and misquoted the law and the fact, predicted that unless Congress interpose by law, and prohibited slavery in California, it would inevitably become a slave-holding state. Congress did not interfere; Congress did not prohibit slavery. There was no enactment upon the subject; but the people formed a State constitution, and then prohibited slavery.
See, Abolitionists? You don’t need a legal ban on slavery, imposed from Washington, to keep it out. When you predicted that Congressional silence would enslave Utah and New Mexico, we stayed silent and made it an experiment. They remained free. Both territories did pass slave codes later in the decade, but Douglas couldn’t know that in 1854. This all amounts to no more than a bunch of folderol.
Like Chase, Douglas took some liberties here. Mexican law had made the Mexican Cession free soil. One can plausibly argue, and David Wilmot did, that the law stood unless Congress overruled it. That law, and the uncertainty of slavery in the west, helped keep it away in ways that an explicit repeal of an earlier ban would not. The Lower South furthermore had plenty of wide open space to expand still in Texas and Arkansas. Missouri, however, had Kansas just over the border from its most enslaved region. Chase’s fear of an enslaved Great Plains looks much more reasonable in light of that.