Houston’s Dissent, Part Five

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston opposed Stephen Douglas’ reopening of Kansas and Nebraska to slavery out of concern for the Indians, personal sentiment, and political commitment. He cared about the Indians from his time living among them and marrying one. He personally signed on to the Missouri Compromise and voted for its extension over Oregon. He saw Texas as legally obliged to hew to it by the terms of its annexation and Houston had probably a better claim than anybody then alive to the title Mr. Texas. He believed the Missouri Compromise right, proper, and vitally important to keeping the peace and keeping the Union. The law brought the United States prosperity and peace enough to call it providential and proclaim it a solemn compact.

When politicians, then or now, get mystical about work they or they predecessors did it bears a closer look. No shortage of elected officials have invented sacred pledges and solemn compacts that “everyone agreed to” out of thin air. Houston knew as much and brought out the evidence. Between the Missouri Compromise and the Armistice, Congress settled the slavery question. Everyone at the time thought so. They wrote it into the Democratic party platform:

Resolved, That the Democratic party will resist all attempts at renewing, in Congress or out of it, the agitation of the slavery question, under whatever shape or color the attempt may be made.

Franklin Pierce signed on to that platform in a letter declaring that he did so not out of obligation, but because he genuinely agreed with it. In his inaugural, he said:

I fervently hope that the question is at rest, and that no sectional, or ambitious, or fanatical excitement may again threaten the durability of our institutions or obscure the light of our prosperity.

Houston applauded all of that:

I had hoped that so long as I might be connected with this Government, or even in the shades of retirement, if I should have the felicity of reaching them in quiet, I might live in peace, under my own vine and fig tree, with none in all the land to disturb me by agitation.

At the time, nobody thought the Missouri Compromise repealed. It and the Armistice together finished all debate. Everyone lined up to support it, except the fire-eaters and abolitionists. Neither of those, nor both together, comprised a majority of Americans. They voted for Franklin Pierce on those grounds. They voted for the Democracy on those grounds. They lived under that law, even if they grumbled a bit about it. It sounds very much like a consensus.

Then, if that was a finality at that time, why is it not a finality now? What harm has resulted from the Missouri compromise from that time to the present? What new intelligence has sprung upon us? What new light has dawned which requires the annihilation of a solemn compact made between the two sections of this Republic, and from which harmony has resulted?

What could possibly have happened in a mere four years to warrant reopening the slavery question, when everyone save some radicals on either side considered it closed? And then go on to rail against traitor Democrats who stuck closer to the party platform from outside the party than the law’s proponents did within it? Houston asked a question that Stephen Douglas couldn’t answer with his fairy tale about how Congress secretly, even accidentally, repealed the Missouri compromise in 1850. Nor, of course, could he tell the Senate that F Street, Phillip Phillips, and Archibald Dixon twisted his arm until agreed to do it.

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