Kansas-Nebraska: Saving the Union

Phillip Phillips (D-AL)

Phillip Phillips (D-AL)

We look at the past with hindsight goggles. We know how things played out, so often historical figures can look like reckless fools that set themselves up for calamity after calamity and then refuse to change course. Didn’t Douglas know what F Street forced him into when it made him change his bill to suit Phillip Phillips and Archibald Dixon? Didn’t Phillips and Dixon know that they demanded measures that would help ruin the institution they meant to protect? Couldn’t they see disaster coming?

In the strictest sense, they could not. Nobody had a crystal ball. Could they have foreseen how repealing the Missouri Compromise would go over in the North? Perhaps, but it’s only with our hindsight goggles that we know so surely that the dispute over slavery animated passions like no other. People at the time could genuinely believe they provoked a brief, transient firestorm. If it helped the South save face, and helped southern Democrats keep their seats, why not concede a Kansas over to a phantom slavery that would never really develop? If saving a few southern Democratic seats against the threat of resurgent Whigs, however distant, cost a few northern Democratic seats then so be it. In the Democracy, the southern caucus had long held the lion’s share of the power. With the party’s strong hold over the South, it need not command equal favor in the North to maintain its accustomed control of the nation.

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

But what if the naysayers had it entirely wrong? The potential of KansasNebraska to swing the southwest to slavery obviously appealed to Southern men, but opening the great plains to white settlement appealed greatly to land-hungry whites. They might not desperately need it, as Bell and Houston noted, but more land to settle meant a bigger, broader future. If the advance of white settlement also meant a few tokens to slavery, that need not bother some Northern men. Most cared little about the institution in itself and less about the plight of those suffering under it. In the westernmost line of states and territories, on the banks of the Mississippi, land meant a great deal. Westerners moved out to get land and many of them could see a future for their sons and daughters one more state over. Westward expansion had the potential to become a Western issue and the core of a new Western identity, indifferent to slavery but very keen on settling the frontier.

Thomas Hart Benton, though he opposed the bill when it came to the House, had long thought that his Missouri had a more western character than southern. William Seward argued a few years before that the nation had not two sections, but three: North, South, and West. Real cultural and economic divides separated the frontier West from the settled East. The West had a rough, homespun character against the East’s settled gentility. Only recently had rail linked it to the great cities of the East. Before that, the West sold its crops down the Mississippi through New Orleans. Furthermore, much of the border Northwest had Southern people to go with its Southern geography. They almost made Illinois a slave state. In Indiana they elected a senator, Jesse D. Bright, who owned slaves in Kentucky and proved so studiously loyal to the Southern cause that the Senate expelled him in 1862. Men like him demonstrated that the Northwest had friends to slavery. An emerging western identity could dilute any opposition to proslavery politics, with the draw of white expansion distracting from any qualms about slavery expansion.

Jesse Bright

Jesse D. Bright (D-IN)

That new identity required people and states where those people could elect politicians to Congress, but here Kansas-Nebraska served admirably by throwing open the whole of the public domain. Furthermore, new western states would sprout farther from Chicago’s railroads, which had drawn Northwestern commerce eastward, and back down the Mississippi by way of the Missouri. The new West would so naturally share economic interests with the South, even if it lacked slavery. If it cared little about slavery, that difference would consequently matter little.

An alliance between new wheat and corn states west and north of Missouri and Iowa and the Cotton Kingdom could bring back the old days, with slavery’s security in the Union taking it out of the political limelight. The abolitionists couldn’t threaten it and the slaveholders would see that. Passions would cool and the nation could go back to living as thought the Mexican War never reopened the issue. This one Union-threatening, radical strike for slavery could paradoxically save the Union. It would surely revitalize the Democratic party by giving it eager supporters in the Northwest. Already the Democracy had high hopes for Iowa and Minnesota. Throw in Kansas and Nebraska and it would turn the Whigs into a tiny sectional party in the Northeast. Those extra seats could even dilute the proslavery bloc’s power to the point where it could no longer be forced into radicalism by renegade members, further safeguarding the Union by making proslavery men the happy victims of their own success.

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5 comments on “Kansas-Nebraska: Saving the Union

  1. I very much enjoy both your posts and your style of writing. The entire 1850s seems to me a largely overlooked aspect of history, at least from the standpoint of popular history. What books have you come across that are both informative and well-written about the decade leading up to the war? Thanks, and keep up the great work.

    • Thanks for the compliments. I’m glad others get something out of the blog. 🙂

      I started out just using Battle Cry of Freedom and the occasional primary text, but fairly soon picked up a copy of Potter’s The Impending Crisis. In using Potter and McPherson, I noticed both (more McPherson than Potter) often cited Allen Nevins’ Ordeal of the Union. It’s been out of print for a good 20 years, but I found a copy online in decent condition. Both books are really solid, readable works.

      They also are clearly products of their times. Nevins and Potter both died in 1971, but the sections of Ordeal I’m using were published in the late 1940s. Impending Crisis came out in 1976, presumably based on work Potter did in the late 60s. One has to make some allowances. Both consistently refer to black Americans as Negroes, which was normal when Nevins wrote but changing by the time Potter did. Neither seems to care a great deal for the abolitionists and free soil men, though I think they’re usually fair about it.

      Those are the two dedicated works on the period I use, but I’ve also found William W. Freehling’s Road to Disunion volumes very helpful for understanding Southern politics. They’re a survey specifically of the South from 1776 onward so you can’t really get the story of the 1850s from them, but they shed a lot of light on the diversity of mentalities and policy preferences that can get lost in Potter and Nevins, who have to give equal time to Northerners.

      I don’t think Freehling is quite the prose stylist that the other men are. He flat-out lost me a few times. Some of that is probably in the intended audience. Potter and Nevins both clearly wrote with an eye to millions of people reading their work. Freehling uses a bit higher of a register and demands closer attention to keep up with. I imagine he wrote with fellow academics in mind. That said, he appears to have improved considerably between the first volume (published in the early 90s) and the second (2008). I haven’t found the time yet to finish the latter.

      You’re probably right that the 1850s are overlooked. The war itself draws all the attention, if for understandable reasons. I wonder if our current political problems will inspire new interest.

      • Thanks for the recommendations, and the reviews. I’ll put these on my to-read list. Unfortunately, I don’t see our current issues inspiring much interest in the 1850s. When a surprising segment of the population can’t even place the decade in which the war took place, I can’t envision the period just before the war drawing much interest. Unfortunately, we don’t seem to draw many lessons from the past, or be willing to even study the past closely to try and draw lessons.

        We are a different nation than that of 160 years ago, also. Despite the occasional bit of bluster, I don’t think anyone here is willing to secede and lose Washington’s largesse.

        • You’re certainly right that it’s not the 1850s come back again. But 9/11 inspired a small renaissance of interest in Reconstruction, along with other things like the politics of fear, due to the terrorism connections. Is a similar boom too much to hope for? Probably, but it’s worth a shot. 🙂

          Also it’s just weird that the standard text on the era came out in 1976. For a topic so near to the Civil War, one would think a new version is about due.

        • Yes, it is interesting to think of all the pivotal events that happened in the 1850s – the Compromise of 1850, Fugitive Slave Law, California Statehood, Kansas-Nebraska Act, Dred Scott Decision, Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry, to name a few – and yet nothing has been written about it nearly 40 years. Who knows – it could be your opportunity …

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