Douglas Defends Himself, Part Three

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas turned the abolitionists’ arguments back on them. The Northwest Ordinance did not really stop slavery. Popular sovereignty did. The abolitionists, by provoking proslavery elements, frustrated their own purposes. The enemies, roused against them, demanded the reversal of past concessions to freedom. Douglas ought to know, as he stood to defend the latest such concessions. They had the whole history of the issue wrong, he insisted. He offered up his native Illinois as the counterexample (parts 1234, and addendum). But Douglas did not rest on the story of Illinois:

I know of but one Territory of the United States where slavery does exist, and that one is where you have prohibited it by law, and it is this very Nebraska Territory. In defiance of the eighth section of the act of 1820 [the Missouri Compromise slavery ban -FP], in defiance of Congressional dictation, there have been, not many, but a few slaves introduced. I heard a minister of the Gospel the other day conversing with a member of the Committee on Territories upon this subject. This preacher was from that country; and a member put this question to him: “Have you any negroes out there?” He said there were a few held by the Indians. I asked him if there were not some held by white men? He said there were a few, under peculiar circumstances, and he gave an instance: An Abolition missionary, a very good man, had gone there from Boston, and he took his wife with him. He got out into the country, but could not get any help; hence he, being a kind-hearted man, went down to Missouri and gave $1,000 for a negro, and took him up there as “help.” [Laughter.] So, under peculiar circumstances, when these Free Soil and Abolition preachers and missionaries go into the country, they can buy a negro for their own use, but they do not like to allow any one else to do the same thing. [Renewed laughter.]

That tall tale, where Douglas carefully names no names, has a nugget of truth in it. The New World always had too much land and not enough white people to steal it from the Indians and then put it to the uses Europeans preferred. If not enough people could come over to settle and work the land, and the people already settled and working the land came in entirely the wrong color and proved less than cooperative, economic development demanded slavery. Enslaving black people only took off in Virginia when the English economy improved and fewer people wanted to sell themselves over on indentures. Douglas’s fabled missionary had the same problem that brought slavery to Virginia, to Illinois, and spread it across the American South.

That incentive to enslave would persist:

I have no doubt that whether you organize the Territory of Nebraska or not this will continue for sometime to come. It certainly does exist, and will increase as long as the Missouri compromise applies to the Territory; and I suppose it will continue for a little while during their territorial condition, whether a prohibition is imposed or not. But when settlers rush in-when labor becomes plenty, and therefore cheap, in that climate, with its productions, it is worse than folly to think of its being a slave-holding country. I do not believe there is a man in Congress who thinks it could be permanently a slave-holding country. I have no idea that it could.

See, Chase? Prohibiting slavery only ends up letting it in regardless. Even abolitionists will introduce slavery, according to the story Douglas made up just then. It will come or go on its own and all you’re doing is making a fuss and upsetting the slaveholders. Let the people on the ground decide and a little slavery will come, but then in time whites will choke it out because the climate and land don’t suit it and do suit white settlement.

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