The Prospects of Slavery in Kansas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

After questioning his observance of the sabbath, disputing his history, and demanding to know why Salmon P. Chase did not trust white men to make laws governing blacks when he trusted them to make laws on every other subject, Stephen Douglas once more insisted that his repeal of the Missouri Compromise amounted to no repeal at all. They tossed it back in 1850 and, improbably, nobody noticed. He further insisted that all the concern over slavery amounted to starting at phantoms: Kansas would never have it due to the clear dictates of climate.

Douglas may very well have believed that. The notion that nature did set firm lines on what land suited slavery and what did not formed an article of faith for many moderate or disinterested men on the issue. Even the proslavery propagandists of the 1850s agreed and many admitted that slavery might not belong in Maryland or Virginia’s chilly climes. After all, the institution boomed in the Cotton Kingdom further south. That never pleased the large slaveholders still living in Virginia or Maryland, who could reach extremes just as great as any Deep South slavery man, but the idea that slavery had natural frontiers sat easily in the nineteenth century zeitgeist. The fact that it also passed responsibility for expanding or containing the institution from men to the heavens certainly enhanced its appeal.

But slavery turned profits in Missouri. Men transmuted blood and pain into silver and gold with philosopher’s stones made of hemp, tobacco, and wheat just as they did with those made of cotton and sugar. The latter made for bigger profits than the former, but a diversified Border State or Middle South plantation could support a planter and family in comfort and luxury too. Kansas sat right next door to Missouri, on the same latitude with it and Kentucky and Virginia. For the past decade, hemp planters had gradually decamped from Kentucky for virgin Missouri lands. Allen Nevins points out (in Ordeal, page 116) that by the mid-1850s Missouri’s hemp crop exceeded Kentucky’s. The price of the commodity rose, even with increased production. Missouri’s prime hemp land ran along the Missouri river, hard up on the border with Kansas. If the Missouri river did not stop there, and it did not, why should hemp cultivation?

Douglas did not, of course, poll the Senate before he insisted that no one in the room believed Kansas fit for slavery. He had to know other men in the chamber disagreed. They could read the maps and see the Missouri keep flowing. They could locate the hemp belt. That did not ensure slavery for Kansas, but at least opened a door to it. The potential of an enslaved Kansas, in their minds, rested less on the climate or the geography and more on the uncertain future of slavery under the law. Who would risk valuable slave property in a territory that might to go free soil a few years down the road? But secure slavery and it could very well flow in. Furthermore an enslaved Kansas would help consolidate Missouri slavery and submitting to a ban on slavery affronted Southern honor. An enslaved Kansas had only benefits.

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