The Ambiguity of Popular Sovereignty, Part One

Lewis Cass

Lewis Cass (D-MI), originator of popular sovereignty

Looking at Kansas from the South, suppose the terrain does suit slavery. Suppose it would house profitable hemp plantations, even if more lucrative opportunities existed further south in Arkansas and Texas for cotton. Suppose Douglas got his bill through. That meant the South won, right? Popular sovereignty would permit slavery to rush in, end of story. From Kansas it could flood into modern Nebraska, not all that much farther north. If slavery went to Kansas, it would surely go to any territory west of it organized later. Then, as Chase foretold, Douglas’

criminal betrayal of precious rights; as part and parcel of an atrocious plot to exclude from a vast unoccupied region immigrants from the Old World, and free laborers from our own states, and convert it into a dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves.

Whatever the practical chances of the whole of the Great Plains falling to slavery, free soil men really believed that. The proslavery men also understood the Kansas-Nebraska bill as a portentous event. Here they could turn history around and undo ancient wrongs. They could strike out the stain on slavery and the honor of the slaveholding class that Thomas Jefferson put on them by hedging them out of the Northwest Territory, then compounded by the Missouri Compromise, by free California, by Northerners flouting the Fugitive Slave Act. A litany of defeats that each reaffirmed slavery as somehow toxic could end and a new sequence could begin announcing the virtues of a slaveholding culture. For Douglas, who remained indifferent and uninterested in slavery, the great principle of self-government hung just as much in the balance.

Senator William H. Seward (Whig-NY), Taylor's antislavery friend and advisor.

William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

That knowledge, combined with the anticipation of epic fireworks, emptied the House so its members could sit in the gallery and listen to Douglas hold forth. It drew the eyes of the nation. Never ones to underestimate their importance, Douglas’ fellow senators felt much the same.  Standing at the pivot point of history, William Henry Seward, the New York Whig who led the ailing party declared:

We are on the even of a great national transaction, a transaction that will close a cycle in the history of our country.

The elder statesmen that had dominated the Senate for decades: Clay, Calhoun, Webster, and even Benton had left the body. All save Benton had died. While Douglas, and many of the others, had played roles in the storm in 1850 they had done so in the shadows of giants now gone. They had before them the first great sectional struggle to resolve all on their own. Some historians, and commentators at the time, blamed that generational turnover for the disaster that ensued as if the 1850 club could have done better. But Kansas-Nebraska did not mean 1850 came again. Four years passed full of fugitive slave rescues, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and other controversy that did much more to alienate the sections.

Still, one thread remained the same: In 1850, Douglas and Lewis Cass promised that popular sovereignty would solve the slavery issue in the Southwest. Then, as in 1854, they declined to say just when it could do so.

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