Douglas Defends Himself, Part Five

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

After indicting the abolitionists, even the ones who proposed no abolition, Douglas wheeled back to the principle of self-determination. there he raised a question still very much open in American history, and political science in general. The abolitionists, led by diabolical schismatic Salmon P. Chase, did not oppose territorial government for Nebraska, Kansas, or anywhere else. In fact, they supported it. Precious few nineteenth century Americans did anything else. They would no more refuse to organize territories than they would vote against the proverbial Mom and Apple Pie or move to turn Washington’s tomb into an outhouse. White America must expand, no questions asked. Progress demanded it. Destiny demanded it. One could only get away with voting otherwise if a truly existential issue stood in the way, like the survival and spread of slavery. Southerners stood against Nebraska on those grounds for a decade, but they got their pound of flesh and came over, leaving Chase and company alone.

If the Independent Democrats would stand for a territorial bill, and they only objected to the slavery portions of Douglas’ so they ought to, then it raised a serious question. Did they actually believe in American democracy? Self-government, or popular sovereignty, amounted to just that. Douglas drew a line in the sand:

If the principle is right, let it be avowed and maintained. If it is wrong, let it be repudiated. Let all this quibbling about the Missouri compromise, about the territory acquired from France, about the Act of 1820, be cast behind you; for the simple question is, will you allow the people to legislate for themselves upon the subject of slavery? Why should you not?

When you propose to give them a territorial government do you not acknowledge that they ought to be erected into a political organization; and when you give them a Legislature, do you not acknowledge that they are capable of self-government? Having made that acknowledgement, why should you not allow them to exercise the rights of legislation? Oh, these Abolitionists say they are entirely willing to concede all this, with one exception. They say they are willing to trust the Territorial Legislature, under the limitations of the Constitution, to legislate upon the rights of inheritance, to legislate in regard to religion, education, and morals, to legislate in regard to the relations of husband and wife, of parent and child, of guardian and ward, upon everything pertaining to the dearest rights and interests of white men, but they are not willing to trust them to legislate in regard to a few miserable negroes. That is their single exception. They acknowledge that the people of the Territories are capable of deciding for themselves concerning white men, but not in relation to negroes. The real gist of the matter is this: Does it require any higher degree of civilization, and intelligence, and learning, and sagacity, to legislate for negroes than for white men?

There, in two paragraphs from January 30, 1854, Stephen Douglas of Illinois threw the book at Chase and the rest. If the white men who would settle Nebraska and Kansas had all the same powers there as they had in their states of origin, why did they deserve to lose them in a territory? A state could bring slavery in or cast it out and everyone trusted white men who lived and voted in states to do so. Did they become less white or less men because they moved into a territory? Surely not! Those men formed the revolutionary vanguard of progress. If anything, perhaps they deserved more deference for epitomizing the aspirations of white America.

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Of course Chase did not trust them. He knew very well that at least Kansas would probably fall to slavery. Everyone agreed that territorial legislatures, like state legislatures, had to abide by the Constitution. That meant something different in the 1800s than today, but even then states could not set up kings and queens or abolish elections. Some things Americans could simply not do by law. Did Chase propose that slavery belonged on that list? That ship sailed in the 1700s.

That raises a much wider question, though. Should we trust state or local governments with powers we would oppose if the government in Washington claimed them? My own position on this is that while the question comes up often in rhetoric, in practice most everyone of every political persuasion supports policy they support, whatever level of government enacts it and whatever other sentiments they have about who ought to do the enacting. This business of quibbling about who gets to do what simply distracts from the actual issue of substance: whether or not a policy deserves enacting.

Events in Kansas, at any rate, would later give Chase, and everyone else who didn’t love slavery and blatant electoral fraud, ample cause to doubt the virtues of local government.

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