“They were driven by violence” The Committee on Territories Weights In, Part Four

Galusha Grow

Galusha Grow

Parts 1, 2, 3

The Committee on the Territories laid out relevant precedent for admitting Kansas’ free state government to the Union. Arkansas had a wildcat state convention and Congress admitted it. Congress likewise, eventually smiled on Michigan despite only a minority, party convention accepting the terms of Michigan’s admission. Kansas had just the same. Galusha Grow’s committee held neither of these prior admissions in error, since Congress had complete discretion as to when, how, and if it would use its power to make states. Might rarely makes for the best of right, though. The power to do something didn’t make every exercise of that power a good idea. Thus Grow’s majority report turned to the question of expediency.

The case for that began with a history of Kansas from 1854. The Kansas-Nebraska Act had, “[f]or the first time in the history of the government” removed a restriction upon slavery. The old policy, Grow averred, barred slavery “from all territory where it had not an actual existence, and to regulate and even restrict it where it had.” Grow’s history comes straight from antislavery orthodoxy. From the founders on, the nation accepted that slavery existed in some places and could not easily uproot it but stood firm against its spread. Congress had even asserted the power to interfere with slavery in states, by preventing the import of slaves from abroad.

Grow left out that most of the slave states no longer needed to import people by 1808 and so conceded little. We can pick apart the details further, particularly how Grow declares this a sort of formal policy rather than a series of practical concessions to slavery by a national government largely in the thrall of slaveholders. But Grow believed it and offered what, to millions of Northerners, seemed a plausible account of the nation’s past. He had the larger point of emphasizing, against late antebellum Southern orthodoxy, the Congress absolutely had the power to make decisions on slavery for territories. Only by adopting this new doctrine, popular sovereignty, had Kansas’ troubles come about:

instead of leaving this Territory, as it had been for more than a third of a century, consecrated to freedom by all the solemnities that can surround any legislative act; instead of adhering to the policy established by the fathers of the republic, and continued by the uniform action of the government for more than half a century, of settling in Congress the question of the future existence of slavery in a Territory at the time of organizing its temporary government, all restrictions were thrown off, and the existence of slavery was left as a bone of contention for the settlers of the Territory during its Territorial existence, and to be thrown back again into Congress whenever the State should apply for admission. The act itself virtually invited slavery to take possession by removing all barriers to its introduction.

Grow did not deny his partisanship, stressing that opening the territory to slavery brought about all the strife to date. Restriction it would, by implication, have led to an orderly territorial progress for Kansas. He defended antislavery emigrants: they accepted the logic of popular sovereignty and removed to Kansas to exercise it, the same right that every white American enjoyed. For their trouble

they were driven by violence from the polls, and their ballot-boxes seized by organized bands of armed men from the State of Missouri.

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