Two Ways to Destroy Popular Sovereignty

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

If yesterday’s post about how things in Kansas might all work out happily in the end left anybody nodding, rest assured that things did not work out anything like that. Kansas did not end up bleeding because it tripped and scraped a knee on the pavement. By turning popular sovereignty into an obvious vehicle for the expansion of slavery, Stephen Douglas did much to discredit the notion.

In The Impending Crisis, David Potter argues that the doctrine had the potential to replace geographic partitions as the standard, peaceable way to resolve sectional disputes. This might sound like a pipe dream from a dead historian, but popular sovereignty did amount to an invocation of American democracy. If white men decided by fair votes, then white men could live with the verdict. They might also make black men and women live with that verdict, but those people did not count at all to all save a few antislavery sorts.

The notion of kicking the can down the road, or over to a territorial legislature, has a certain appeal. One can wash one’s hands with it and proclaim slavery someone else’s problem. Maybe in time the climate and geography would resolve the issue to everyone’s satisfaction. But all of that required a studied disinterest in the outcome. If one truly didn’t care whether or not slavery expanded west of Missouri, then that attitude made perfect sense. The Stephen Douglases of the world cared, at most, about the method by which slavery expanded or did not. Whether up in New England or down in the Missouri valley, many Americans did not share such disinterest. Rather they saw a combination of great personal opportunity for themselves and at least the future of Kansas and possibly the nation as at stake. They thus resolved to influence the outcome to suit their preferences, just as Seward and Douglas both came to expect.

In later years, Douglas accused antislavery northerners of plotting to subvert popular sovereignty and so provoking equivalent retaliation by southerners. He damned both parties, but the North more so for starting the business. The South more or less accepted Douglas’ version of events. Antislavery northerners had other ideas, of course. They could always point their fingers at Stephen Douglas, Accomplished Architect of Ruin, and the Slave Power cabal that secretly ruled him. But they could also point to past efforts, real or imagined, by southerners to seize the territory.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Who had the right of it? Both. None other than Missouri’s Senator, David Rice Atchison, started in with the threats of violence a year prior. I’ve not found the speech anywhere online, but Allen Nevins quotes Bourbon Dave’s Westport Address:

you know how to protect your own interests; your rifles will free you from such neighbors. … You will go there, if necessary, with the bayonet and with blood.

The unwelcome neighbors would naturally hail from the North and come with dreams of slave-stealing, servile insurrection, and other monstrosities against which the inhabitants of western Missouri would rightly take up arms. The law partner of Atchison’s lieutenant, Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, went one better, again as quoted by Nevins:

I am ready to go, the first hour it shall be announced that the emigrants have come, and with my own hands, will help to hang every one of them on the first tree.

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

The first effort to move antislavery settlers into Kansas came from the North. On April 26, 1854, before the Kansas-Nebraska Act even hit Franklin Pierce’s desk, the Massachusetts legislature unanimously approved a corporate charter for Eli Thayer’s Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society. The Society aimed to raise money and spend that money to promote Kansas settlement, recruit those settlers, and ship them off to the tune of five million dollars. Along the way, Thayer expected to make a profit and pay off his shareholders. He set off to tour the nation, traveling more than 60,000 miles and delivering hundreds of speeches.

When Thayer’s efforts hit the northern papers, who promoted him and called for sister societies in other northern states, word swiftly reached western Missouri. From there it appeared that Thayer already had the five million on hand and a small army ready to come in and take from Missouri men what they considered rightly theirs. If Yankee interlopers, later-day Hessians to a man, proposed to take what Missourians knew as their birthright, then they would fight for it.

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