Exhuming the Bill

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

The North united against Kansas-Nebraska. The South stood indifferent. The northern state legislatures could muster only one resolution in its favor, which Douglas’ supporters had to coerce out of his native Illinois. They managed many against it. State parties rebuked the national Democracy. Democratic newspapers turned against the bill. The northern clergy cast off their customary conservatism not for silent acquiescence but for outright opposition. Immigrants, a major Democratic constituency, condemned the bill. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that the Democracy did much to wreck its own coalition, but at the time men could still cling to the idea that this might work out. A heated storm erupted over the fugitive slave act, but four years later the customary white indifference to the plight of blacks and a conservative backlash had brought the North back from the days when abolitionists had gunfights with slave catchers. Maybe things would even, paradoxically, strengthen the party and with it the Union. This storm could also pass.

But how did it come about? Given such opposition, by the more populous section that controlled the House of Representatives, the nation still ended up with Kansas-Nebraska passing into law. The answer requires us to look to historical complexities again. The men of 1854 did not have history books that named them Northern Democrats who by definition opposed the bill. From the failure of many Northern states to pass pro-Nebraska resolutions, we can take that significant portions of those legislatures opposed it. That tells only a third of the story, though. The hardcore pro-Nebraska men did not have majorities. In some states, the anti-Nebraska men did. In others they did not and so rather than get their anti-Nebraska resolutions they could ensure only that no resolution went through.

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis

That silence probably suited most quite well. Whether they approved of Nebraska or opposed it, passing no resolution either way allowed them to sidestep the issue. Anti-Nebraska men could tell their supporters that no resolution approving of the act got past them. Pro-Nebraska men could tell their’s that no resolution against it got past them either. This could also keep them in the good graces of the national and state party machinery even during the division. They might not get the patronage rewards they hoped for by backing the winning side, but could also avoid the punishments that a party could mete out to disloyal members.

Caleb Cushing

Caleb Cushing

The House voted 110 to 95 to bury Kansas-Nebraska under fifty other bills on March 21, 1854. Passing it would require exhuming the bill and Stephen Douglas got out his shovel. He called on the Pierce administration, which put out the word in the Washington Union that supporters would find patronage jobs for their friends. Opponents, naturally, would find none. Pierce called Nebraska votes a test of party loyalty. If the issue failed, so did the Democracy. What Democrat wanted that? What Democrat wanted to give up patronage? Their palms needed as much greasing as anybody else’s. Most of the Cabinet went to work too, with Pierce’s sometime Prime Minister Jefferson Davis and Attorney-General Caleb Cushing twisted arms.

This must sound very corrupt. By modern standards, we can’t call it anything else. The Pierce administration literally bought votes by promising lucrative jobs and government contracts to friends and supporters of the voting politicians. The exact deals might not make the newspapers, but the general fact that the president dispensed patronage surprised no one. Politics in the mid-1800s simply worked this way. You rewarded your friends and clients. They in turn supported you in an arrangement that the classicists among them could argue went back to Rome. Both parties engaged in this kind of behavior at every level. Through the middle of May, the party machinery and human avarice ground away at a fierce anti-Nebraska minority.

Despite the mass movement, the opposition had only that minority. The bill could expect lopsided Southern support, even if it came without roaring enthusiasm. Alienated voters had not yet had the chance to throw pro-Nebraska men out. Even Democrats with doubts could take one for the team and hope they forgot by the next election, or even retire to a comfortable patronage posting after. Franklin Pierce would still be dispensing those until March of 1857.

2 comments on “Exhuming the Bill

  1. For all the flaws of our modern political system – and they are legion – there’s little doubt we have made some progress, as evidenced by the tactics highlighted in this post.

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