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?

Kansas-Nebraska: The Senate Votes

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Senate debate on Stephen Douglas’ KansasNebraska Act opened on January 30, 1854. Douglas began it by condemning Salmon P. Chase’s Appeal of the Independent Democrats (The Appeal parts 1234567,89; Douglas’s opposition parts 12345). Chase responded and the battle commenced. It stretched out across February and into March before Douglas concluded with a five-hour speech that went on past midnight of March 3. For seventeen hours the Senate sat before finally voting on the bill. It adjourned at 4:55 AM on Saturday until the next Tuesday, but the chamber voted. Having spent some time reading their debates in tiny print over three columns, I feel a little sympathy for them.

In the 33rd Congress, the Senate had 62 members for the 31 states in the Union. Two of those senators stood for the Free Soil party: Ohio’s Salmon P. Chase and Massachusetts’ Charles Sumner. The Whigs had twenty-two senators and the Democrats commanded the majority with thirty-six. The Senate had two vacant seats,  a common problem in an era when the state legislatures elected senators and the chief reason they no longer do so. When those sixty senators voted, they followed the usual pattern on slavery: section trumped party. The vote came down a lopsided 37 for to 14 against. Several senators missed the day due to illness or personal business, some of whom had friends tell the Senate how they would have voted if present.

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

The nays came overwhelmingly from the North. Only Texas’ Sam Houston and Tennessee’s John Bell found it in themselves to vote against Kansas-Nebraska. Both men would go on to future adventures: Houston refused to accept his state’s secession, so Texas deposed him and kept him under house arrest for the duration of the Civil War. John Bell ran for president, beating out Houston for the just-formed Constitutional Union party’s nomination. His party aimed to throw the election into the House where he could stand as an uncontroversial compromise candidate to save the Union. Before the presidential run, Bell sat as a Whig and Houston as a Democrat. Except for them, Whigs and Democrats in the South united to vote proslavery.

Henry Dodge (D-WI)

Henry Dodge (D-WI)

In the North, something more like a two-party system existed even on questions of slavery. The North’s twelve nay votes came from the two Free Soil senators plus nine Whigs and Wisconsin’s Democrat Henry Dodge. As a Democratic bill written by Democrats and endorsed by the Democratic president, one would expect the Democracy to line up for it and just that happened. They did not all come eagerly, and Houston and Dodge did not come at all, but Pierce made it known that Democrats who did not vote with their party could expect to lose their share of the party patronage. Without that arm twisting, doubtless more would have voted against. The Whigs in the North also acted according to the logic of a two-party system, serving as the opposition on grounds both partisan and ideological.

Whatever the reservations of some of the men who voted yay, the bill went on to the House.

Liars and Fools

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

I just noticed when I started this post that I routinely omit Douglas’ middle initial, A, but usually include Chase’s. I think that I’ve picked up the standard convention which, I presume, goes back to how the men tended to refer to themselves. I don’t think it makes much difference, but if anyone wondered I don’t really have a good reason for doing it how I do.

Anyway, neither Stephen Douglas (parts 12345) nor Salmon P. Chase (parts 1234567,89) shrank from playing fast and loose with the truth. Neither took pains to admit inconvenient facts unless they had to. Both treated their preferred interpretation of events, no matter how questionable, as a clear truth. We all do that often enough. I’ve spent some time picking apart both men for that sort of thing and will probably do more. But some historical lies come off worse than others. Chase could plausibly have claimed that some of his historical errors came from haste, not malice. Both men could sometimes claim legitimate, reasonable interpretations of past events. Sometimes, however, they very clearly and blatantly lied. They knew the clear truth but attempted to deliberately mislead others in the service of their political preferences.

Call me an idealist, but I think the latter kind of lie, however common, deeply undermines the whole principle of government by consent. If decision makers don’t tell us the truth, how can we make informed choices between them? I don’t know how to solve that problem, in 1854 or 2013.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Douglas did that from start to finish with his line about how Congress repealed the Missouri Compromise in 1850. It did not. Probably nobody who voted for any compromise measure thought it had. David Rice Atchison did not think he repealed the law. Stephen Douglas did not think he had either. Douglas lied to give himself and his northern supporters political cover. Everyone in Congress knew it, but maybe the lie would blunt the backlash against him and let him change the subject to how his opponents wanted to destroy the sacred, final settlement on all matters pertaining to slavery. It would not fool everyone, but it might confuse the issue enough for voters paying less attention that they would not punish the Democracy as much as they otherwise might for so radical an act.

Chase did the same. Even granting him the most leeway we can because of his haste in revising the Appeal to get it into the papers, he told at least one remarkable whopper:

He [Douglas] says that we, forsooth, have held him up to the country in this address as guilty of certain great and enormous crimes. Why, sir, any man who reads the address will see that in no part of it, from first to last, except in a brief note appended, is the Senator mentioned at all. So far as I am responsible for the document, either by signature or authorship, I tell the Senator he was not at all in my thoughts. He exaggerates his importance when he supposes that we had him, rather than any other member of the committee, specially in view. Sir, I know the gigantic stature of the Senator; I know the weight and importance which he possesses in the country; I know that he has a great and powerful party surrounding him; and I know also the great disadvantages under which I enter into any controversy which he provokes. I am in a minority. I know that full well. It is no very pleasant position. But I dare do that which I should like to see the Senator also do. I dare adhere to principle, even though that adherence must carry me into a minority.

Yeah, right. Chase meant the Committee on Territories in general, not anybody in particular. He certainly didn’t mean its chairman, who dominated proceedings, who introduced the bill under discussion, who submitted all the revisions to it, and who concocted a convenient “clerical error” to hide a revision. This would fool no one in Congress, but could give Chase the same kind of plausible deniability with embattled supporters that Douglas wanted. It could let him separate admirers of Douglas from their man by divorcing Chase’s position from slighting the Little Giant. But no one, let alone an informed Senator privy to that body’s proceedings for years, could investigate Kansas-Nebraska and not once think of Douglas.

I don’t go for the idea that irresponsible, blundering politicians brought about the Civil War. I think those men, and the millions who supported them, knew full well what they meant and did. They may have underestimated opponents, but one need not be a reckless blunderer to do that. They went in with eyes open and embarked on logical courses of action, navigating the political waters as best they could. But an observer who did as Chase claimed he did and never thought of Douglas at all when contemplating the Little Giant’s signature issue for more than a decade? That counts as irresponsible and blundering in my book.

Whatever harm Chase or Douglas did with their respective lies, they did lie. They knew it. They did it deliberately. Kansas-Nebraska, like the Armistice, and all that followed came from them acting not as fools, but as deliberate and rational men trying to achieve their goals. We should call them liars when they lie, but we should think long and hard before we call them a bunch of dummies who knew not what they did. Part of the job of a good historian is trying to understand how they got there.

Chase, Wade, and Republicans in the Making

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Stephen Douglas closed his remarks (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5) against Salmon P. Chase’s Appeal of the Independent Democrats (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) with characteristic confidence:

I am in favor of giving every enemy of the bill the most ample time. Let us hear them all patiently, and then take the vote and pass the bill. We who are in favor of it know that the principle on which it is based is right. Why then should we gratify the Abolition party in their effort to get up another political tornado of fanaticism, and put the country again in peril, merely for the purpose of electing a few agitators to the Congress of the United States?

We intend to stand by the principle of the compromise measures of 1850-that principle which lost the Presidency to the Senator from Michigan [Mr. Cass] in 1848, but which triumphed in 1850, although he had been a martyr in the cause-that principle to which the Democracy are pledged, not merely by the Baltimore platform, but by a higher and more solemn obligation, to which they are pledged by the love and affection which they have for that great and fundamental principle of Democracy and free institutions which lies at the basis of our creed, and gives every political community the right to govern itself in obedience to the Constitution of the country.

Pretty cheeky of him to condemn Chase for the storm that Douglas knew he sewed with F. Street, Phillip Phillips, and Archibald Dixon. Douglas knew he endorsed radical legislation, far more radical than he preferred. He knew, in his own words, that he could travel back to Chicago by the light of his own effigies. Chase did not miss the mark in calling him an accomplished architect of ruin, though he could have pointed at David Rice Atchison and his F Street comrades too. But Douglas could hardly pass the bill and expect his party, let alone his own political career, to survive in the North if he advertised it as the most momentous capitulation to the slave power yet dreamed. Chase could pour enough gas on the fire without the Little Giant’s help. He rose to do so immediately after Douglas sat down.

Chase began by clearing up some misconceptions. Douglas repeatedly claimed that the Appeal announced itself as the opinion of the Ohio Democracy. It did not. Only Chase and his confederates signed it. Douglas fell prey to inaccurate reporting. Some newspaper men took the ambition to have more sign on, which Chase declined because he wanted the document in the papers quickly and they wanted revisions he didn’t have time to make. The papers heard that Chase wanted more people to sign on and reported it as fact. The senator produced a letter from the New York Time’s Washington editor to support the statement. Furthermore, Chase took pains on learning of the error to see that the Appeal went to press with only the signatures instead of a claim that the Ohio Democrats all stood by it.

Benjamin Wade (Whig-OH)

Benjamin Wade (Whig-OH)

So not everyone signed on and the papers mangled the story a bit. But the other half of Chase’s claim needed backing too. Did he really have an invisible fan club? His fellow Ohioan, Whig and future Radical Republican Benjamin Wade, stood up and named himself among their number:

I heard the address half read, and, judging of its quality by its sample, I signed it. Judging it by that sample, and by what has been made known by the Senator from Illinois, I now indorse every word of it, for I believe it perfectly true and correct. It was issued without my signature, for the reasons assigned by my colleague.

Now that Wade had heard Douglas indict the Appeal, Wade liked it even more. America had other Ben Wades too, inside and outside Washington. It really did look to them like a cabal of Senators conspired to steal their futures for slavery. If Douglas wanted to play with fire, they’d happily see him burned. Whatever its faults, the Appeal spoke to the fears of large numbers of white Northerners. Chase named its supporters the Independent Democrats. Whether he meant to or not, he had it half right. Kansas-Nebraska told them that they no longer had much home in the Democracy and soon many of them would declare their independence from it in favor of a new political party, the Republicans.

The Ambiguity of Popular Sovereignty, Part Two

Robert Toombs

Robert Toombs (D-GA) 

Proslavery men supported Stephen Douglas’ Kansas-Nebraska Act for various reasons. For many, it had mainly ideological appeal. The Missouri Compromise set the precedent that Congress could restrict slavery. That implied at least two things that slavery deserved restriction because of its immorality and that the national government had a role in regulating it. Any proslavery man could find reason enough to want that sort of precedent repealed. As the 1850s wore on, older and even more universally accepted precedents would see challenges in the South. Enslaving Kansas, even if just on paper, would at a proslavery state government to send proslavery senators to Washington, offsetting California’s freedom.

Even if that didn’t pan out and barely enslaved Kansas ended up another region full of secretly abolitionist Southern quislings, having it would shore up slavery in its Missouri hinterland and help keep that state from turning into another almost Northern hotbed of gradual emancipation. The Border South had chancy enough loyalty even before, but if Missouri went the way of Delaware or Maryland, the natural logic of events would make the non-cotton states adjacent to them into a new Border South in time even as it turned the most Northern Southern states into the most Southern Northern states. The Cotton Kingdom could endure, for now, the Delaware, Maryland, and even Kentucky they had. But could it really survive of those states became new Pennsylvanias and Ohios? Not without expansion to replace the states it lost. Cuba, Nicaragua, or more of Mexico could offset the losses, but all rested on the gamble of filibustering. The United States already owned Kansas, fair and square.


Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Douglas’ bill repealed the Missouri Compromise and specified that:

said Territory, or any portion of the same, shall be received into the Union with or without slavery, as their Constitution may prescribe at the time of their admission

Did that mean slavery came in by default? Or did it mean that the territorial government could include of exclude it? The law allowed the latter option at the moment of the constitutional convention, but could the territory permit or bar slavery before then? If so, when? The territorial legislature explicitly gained the power to make laws for the territory. Did that include writing a slave code?

Georgia’s Robert Toombs, who we last met helping put down the fire-eater secession conspiracy in his state, then a Representative and now one of Georgia’s senators, read the bill as permitting a slavery decision only at the constitutional convention. Influential Southern newspapers disagreed. The power of legislation had to include writing a slave code, since it included virtually every other kind of law except a set of standard exceptions largely relating to land sale and Indian treaties. The listed exceptions included nothing on slavery. The constitutional convention, then, could simply ratify and reiterate territorial laws made previously.

Douglas could hide in that ambiguity, but antislavery men saw it as breaking a sacred pledge and, fairly literally, selling the future of the white yeoman farmer down the river. Permitting the territory to decide, after all, meant it could decide for slavery. Down South, just the opposite fear held: that the legislature could decide for freedom. Southerners differed on whether they would best secure slavery with a swift decision made by a flood of immigrants from Missouri who wanted to set themselves up as planters like their neighbors or whether they would do best to wait and have men of property and connections establish new plantations and entrench their interests. But rich men would be less likely to risk their fortunes than men on the make, which again turned the question back to whether or not Kansas could and would support hemp cultivation like Missouri did. Rich men had reason to wait and see, but that very delay could mean that free soil came over from Iowa and further abroad to steal their victory away.

The Ambiguity of Popular Sovereignty, Part One

Lewis Cass

Lewis Cass (D-MI), originator of popular sovereignty

Looking at Kansas from the South, suppose the terrain does suit slavery. Suppose it would house profitable hemp plantations, even if more lucrative opportunities existed further south in Arkansas and Texas for cotton. Suppose Douglas got his bill through. That meant the South won, right? Popular sovereignty would permit slavery to rush in, end of story. From Kansas it could flood into modern Nebraska, not all that much farther north. If slavery went to Kansas, it would surely go to any territory west of it organized later. Then, as Chase foretold, Douglas’

criminal betrayal of precious rights; as part and parcel of an atrocious plot to exclude from a vast unoccupied region immigrants from the Old World, and free laborers from our own states, and convert it into a dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves.

Whatever the practical chances of the whole of the Great Plains falling to slavery, free soil men really believed that. The proslavery men also understood the Kansas-Nebraska bill as a portentous event. Here they could turn history around and undo ancient wrongs. They could strike out the stain on slavery and the honor of the slaveholding class that Thomas Jefferson put on them by hedging them out of the Northwest Territory, then compounded by the Missouri Compromise, by free California, by Northerners flouting the Fugitive Slave Act. A litany of defeats that each reaffirmed slavery as somehow toxic could end and a new sequence could begin announcing the virtues of a slaveholding culture. For Douglas, who remained indifferent and uninterested in slavery, the great principle of self-government hung just as much in the balance.

Senator William H. Seward (Whig-NY), Taylor's antislavery friend and advisor.

William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

That knowledge, combined with the anticipation of epic fireworks, emptied the House so its members could sit in the gallery and listen to Douglas hold forth. It drew the eyes of the nation. Never ones to underestimate their importance, Douglas’ fellow senators felt much the same.  Standing at the pivot point of history, William Henry Seward, the New York Whig who led the ailing party declared:

We are on the even of a great national transaction, a transaction that will close a cycle in the history of our country.

The elder statesmen that had dominated the Senate for decades: Clay, Calhoun, Webster, and even Benton had left the body. All save Benton had died. While Douglas, and many of the others, had played roles in the storm in 1850 they had done so in the shadows of giants now gone. They had before them the first great sectional struggle to resolve all on their own. Some historians, and commentators at the time, blamed that generational turnover for the disaster that ensued as if the 1850 club could have done better. But Kansas-Nebraska did not mean 1850 came again. Four years passed full of fugitive slave rescues, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and other controversy that did much more to alienate the sections.

Still, one thread remained the same: In 1850, Douglas and Lewis Cass promised that popular sovereignty would solve the slavery issue in the Southwest. Then, as in 1854, they declined to say just when it could do so.

The Prospects of Slavery in Kansas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

After questioning his observance of the sabbath, disputing his history, and demanding to know why Salmon P. Chase did not trust white men to make laws governing blacks when he trusted them to make laws on every other subject, Stephen Douglas once more insisted that his repeal of the Missouri Compromise amounted to no repeal at all. They tossed it back in 1850 and, improbably, nobody noticed. He further insisted that all the concern over slavery amounted to starting at phantoms: Kansas would never have it due to the clear dictates of climate.

Douglas may very well have believed that. The notion that nature did set firm lines on what land suited slavery and what did not formed an article of faith for many moderate or disinterested men on the issue. Even the proslavery propagandists of the 1850s agreed and many admitted that slavery might not belong in Maryland or Virginia’s chilly climes. After all, the institution boomed in the Cotton Kingdom further south. That never pleased the large slaveholders still living in Virginia or Maryland, who could reach extremes just as great as any Deep South slavery man, but the idea that slavery had natural frontiers sat easily in the nineteenth century zeitgeist. The fact that it also passed responsibility for expanding or containing the institution from men to the heavens certainly enhanced its appeal.

But slavery turned profits in Missouri. Men transmuted blood and pain into silver and gold with philosopher’s stones made of hemp, tobacco, and wheat just as they did with those made of cotton and sugar. The latter made for bigger profits than the former, but a diversified Border State or Middle South plantation could support a planter and family in comfort and luxury too. Kansas sat right next door to Missouri, on the same latitude with it and Kentucky and Virginia. For the past decade, hemp planters had gradually decamped from Kentucky for virgin Missouri lands. Allen Nevins points out (in Ordeal, page 116) that by the mid-1850s Missouri’s hemp crop exceeded Kentucky’s. The price of the commodity rose, even with increased production. Missouri’s prime hemp land ran along the Missouri river, hard up on the border with Kansas. If the Missouri river did not stop there, and it did not, why should hemp cultivation?

Douglas did not, of course, poll the Senate before he insisted that no one in the room believed Kansas fit for slavery. He had to know other men in the chamber disagreed. They could read the maps and see the Missouri keep flowing. They could locate the hemp belt. That did not ensure slavery for Kansas, but at least opened a door to it. The potential of an enslaved Kansas, in their minds, rested less on the climate or the geography and more on the uncertain future of slavery under the law. Who would risk valuable slave property in a territory that might to go free soil a few years down the road? But secure slavery and it could very well flow in. Furthermore an enslaved Kansas would help consolidate Missouri slavery and submitting to a ban on slavery affronted Southern honor. An enslaved Kansas had only benefits.

The Ambiguity of Self-Government

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas blasted Salmon P. Chase for not trusting the good, white men of the future territories of Kansas and Nebraska to govern themselves. Did Chase not believe in America? In the powers of the white race? If he did, then shouldn’t he trust the white race to govern itself and select its own labor system? He trusted it to make laws governing children, property, marriage, and everything else but slavery. A policy just like Douglas put forward for Kansas and Nebraska governed successfully in New Mexico and Utah, so the Ohioan could not claim that the nation tried it and found failure. In fact, the nation tried popular sovereignty and found what Chase, who cared so much about slavery, ought to have called a success: at the time neither New Mexico nor Utah territories had slavery.

The senator from Illinois had a point, but the Little Giant who wrote the territorial bills stretched things a fair bit along the way. Yes, the territories had legislatures with lawmaking authority. So far as that goes, Douglas had the facts on his side. Congress trusted those legislatures to legislate. The story, however, did not end there. Territories had popularly-elected legislatures but those legislatures alone could not bring laws into force. For that, the bills needed the signature of a governor. The appointment of territorial governors came not through an election, but straight from the president in Washington. Douglas, chairing the Committee on Territories, knew that. Every lawyer and informed politician of the nineteenth century knew the same. But don’t take my word for it. His own Kansas-Nebraska act provides for the same:

That the executive power and authority in and over said Territory of Nebraska shall be vested in a Governor who shall hold his office for four years, and until his successor shall be appointed and qualified, unless sooner removed by the President of the United States.


Every bill which shall have passed the Council and House of Representatives of the said Territory shall, before it become a law, be presented to the Governor of the Territory; if he approve, he shall sign it; but if not, he shall return it with his objections to the house in which it originated, who shall enter the objections at large on their journal, and proceed to reconsider it. If, after such reconsideration two thirds of that house shall agree to pass the bill, it shall be sent, together with the objections, to the other house, by which it shall likewise be reconsidered, and if approved by two thirds of that house, it shall become a law.

Furthermore, the law restricted the powers of the legislature in several ways:

That the legislative power of the Territory shall extend to all rightful subjects of legislation consistent with the Constitution of the United States and the provisions of this act; but no law shall be passed interfering with the primary disposal of the soil; no tax shall be imposed upon the property of the United States; nor shall the lands or other property of non-residents be taxed higher than the lands or other property of residents

Congress could even review and annul laws of the territorial legislature if it disapproved. Those restrictions in Kansas and Nebraska, and their clones in Utah, New Mexico, and other territories, formed part of the ordinary legislation on such matters. They don’t amount to massive restrictions by any stretch, but they and the requirement that the presidentially-appointed governor sign off on all laws, left territories far short of having absolute power, or even the power that a state had, over itself.

Douglas could demand to know why Chase didn’t trust white men to rule themselves, but ultimately the Little Giant didn’t trust them to do so either. Nobody except fire-eaters and Calhoun’s disciples thought that a territorial legislature had absolute plenary power over its jurisdiction.

Douglas Defends Himself, Part Five

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

After indicting the abolitionists, even the ones who proposed no abolition, Douglas wheeled back to the principle of self-determination. there he raised a question still very much open in American history, and political science in general. The abolitionists, led by diabolical schismatic Salmon P. Chase, did not oppose territorial government for Nebraska, Kansas, or anywhere else. In fact, they supported it. Precious few nineteenth century Americans did anything else. They would no more refuse to organize territories than they would vote against the proverbial Mom and Apple Pie or move to turn Washington’s tomb into an outhouse. White America must expand, no questions asked. Progress demanded it. Destiny demanded it. One could only get away with voting otherwise if a truly existential issue stood in the way, like the survival and spread of slavery. Southerners stood against Nebraska on those grounds for a decade, but they got their pound of flesh and came over, leaving Chase and company alone.

If the Independent Democrats would stand for a territorial bill, and they only objected to the slavery portions of Douglas’ so they ought to, then it raised a serious question. Did they actually believe in American democracy? Self-government, or popular sovereignty, amounted to just that. Douglas drew a line in the sand:

If the principle is right, let it be avowed and maintained. If it is wrong, let it be repudiated. Let all this quibbling about the Missouri compromise, about the territory acquired from France, about the Act of 1820, be cast behind you; for the simple question is, will you allow the people to legislate for themselves upon the subject of slavery? Why should you not?

When you propose to give them a territorial government do you not acknowledge that they ought to be erected into a political organization; and when you give them a Legislature, do you not acknowledge that they are capable of self-government? Having made that acknowledgement, why should you not allow them to exercise the rights of legislation? Oh, these Abolitionists say they are entirely willing to concede all this, with one exception. They say they are willing to trust the Territorial Legislature, under the limitations of the Constitution, to legislate upon the rights of inheritance, to legislate in regard to religion, education, and morals, to legislate in regard to the relations of husband and wife, of parent and child, of guardian and ward, upon everything pertaining to the dearest rights and interests of white men, but they are not willing to trust them to legislate in regard to a few miserable negroes. That is their single exception. They acknowledge that the people of the Territories are capable of deciding for themselves concerning white men, but not in relation to negroes. The real gist of the matter is this: Does it require any higher degree of civilization, and intelligence, and learning, and sagacity, to legislate for negroes than for white men?

There, in two paragraphs from January 30, 1854, Stephen Douglas of Illinois threw the book at Chase and the rest. If the white men who would settle Nebraska and Kansas had all the same powers there as they had in their states of origin, why did they deserve to lose them in a territory? A state could bring slavery in or cast it out and everyone trusted white men who lived and voted in states to do so. Did they become less white or less men because they moved into a territory? Surely not! Those men formed the revolutionary vanguard of progress. If anything, perhaps they deserved more deference for epitomizing the aspirations of white America.

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Of course Chase did not trust them. He knew very well that at least Kansas would probably fall to slavery. Everyone agreed that territorial legislatures, like state legislatures, had to abide by the Constitution. That meant something different in the 1800s than today, but even then states could not set up kings and queens or abolish elections. Some things Americans could simply not do by law. Did Chase propose that slavery belonged on that list? That ship sailed in the 1700s.

That raises a much wider question, though. Should we trust state or local governments with powers we would oppose if the government in Washington claimed them? My own position on this is that while the question comes up often in rhetoric, in practice most everyone of every political persuasion supports policy they support, whatever level of government enacts it and whatever other sentiments they have about who ought to do the enacting. This business of quibbling about who gets to do what simply distracts from the actual issue of substance: whether or not a policy deserves enacting.

Events in Kansas, at any rate, would later give Chase, and everyone else who didn’t love slavery and blatant electoral fraud, ample cause to doubt the virtues of local government.

Douglas Defends Himself, Part Four

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Douglas returned to history, reminding the Senate that he stood for the Missouri Compromise in 1848. He kept faith with the sacred pact written in its text and in the hearts and minds of Americans. Who stood against it then? Who broke faith? David Wilmot and the free soilers. Now these hypocrites indicted him for their own sins. But Douglas had changed his position. He knew it. Salmon P. Chase knew it. He could not get around the fact that F Street, Phillip Phillips, and Archibald Dixon twisted his arm and made him change from leaving the Missouri Compromise untouched to tearing it down. By accusing them of hypocrisy, he opened himself up to the same charge. Why had the Little Giant gone from the man who accepted the Missouri Compromise to the man who would demolish it?

Proslavery men made him, but Douglas couldn’t say that. He also couldn’t go on about how principled a stand he had and then admit that he just didn’t much care about slavery one way or the other. So he said this:

I do not like, I never did like, the system of legislation on our part, by which a geographical line, in violation of the laws of nature, and climate, and soil, and of the laws of God, should be run to establish institutions for a people; yet, out of a regard for the peace and quiet of the country, out of respect for past pledges, and out of a desire to adhere faithfully to all compromises, I sustained the Missouri compromise so long as it was in force, and advocated its extension to the Pacific. Now, when that has been abandoned, when it has been superseded, when a great principle of self-government has been substituted for it, I choose to cling to that principle, and abide in good faith, not only by the letter, but by the spirit of the last compromise.

Douglas wants to have it at least three ways here. First, he wants to insist that he repeals nothing not already repealed in 1850. Nobody, least of all Stephen Douglas, really believed that but it gave him some political cover. Second, he wants to cast himself as the apostle of a sacred constitutional faith. He kept the Compromise, even when the abolitionists did not, and so you could trust him now. Third, while he kept that old faith he knew in his heart that the nation could do better and, in fact, actually had. Slavery bans did not really ban slavery, but unofficial popular sovereignty really did. American democracy, disinterested and pious, read the verdict of nature and ordained slavery where it said, freedom where it did not. He claimed simultaneously the mantle of a man of decision and conviction, and that of a passive transmitter of natural law. How could anyone disagree?

Dirty abolitionists dared to, and Douglas made scant distinction between diehard abolitionists and free soil men. Like southern radicals, he saw the two as one and the same and the author of all his sorrows…or at least all of those he could talk about in the Senate when he needed the votes of the other authors of his sorrows:

This tornado has been raised by Abolitionists, and Abolitionists alone. they have made an impression upon the public mind in the way in which I have mentioned, by falsification of the law and the facts; and this whole organization against the compromise measures of 1850 is an Abolition movement. I presume they had some hope of getting a few tender-footed Democrats into their plot; and, acting on what they supposed they might do, they sent forth publicly to the world the falsehood that their address was signed by the Senators and a majority of the Representatives of the State of Ohio; but when we come to examine the signatures, we find no one Whig there, no one Democrat there; none but pure, unmitigated, unadulterated Abolitionists.

They did call it the Appeal of the Independent Democrats, Stephen. But here Douglas reveals one of his major fears. By 1854, only the Democracy remained as much of a national institution. It had withered in the North and swelled in the South, which made life much harder for men like Douglas, but the party’s Yankee wing had yet to curl up and go home like the southern, especially deep southern, Whigs largely had. If the Union ailed, only the Democracy could fix it. Douglas believed that and so thought party unity vital. Then Chase the schismatic came along and threatened to tear it apart. An ex-Democrat himself, the Ohio Free Soiler staked out a platform and called for Democrats to desert the Democracy. To Douglas, this must have looked the same as a fire-eater screaming for secession did.

Given both how the decade to date had played out, starting with Douglas masterminding of the Armistice, and how it would continue, the Little Giant had a point. He may have been too late already, though. Southerners already formed the strongest bloc in his own party, which he knew well enough from how they forced him to repeal the Missouri Compromise. The Democracy did not lean as far South as Whiggery or Free Soil leaned North, but it did lean far enough to help its own decline outside of the slave states. That trend only stood to reinforce itself and accelerate with time.