Three Choices for Kansas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Felix Zollicoffer had one solution for Kansas’ troubles: giving the territorial legislature advance permission to write a state constitution when they found that the territory’s population had grown large enough. Galusha Grow and the rest of the House’s Committee on Territories had another: admit the free state government to statehood at once. Before both of them, Franklin Pierce had directed the Congress’ attention to settling of matters in his annual message. Grow’s and Zollicoffer’s reports to the House come in that context as well as that of Kansas’ petition. The House’s long contention over who would occupy the Speaker’s chair delayed action on Kansas as much as it did the president’s message, but the Congress had a whole second chamber just across the way with its own Committee on Territories and Stephen Douglas as the chair. He fixed Kansas until it broke last time, so why not take another crack?

Douglas might have gotten right on that at the first of the year, but illness kept him away from the capital. The Senate naturally referred Pierce’s message to his committee, so once he did arrive he got right into things. On March 12, the Little Giant came out swinging. I couldn’t find the report online anywhere, but my sources agree on the essential points: The Emigrant Aid Companies took all the blame for Kansas’ troubles, which provoked Missouri to action. Douglas ignored what James Rawley calls the “bastard birth” of the territorial government and affirmed its legitimacy. The Topeka movement amounted to a revolution. Congress ought to appropriate additional money to enforce order in the territorial and give permission at once for Kansas to write a constitution, under the extant territorial government, when it reached the proper population. Douglas and Zollicoffer had two parties between them, the Little Giant a lifelong Democrat and Zollicoffer a Whig turned Know-Nothing, but they agreed on Kansas.

Jacob Collamer (R-VT)

Jacob Collamer (R-VT)

Vermont’s Jacob Collamer dissented, arguing that the free state movement acted only because driven to strike out on their own. What else could they do with no recourse to the polls or the law of the territory? They might have done worse still, but opted for a “peaceful, constitutional” remedy. If Congress really wanted to fix things, they should repeal the whole Kansas-Nebraska act. But if the Senate would not listen to good sense,

then declare all the action by this spurious foreign legislative assembly utterly inoperative and void, and direct a reorganization, providing proper safeguard for legal voting and against foreign force.

Collamer took a conservative course. He defended the free state movement, but did not endorse its application for statehood. That would sidestep all the difficulties with its irregular nature and the extant legal government of Kansas.

Thus the Congress had three solutions before it: Douglas and Zollicoffer, who hewed to the same line as the administration, proposed largely leaving Kansas in the hands of its present government. It would become a slave state in due course. Grow and the majority of the House committee advised immediate statehood under the Topeka constitution, which would ensure a free and lily white Kansas. Somewhere on the center and leaning antislavery, Collamer advised a do-over, rolling the clock back to either before the first Assembly elections in March of the previous year or all the way to May of 1854 when the Kansas-Nebraska Act became law.

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