Houston’s Dissent, Part One

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston (D-TX)

After more than a month, at the end of a seventeen hour session that dragged from Friday into Saturday morning, the Senate finally voted on the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It passed and the fourteen nay votes came largely from northern antislavery men. Salmon P. Chase, Charles Sumner, and William Seward all had respectable antislavery credentials. Their votes make intuitive sense. The votes of other northern Whigs likewise seem to fit with the general trends in the party toward greater antislavery politics in the North and increasingly desperate proslavery politics in the South. But two of the fourteen nay votes came from southern senators: Sam Houston of Texas and John Bell of Tennessee. Those dissents come against the general thrust of southern politics, which so often revolved around who would best protect slavery. They bear some looking into.

Houston spoke on February 14 and 15, 1854. He assembled before himself piles of books full of treaties between the United States and the Indians and took the Senate on a tour of the broken promises within. Houston did not take the Indians as a political prop or an excuse to cover for his unpopular votes. He had lived among the Cherokee, married a Cherokee woman, and been adopted into the tribe. While president of Texas, he pursued friendly relations with the Comanche. That did not make him a modern liberal, keen on cultural diversity. He referred frequently to the need to convert the tribes to Christianity and bring them the blessings of civilization, by which he meant they should become settled farmers. Of course, many tribes had settled down and lived more or less as their white neighbors did. Supposed savages taught the Pilgrims how to farm, after all. But given the times, Houston had a decent record of meaning to do right by the Indians. Few men had that much:

in presenting myself as the advocate of the Indians and their rights, I shall claim but little sympathy from the community at large, and that I shall stand very much alone, pursuing the course which I feel it my imperative duty to adhere to.

Houston recited the familiar litany: the United States promised Indians that if they vacated this land that white men wanted, they could have other land in the west that white men did not want:

the most solemn pledges were made by this Government-that if they would remove to the west of the Mississippi they should never again be surrounded by white men, and that they should have a boundless and interminable outlet as far as the jurisdiction of the United States extended.

Some Cherokee went to Arkansas under that promise, only to find themselves surrounded when the United States bought land to one side from the Osage and white people flooded in. Then a new treaty promised that if they moved a few hundred more miles, they could have land there. When Indian representatives came to the White House, Houston heard the president promise them:

you are now in a country where you can be happy; no white man shall ever again disturb you; the Arkansas will protect your southern boundary when you get there. You will be protected on either side; the white man man shall never again encroach upon you, and you will have a great outlet to the West. As long as water flows, or grass grows upon the earth, or the sun rises to show your pathway, or you kindle your camp fires, so long shall you be protected by this Government, and never again removed from your present habitations.

The Indians held up their end of the bargain, and what did the United States do again and again but break its word and make another set of promises? Houston put it bluntly:

I know this may appear a very harsh assertion to make here, that our Government acts in bad faith with the Indians. I could ask one question that would excite reflection and reminiscences among gentlemen. When have they performed an honest act, or redeemed in good faith a pledge made to the Indians? Let but a single instance be shown, and I will be prepared to retract.

And now Stephen Douglas came proposing to take land away from the Indians again and give it to white men. He might say that his bill preserved Indian rights until the Indians chose to surrender them, but his proposed territories and the states they would grow into would surround the reservations. Once they became states, who would stop them from dispossessing Indians within their bounds? Nothing, not even the Supreme Court, stopped Georgia on behalf of the Cherokee. Why would Kansas or Nebraska act differently?

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