John Bell, the Tennessee Whig, laid into Stephen Douglas for his unorthodox and precipitous bill to open the Great Plains for settlement. It would give away all the public domain and so close the book on the frontier for future generations. It came in advance of any real settlement, instead of in recognition of that settlement. It came while ample and good land existed in the states bordering on the Indian country. It would break the nation’s word to the Indians that they could have the land forever. Other countries could even look at the United States and take note of how scrupulously it abided by its treaty obligations from this example. All of that amounted to a lot of questioning Douglas’ motivation and Bell wondered what grand plan Douglas had in mind, besides the obvious fast train to the White House.
To Douglas, that must have sounded a great deal like when Salmon P. Chase called him an accomplished architect of ruin. That a southerner like Bell went on to talk about how Douglas would inflame the North against the South by giving its future up to slavery. And even if everything worked, Bell did not think slavery would take root. He tempted southern senators with an empty repeal for a needless cause that would bring at best a Pyrrhic victory. The Little Giant rose to object, denying that he had any secret plans. If Bell wanted to accuse him of something, the Tennessee Whig should come out and say it.
Bell did not. He denied any such intentions. No, he
was pledging myself to the honorable Senator, that if he would give me any sufficient explanation or exposition of the points of objection I have taken as to the vast extent of this country which he proposes to embrace in the new Territories -the departure he purposes from the long-established and guarded policy of the Government in the interposition of some barrier to the intrusion of the white man, and the formation of detached settlements in a country occupied by wild and savage Indian tribes, far beyond the regularly advanced line of frontier settlements; and throwing open at once unnecessarily the whole public domain- I will go with him in the accomplishment of his great schemes.
Don’t take it personally, Stephen. He just wants some reasons you can’t give him. But even if Douglas couldn’t answer, Bell might come around. He had an open mind and knew progress, meaning the advance of white settlement across the continent, could never stop. He believed in the nineteenth century. So he gave Douglas some advice:
Wait a season; be not so impatient to build up a great northwestern empire. In due time all your great plans of development will be accomplished, without any great sacrifices of any kind, and without conflicting with any other great public interest. In a few years, by the regular law of progress and settlement, which swept first all of the Atlantic States, and then the eastern slope of the great valley of the Mississippi, of the Indian tribes which once held possession of them, by a greatly accelerated process, they will disappear from the plains, and the whole of the vast region beyond the Mississippi; and then, without any abrupt departure from the old and established policy of our Government in relation to the Indians or the public domain
Bell had a bit of cheek to call the forced removal of Indian tribes from east of the Mississippi some kind of force of nature. He wrote the bill that required them to vacate the Southeast. We would say that today and might call it unfair to judge him by our standards. Bell could certainly believe that his bill just ratified natural processes already underway. But he rose to speak against another bill in the same vein of his own, except far less radical.
Bell knew that he asked a lot of Douglas, who had been after organization of the plains for a decade. The Little Giant had fire in his veins, not all of it from his appetite for drink, and waiting still longer would chafe:
If the honorable Senator will indulge me, and not think it offensive, I must say here, because it occurs to me, that I think for a long time he has had a passion, amounting to a sort of mania, for the organization of new Territories, and the founding of new States. Sir, to my certain knowledge, the honorable Senator drew up the Utah and New Mexico bills, and almost in the very terms in which they finally passed into laws. I believe he is also entitled to the credit of having originated the bills for the establishment of the Territories of Oregon, Minnesota, and Washington. It seems, from present indications, that it will not be long before he will have succeeded in organizing three or four more. Not content with the fame which may attach to him as the conditor imperii […] he is emulous of the title of clarissimus conditor imperiorum. It seems to me that whatever other rewards he may receive from his countrymen, if they should imitate the policy of the ancient Greeks and Romans in bestowing honorary crowns on citizens who distinguish themselves in the service of their country, the honorable Senator will be entitled, not to one, but to ten civic crowns! I hope the honorable Senator will not be offended at anything I have said on this.
The Latin translates to “founder of the empire” and “most famous founder of the empire,” I think.
Douglas assured Bell that he caused no offense, to the Senate’s laughter. Amid all the flattery the Tennessean had grasped a bit of truth. Douglas saw himself as a great man on the make, a common enough affliction among politicians, and must have expected that the storm his Missouri Compromise repeal would bring would blow over and leave him the conquering hero of white America, who opened the West and saved the Union. Surely that man deserved to move into the White House.