Bell’s Dissent, Part Five

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Parts 12, 3, 4)

Once Tennessee’s John Bell started challenging Stephen Douglas, he got on a roll. Where did Douglas find the white Americans desperate for the new land? Why did they not settle available land already organized? What so lit Douglas on fire that he would put forward such radical, sweeping legislation to give away all of white America’s future in one sudden rush? Bell asked the questions with the usual rhetorical flourishes, but they amounted to more than a show for his Senate peers. If nothing else, they served to demonstrate to his Tennessee supporters that Bell had sober, considered reasons for opposing the South’s new favorite bill.

Douglas needed to answer those objections. They did not all amount to theory and issues of precedent. The whites living in the Indian country illegally could not make a very convincing case that the Congress ought to support them there with all the land still available elsewhere. So where would Douglas come up with a batch that did deserve their good favor? And so unprecedented a grant as the entire remaining public domain? Bell did not quite say that no such people existed, but he instead advanced his own theory as to why the Little Giant wanted Kansas-Nebraska so badly:

I know that he does not act without motives or a purpose, and as he has given us no expositions of his views upon this point, I trust he will indulge me in conjecturing what they may be. That I mean nothing offensive or unkind to the honorable Senator he will understand, when I say that, upon a full consideration of his policy as shadowed forth in this bill, taking it altogether, I am at a loss which most to admire, the genius or the boldness of his conception. And I can tell honorable Senators around me, that when that Senator, shall be arraigned before the tribunal of the public in the Northwest, for his advocacy of any feature of this bill which may be obnoxious to them, and he shall come to unfold the grandeur of his plans, and the skill with which he managed to combine in their support both the North and the South, they will speak trumpet-tongued in his defense.

It took a genius to pull this off, so absolutely sure of himself to risk so alienating the North by giving away its future to slavery. Douglas would win great fame for it, unite the nation, revitalize his ailing northern Democracy, and sail into the White House. Bell didn’t have to spell it all out. Every Senator sees a president when he or she looks in the mirror, then and now.

I trust the honorable Senator understands me: but I will nevertheless say to him, that although by the offer of a principle, an abstraction -a dangerous temptation to southern Senators- which I fear will prove utterly barren- bearing neither fruit nor flower, he has drawn into the support of his plans the whole South and Southwest, yet, if he will give me but a reasonable answer to the objections I have taken to this provision of the bill, I will go with him in its support.

Give him a reason, Stephen. Convince John Bell that he can vote for your bill without disaster ensuing. Slavery will not take off in Kansas or Nebraska. Douglas had said so himself. The way Bell phrases it speaks deeply to his, and other southern politicians’, predicament. By dangling repeal of the Missouri Compromise out in front of them, Douglas offered a long-sought victory. It will thrill the radicals but enrage the North and set it further against the South for a hollow triumph. Archibald Dixon and Phillip Phillips twisted Douglas’ arm to get the repeal into the bill and now that repeal twisted the arms of every southern senator. If they voted against it, they named themselves traitors to slavery and wrote their epitaphs. If they voted for it, yielding to the temptation, they brought the North down on them for their folly.

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