“I have sat in my seat only on one day.” Back to Washington

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Preston Brooks accomplished many things by breaking his cane over Charles Sumner’s head. He vindicated South Carolina and his elderly relative. He vented his personal rage. He had the great satisfaction of seeing a hated enemy prostrate. He won the acclaim of his constituents and his section. Gifts of canes flooded the mail. Brooks also saved Sumner’s career in the Senate. The coalition that elected him back in 1851 fell apart soon after. Both ambitious Republicans and Massachusetts’ governor angled to replace Sumner. His protracted disability could have sealed the deal, a fact which Sumner keenly appreciated, but instead the public outpouring of sympathy and the able politicking of the Bird Club of antislavery men kept him a Senator. He would ultimately die in office.

Sumner’s physical recovery progressed over the months. He looked healthier now, putting on some weight courtesy of all the bed rest, and seemed of sound mind again. As at Cresson, Sumner rode often for exercise, though he still struggled to walk even with a cane and mental exertion tired him greatly. His doctors advised him to go to Europe for a prolonged vacation. Instead, Sumner went to Washington, arriving late on February 25. The session would only last until March 4, but he made it.

Gentle Readers, if you recall John McCain’s return to the Senate this past fall after his cancer diagnosis you might know that he received warm applause from both parties. Antebellum Washington had its own gentleman’s club atmosphere, with politicians often socializing warmly in private whilst castigating one another in public. You might expect Sumner to get the same kind of welcome. The Republicans obliged, but the Democracy ignored him.

Sumner came back for a reason, beyond just showing himself. The Senate then considered a tariff that would cut the rates on raw materials. New England manufacturers wanted it badly. Sumner did not. The bill came to a vote and Sumner returned despite the strain, casting several votes between nine at night and two in the morning.

His return excited Sumner’s supporters, some of whom thought him likely to stay on. Theodore Parker wrote his hope for another grand antislavery speech, lamenting their lack since the Senator’s ordeal. Sumner had other ideas:

I have sat in my seat only on one day. After a short time the torment to my system became great, and a cloud began to gather over my brain. I tottered out and took to my bed. I long to speak, but I cannot. Sorrowfully I resign myself to my condition. […] my own daily experience, while satisfying me of my improvement, shows the subtle and complete overthrow of my powers organically, from which I can hope to recover only most slowly. What I can say must stand adjourned to another day. Nobody can regret this so much as myself.

Sumner took his oath of office for the new term on March 4, at the start of the special session to confirm James Buchanan’s nominees. He quit Washington again rather than stay on for that.

Re-Electing Charles Sumner

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Senator Sumner returned to Boston in something resembling triumph. Though badly traumatized and still suffering from his assault by Preston Brooks, he came home a hero and a martyr. Sumner said a few words, in a much-diminished voice, in answer to his first reception. At the State House, he intended to try a longer oration. He made it through a halting sentence or so before calling it quits. Sumner lacked the volume and ability to go further, but naturally passed his copy over to the newspapers.

Though visibly still an disability and debilitated, Sumner opted for more than the usual pleasantries. He regretted his five months convalescing, which kept him from arguing freedom’s case before the Senate and the people. No one could have missed the subtext: Sumner did want to go back to the Senate and his term did end fairly soon. They should vote for the Republicans so he could, or otherwise consider themselves friends to slavery’s swift advance.

Spent, Sumner let the throng see him to the family home. There his mother waited. They took to a window and bowed to a cheering crowd before retiring. The public ordeal cost Sumner dearly. He complained of his usual pains, but not in vain; Massachusetts stuck with its fallen Senator when the polls opened. John C. Fremont, the Republican’s first presidential candidate, lost to James Buchanan but he carried Massachusetts with seventy thousand votes, fifty thousand more than went to Buchanan and Millard Fillmore (now running as a Know-Nothing) combined. Anson Burlingame squeaked by into a second term as well. Republicans swept the state elections. His visible infirmity even convinced the previously opposing Boston Herald to endorse him.

As customary at the time, Sumner pretended he had no interest in his own re-election. In private, he kept a close eye on Governor Gardner, Burlingame, and others who though Sumner’s chair entirely too empty. He would speak about resigning only to then mention those connivers who wanted to succeed him. If a good, reliable man stepped forward then Sumner might change his mind. He named Charles Francis Adams, confident that no one would get behind that ticket. When January came around and the new legislature met, Sumner promised he would resume his duties within the month. He had a duty and would persevere, despite his continued infirmity.

Henry Gardner (Know-Nothing-MA)

As in his previous election, Sumner could feign aloofness in part because friends worked avidly on his behalf. The Bird Club, a group of antislavery politicians and intellectuals founded by Sumner’s friend Frank Bird, worked behind the scenes to get the senate election safely concluded and their man another six years as soon as possible. That proved soon indeed; the Massachusetts House voted before Governor Gardner’s inaugural address arrived. Only twelve men voted against Sumner. The Senate took up his candidacy four days later and approved it on a unanimous voice vote.


Southerners Weigh in on Brooks

Preston Brooks (D-SC)

In following the aftermath of Charles Sumner’s caning by Preston Brooks, we have largely focused on northerners. As those posts went up, I searched for Southern defenses of Brooks. Andrew Butler made a speech on his behalf, but as a directly interested party he makes a poor substitute for a sectional response. His kinsman caned Sumner on his behalf. Robert Toombs’ after the fact approval and John Slidell’s obvious indifference speak better to a sectional attitude.

To them we could add James Mason. Preston Brooks’ constituents planned to throw him a celebratory dinner to express “their complete indorsement of his Congressional course”. The authors didn’t necessarily mean for politicians to accept their invitations. Rather they wrote to get back a public letter on a subject. Mason obliged, his letter appearing in the fifth volume of Sumner’s Works:

He [Brooks] has shown himself alike able and prompt to sustain the rights and interests of his constituents in debate and by vote, or to vindicate in a different mode, and under circumstances of painful duty, the honor of his friend. I would gladly, therefore, unite with you were it in my power, in the testimonial proposed by his generous constituents

For the same occasion, Brooks’ supporter back home invited the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis. He wrote back

It would give me much pleasure, on any occasion, to meet you, fellow-citizens of the Fourth District of South Carolina; and the gratification would be materially heightened by the opportunity to witness their approbation of a Representative whom I hold in such high regard and esteem. […] I have only to express to you my sympathy with the feeling which prompts the sons of Carolina to welcome the return of a brother who has been the subject of vilification, misrepresentation, and persecution, because he resented a libellous assault upon the reputation of their mother.

Clearly, Brooks had many Senatorial friends and admirers. They include some of the most powerful men in the nation, who could easily have ignored invitations from his constituents or responded without speaking to the substance of their invitation. The editorial notes in Sumner’s Works waste no time pointing out that Toombs, Slidell, Mason, and of course Davis spent the first half of the 1860s in the Confederate government.

The editors also found a less Southern man, geographically if not politically, to say a few kind words for Brooks. Then running for president, James Buchanan attended a college graduation in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. One of the students gave an anti-Brooks speech to enthusiastic applause. The student sat down next to Buchanan, who corrected him loudly enough for the whole room to hear:

My young friend, you look upon the dark side of the picture. Mr. Sumner’s speech was the most vulgar tirade of abuse ever delivered in a deliberative body.

James Buchanan

The student protested. Surely the Old Public Functionary didn’t approve of what happened? Buchanan answered:

Mr. Brooks was inconsiderate, but that Senator Butler was a mild man.

The next President of the United States didn’t go all the way out and say Sumner had it coming, but he tried. Dismissing a dangerous attack on a sitting Senator as “inconsiderate” and expressing his sympathy for Butler spoke volumes. It also fit neatly with Buchanan’s long career of being thoroughly inclined to do a solid for any proslavery man who happened along.


The Remedy of Justice and Peace: The Crime Against Kansas, Part 14

Charles Sumner (Republican-MA)

Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13Full text

If the Senate wanted Civil War, Charles Sumner told them how to get it. They need only take the present territorial government of Kansas in as its legitimate government, rendering permanent the proslavery usurpation of its elections. The proslavery men on the ground, already not shy about violence, would surely step up their campaign to purge the land of dissenting whites. Antislavery men in turn would look more ardently to their defense. Money and guns would flow into the state from both sections and soon the violence would spread.

Should the Senators wish to avoid that, they had a solution on hand. William Seward proposed junking Stephen Douglas’ bill to take the present government of Kansas and make it a state. Instead, the Senate should recognize the free state movement and its Topeka Constitution. They had all the officers of a proper government ready to go the moment Congress gave the word. Sheriff Samuel Jones kept a list.

Rarely has any proposition, so simple in character, so entirely practicable, so absolutely within your power, been presented, which promised at once such beneficent results. In its adoption, the Crime against Kansas will be all happily resolved, the Usurpation which established it will be peacefully suppressed, and order will be permanently secured.

Senator William H. Seward (Republican-NY)

The country should thank William Seward for saving the Union. Sumner spent a brief paragraph praising him that must have gone over well during the rehearsal, then moved on to why Kansas deserved statehood. First, the Kansans asked for it and statehood would take Washington off the hook for Kansas’ expenses. Those included expenditures for keeping the peace, which Sumner attributed with considerable justice “on account of the pretended Territorial Government.” Second, Kansas showed the ability to defend itself during the Wakarusa War. That argued for its passing the stage of an enfeebled state in need of a direct patron. Third and last, Sumner pointed out that Kansas had “the pecuniary credit” to afford to run its own affairs.

Anticipating objections, Sumner ran down them in short order. The Constitution left admission of states entirely to the whim of Congress, placing no test upon them save for not making states by carving land out of existing states without leave. (To answer the obvious question, West Virginia’s formation had the assent of the then-recognized government of the state.) Nor did precedent of law insist on a minimum population, though folk wisdom often thinks so. Even if it did, Kansas had more people in 1856 than Delaware or Florida and so easily matched the customary bar. One might object that Kansas did not have enough people to qualify for a single member in the House, according to then-current ratios. Florida gained admission despite that. Furthermore, the ratio of representation changed regularly until unwise capping of the size of the House in the early twentieth century. With that the case, Sumner argued that a controlling precedent found in the ratio at the time of the Louisiana Purchase ought to apply.

Thomas Hart Benton

Likewise, while Kansas had a wildcat state movement Sumner could point to prior occasions where the Congress had respected such organizations and given them statehood. Most recently, California got that treatment. Previously, Michigan “now cherished with such pride as a sister state” did. Michigan, like Kansas, presented itself to Congress with all the usual officials and a constitution adopted without prior approval. Andrew Jackson, Thomas Hart Benton, and James Buchanan all endorsed Michigan’s statehood at the time, a fact remembered on the state’s maps. In the end, only eight Senators voted against Michigan and the chamber even voted full compensation for the senators forwarded with Michigan’s application retroactive to the start of the session. To deny Kansas now would “bastardize Michigan”.

Hale vs. Pierce: Rebuking Franklin Pierce

John Hale

John Hale

In his third annual message, Franklin Pierce castigated antislavery Americans as enemies of the Constitution. Those traitors had brought the Union nigh unto ruin. The sorest of sore winners, they took every concession that the slave states generously gave and called it a proslavery imposition. The fiends had ranted, raved, and aroused the innocent South to the point where, prostrate, she had finally demanded and got well-deserved redress in the repeal of federal restrictions on slavery in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. New Hampshire’s free soil senator, John P. Hale, would have none of that. He tore into Pierce for neglecting Kansas in most of his message, for doing -and when necessary refraining from doing- all he could to ensure slavery spread to Kansas. If any of that made him an enemy of the Constitution, then Hale would take it.

But Hale wouldn’t take it laying down. He would “not have him hurl such an imputation as that unchallenged or unrebuked.” Pierce, Hale declared,

has no right to designate any men who are here under the same oath to support the Constitution which he has taken, as enemies of the Constitution; and when he does it he comes down from the high place which God, in his wrath for the punishment of our national sins, and for the humiliation of our national pride, has permitted him to occupy.

John P. Hale literally called Franklin Pierce the Scourge of God. He described precisely the function of that concept in medieval theology, lacking only to name it. In its day, Christians attached the title to Genghis Khan, the Black Death, and Atilla the Hun. In our more secular time that draws a smile, at least from me, but strip away the theology and Hale anticipated generations of future historians. Pierce occupies a singularly exalted place very near the bottom whenever they sit down to rank presidents. Even given the difficult time, Pierce made a bad show of it. He might have qualified for the worst president ever, but James Buchanan exceeded him and came into office immediately after. Then Andrew Johnson blew all the competition out of the water.

Hale had more than theology to sling at Pierce:

I say he comes down from that high place into the arena of a vulgar demagogue, and strips himself of everything which should clothe with dignity the office of President of the United States. I deny the issue; I hurl it in his face; I tell him, when he undertakes to designate these [antislavery] men as enemies of the Constitution, he bauses and defames men whose shoe-latchets he is unworthy to tie.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Today we would call such behavior un-presidential.  In Hale’s time the standards of decorum ran somewhat more aristocratic. Nineteenth century Americans saw it as vulgar for presidents to campaign on their own behalf. The model candidate ought to stay home, entertain people who called, and refer them to his past record if they wanted to know his position on anything. He had surrogates who would speak and write on his behalf. Now we have presidents who very much do campaign, but by custom the vice-presidential candidate and others still handle the harder partisan attacks most of the time.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection, Part Five

Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection: parts 123, 4

The events at Greytown scandalized the North. As Horace Greeley had it,

We cannot recall any other public question with regard to which there has been such unity of opinion. Journals habitually opposed on every other subject representing every shade of party feeling, every divergence of interest, and every antagonism of nationality concur to declare the destruction of San Juan a needless, unjustifiable, inhuman exercise of warlike force. Conservatives and radicals, Whigs and Democrats, Americans and Foreigners all agree in this one thing-all express the same horror and disgust. Indeed, among all the papers which have yet spoken, we know of but one, and that an obscure and scurrilous sheet in this City, which has attempted to find an excuse for the measure.

Even the Washington Union, which dutifully followed the Pierce administration’s official line, could come up only with a plea to suspend judgment until all the facts came out. Those facts included the official correspondence, which had both George N. Hollins’ account of himself and the orders that brought him to Greytown. His orders contained this provision:

It is, however, very much to be hoped that you can effect the purpose of your visit without resort to violence and destruction of property and loss of life.

George N. Hollins

George N. Hollins

Way to follow orders, George.

While one might expect that sending in the military could lead to violence, and it carries the implicit threat of force, the Cabinet had as much of a shock as anybody else. Careful, conservative William L. Marcy might have felt it the worst. He wrote to James Buchanan in London that

The occurrence at Greytown is an embarrassing affair. The place merited chastisement, but the severity of the one inflicted exceeded our expectations. The Government will, however, I think, stand by Capt. Hollins.

Will Great Britain interfere in the matter? If she does, her course will tend to bring Central American affairs to a crisis. I am glad your reply to Lord Clarendon was in before the news of the bombardment of Greytown was received at London.

Lord Clarendon served as the Foreign Minister at the time.

Buchanan wrote back at the end of August, getting right to the heart of the matter:

I am sorry, however, to be informed that the Government will, you think, stand by Captain Hollins. I have read every thing with care in regard to that affair, and with the strongest disposition to excuse or justify him for burning Greytown; -and I still hope that after more mature reflection the Government will not adopt the act.

The Old Public Functionary (They really called him that!) further told Marcy that he’d met an Indian prince the British had just given a handsome pension in exchange for his kingdom. The British let him know that they might have to do the same for the King of the Mosquito Coast. London did not, however, care for the fact that the United States and United Kingdom exchanged ratifications of a treaty over Canada in the wake of news of Greytown’s destruction. It gave the impression that

James Buchanan

James Buchanan

we have discovered the mode of dealing with the British-we went down to Greytown and smashed it, whereupon they became alarmed and gave us all we wanted.

Buchanan answered that he needed to talk with the Prime Minister, Lord Aberdeen, about the complicated Central American situation. Buchanan let on that he saw Aberdeen as more friendly to the United States. Lord Clarendon did not take the suggestion of going over his head, especially in this situation, well at all:

Lord Clarendon then seized me by the lapels of my coat and shook me, and said, “I am as good a friend of the United States as Lord Aberdeen, or any man in three Kingdoms.”

Even in a rougher age, one diplomat did not simply seize and shake another over light and trivial matters. Buchanan had not previously expected the British to take their protectorate over the Mosquito Coast seriously, but now he had reason to think otherwise.

Back to Ostend and Out with Soulé

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456

Despite his heroic efforts on the Nebraska front, Franklin Pierce had not quite done enough to wreck his party in the North just yet. He still had one more trick left in him, whether he knew it or not. By the fall of 1854, Pierce had given up on stealing Cuba via John A. Quitman’s filibustering. He might have still held out some hope for Pierre Soulé’s revolutionary machinations in Spain but nothing had come from them but Soulé’s word that something might eventually come from them. He might have withdrawn Soulé, but that would make Pierce look weak to the expansionists. Sending a special Cuba commission to join him would mean undercutting the Frenchman, who had served as the face of Cuban annexation in Madrid. Getting rid of such a terrible diplomat would help and hurt the cause simultaneously.

William L. Marcy

William L. Marcy

With every option looking terrible one way or another, Pierce decided to give one last go at Cuba. If he could not get the island, could he perhaps persuade Spain’s chief defenders, the British and French, to change positions and put pressure on Madrid? This has the sound of grasping at straws, and much of the same in substance, but factors beyond Spain’s control did push for a sale. Eventually the holders of Spanish bonds would want their money back. Spain could afford neither paying them nor the investments in infrastructure it would need to produce the revenue to do so in the future. Without the umbrella of British power especially, Spain would have much more trouble resisting the pressure to sell even if Madrid loathed to give up one of its remaining possessions abroad. It could happen.

Pierre Soulé

Pierre Soulé

On August 16, 1854, Secretary of State William Marcy sent off new instructions to Soulé. He should keep his eye on Spanish politics for any chance to upset the status quo on Cuba. Marcy probably didn’t need to tell him that but his second note of the same date told Soulé that he would meet up with James Buchanan, coming down from London, and John Y. Mason, coming over from Paris. They could not meet in Paris, the logical midpoint between Madrid and London, because they expected that Louis Napoleon’s spies would know everything they said before they finished saying it if they did. Thus they landed at Ostend in Belgium.

The idea for the conference apparently came from Pierce himself and so the blame for the fiasco should rest with him as well. Allen Nevins tells what Marcy thought of the principals:

Inasmuch as Marcy disliked Soulé and his ways, thought Mason a pompous windbag, and regarded Buchanan rather contemptuously, it is very unlikely that he expected anything from the meeting.

James Buchanan

James Buchanan, minister to the Court of St. James

Nevins also calls the Ostend conference an attempt by “three second-rate brains” to produce “one first-rate idea.” But Pierce apparently believed in the effort. The fact that Soulé high-tailed it out of Madrid at the end of August with suspicion, likely true, that he’d helped stage a brief uprising in the capital certainly got the matter off to an interesting start. A cluster of American diplomats milling about Paris in September gave Europe little reason to doubt that the United States intended to hatch something. Given the late aggression toward Cuba, they hardly had to guess what.

I’ve already dealt with the Ostend Manifesto that came out of the meeting (parts 1, 2, 3) and don’t yet have much to add to what I wrote then, but it deserves some consideration in context. Here, just as with Nebraska, Franklin Pierce put the northern Democracy in a bind. He openly connived to secure Cuba by hook or crook as a new slave state, on top of having just delivered all the Great Plains over to slavery. What would satisfy the man? Would he rest while a free state yet existed?

John Y. Mason, minister to Paris

John Y. Mason, minister to France

The full manifesto did not get out until March of 1855, but garbled accounts hit the papers in November just on the wake of the Democracy’s great defeats. If nothing else, it would have helped keep northern anger alive. That anger coming on the heels of the Democracy’s defeat essentially ended the administration’s Cuba ambitions. That that anger also involved the possible annexation of a Spanish, Catholic island further inflamed the Know-Nothings. Everybody except Lower South expansionists and friends of filibusters, a minority even there, and Missouri slaveholders, had plenty of reason to hate the Democracy in the waning months of 1854.

Marcy wrote Soulé a long dressing-down in November, surely with a mind to the fact that his party had done remarkable work in assembling an opposition coalition against itself. The Frenchman briefly found himself forbidden to traverse France on his way back to his Spanish post. When he did return, he found his most glacial reception yet. With his own staff rising against him, Soulé finally resigned in December, 1854.

Dark Days for the Democracy

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

When Lincoln and Douglas met at Springfield and Peoria, they debated the merits of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lincoln also made his return to political life and could have done worse than to do it by sharing a stage with and showing up one of the most famous, if also now infamous, men in the nation. But the two men met in the fall of 1854, an election year. Each spoke both for himself and for his party. Though Illinois had a Republican party, Lincoln kept away from them and announced himself still a Whig.

That year began with the reintroduction of a clean, Missouri Compromise affirming Nebraska bill that rapidly mutated through four versions into the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It passed the House only thanks to Alexander Stephens’ firm whip hand. Just as the bill hit Franklin Pierce’s desk, the Anthony Burns (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) affair erupted in Boston. All of this tumult merged with the growing anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic nativist movement. Any one of those could have made for a wild election season. All three together generated a political firestorm of the kind rarely seen in American history.

Douglas, of course, wanted to see his fellow Democrats succeed. They had the Presidency. They had the Congress. During the Second Party System, they had governed the nation almost without interruption. The party might have its problems, and serious ones at that, but things generally worked out for it. The Democracy ran Washington. Then came 1854. Allen Nevins details the Democracy’s many reverses and the following relies heavily on his Ordeal of the Union.

In the Mid-Atlantic states, between strongly antislavery New England and the Border South, New York found the Democracy split and let a Whig, Myron H. Clark, slip into the governor’s mansion. Twenty-nine of the state’s districts elected an anti-Nebraska congressman.  Pennsylvania, home to James Buchanan and other politicians far more compromising than its other famous son, David Wilmot, delivered the Whig-Know-Nothing coalition a governor and control of the legislature. Pennsylvania’s House seats went twenty-one to four in favor of the anti-Nebraska men.

Up in New England, the news predictably came in more of the same. Sixty-three percent of Massachusetts’ votes went to the Know-Nothing-Free Soil coalition. They had plenty of help from the Massachusetts Democracy, which passed what Nevins bluntly calls an asinine resolution proclaiming that Pierce and his administration “confirmed the fraternal feeling among the States.” What kind of families did they come from? Who could they possibly think they would fool? The Bay Sate went completely over to the anti-Nebraska bloc. It’s one-time possession, Maine, had been for the Democracy happily for years but now joined its parent in throwing the Nebraska men out of office.

John Hale

John Hale


The Northwest had no better news for Douglas. Salmon P. Chase’s Ohio gave the Democracy not a single House seat in its October elections. Indiana gave up only two in the same month. Just two years earlier, Ohio favored the Franklin Pierce 47.83% to 43.18 and Indiana 52.05% to 44.17%. Illinois soon followed, surrendering five of its nine House seats to anti-Nebraska candidates. The state legislature fell to the same deluge. Douglas’ fellow Illinois Democrat, James Shields, would soon find himself no longer a senator. Across the Mississippi, Iowa turned on the Democracy too, electing an anti-Nebraska governor who promised continual war against slavery’s expansion. Its anti-Nebraska legislature signaled that Douglas’ compatriot Augustus Caesar Dodge would soon join James Shields in the ex-senator club.

The 33rd Congress, which passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, had 162 Democrats, 91 from free states and 67 from the slave states. The Democracy had never had a better showing. By the time the dust settled, the Democracy lost 4 (5.97%) slave state seats but held only 25 (27.47%) of their 91 free state seats, 66 (40.74%) down from two years earlier. Forty-four members of the Democracy’s northern wing voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. A mere seven (15.90%) of them had jobs in the 34th Congress. Those who defied the party to vote against it, 48 in all, saw only 15 (31.25%) of their number kicked to the curb by angry voters.

The Democracy might have one more president to elect, and did regain control of the House when it put James Buchanan in the White House, but its days as the nation’s natural party of government had ended. From 1854 onward, the Democracy served as a southern party with a minority wing in the North almost completely at the mercy of the South’s proslavery politics. The party that once commanded majorities in both sections as a matter of course would not do anything of the sort again until Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Stephen Douglas had done to his own party what his successes in 1850 and subsequent increasing antislavery agitation had done to the Whigs, only with the sections switched.

Nebraska Deadlock


Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas’ plan, however unusual, to use a volunteer military force to settle the Indian country hit a wall in early 1852. What about the Indians? They had the legal title to the land and the United States at least maintained a fiction that Indian tribes counted for something like separate nations which it had some duty to treat as equals. Texans in the House, who rarely entertained such scruples, suddenly discovered a passionate concern for the rights of those Indian tribes to their lands. Backers of the southern route for the Pacific railroad had not given up the ghost and happily opposed the measure on the grounds that if they could not have their railroad, nobody could have a railroad.

And what about slavery? In 1820, the Missouri Compromise barred slavery forever from the land Douglas would make into the Nebraska Territory. Thirty years on, a compromise passed by giants that had only just departed the Congress and gone to their graves and in the presence of surviving Founding Fathers had a sacred gloss about it. President James Monroe polled his Cabinet on the issue. They came out in support of the compromise’s restriction on slavery. Among them sat Monroe’s Secretary of War, John C. Calhoun. When the Mexican Cession and the Oregon Country came into the United States, conservatives flocked to the idea of simply extending the Missouri Compromise line to the ocean. The Polk administration supported it. Stephen Douglas stood for it in the House. Much of the South, as late as 1848, saw the line Henry Clay drew across the West as a suitable, constitutional, and final settlement on slavery.

David Wilmot, author of the insult to the South

David Wilmot

The free soilers would not stand for the line any longer. In that, they certainly upset the status quo. Past generations of historians have painted Wilmot and his proviso as a gratuitous provocation that prompted proslavery men to rethink their interpretation of the Constitution. They did, but the same proslavery men also demanded the annexation of enslaved Texas with its claims well above the Compromise line. They upset it still further by annexing Texas by joint resolution instead of treaty and by taking it in as a state instead of having it pass through some stage of territorial administration that might have included revising its borders to better conform to the Compromise line. One need not have a modern person’s loathing of slavery to see proslavery politicians playing fast and loose with the established order well before Wilmot.

By 1852, many proslavery men followed Calhoun in deciding that the Constitution granted Congress no power at all over slavery in the territories. Quite the opposite! As the Union consisted of equal states, which held the territories as their joint property, excluding slavery meant excluding Southerners. That exclusion meant inequality and rejected the very foundation on which the government, the white South now discovered, rested. One could not make the identification of the South with slavery any more explicit than that. They opposed Douglas’ bill on those grounds and the session ran out before the Little Giant could find a way around them or a way to please them.

Forget picking a railroad route; Congress couldn’t even get a bill through to organize the land to build it on.


Davis on Walker and Paulding, Part One

Jefferson Davis

Jefferson Davis

Despite acting within the confines of precedent and with the consent of Nicaragua in his arrest of William Walker, Paulding received plenty of criticism. Even some who rose to defend Paulding’s arrest, like James Buchanan and Stephen Douglas opposed Walker on the grounds that his wildcat expansionism tainted their methods by association and so made it harder to steal countries in the future. But other expansionists did not have such scruples. On January 7, 1858, Jefferson Davis rose in the Senate to make the first substantive speech in response to Buchanan’s documents and message.

I must dissent from the conclusion of the President, that the grant of the right to use the Army and Navy enlarged his jurisdiction and conferred upon the Executive powers which he did not possess under the law. He assumes that the neutrality law,which required that these expeditions should be suppressed, when it had added thereto the power that he might use the Army and Navy in the execution of the law, conferred on him the authority to go beyond the jurisdiction of the United States. From that I wholly dissent. This seems to furnish us a key to the policy which sent the navy out to the coast of Central America, there to prevent illegal expeditions sailing from the United States, instead of posting them where they should have been for that purpose, at the mouth of the Mississippi, the mouth of the Alabama, and the harbor of New York. Three cities, it was known by public announcement all over the country, and three alone, contained the elements of such an expedition -New Orleans, Mobile, and New York. If it was necessary to enable the civil authorities to execute the neutrality laws of the United States, the fleet should have been stationed there, and not upon the coast of Central America.


The suspicion that there was a purpose thus illegally to make war upon a country with which we were at peace, would have justified their detention within the waters of the United States, in order that the case might be inquired into, but could not justify their arrest beyond the jurisdiction of the United States.

In the nineteenth century, the jurisdiction of a nation ended one marine league beyond its shore. In the idiom of the time, that also marked the range of a cannon shot. Davis maintained, in effect, that once a ship entered international waters national law simply did not apply to it. However, Walker’s ships flew the flag of the United States and the deck of a ship at sea generally counts as the territory of its flag and registry. Southerners got very particular about just that fact when the Royal Navy proposed to board and search their ships in the cause of stopping the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Those ships flying American flags amounted to American soil on the water and so the United Kingdom had no right to stop and invade them. Apparently the United States likewise lacked jurisdiction over American soil.