After reassuring Stephen Douglas that he meant no offense in speculating about the Little Giant’s big dreams, Tennessee’s John Bell set himself on the real issue at stake. He might care about not giving the United States a reputation for breaking treaties, about not giving away all the public land in the nation, and about not opening new land for settlement before the land already opened to whites had filled up. They all seem like reasonable concerns for a man of his time and persuasion. Sam Houston (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) shared most of them just as credibly. But like Houston, Bell ultimately came around to the elephant in the corner: repealing the Missouri Compromise.
Bell started by regretting that he had to. He avoided the topic last session, when Douglas tried to hurry through a repeal-free Nebraska bill at the eleventh hour. Now another eleventh hour had come, just a year later, and John Bell would stay silent no longer. He never wanted to reopen discussion of slavery in the west, but Salmon P. Chase had wrestled slavery back into the limelight.
Indian removal, Bell told the Senate, succeeded in avoiding sectional tensions because it split the territory given away to Indians in perpetuity equally. The South lost land west of Arkansas that could have made a state or two. The North lost land west of Missouri that could have made a state or two. Since each section lost equal territory, pledged to slavery for the South and freedom for the North, neither side came off at a disadvantage.
Any map will tell you that the South actually conceded more of the Louisiana Purchase land than the North did. Bell had to know that. But he had a point in that both sides had, in principle, surrendered land explicitly reserved for them. The curious fact that they gave up on it in the very act of reserving it to their sections didn’t change that and the notion fits neatly alongside the compromise’s actual goal of keeping the Senate equally divided between slave and free states. By opening up the Indian territory for white settlement, the question of whether the Missouri Compromise should stand naturally arose.
It so happened, Bell told the Senate, that while all the land given up by North and South alike belonged to the Indians forever, Indians had mostly come to the section of it west of Arkansas, essentially modern Oklahoma minus the panhandle. Stephen Douglas’ bill did not propose to organize that territory. Bell could concede that oversight, since so many Indians did live there. Nobody forced them to settle there instead of further north. It just happened.
So what should the Senate do with the less-settled northern reaches of the Indian country if it would not leave that land to the Indians?
if this territory is not to remain Indian territory, equal justice to the South would seem to require that such guarantees should be voluntarily conceded by the North as would secure to the South the formation of a slave State, should the country turn out to be adapted to slave labor, as an equivalent for the loss of one south of the line of the Missouri compromise. And if the experiment should show that the country presented no adequate inducement to the introduction of slave labor, and it should become a free State, then the South could not complain if the North should profit by those circumstances which now seem to demand that the territory should change its destination, and become the possession and abode of the white instead of the red man.
In other words, the Senate should replace the Missouri Compromise with nothing less than the Missouri Compromise all over again, but moving the compromise line northward. Maybe it would run from Missouri’s northern border this time around. As a compromise, that had some potential. It fit with the historical norms. It would not give over all the white North’s future lands to slavery. Maybe in other times it could have worked, but Dixon, Phillips, and F Street had offered the South the whole loaf. Bell’s eleventh hour concession prize might have kept the North from the outrage that ensued and passed with fewer fireworks, but it came too late for any of that.
Or it might have come still to naught, as Bell left open the chance for a state given over to the South to turn free if its residents wanted. Exactly that did happen in the end, if not quite the way Bell intended.