Bell’s Dissent, Part Two

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Part One.)

Tennessee’s John Bell objected to Douglas’ previous bill a year ago, even without the repeal of the Missouri Compromise written into it. Bell waited until a late hour, the day of the vote, to give full vent to his opinions. In the interim, by his own admission, Bell voted with the majority of the South on every stage of the Kansas-Nebraska act’s journey through the Senate machinery. He knew a majority of them supported repealing the Missouri Compromise, but Bell did not want to rush to a conclusion on the matter himself. Probably Bell also hoped the coalition for the bill would fall apart and spare him having to go out on a limb and face the united wrath of the Southern Whigs and the Democracy. Several times in his remarks he takes pains to emphasize his sympathy with his fellow Southerners and lash out at abolitionists. Ultimately, Bell decided he could not stand with the South:

My first objection to the Nebraska bill of the last session of congress was, that there was no necessity for the measure; that it was a novelty in the legislation of this country; that as far back as I remembered it was an anomally [sic] in the practice of the Government to propose to organize territorial governments over a large extent of territory in which there were no white inhabitants. I mean no white inhabitants except those who were the officials of the Government, soldiers, missionaries, or licensed traders; no white population to demand the protection and security of a territorial government. On looking over the report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs, I find the statement, that as late as October last, there were but three white men in the whole of that vast territory, except the class already alluded to. There may be four or five hundred, or more, now, for anything that I know; but I still think and maintain that this measure is uncalled for at this time.

In short, Bell saw the whole bill as needless. Organize a government for four or five hundred whites? Who lived there in defiance of the Non-Intercourse Act? That hardly looked then, or now, like a dire emergency which warranted both haste and disregard for deep sectional understandings. Bell granted the wisdom of having a chain of white settlement connecting the old West along the Mississippi to the new West along the Pacific, but that could wait. California did not appear in immediate danger of falling to a resurgent Mexico, declaring its independence, or some other drastic step.

If settling the west with white farmers mattered, and it did to nineteenth century white Americans, then it warranted doing the job correctly. The United States had settled procedures for all of this and one of them involved waiting for substantial white settlement before establishing a territorial government. Stephen Douglas wanted to establish the government before the whites arrived, completely contrary to the usual way of doing things and establish a government for the benefit and protection of, essentially, nobody in the hopes that its presence would draw in the settlers. The whole situation looked curiously backwards.

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