A Memorial for a Free Kansas, Part Two

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

The Free Staters opened up their memorial to Congress with a chronicle of Missourian misdeeds, culminating with the involvement of Missouri’s just recently former senator, David Rice Atchison. As the man behind the curtain during the drafting of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, on top of his former office, Atchison’s involvement warranted special note. It rankled that the Missourians had so little shame that one of the most powerful men in the nation, until recently, had no shame about taking part. But it rankled for more than Atchison’s conspicuous presence.

Stephen Douglas and his confederates sold the Kansas-Nebraska Act to the nation as a way to defuse the explosive question of slavery by taking it out of Washington and putting its future in the hands of individual territorial and state governments to do with as they wished. They thus gave the sanctity of American democracy to either of popular sovereignty’s outcomes. If one could vote on governors, why not labor systems? Who would disagree with that in an age full of Americans congratulating themselves about their experiment in self-governance?

But self-government for whom? By whom?

It would be mere affectation in us to attempt to disguise the fact that the question of making Kansas a free or slave States [sic] is at the bottom of this movement, and that the men who thus invade our soil and rob us of our liberties are from the pro-slavery men of Missouri, who are unwilling to submit the question to the people of the Territory, and abide the compact between north and south, which the Kansas-Nebraska bill contains. That compact we want carried out, and by that test we want the question settled if it can be; but there are few things that we would not prefer to the domination of irresponsible invaders from Missouri.

Here we find a paradox in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Its stated purpose amounted to only giving the people of the territories the power to set their own institutions. Its southern framers exerted their influence on a willing Stephen Douglas in favor of just the opposite, deciding Kansas for slavery. Douglas himself didn’t care, but probably everyone else did. By adhering to the stated spirit of the law, rather than its real aim, the antislavery movement found itself a curious banner indeed. But they ran with it:

That enactment is not only a law which States and individuals are bound to obey, but it is a compact between the north and the south, a solemn covenant between the sovereign States of our Union, which none can violate without becoming recreant to the principles of honor and justice, without the betrayal of the confidence reposed, without such breaking of plighted faith as in an individual would load him to earth with scorn and contempt, and drive him from the society of honest men. That bill, which northern statesmen, backed with northern votes, had obtained for southern rights, is made by men who invade our soil the very instrument for depriving us of our dearest privileges, and stabbing to the heart those who magnanimously gave it into their hands for other ends.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

They had no illusions on the subject; anybody watching in 1854 knew what the Kansas-Nebraska Act really meant to do. But with both sections agreeing to it, more or less, they accepted the principles it stated rather than the ends designed by its framers. It became, over the year since passing, a sectional settlement they described in terms that would fit comfortably into the Appeal of the Independent Democrats. In the place of Stephen Douglas, they made Atchison into their accomplished architect of ruin.

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