Houston’s Dissent, Part Three

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston stood up for the Indians and the Missouri Compromise. That might make him sound like a Southern Salmon P. Chase, and both men came up in the Democratic party, but Houston owned slaves. He had a bleeding heart for Indians, in a nineteenth century kind of way, but slavery did not much bother him. Nor did its defense much excite him. Houston, an old school Jackson man, cared about the Union. To him, the Chases and Calhouns alike upset the Union’s peace and stained its bonds. They did so gratuitously, as the Union ensured both freedom and slavery, and perversely as if one side abandoned the settlements that served the Union well then the other would do so and throw the whole matter into question. For Houston, the sensible, conservative solution came from Henry Clay in 1820: maintain the Missouri Compromise peace and the Union would endure. Given how the 1850s progressed, he had a point.

But Houston had more than ideological loyalty to the Missouri Compromise. He saw himself as personally committed to it. He quoted one of his own letters, to Carolina-born California colonizer turned Mexican land buyer James Gadsden on the subject:

As a Texan, I could not consistently have voted otherwise. The compromise forms a part of the constitution of that State, and her Senators in Congress must be bound by it so long as it constitutes a portion of her organic law. Upon her citizens, her officers and agents, in whatever capacity they may be acting, it rests with paramount authority, which admits of no waiver or dispensation.

Houston raised one of the same points that Chase had. The joint resolution that annexed Texas, which the people of Texas ratified in a referendum, allowed slavery. But should Texas later have its territory divided, that portion north of the Missouri Compromise line would fall under its provisions and be allowed no slavery.

The Missouri compromise has been repeatedly recognized and acted upon by Congress as a solemn compact between the States; and as such, it has received the sanction of each individual member of the Confederacy. I consider that the vital interests of all the States, and especially of the South, are dependent, in a great degree, upon the preservation and sacred observance of that compact. Texas, in adopting the compromise line, in compliance with the imperative demand of the other States, as a part of the price of her admission, surrendered more than one third of her territory in latitudinal extent, her right to continue the institution of slavery. This sacrifice was exacted by the southern as well as by the northern States. The sacrifice was received at the hands of Texas, and among the solemn guarantees then made to her in behalf of the Union, to the full benefit of which she is now entitled, that of preserving the Missouri compromise is, in my humble judgment, not the least in value.

Houston’s italics.

Thomas Rusk (D-TX)

Thomas Rusk (D-TX)

Houston’s fellow Texan, Thomas Jefferson Rusk, felt no particular obligation to hew to the Missouri Compromise and voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Houston did. He called it a solemn compact, words differing little from Chase’s preferred sacred pledge. Like Chase, and everyone else in Congress and the nation at large at the time, Houston did not think that the Armistice measures repealed it.

I took my ground early upon the compromise bill of 1850. I am not behind any man in devotion to it. But, previous to its adoption, I had taken my position on the Missouri compromise, and I stand there established as firmly as I now stand upon the compromise of 1850. I am the only Senator upon this floor who voted “straight out,” as they say, for every measure of the final compromise, and then for the whole collectively. […] When I voted for that, I did not suppose that I was voting to repeal the Missouri compromise.

Only one other Senator shared Houston’s distinction and he had left the Senate in the interim. If anybody in the Senate stood for the Armistice, Sam Houston did. And now Stephen Douglas, who could not match his record, stood to lecture the Senate about how they had repealed the Missouri Compromise in those votes and never noticed it? Not likely! Houston came to much the same position that Chase did on the law, even if he arrived there from a very different place.

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