Kansas-Nebraska: The Senate Votes

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Senate debate on Stephen Douglas’ KansasNebraska Act opened on January 30, 1854. Douglas began it by condemning Salmon P. Chase’s Appeal of the Independent Democrats (The Appeal parts 1234567,89; Douglas’s opposition parts 12345). Chase responded and the battle commenced. It stretched out across February and into March before Douglas concluded with a five-hour speech that went on past midnight of March 3. For seventeen hours the Senate sat before finally voting on the bill. It adjourned at 4:55 AM on Saturday until the next Tuesday, but the chamber voted. Having spent some time reading their debates in tiny print over three columns, I feel a little sympathy for them.

In the 33rd Congress, the Senate had 62 members for the 31 states in the Union. Two of those senators stood for the Free Soil party: Ohio’s Salmon P. Chase and Massachusetts’ Charles Sumner. The Whigs had twenty-two senators and the Democrats commanded the majority with thirty-six. The Senate had two vacant seats,  a common problem in an era when the state legislatures elected senators and the chief reason they no longer do so. When those sixty senators voted, they followed the usual pattern on slavery: section trumped party. The vote came down a lopsided 37 for to 14 against. Several senators missed the day due to illness or personal business, some of whom had friends tell the Senate how they would have voted if present.

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

The nays came overwhelmingly from the North. Only Texas’ Sam Houston and Tennessee’s John Bell found it in themselves to vote against Kansas-Nebraska. Both men would go on to future adventures: Houston refused to accept his state’s secession, so Texas deposed him and kept him under house arrest for the duration of the Civil War. John Bell ran for president, beating out Houston for the just-formed Constitutional Union party’s nomination. His party aimed to throw the election into the House where he could stand as an uncontroversial compromise candidate to save the Union. Before the presidential run, Bell sat as a Whig and Houston as a Democrat. Except for them, Whigs and Democrats in the South united to vote proslavery.

Henry Dodge (D-WI)

Henry Dodge (D-WI)

In the North, something more like a two-party system existed even on questions of slavery. The North’s twelve nay votes came from the two Free Soil senators plus nine Whigs and Wisconsin’s Democrat Henry Dodge. As a Democratic bill written by Democrats and endorsed by the Democratic president, one would expect the Democracy to line up for it and just that happened. They did not all come eagerly, and Houston and Dodge did not come at all, but Pierce made it known that Democrats who did not vote with their party could expect to lose their share of the party patronage. Without that arm twisting, doubtless more would have voted against. The Whigs in the North also acted according to the logic of a two-party system, serving as the opposition on grounds both partisan and ideological.

Whatever the reservations of some of the men who voted yay, the bill went on to the House.

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