On May 20, 1856, Charles Sumner finished his Crime Against Kansas speech and sat down. For all the hours he spoke, no one interjected to call him to order. He inveighed against slavery, against South Carolina, against his fellow senators, and ultimately against the Northern Democracy for serving as slavery’s eager lapdogs. He preceded his last volley of insults by citing the precedent of Michigan to argue that Kansas’ free state government deserved admission to the Union. Through all of it, Sumner’s invective struck at the notion of popular sovereignty first advanced by Lewis Cass and later adopted by Stephen Douglas to legislate slavery into Kansas. Cass, as a member of the Jackson Cabinet when Michigan’s statehood came before the nation, as a northern Democrat, and as Michigan’s former territorial governor and present senator, not to mention President Pro Tempore of the chamber, had a few things to say about all that. He rose to give the first answer to Sumner:
I have listened with equal regret and surprise to the speech of the honorable Senator from Massachusetts. Such a speech-the most un-American and unpatriotic that ever grate don the ears of the members of this high body-as I hope never to hear again here or elsewhere.
Yet Cass rose not to take this out on Sumner, however much he deserved “the highest censure and disapprobation.” Instead, he wanted to check Sumner’s history, which the Massachusetts senator “has so misunderstood and misapplied.” Sumner claimed for the people a right “to form conventions with a view to obstruct the authorized laws of the country.” Cass would have none of that, denying such a right to “any portion of the American people.” Conventions Americans might form, but not to array themselves against the established laws. To do that, “unless they succeed” put one right over into “rebellion.”
Here Cass makes what must read as a strange proposition today, but in nineteenth century America the right of revolution had a high cachet. You could rebel and make heroes of yourselves in the doing, as the founders did, fair enough. Had the founders failed, they might have ended on the end of a rope. The right of revolution appears always in retrospect, granted to history’s winners. So far, Kansas had not overthrown the territorial government or the United States. Thus Cass felt no obligation to yield to the demands of an illegal assembly of rebels.
But back to history. Michigan, sixty thousand whites strong, asked admission to the Union. Its constitutional convention, however, originated in an act of the legislature. The people in some vague, abstract sense, had nothing to do with it. The Wolverine State did things properly, thank you. The only difficulty came when Michigan claimed its boundary as set by Congress, rather than the one set by Ohio. Ohioans surveyed their northern boundary and helped themselves to Toledo. The tensions came close to a proper battle, with militias called out on both sides. Cass recalled how the Jackson administration feared a war. To defuse things, Congress agreed to admission contingent on a convention of Michiganders signing off on Ohio’s version of the boundary. They refused.
William Seward pressed: Just how did that first convention come together? Cass thought the governor and legislature did the work. Then coloring outside the lines ensued:
By a spontaneous act of the people, a second convention was called-not to oppose the laws, like the Kansas convention-not to establish another government-not to get up and oppose acts of Congress, or of the Territorial Legislature-not to make a revolution, but to escape from a civil war, to get out of a difficulty merely by saying that the people of the State were willing to accept the proposition of Congress.
They did so unanimously and everyone went home happy, hint hint. If Michigan could suffer a wrong -and Cass admitted the state did, as it had every right to insist on the original border- then Kansas could take a lump or two as well.