Bell’s Dissent, Part Three

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Part 1, 2)

John Bell came out against Kansas-Nebraska after carefully voting for it at every procedural step along the way. Whatever his reasons, I grant him a little slack there. His wing of his party supported the bill and the least one should expect from party members is that they vote with the party in the preliminaries, even if they vote against the final bill. If one has no expectation of at least that, in what way does the group really qualify as a political party? Bell did vote against the bill when it really counted, even if he could have easily voted for it and changed nothing about the outcome.

In explaining why, Bell first insisted that the territory had nowhere near enough white settlers to justify organization. Congress traditionally waited for quite a few more. His second objection involved the Indians, just as Houston’s concerns did:

My second objection to the Nebraska bill of the last session was, that it proposed to organize a territorial government, and to throw open for settlement the whole extent of the country lying west of Missouri and Iowa, which is now Indian territory, guarded and protected against the intrusion of a white population by a statute of thirty sections, besides the faith of treaties applicable to numerous emigrant tribes; thus bringing an unnecessary pressure upon the while Indian tribes, and tending to drive them to desperation, by the destruction of the principal source of their subsistence, the buffalo, which, you know, sir, will disappear upon the first clear crack of the frontier rifle, and the ominous appearance of the settler in the neighborhood of their haunts.

That happened, of course, though the buffalo managed to narrowly survive it. The buffalo once ranged as far east as Pennsylvania, down into Mexico, and as far north as Alaska. By 1890, all of 750 remained. Likewise who could argue with the proposition that Indians turned decidedly hostile to whites when whites broke their word, stole land, and otherwise mistreated them? Even if one saw Indians as hopeless savages, as many nineteenth century Americans did, their wrath could imperil isolated white settlers. If Kansas and Nebraska turned into a killing ground for white pioneers, that defeated the whole purpose of opening them to settlement.

Bell, like Houston, had a personal investment here. In his days in the House, Bell chaired the Committee on Indian Affairs and wrote the Indian Removal Act. In addition to worrying about the national honor, he probably saw the matter as touching on his own. He wrote the law that promised the Indians lands west of the Mississippi forever and now Stephen Douglas proposed taking those lands away. But, as befitting the author of the aforementioned law, Bell did not have Houston’s bleeding heart:

I have always differed from my friend from Texas, [Mr. Houston,] and others, who have maintained that the Indian race is susceptible of as high a development of their mental faculties as the white race, and that all their misfortunes are to be attributed to the encroachments of the white man upon their lands. I have never been so hopeful of the results of the experiments which are making to civilize and elevate their condition. I have always held the opinion, that all the Government can do for them, under any plan which may be adopted to wean them from their ancestral habits, and to induce them to cultivate the arts of civilized life, will have no other result than to postpone the period of their final extinction; and that, in the meantime, imbecility, despondency, and indolence, will be their characteristic traits. I believe that the highest development of the Indian character is only to be found in their normal or primitive condition, and before their proud spirit has been bowed by conquest.

Bell’s preferred Indian policy then involved something like sending them far away from white people and waiting for them to die out. They needed their reservations largely to ensure the safety and peace of white Americans.

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