The Indifferent, Divided South

Alexander Stephens

Alexander Stephens (D-GA)

With the North rising so united against Kansas-Nebraska, speaking with something approaching a true sectional voice, one might expect the South to have done much the same in favor of the act. They might loathe its popular sovereignty provisions, but it would give them new slave states and wipe away the old loss and sectional indignity of the Missouri Compromise’s slavery ban. In the present political climate, one might even expect that the North’s fury only increased Southern enthusiasm. Alexander Stephens declared something close to that, calling the South unanimously delighted.

If the South included only its congressional delegation, the Southerners that Stephens spent most of his time with, then the observation largely holds. The Southern papers largely paid Kansas-Nebraska little mind. The New Orleans papers expressed general indifference and suggested that if the bill died on the vine, the section would sleep untroubled. New Orleans always stood a bit apart from the rest of the South, but the Nashville Advertiser watched the storm in Washington with disinterest. In Stephens’ own Georgia, the Macon Messenger faced such general indifference that it published a story explaining the fact. The bill would probably bring the section no benefit, so naturally Southerners didn’t much care. What about Charleston, then? Surely the Carolina counter-revolutionaries came out in favor? Instead both Charleston papers reported the same disinterest.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

That did not mean the papers came out against the bill, of course. Virtually all of the Democratic papers supported it. The few Whig papers could go the other way, and some did, but by 1854 their opinions meant very little. That did not mean that the Southern people in general really just didn’t care. Rather they had a diversity of opinions. Some followed Bell and Houston in seeing the bill as premature and a needless sectional antagonism. The popular sovereignty language chafed many of more refined sentiment because a population that could vote slavery in could also vote it out. Outside of Missouri, where naturally a substantial population considered the bill relevant to their personal interests, the Kansas-Nebraska struggle involved a far away territory and far away people. Their fate need not intertwine with the fates of slaveholders in the Cotton Kingdom or around the Chesapeake.

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton (D-MO)

Distance and indifference did not translate into hostility, except in novel cases. For most of the South, the fight for Kansas had an abstract tone. It involved high principles and the honor of the section. They had lived with the Missouri Compromise slight that barred slavery from the Great Plains. They could survive more of the same. But Kansas-Nebraska gave them the chance to remove the slight. Why would they exert themselves to oppose it? Precious few did. Instead, it appears the South at large read the bill as a kind of legal luxury, pleasant and welcome but not a matter of life and death.

Except for Missouri, of course. There the bill, in addition to touching directly on the state’s future as a slave state, bound tightly to the ongoing battle between David Rice Atchison and Thomas Hart Benton. Benton, championing almost free St. Louis saw the defeat of the bill as one road or him to regain the Senate seat that had taken from him. Atchison saw himself as the guardian of Missouri’s future as a slave state. He and his proslavery constituents lived far up the Missouri valley, hard against Kansas, and they saw not just their society but their personal fortunes on the line. If Kansas went free, their slaves could easily run away. If it went slave, they could buy new land there and further enrich themselves.

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