Franklin Pierce, Out of the Loop

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

The sack of Lawrence took place on a hot Wednesday, May 21, 1856. The destruction, pillage, and worse continued into the night but had abated by dawn. In the most restrictive sense, it played out over as little as four or five hours from the time Samuel Jones led his posse into town until they left again. But it took time and good cause, or at least a solid pretense, to get so many men to come over and consummate their long-held desire to do something about the infamous abolition town. The story could begin all the way back when Stephen Douglas cutting deals with the F Street Mess and Archibald Dixon. One could make a case for either, but to keep things manageable let’s focus on the immediate campaign against Lawrence that culminated on that Wednesday afternoon and evening. That also takes us back to Samuel Jones, sans posse, coming into Lawrence to arrest Samuel Wood on April 19. Failing then, he came back with a detachment of United States Cavalry and found Wood gone. He collected a few men as consolation prizes, then received a bullet in the back from someone in Lawrence gratis. On May 5, Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury made a federal case of things by ordering the arrest of various free state leaders and the suppression of the free state newspapers. The two causes came together in I.B. Donaldson’s overgrown “posse” of Missourians and Jefferson Buford’s adventurers.

That yields a bit more than a month between inciting event and the attack. During all that time, plenty of news could have passed back and forth between Kansas and Washington. One has to wonder just what the Pierce administration thought of events as they developed. The Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, Volume IV (PDF), have an account of that. The documents begin with the news that Franklin Pierce felt left out of the loop. On May 23, he telegraphed

Has the United States Marshal Proceeded to Lawrence to execute civil process? Has military force been found necessary to maintain civil government in Kansas? If so, have you relied solely upon the troops under the command of Colonels Sumner and Cooke? If otherwise, state the reasons. The laws must be executed; but military force should be employed until after the Marshal has met with actual resistance in the fulfillment of his duty.

Shannon, absent airline travel, couldn’t have called upon the president; he might at least have written.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Later that day, the President telegraphed again. In the interim, he received word from Edwin Sumner via Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War. Pierce had a copy of Sumner’s letter to Shannon “of the 12th instant.” I think that Pierce means the letter Sumner sent on the 13th, based on his endorsement of Sumner’s policy there. The Colonel wanted a purely military posse to keep the peace and offered to furnish Shannon with however many men he required. Pierce wrote

My knowledge of facts is imperfect; but with the force of Colonel Sumner at hand, I perceive no occasion for the posse, armed or unarmed, which the Marshal is said to have assembled at Lecompton.

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis

Nobody looks on Franklin Pierce as a sterling example of presidential leadership or far-sighted judgment, but even he could see things had gone sour indeed and required containment. He knew that Donaldson had a posse at Lecompton but had yet to move on Lawrence, thanks to his information as of the 13th. But while he sat in Washington and wondered why Shannon hadn’t written back to him, Donaldson had gone and Lawrence unresisting people of Lawrence paid the price.

Franklin Pierce’s Duty

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce decided for thoroughness when he embarked on his quest to blame everyone but himself and other men responsible for Kansas’ plight. Andrew Reeder, a Pierce appointee, did his part. The free state movement did theirs, tending toward insurrection with their wild program to set up an unauthorized state government. If they kept that up, then Pierce told the Congress that he would have to step in. The American system had means of settling disputes; none of them involved starting your own government. If you didn’t believe him, you could ask George III.

Pierce didn’t want to come off entirely as a proslavery partisan, though. He insisted on

the undoubted right of the peaceable and orderly people of the Territory of Kansas to elect their own legislative body, make their own laws, and regulate their own social institutions, without foreign or domestic molestation. Interference on the one hand to procure the abolition or prohibition of slave labor in the Territory has produced mischievous interference on the other for its maintenance or introduction. One wrong begets another.

Pierce had it technically right: antislavery and proslavery politics did feed one another, as any divide on issues does. He neglected, of course, just how Kansas came to have such contentions in the first place. You can point to news of the New England Emigrant Aid Society as fueling the resentment of border ruffians in their blue lodges, and Pierce did, but to stop there required a self-serving, selective memory indeed. Had Pierce, Jefferson Davis, the F Street Mess, Archibald Dixon, Phillip Phillips, and Stephen Douglas not come together to overthrow the Missouri Compromise, Kansas might have remained Indian country or it might, as David Rice Atchison once accepted, have come together as a free territory. The President would have none of that: antislavery Americans from outside Kansas caused all the fuss, end of story.

To whitewash his own party’s sordid recent past, Pierce appealed to the great nineteenth century orthodoxy that geography would save the Union, if only let do its job. Irresponsible agitators thwarted the silent work of climate and soil to settle the issue, taking it upon themselves and so making the future of slavery into an issue that motivated neighboring states to intervene.

All of this poses the question of just what the President intended to do. He hinted at it before, but now declared his aim openly:

it will be my imperative duty to exert the whole power of the Federal Executive to support public order in the Territory; to vindicate its laws, whether Federal or local, against all attempts of organized resistance

Pierce added further boilerplate about baleful “encroachment from without” but given his almost perfect lack of interest in border ruffians, his defense of Kansas’ laws in their unpredecented proslavery impositions, and his regular castigation of antislavery Americans, he clearly meant such encroachment from without and resistance from within as sins of the antislavery side alone.

In taking his stand, Pierce referenced the Wakarusa War. The happy news that the rivers of Kansas did not run red failed to deter him. Things worked out that time, but what about the next?

there is, I regret to say, reason to apprehend that disorders will continue to occur there, with increasing tendency to violence, until some decisive measure be taken to dispose of the question itself which constitutes the inducement or occasion of internal agitation and external interference.

Pierce stood ready to throw all his power against the free state government, but it need not come to that. Better to settle things once and for all by having Kansas speedily come into the Union through regular, lawful means. He called on Congress to pass an enabling act, which would authorize the territorial government to hold the usual convention and draw up a constitution for swift admission. Thus the slavery question would pass completely out of Washington’s hands. That it would ensure slavery remained in Kansas would, of course, delight the most powerful faction of Pierce’s Democracy and frustrate the chief aim of his political opponents.

All that would take time, so in the interim Pierce suggested that Congress vote him the necessary money

to defray any expense which may become requisite in the execution of the laws or the maintenance of public order in the Territory of Kansas.

Pierce didn’t say in as many words that he’d like for Congress to give him the funds to break up the free state movement, arrest its leaders, and decisively hand Kansas over to the South, but few could miss the obvious inference. If the proslavery government established by force and fraud couldn’t keep Kansas sound on the goose, then the United States Army could do the job.

 

 

The Fuss Continues

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

In discussing Wilson Shannon’s arrival in Kansas, I passed over another matter that I want to address before moving on. To hear Wilson Shannon tell it, Kansas had few problems and they all boiled down to the insistence of antislavery men upon remaining in Kansas, remaining antislavery, and having a fair contest for the territory’s future. If they all just got up and left, things would sort themselves out. One can argue about what Shannon might have done to help them, or just in for the preservation of the white man’s democracy in general, but Shannon asked no such questions of himself. His curious denial amounted to pleading guilty to the indictments of George W. Brown’s Herald of Freedom, and free soil men everywhere. This had to rankle not just in light of the proslavery party’s election fraud, its outlawing antislavery sentiment and excluding people who held such beliefs from holding office or serving on juries, but also in the face of continued violence against free soil Kansans.

Back in May, the special election at Leavenworth saw a fresh round of fraud. Andrew Reeder’s judges of election knew their duty well enough, but also their fates if they objected. They “should be mobbed” and “there would have been a fuss” had they insisted that only legal voters vote. They needed only consult the edifying example of William Phillips to know that. Other examples also presented themselves. The Howard Report includes testimony from an Edward Oakley that

I came out here and landed in Kansas city the first day of April, 1855, with my father, Joseph Oakley, and settled near Lecompton. The town site was laid out, but there were no buildings there. We settled about a mile from the town line. My father’s house was burned by S.J. Jones and his party, on the 28th of May, 1855, while my father was about on his way to Michigan. He and his party had, some two or three weeks before, burned down Mr. Samuel Smith’s house. I was in my father’s home, with Mr. Smith and others, when Jones and his party came up. After the house was set on fire one of Mr. Smith’s sons and a neighbor, by the name of Grout, went to the house and took the goods out of it. I saw the man get up on the roof and set the shingles on fire, but was not near enough to recognize who it was.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

S.J. Jones had, at the elections in March, stormed the polling place and demanded the judges of the election allow all who came to vote, no questions asked, or he would shoot them dead. One supposes that he had a reputation to maintain. For such exploits, the legislature made him a sheriff. Others behaved similarly. Alice Nichols describes the Kansas that greeted Wilson Shannon:

in Lawrence, Hickory Point, and Kickapoo; in Tecumseh, Black Jack, and Easton; in Osawatomie and Trading Post, as in Atchison and Leavenworth, mouths that owners insisted on opening were daily closed with fists. The bright Kansas sun was forever glinting on brandished arms and the blue air was made bluer still with oaths and threats.

Pardee Butler

Pardee Butler

Not every fistfight makes the history books, but clearly Kansas lived up to the rough reputation of the American frontier far more than one would like. But what in another territory might come down to a series of personal grudges became in Kansas, thanks to Phillip Phillips, Archibald Dixon, David Rice Atchison, Stephen Douglas, and Franklin Pierce, not to mention the votes of James Lane and Wilson Shannon, an existential battle for the future of the land. Proslavery and antislavery Americans took up the cause. If their battles did not involve cavalry companies and artillery barrages, they could still terrorize.

The proslavery men had an advantage here. Long accustomed to the use of violence to police white opinion, inspired by a mortal dread of the race war that must come if black Americans lived free from fear and bondage, and surely taking reassurance from their command of the territorial government, they struck with confidence. On August 16, they descended upon Pardee Butler, a farmer and preacher who had only arrived the past spring.

Did Reeder have the power to set aside elections?

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

On the sixth of April, 1855, Andrew Reeder and his armed bodyguards faced off against an equally armed gang of proslavery men and announced to them that seven of the seventeen elections that the Missourians stole from Kansans would not stand. Instead, new elections would fill those seats. As widespread, flagrant fraud characterized both of Kansas’ previous elections, surely doing the same thing all over again would solve things. But what else could Reeder have done? He took precautions beforehand and appears sincere a year later in saying that he didn’t have the evidence at the time to set aside more elections than he did. He had no army on hand to stop Missourians at the border, nor an independent and sophisticated law enforcement apparatus to safeguard the polls.

Surprisingly, it seems that the third time delivered on the proverbial charm. The Howard Committee found no illegal voting in six of the districts that went back to the polls. Kansas improved its performance from one free election in eighteen to one in seven. That success, however, came with the fact that Reeder had not set aside the other elections. The Missourian border ruffians still had their way in those districts. Furthermore, by setting any elections aside Reeder exceeded the authority that the proslavery men thought vested in him. They thought that the legislature itself judged the qualifications of its members, not the territorial executive. Back in Washington, just that rule had held since the ratification of the Constitution.

A quick scan of the Kansas-Nebraska Act does not reveal any explicit authorization for Reeder to set aside elections. He did have powers related to elections, including calling them, drawing districts, and apportioning seats, but insofar as the results of those elections come under his power, I’ve found this:

the first election shall be held at such time and places, and be conducted in such manner, both as to the persons who shall superintend such election and the returns thereof, as the Governor shall appoint and direct

[…]

The persons having the highest number of legal votes in each of said council districts for members of the Council, shall be declared by the Governor to be duly elected to the Council; and the persons having the highest number of legal votes for the House of Representatives, shall be declared by the Governor to be duly elected members of said house: Provided, That in case two or more persons voted for shall have an equal number of votes, and in case a vacancy shall otherwise occur in either branch of the Legislative Assembly, the Governor shall order a new election

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

The KansasNebraska Act did specify who counted as a legal voter and required election by a majority of legal voters, but it did not clearly vest in Reeder the power to investigate illegal voting and set aside elections where it determined the outcome. Maybe Stephen Douglas and Phillip Phillips, with the approval of Atchison, his F Street cronies, and Archibald Dixon assumed that. The law did not, however, come out and say it. By the strictest, most parsimonious reading of the law, the governor’s power over elections expired with their conclusion. He could set out oaths, despite the Missourians’ claims, and require the swearing of voters, but possibly nothing more.

This does not make for a conclusive argument. Nor did the proslavery men take it up out of disinterested legal scholarship. They further did not burden themselves with contrary facts when it came to claiming that the Kansas-Nebraska Act authorized their cross-border voting. Even the more legally scrupulous often contented themselves with a fake claim or the argument that their presence that instant in Kansas counted as legal residence with intent to remain, conveniently ignoring then their conscious design to leave immediately after the election.

In this case, however, they appear to have really believed that Reeder had no such power. By setting aside elections, he had transgressed on their rights and stripped from them the essential power of white men in the white man’s democracy to elect their government to chart their future. Before now, they might have thought Reeder a secret abolitionist for his attempted neutrality. Now the governor had gone and proved it to any who still required proof. Kansas got at least some fair elections, but they came at the inevitable cost of further aggravating the proslavery party by taking away some of its late triumphs.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection, Part Six

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection: parts 123, 4, 5

The destruction of Greytown scandalized much of the North. The Democracy’s paper liked it not much better than Horace Greeley did. Solon Borland did not do himself any favors through his involvement. Furthermore, the British took it as an outrage at a time when tensions between the United Kingdom and United States already stood at a high point over Central America and had the additional aggravation of American ambitions toward Cuba. George N. Hollins would have struggled to find a worse time to improve on his instructions by burning the place.

Matters all came to a head in late summer of 1854, roughly simultaneous with Franklin Pierce making his last-ditch attempt to work around Pierre Soulé and his dubious escapades in Spain to secure Cuba for the United States and the betterment of slavery. If he could not take Cuba with John A. Quitman’s filibusters then Pierce would settle for buying it. But nobody in Europe and of a sound mind wanted to deal with a maniac like Soulé. Thus Pierce sought Congress’ leave to send a special delegation to negotiate for Cuba’s sale.

John Slidell

John Slidell

What does this have to do with Nicaragua? Alongside Pierce’s special commission for Cuba, Louisiana’s John Slidell, on behalf of the Louisiana legislature, continued to push for granting Pierce the special power to set aside the Neutrality Acts and unleash any filibusters who cared to go to Cuba in retaliation for the brief seizure of the Black Warrior, which had also prompted Soulé to a wildcat ultimatum over in Madrid and to stop the threat of an Africanized Cuba which would imperil the white South through the good example it might give to the South’s slaves.

How did this have to look? On every front it seemed that someone in the Democracy, whether working directly with the White House or not, had some kind of scheme afoot for territorial expansion in the name of slavery. If the United States no longer respected Britain’s protectorate over the Mosquito Coast, then what did that say about its guarantee that Cuba would remain Spanish? Especially with eyes in Europe turning increasingly to the Crimean War. Maybe a filibuster could get away with it now and come off with a fait accompli that the British would protest only with a diplomatic note. The destruction of Greytown, from a certain perspective, could appear as a trial balloon completely aside from the outrage it would provoke all on its own.

In other times that might have all gone by without too much comment, but Americans had a much more adverse experience with the Democracy’s expansionism in 1854 than they had in the years previous. The Democracy had just sold the Great Plains, and with them the white north’s future, to the Slave Power. Now the Slave Power demanded still more? The antislavery movement might take a page from the South’s book and refuse to vote for the admission of new states from the territory that the Kansas-Nebraska Act gave over to slavery. To people already fearing that their way of life, free from slavery and free from blacks, would soon end this had to come across as salt on the wound.

All of this comes together, Greytown with Kansas-Nebraska with Anthony Burns (parts 123456) with Cuba and with the filibusters into an image of a nation gone mad. It had to look like a brewing disaster for the Democracy. Elections in the fall would provide just that. Even the most diehard expansionists in the Congress might have hesitated to add more fuel to the fire. So Slidell’s proposal to suspend the Neutrality Acts and Pierce’s to send a special commission to buy Cuba both failed, casualties of the storm Stephen Douglas sowed on that fateful carriage ride with Archibald Dixon.

The Northern Clergy

Wendell Phillips speaking against the Fugitive Act in 1850. In 1854, Douglas gave him larger crowds.

Wendell Phillips speaking against the Fugitive Act in 1850. In 1854, Douglas gave him larger crowds.

With the KansasNebraska Act Stephen Douglas, and the Southern politicians who forced his hand from David Rice Atchison and Phillip Phillips to Archibald Dixon, stood poised to split the Democracy in three, unite the North against it, and generally put to rest the last vestiges of the old political order where both parties competed in both sections and neither much cared to speak about slavery. That might seem inevitable now. Events of 1850 strained the system badly, but given time it could potentially have recovered. Though he hardly set out to do so, Douglas ensured that no such recovery would happen. The North already had a final slavery settlement that it could live with and did not take kindly to the Little Giant, on behalf of slave power oligarchs, tossing it out.

If one went back in time and visited an anti-Nebraska meeting, one would have to work hard to miss the presence of the clergy. Previously, American men of the cloth generally took pains to avoid much comment on slavery. When they had, it often meant splitting their denominations in two. Like most Americans, most clergymen cared little about slavery. They came along tardy even to the anti-Nebraska movement, only arriving in great numbers when other conservative men already had. A few years prior, they largely acquiesced even to the Fugitive Slave Act.

I don’t write that to damn them any more than to praise them, but I confess a certain dislike of the account one usually gets of American churches. To hear some tell it, one could think that the day John Hancock signed the Declaration of Independence the entire American ecclesiastical community united to sign their own declaration damning slavery, from which they never faltered. With some incidental help from white laypeople, and even more trivial help from black Americans, they slew the dragon of slavery. This view rightly acknowledges the role of various religious leaders in abolitionist circles, but it also turns all American clergy into stealth Quakers. That would have stunned most of them at the time. It would have scandalized the multitudes of Southern clergymen who, like their neighbors, believed slavery good and godly. Apparently when it comes to matters of religion, only the parts of the past we find laudatory deserve recognition.

The usual answer to the example of proslavery clergy involves citing the true meaning of Christianity. I have no doubt at all that the overwhelming majority of American Christians today would condemn slavery if asked. Most certainly see it as a brutal, evil institution and so the antithesis of their faith. Those words come easily with slavery safely in the rear view mirror. We know for a fact that many Christians of the time thought quite differently. Their faith got along just fine with slavery. The Bible preached it, right up to the point of setting prices. Jesus never condemned it. Paul instructed slaves to faithfully serve their masters.

None of that means that modern Christians must go over and agree with nineteenth century proslavery clergymen. Rather we must admit that the true meaning of any religion does not present itself to us on a silver platter, plain as day. Divining it and then making judgments about what does and does not fit with the soul of one’s faith, however sincerely done, amounts to a devotional exercise. I do not think that historians have any particular expertise on this matter.

For my part, I see the question as beside the point. History concerns what happened and why, not who went to Heaven, Hell, or anywhere else. The Northern clergy had largely remained silent or preached acceptance in 1850. They did not in 1854. Though they took their time coming around to it, they joined the anti-Nebraska movement with petitions, editorials, sermons, and other acts of protest. They blessed anti-Nebraska meetings. In Douglas’ own Chicago, clergy of all faiths united to damn the bill. More than three thousand New England ministers signed a petition in the name of the Almighty against it. One Massachusetts clergyman condemned “aggression by our Southern masters.” Like the rest of the white North, they worried more about freedom for free white men than for black slaves.

In response to all of this, Douglas cried foul. The Nebraska bill involved politics, not faith. The clergy should go back to worrying about souls and let him worry about the Great Plains. Furthermore, he protested the unfairness of their speaking out on the one day of the week that secular men could not answer. The days of 1850 had not come again. Clergy who once, with little question of constitutional proprieties or their proper role, damned their abolitionist brethren found themselves suddenly on the same side. A year before, they called those same abolitionists dangerous revolutionaries.

Kansas-Nebraska: Saving the Union

Phillip Phillips (D-AL)

Phillip Phillips (D-AL)

We look at the past with hindsight goggles. We know how things played out, so often historical figures can look like reckless fools that set themselves up for calamity after calamity and then refuse to change course. Didn’t Douglas know what F Street forced him into when it made him change his bill to suit Phillip Phillips and Archibald Dixon? Didn’t Phillips and Dixon know that they demanded measures that would help ruin the institution they meant to protect? Couldn’t they see disaster coming?

In the strictest sense, they could not. Nobody had a crystal ball. Could they have foreseen how repealing the Missouri Compromise would go over in the North? Perhaps, but it’s only with our hindsight goggles that we know so surely that the dispute over slavery animated passions like no other. People at the time could genuinely believe they provoked a brief, transient firestorm. If it helped the South save face, and helped southern Democrats keep their seats, why not concede a Kansas over to a phantom slavery that would never really develop? If saving a few southern Democratic seats against the threat of resurgent Whigs, however distant, cost a few northern Democratic seats then so be it. In the Democracy, the southern caucus had long held the lion’s share of the power. With the party’s strong hold over the South, it need not command equal favor in the North to maintain its accustomed control of the nation.

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

But what if the naysayers had it entirely wrong? The potential of KansasNebraska to swing the southwest to slavery obviously appealed to Southern men, but opening the great plains to white settlement appealed greatly to land-hungry whites. They might not desperately need it, as Bell and Houston noted, but more land to settle meant a bigger, broader future. If the advance of white settlement also meant a few tokens to slavery, that need not bother some Northern men. Most cared little about the institution in itself and less about the plight of those suffering under it. In the westernmost line of states and territories, on the banks of the Mississippi, land meant a great deal. Westerners moved out to get land and many of them could see a future for their sons and daughters one more state over. Westward expansion had the potential to become a Western issue and the core of a new Western identity, indifferent to slavery but very keen on settling the frontier.

Thomas Hart Benton, though he opposed the bill when it came to the House, had long thought that his Missouri had a more western character than southern. William Seward argued a few years before that the nation had not two sections, but three: North, South, and West. Real cultural and economic divides separated the frontier West from the settled East. The West had a rough, homespun character against the East’s settled gentility. Only recently had rail linked it to the great cities of the East. Before that, the West sold its crops down the Mississippi through New Orleans. Furthermore, much of the border Northwest had Southern people to go with its Southern geography. They almost made Illinois a slave state. In Indiana they elected a senator, Jesse D. Bright, who owned slaves in Kentucky and proved so studiously loyal to the Southern cause that the Senate expelled him in 1862. Men like him demonstrated that the Northwest had friends to slavery. An emerging western identity could dilute any opposition to proslavery politics, with the draw of white expansion distracting from any qualms about slavery expansion.

Jesse Bright

Jesse D. Bright (D-IN)

That new identity required people and states where those people could elect politicians to Congress, but here Kansas-Nebraska served admirably by throwing open the whole of the public domain. Furthermore, new western states would sprout farther from Chicago’s railroads, which had drawn Northwestern commerce eastward, and back down the Mississippi by way of the Missouri. The new West would so naturally share economic interests with the South, even if it lacked slavery. If it cared little about slavery, that difference would consequently matter little.

An alliance between new wheat and corn states west and north of Missouri and Iowa and the Cotton Kingdom could bring back the old days, with slavery’s security in the Union taking it out of the political limelight. The abolitionists couldn’t threaten it and the slaveholders would see that. Passions would cool and the nation could go back to living as thought the Mexican War never reopened the issue. This one Union-threatening, radical strike for slavery could paradoxically save the Union. It would surely revitalize the Democratic party by giving it eager supporters in the Northwest. Already the Democracy had high hopes for Iowa and Minnesota. Throw in Kansas and Nebraska and it would turn the Whigs into a tiny sectional party in the Northeast. Those extra seats could even dilute the proslavery bloc’s power to the point where it could no longer be forced into radicalism by renegade members, further safeguarding the Union by making proslavery men the happy victims of their own success.

Bell’s Dissent, Part Nine

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)

 

John Bell probably reached the most comfortable ground in his speech when he began railing against abolitionists. Those hypocrites wept for the slave, but never the Indian. Some of them genuinely did, opposing slavery for the harm it did to the slaves. But far more antislavery men opposed slavery because it threatened white self-government, white freedoms, and white futures out in the west. They had, as David Wilmot put it, “no morbid sympathy for the slave.”

Anyway, when he reached this point, Bell could reassert his Southern pedigree. He might stand, this once, against the South’s general interest as understood by a majority of its Senate caucus, but you could not call John Bell an abolitionist. Maybe you shouldn’t even call the abolitionists abolitionists. The British abolitionists, Bell said, had the right idea:

When the act for the abolition of slavery in the colonies was carried in the British Parliament in 1833, and the question of indemnity to the slaveholder came up, there was scarcely a dissenting voice raised against the propriety and justice of the proposition; and twenty millions of pounds sterling -one hundred millions of dollars- were promptly voted for that purpose. Whatever moral guilt, said the great leaders of the abolition movement, might attach to the slaveholder, the greatest share of the guilt and responsibility rested with the Government which encouraged and established slavery in the colonies.

You could not get a Salmon Chase or a William Garrison to sign on for compensated emancipation. Bell made the reasonable point that the United States allowed slavery and so had some responsibility for it. If those abolitionists hated it so much, why did they not get behind having Washington buy up the slaves and free them? They didn’t deserve to share a label with the British antislavery men.

Of course Bell had to overlook some convenient facts there. If the state bought up the slaves, it had to compel the owners to sell. What southern senator would vote for that? Even the ones who liked the idea of ridding themselves of slaves wanted to do so by colonization. Send them back to Africa and let America become lily-white. From the beginning of the colonization movement on down to Lincoln himself, they had the problem that most black people who could make the decision to go on their own did not want to go and those who could be forced to leave, the slaves, had owners who did not want to just throw away their investment. In fact, colonization sometimes drew passionate opposition from southern politicians who saw it as a means to weaken slavery to the point where, down the road a few years, it would create enough de facto free states to force a general abolition on them.

But, of course, Bell called the British abolitionists hypocrites too. They cared so much for freedom, until it came time to defend the slaveholding, slave trading Ottoman empire against the Russians in the Crimean War then raging. Bell neglected to mention that the Russians practiced slavery with great enthusiasm at the same time. They called it serfdom, but it had long ago taken on all the usual characteristics of slavery. So much for the general conscience of the civilized world, which some antislavery men proposed set slavery on a course for ruin. Even American abolitionists’ trans-Atlantic allies found it in themselves to approve of the Sultan’s slaving ways.

All of that made a good smokescreen. It might have even helped Bell keep his Senate seat, but he does let the mask slip and reveal his anxiety at standing apart from his section:

I now approach the consideration of another provision int his bill, which, in the opinion of many, possesses an importance paramount to all others; one that is held to be so important to the welfare of the country, and especially to the South, that some of my southern friends have expressed the opinion, in our private and friendly conferences, that a southern man who should fail to support it would be considered a traitor to the interests of the South; and that, under such circumstances, I should waive all scruples about the violation of treaties or compacts of any kind -all my objections to the bill, however important I may deem them. I take no exception to the morality of this view of duty; for if it can be shown that the principle of non-intervention incorporated in this bill will produce the happy consequences which its more ardent supporters content it will, though it may be a nice question in casuistry, a Senator may well consider it one of those cases of overpowering necessity and interest to the country to which all constitutional and other scruples and objections should yield.

If only it would work out, Bell could sign on. But popular sovereignty meant more agitation over slavery and the fact that one side or the other would prevail, making the other the loser bent on reversing that loss and preventing future reverses. Better to leave the matter untouched. Bell could have spoken for an entire generation of American politicians, but the nation had changed too much for the old settlements to hold. Speaking as he did on the eve of the Senate’s vote, he might have given one of the last true speeches of the antebellum era. Or, knowing how the vote would go, he might have only written its elegy.

Bell’s Dissent, Part Eight

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

Having floated his plan to redraw the Missouri Compromise line a bit further north, so both sections could have a state or two added in time, Tennessee’s John Bell took aim at men who considered themselves the great humanitarians of the age. They wrote and spoke endlessly about the evils of slavery. Their scruples, however, vanished when it came to depriving Indians of land:

Several honorable Senators have spoken strongly and eloquently of the duty of observing sacredly and inviolably all the obligations attaching to a certain compact, or understanding, entered into many years ago between the two great sections of the Union; and some of them, in their appeals to the people upon the subject, denounce any violation of that understanding as dishonorable. Yet when it is proposed to violate the public faith plighted to the feeble Indian tribes on the frontier, not a word is interposed to save the honor of the country. We hear no appeal appeal to the sympathy or the justice of the country on their behalf. While the Senate Chamber rings with stirring appeals upon the subject of the wrongs of the African, the wrongs of the Indian are passed by in silence! No memorials are presented in his behalf. Yet, are not these Indians, men? Are they not our brethren, of the human race, like the African? Are they not born with the same equality of rights -inalienable as those of the African or the white man?

Bell had a point. The Appeal focused on the evil of giving land that rightly belonged to white men over to slaves and their masters. Depriving Indians did not enter into it. But then one would not hear John Bell go on about the relief of his African slaves either. Depriving Indians did not enter into that either.  When it came to his own property and his own institutions, Bell found plenty of room for distinction. He means to call free soilers and antislavery men hypocrites, not to set a standard for his own behavior. If pressed, he could probably give any number of reasons why black Americans deserved and even benefited from slavery and like reasons why it did not suit American Indians.

The situations look similar to us and touch on many of the same issues, but we should resist the temptation to view them as identical. Both involve great injustice sanctified by the racism of the time. Both involve many atrocities, large and small. Both contributed powerfully to the development of the United States. Both forced population transfer and slavery look to us like the acts of one of the great twentieth century touchstones of evil: Nazi Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union. But not all crimes against humanity are the same, even if they all horrify us. Population transfer, or ethnic cleansing to give it the name popular when I attended high school, involves a great deal of suffering and can certainly reach the level of attempted genocide. Bell himself saw that, and welcomed it, as the eventual fate of the American Indian.

But ethnic cleansing doesn’t usually involve slavery. Though white Americans did at times enslave Indians, either by name or in everything but name, they did not do so on the same scale as they did imported Africans. Nor did they engage in concerted, large-scale campaigns to wipe black Americans out or exile them to remote corners of the continent where they could die quietly. The colonization movement tried to exile them back to Africa, a continent they saw as foreign as any white American did, but never became the dominant strategy for solving white America’s African problem. The two situations overlap, and involve many horrors of similar gravity, but do also substantively differ.

In saying that, one invites the question of which party had it worse? Who wins the Oppression Olympics and thus deserves the fullest attention of our conscience. I have thought so myself. Separation does imply morally meaningful distinctions. One might call separate inherently unequal, following the logic of Brown. But on further consideration, understanding the past requires us to accept these distinctions where they existed. White Americans treated black Americans and American Indians very differently even if it treated both very horribly. We should not let our understandable and, I think, laudable desire to condemn both to blind us to the facts.

Bell’s Dissent, Part Seven

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6)

After reassuring Stephen Douglas that he meant no offense in speculating about the Little Giant’s big dreams, Tennessee’s John Bell set himself on the real issue at stake. He might care about not giving the United States a reputation for breaking treaties, about not giving away all the public land in the nation, and about not opening new land for settlement before the land already opened to whites had filled up. They all seem like reasonable concerns for a man of his time and persuasion. Sam Houston (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) shared most of them just as credibly. But like Houston, Bell ultimately came around to the elephant in the corner: repealing the Missouri Compromise.

Bell started by regretting that he had to. He avoided the topic last session, when Douglas tried to hurry through a repeal-free Nebraska bill at the eleventh hour. Now another eleventh hour had come, just a year later, and John Bell would stay silent no longer. He never wanted to reopen discussion of slavery in the west, but Salmon P. Chase had wrestled slavery back into the limelight.

The nation at the time of the Missouri Compromise (via Wikimedia Commons)

The nation at the time of the Missouri Compromise (via Wikimedia Commons)

Indian removal, Bell told the Senate, succeeded in avoiding sectional tensions because it split the territory given away to Indians in perpetuity equally. The South lost land west of Arkansas that could have made a state or two. The North lost land west of Missouri that could have made a state or two. Since each section lost equal territory, pledged to slavery for the South and freedom for the North, neither side came off at a disadvantage.

Any map will tell you that the South actually conceded more of the Louisiana Purchase land than the North did. Bell had to know that. But he had a point in that both sides had, in principle, surrendered land explicitly reserved for them. The curious fact that they gave up on it in the very act of reserving it to their sections didn’t change that and the notion fits neatly alongside the compromise’s actual goal of keeping the Senate equally divided between slave and free states. By opening up the Indian territory for white settlement, the question of whether the Missouri Compromise should stand naturally arose.

It so happened, Bell told the Senate, that while all the land given up by North and South alike belonged to the Indians forever, Indians had mostly come to the section of it west of Arkansas, essentially modern Oklahoma minus the panhandle. Stephen Douglas’ bill did not propose to organize that territory. Bell could concede that oversight, since so many Indians did live there. Nobody forced them to settle there instead of further north. It just happened.

So what should the Senate do with the less-settled northern reaches of the Indian country if it would not leave that land to the Indians?

if this territory is not to remain Indian territory, equal justice to the South would seem to require that such guarantees should be voluntarily conceded by the North as would secure to the South the formation of a slave State, should the country turn out to be adapted to slave labor, as an equivalent for the loss of one south of the line of the Missouri compromise. And if the experiment should show that the country presented no adequate inducement to the introduction of slave labor, and it should become a free State, then the South could not complain if the North should profit by those circumstances which now seem to demand that the territory should change its destination, and become the possession and abode of the white instead of the red man.

In other words, the Senate should replace the Missouri Compromise with nothing less than the Missouri Compromise all over again, but moving the compromise line northward. Maybe it would run from Missouri’s northern border this time around. As a compromise, that had some potential. It fit with the historical norms. It would not give over all the white North’s future lands to slavery. Maybe in other times it could have worked, but Dixon, Phillips, and F Street had offered the South the whole loaf. Bell’s eleventh hour concession prize might have kept the North from the outrage that ensued and passed with fewer fireworks, but it came too late for any of that.

Or it might have come still to naught, as Bell left open the chance for a state given over to the South to turn free if its residents wanted. Exactly that did happen in the end, if not quite the way Bell intended.