Bell’s Dissent, Part Four

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Parts 12, 3)

Before I took my vacation from the Congressional Globe, John Bell rose to tell the Senate why he would join Texas’ Sam Houston (123456) in voting against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would repeal the Missouri Compromise and so open the great plains to slavery as well as organizing all the land between Canada and modern Oklahoma and between Missouri, Iowa, and the Minnesota territory into the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. Of all the southern senators, the Texas Democrat and Tennessee Whig stood alone against the bill.

Bell’s objections began with the lack of any particular need for the bill and how it proceeded to organize government for such a tiny population of white settlers. In the past, Congress waited until more would benefit from a territorial government. He continued to vent his displeasure over how the bill would break the nation’s word to the Indians, who he expected to go West and quietly die to open the way for white settlement. Rushing things would only provoke Indian hostilities.

But Bell saw problems for American whites aside from hostile Indians. Stephen Douglas’ hasty bill would

in addition to the Indians hostilities likely to be provoked by encouraging settlements, at irregular and distant intervals, over such an extent of territory now inhabited by wild Indians, the measure evidently contemplated the exhaustion of all the most desirable portions of the public domain in a few years, leaving no residuum to invite the enterprise or to furnish cheap homes to the young men and young families of the next generation. I held such a policy unwise, unstatesmanlike, and essentially selfish in the present generation. I was of the opinion that there was no necessity arising from a crowded population in the frontier States, or from any deficiency of good unappropriated lands in those States, to justify a measure which proposes to throw open so large an extent of new country for settlement.

That probably sounds a bit obscure today, but in the nineteenth century a great deal of white America’s understanding of itself rested on going west. Your life might not bring you earthly delights or advancement back east, but every young white man could take up and go west to cheap land to set himself up as the fabled yeoman farmer. If the law opened so much land to settlement, the current generation would take the lot and what would become of America then? With no more frontier, that story had to end. With the boundless west all eaten up, the United States could rapidly turn into an ossified, class-ridden society like bad old Europe.

And for what?

I contented that the population in the border States was yet small and sparse, and that there was within their limits an abundant supply of good lands, inviting settlement and cultivation -both by native citizens and foreign emigrants. Two years ago, I objected to the treaty for the purchase of the territory which belonged to the Sioux Indians, in the Territory of Minnesota, upon the ground that it would open a vast wilderness for detached and irregular settlement, when there was no adequate necessity for the measure; and I showed, if I remember aright, that there were then about one hundred and twenty millions of acres of good land surveyed and open to entry and settlement in the adjoining States, after deducting from ten to twenty per cent for lands unfit for cultivation. Nevertheless that treaty, costing the Government some five millions of dollars, was ratified by the Senate; and an additional supply of between twenty-five and thirty millions of acres of land was thus provided for new settlements; and notwithstanding the late increase in the sale and settlement of the public lands in the northwest, we may safely conclude that, at this moment there are not less than one hundred millions of acres, not of indifferent lands, but of good cultivable lands, still remaining to be taken up and occupied by emigrants, in the same section of the country.

Here we have something like sustainable development in a nineteenth century style. Good lands still exist already set aside for white settlement. We should not open more to exploitation until they are full up. If the Senate proposed to add more land to that trust, it ought to have a good reason. Minnesota did not look full up to Bell. Nor did Iowa, Missouri, or Wisconsin. He challenged Douglas to point to the whites who could not find cheap land already available if they wanted it. The illegal squatters opposite Council Bluffs and around Fort Leavenworth could find their land in Minnesota, or in the states Bell named, cheaply, legally, and without requiring any strange new laws to facilitate it.

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