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”.

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An Antislavery Dissent, Part Four

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Parts 12, 3

Having just cast the proslavery Kansans and their Missourian allies as manipulative geniuses who took their every action with the intent of producing reactions which would help the free soil movement sabotage itself, C. Stearns proceeded with the next act in his original composition How To Lose Kansas Without Really Trying

Again: the pro-slavery party are not gods in intellect; by any means; as witness their Nero-like legislation, which bears the palm of stupidity as well as that of baseness. They are no better judges of what will harm them, and help us, than we ourselves are.

Stearns previous argument relied on the proslavery men having better political judgment than the free state men. One wonders if Stearns read his own writing. How can we square his argument that the proslavery men would vent their outrage only so as to provoke the free state men into folly with his position that they have no more wits about them than anybody else? I can only speculate that Stearns thought slavery’s friends quite a bit smarter than its foes, but didn’t want to put it down in writing. He must have hoped that George Brown and his readers wouldn’t notice.

That curious contradiction glowing on the page, Stearns moved back to practical concerns. He told his readers that Congress could very well refuse the application of the state government that the free soil party intended to make. It would, honestly, have good reason to do so as Kansas already had a government recognized by Congress. Setting up a rival one both rejected congressional authority, sure to win friends in Washington, and outright broke the law. Maybe California could, and did, get away with that but California had a friend in the White House. Stearns proceeded to consider what would happen in the event that Congress sent them packing:

let it be borne in mind that to be thrown upon our own resources after having assumed a hostile attitude to our Legislature, will be certain destruction to us. Let not folly or blind confidence in those assuming to lead us, influence us in this matter. The moment we organize as a State, and fail admission into the Union, that moment we shall fall a certain prey to our enemies. We might as well act with caution in this matter, and follow the advice of sterling anti-slavery men here and at the East, as to rush madly on under the guidance of interested politicians.

Do you get the feeling that Stearns really dislikes the free state leadership? He only speaks of them to impugn their motives and insult their character and intelligence. When discussing strict practicalities, like the genuine threat of proslavery retaliation, he maintains the high opinion of himself but writes with a rather softer edge.

Possibilities for Peace

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward in 1851

What if William Seward and Stephen Douglas threw a war and no one came? The Fugitive Slave Act outraged the North and prompted incidences of popular resistance even to the point of violence, but by 1854 the outrage had largely settled into the status quo. Anthony Burns (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) might have fanned the old flames, but he did so in Boston. Few places in the North had Boston’s passion for antislavery politics. He also did so amid the anti-Nebraska furor. The twin outrages reinforced one another, with the latter probably doing a great deal more to popularize the cause of the former.

But settlement of the American West, wherever the frontier ran at a given moment, usually involved relatively scrupulous respect for lines of latitude. Most emigrants expected to farm and so sought a climate and soil similar to that at home for economic as well as sentimental reasons. Those rails of latitude would take people from enslaved Missouri into Kansas, but also take people from free Iowa into the Nebraska Territory all the way up to the Canadian border. No one seems to have said that the Kansas-Nebraska Act meant Kansas for slavery and Iowa for freedom, but one could easily read that settlement in.

Nineteenth century Americans lived in a nation half slave and half free. However much they grumbled, held protest meetings, and said nasty things about the other half, they proved for decades entirely capable of living with the partition. In time, the North’s loss of Kansas to slavery might have taken on the appearance of a fair trade for the South’s loss of California to freedom. If the Nebraska territory all went free, then the vast majority of the Missouri Compromise remained in place in fact if not in law. In due course Minnesota and Nebraska would come in as free states. Maybe that would also mean that New Mexico and Utah turned slave, but the old two by two program of admitting states would proceed at least until then. The nation might get a decade or more of the old days come again. The South could not claim any kind of mistreatment over that and the North’s outrage might fade in the face of its practical triumph.

The South’s gain might have proved equally transitory. Slaveholders rightly viewed their human property as a fragile institution because that property could decide to take off on its own and display all the ingenuity that actual people, with their white skin, enjoyed. As such, they shrank from taking slaves anywhere that antislavery feeling might prevail in the foreseeable future. That kept Missouri from swelling with slaves. The same concerns helped sell slaves out of the Upper South and into the Lower South. Furthermore, slaveholders looking to improve their fortunes through expansion had far safer avenues than chilly Kansas. The Missourians might see in Kansas hemp and tobacco land, but Texas and Arkansas offered virgin soil ripe for cotton. Even arid New Mexico, far from the grasping hands of slave-stealing abolitionists could present a more appealing face than a Kansas where antislavery men openly conspired to make the land free. Even as the future of Kansas hung in the balance, New Mexico and Utah sent out calls for southern settlers.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Where did that leave an enslaved Kansas? The South might claim a symbolic victory and hold back the tide of free states in the Senate for a few more years, but for how long? And how long would barely enslaved Kansas prove reliable? Southerners fretted already over Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. Another unsteady ally in future controversies could provide another swing vote to force on the South some new detestable compromise.

But what if it worked? A well-enslaved Kansas had to get its slaves from somewhere. They would surely come mostly from adjacent Missouri, where the tide of white immigration had already turned the state’s demographics worryingly Northern. Its black belts would count as white belts down in the Cotton Kingdom. If Kansas drained the slaves from Missouri and turned it into a free state, would Kansan slavery long remain a slavery island in the free wilderness? Missouri had just that problem already. Down the road, the South’s win of one state for slavery could mean the loss of two.

Maybe Douglas had it right the first time, by passing the buck to the territory and its legislature things could just fall out as they may. Either section could glean a win out of that, either right then or a few years later. If no one came and made a war of it, then sudden outrage could settle into the new way of things. Those exercised over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, on either side, would mostly feel their passions cool and decide that however painful their ordeal, the Union survived and life went on.

A Greytown Narrative, Part Three

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Solon Borland (D-AR)

At the end of May, 1854, the minister to Central America, Solon Borland, and the United States commercial agent at Greytown, Joseph Fabens, both wrote to the Secretary of State, William L. Marcy, about recent events in Greytown. Fabens declined to mention how he’d tried to burn the town to the ground in the wake of Borland’s alleged injury. Marcy might not have known about that until the newspapers reported it late in the summer. He did know that if anybody hit Borland with a bottle, it happened because Borland intervened to protect an accused murderer from arrest.

Borland himself declared that he cared not at all about whether or not Captain Smith, the murderer in question and an employee of the Accessory Transit Company, had killed the man. Considering Borland talked him into the killing, that took some cheek. Borland demanded justice for an injury that left not a mark upon him which he suffered in a confrontation that he initiated, based on a murder he encouraged.

Fabens, working more for the Transit Company than the United States, dealt with Borland’s injury as almost an afterthought in his letters. But the murky real estate disputes between the Transit Company and Greytown had gone on for some time. For more than a year the Company refused to recognize Greytown’s jurisdiction. All its protests and lobbying through Fabens did not bring the George N. Hollins and the USS Cyane down from New York. Borland’s injury, and Faben’s dispatches declaring that the people of Greytown tried to seize and detain the minister, did. To hear Fabens tell it, a mob of “Jamaican negroes” formed to seize Borland and the broken bottle struck him in the face, drawing blood. Borland must have been a fast healer if this really happened, as others saw an uninjured face the next day.

George N. Hollins

George N. Hollins

Whatever happened, the Navy issued orders to Hollins dated June 10. He would sail down with the Cyane and get satisfaction from Greytown. He should not spend too much time there, but should consult with Joseph Fabens to get the latest facts on the ground before acting. Whatever he did, he should try to prevent any loss of life or destruction of property. The Cyane arrived on July 11 and Fabens and Hollins conferred. Fabens shared that he’d told the Greytown authorities the Navy would soon arrive and they should have some kind of restitution for Borland’s injury and the Accessory Transit Company’s complaints ready. The Greytown government declined to give Fabens an answer. Possibly they felt less than sociable toward him due to his late plan to burn their homes and property to the ground. Furthermore, Fabens had it that the mob that injured Borland now entirely controlled the town.

The amount of restitution that Fabens suggested to Hollins, which the latter accepted, went well beyond the agreed value of the property in question for the Transit Company. It certainly exceeded any reasonable sum one could ask for Borland’s uninjured face. After repeated demands brought no answer Hollins accepted, he gave twenty-four hours’ notice that he aimed to disregard his instructions to avoid violence and destruction of property by bombarding the town. But Hollins had something of a soft touch and abided by one third of his instructions by trying to avoid killing anybody. He instead set up facilities for everyone to relocate to safety before the shooting started.

The Mosquito Coast (via Wikipedia)

The Mosquito Coast
(via Wikipedia)

The pleas of the commander of a much smaller British warship present did nothing to move Hollins. He had it in his power to destroy Greytown and destroy it he would. That Greytown had no defenses against a naval bombardment did not enter into it. Nor did Greytown’s position in the United Kingdom’s Mosquito Coast protectorate. Nor did American commitment in the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty to maintain the neutrality of any route for a canal across Central America matter. The next morning, Hollins performed an intermittent bombardment, with frequent breaks for someone from Greytown to come over with cash on hand, or at least promises to pay. No one did and over the course of a few hours Hollins fired into the town and then ordered a party ashore to burn the rest.

The United States Navy, on behalf of Solon Borland for injuries he probably did not suffer and on behalf of the Accessory Transit Company, for grievances where the facts generally stood against it, destroyed Greytown entirely. It did so over the protests of the British and wildly out of proportion to any injuries suffered. Borland might call Greytown a nest of pirates, but George N. Hollins destroyed a defenseless town because it refused to pay tribute.

A Greytown Narrative, Part Two

Solon Borland (D-AR)

Solon Borland (D-AR)

On May 16, 1854, Solon Borland came to Greytown. He arrived via an Accessory Transit Company steamer under the command of a Captain Smith. Smith had a longstanding dislike of a black pilot who once worked for the Company. When Smith saw Antonio’s boat out on the river that day, he apparently decided to ram and sink it with his larger vessel. Antonio saw Smith coming and called out that should Smith ram him, he would shoot Smith. Smith rammed Antonio anyway, failing to sink his boat. When the passengers came on deck to find out what transpired, Smith told them that he’d lost control of his rudder. Just a little fender bender. Smith got his vessel underway again and left it all behind him.

Solon Borland gave Smith a talking to. Would he let a black man speak to him like that? Why didn’t he shoot Antonio? By the time Borland convinced Smith that his white manhood and honor hung in the balance, Smith’s steamer had gone half a mile or more down the river. Smith turned it around and went back, going below to get his rifle while the vessel went upstream. He came out and found Antonio, took aim, and shot him dead. Then the vessel resumed its prior course for Greytown.

The Greytown authorities soon involved themselves. A coroner’s jury, attended by United States commercial agent Joseph Fabens, agreed that Antonio died not at the hands of the mysterious Nicaragua Bullet Tree but rather at the hands of another person. Acting doubtless on the testimony of many of Antonio’s employees on hand when the shooting occurred, they pinned the blame on Smith. The constabulary duly went off and presented themselves at Smith’s ship. Smith, feeling some remorse at having been browbeaten into murder, seems to have intended to cooperate until Solon Borland once again inserted himself. He drew up a rifle or pistol, accounts differ as to which, and threatened to shoot any members of the Greytown constabulary who set foot on deck. Borland declared his credentials as the American minister to Central America and called on his fellow passengers to help him.

The Mosquito Coast (via Wikipedia)

The Mosquito Coast
(via Wikipedia)

They did not leap to the task, but Greytown’s officers of the law exhibited the common allergy to bullets and opted not to risk Borland’s aim. They left without Smith. Borland took himself to the home of Joseph Fabens. Word got around Greytown that Borland had Smith with him and an angry mob gathered outside Fabens’ house. Borland came downstairs and ranted at the mob for a while, denouncing them as, among other things, the scum of Hell. Someone threw a bottle and hit Borland in the face. Greytown’s mayor arrived, denounced the mob, apologized to Borland, and offered a reward for the capture of the man who threw the bottle.

If we believe a man who saw Borland the next day, the bottle might have hurt his pride. Fabens, however, told it that the bottle cut open Borland’s head. He went out to the American ships at anchor in the harbor seeking guns, ammunition, and men all of ten minutes after the confrontation with the mob. What did Fabens want those men and arms for?

Mr. Borland had been seriously injured by a parcel of rebels and pirates, and niggers in the town, and appealed to them as Americans, if they would suffer their Minister to be insulted, and called for volunteers to go and burn the town.

William L. Marcy

William L. Marcy

Fabens got together eleven men for his planned arson, but word had gotten back to Greytown. Possessing a strong aversion to having their homes and businesses burned to the ground, the people refused to let him and his band come ashore. They would permit Fabens alone, but not his gang. Nobody besieged or detained Borland at the Commercial Agency, but he apparently considered himself under arrest because of all this. Somewhere along the way, Borland also hired on a guard for American property in Greytown at the State Department’s expense. Borland left town the next day.

Fabens wrote to William L. Marcy, the Secretary of State, about how Greytown had set itself against the Transit Company, stolen its property, and generally made itself a nuisance. Only on May 30th did Fabens elect to write Marcy about what happened with Borland. Borland’s own letter explaining himself bears the same date.

A Greytown Narrative, Part One

The Mosquito Coast (via Wikipedia)

The Mosquito Coast
(via Wikipedia)

The time has more than come for a step back to organize what I’ve culled from Horace Greeley’s reprints of the documents about Greytown, Solon Borland, and the Accessory Transit Company. The documents, and thus my posts, have wandered back and forth through time, disagreed with one another, and addressed far more concerns than I expected when I took on the project. Today I aim to fit it all into a general narrative as best I can.

Greytown began, barring Indian settlements at the same spot, as San Juan del Norte, at the mouth of the San Juan river. Though technically a Spanish possession, then part of the United Provinces of Central America, and then part of Nicaragua, the entire eastern coast of modern Nicaragua and Honduras rarely felt the firm hand of national government. At various points in the past, the British had facilitated immigration from Jamaica to settle friendly sorts in the hinterlands, with an eye to how the whole area sat astride the best route for a canal across Central America and how it would best serve British interests to keep it out of the grasping hands of the United States.

The British had good reason to worry, since the United States made off with half of Mexico in 1848 and briefly considered taking the whole nation. The smaller, unstable republics of Central America would find it difficult to resist American aggression and might even fall to private adventurers who would steal them with an eye toward annexation to the United States or to building their own little empires in the tropics. To deter American expansion, the British declared a protectorate over the Mosquito Coast, essentially the entire eastern coastline of modern Nicaragua and part of Honduras. They also seized San Juan del Norte, drove its previous inhabitants out, and renamed it Greytown. For around four years, the British Empire ruled the area more or less regularly as a colonial possession.

Millard Fillmore

Millard Fillmore

But Democrat James K. Polk gave way to Whig Zachary Taylor, who then died and put Millard Fillmore in the White House. Neither Whig had Polk’s appetite for land. Fillmore even cracked down on filibustering. The Whigs and the British reached an agreement to commit to a neutral route across Central America and future canal, laid out in the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty of 1850. With things apparently settling down and more neighborly Americans in office, the British withdrew from Greytown in 1852. The Greytown locals, a fairly international lot, established their own government with a proper constitution, elections, and the usual officials.

When Greytown convened to establish its government, the Accessory Transit Company took an interest. This American firm, founded by Cornelius Vanderbilt but lately under the control of schemers who seized it while he vacationed in Europe, ran steamer routes through Nicaragua to California and so had much invested in Greytown. Thus the company hauled all its employees in to vote and ensure the election of a friendly government. The Transit Company had rented a piece of land called Punta Arenas from the British. This land fell within the new Greytown government’s jurisdiction, which expected rent under the previous arrangement. The Transit Company declined to pay.

Cornelius Vanderbilt

Cornelius Vanderbilt

For a good six months, the Transit Company treated Greytown’s government as entirely legitimate. It sued and defended itself in Greytown courts. But the Transit Company really did not want to pay its rent and so decided after those first six months that the Greytown government had no legitimacy after all. Company policy dictated a policy of ignoring Greytown’s demands. At some point along the way, an illegal squatter set up a boarding house in Greytown that the Company began to lease for its employees.

Greytown could do little about Punta Arenas miles away, but had the boarding house right at hand. The owner had set it up illegally, after all. He didn’t own that land and had no right to its use. The Greytown authorities apparently confiscated the property and kicked the Transit Company boarders out.

The United States recognized Greytown’s government, after a fashion. Washington did not dispatch a consul or minister to handle its affairs, but the State Department did dispatch a commercial agent. That agent, Joseph Fabens, almost certainly worked for the Transit Company in addition to his official duties. Fabens sent a series of dispatches to Washington playing up how things had gone out of control and the Greytown government had it in for the Transit Company and Americans in general. Whatever Fabens’ superiors in Washington thought of those dispatches, the generated no dramatic orders or changes in policy.

All of this brings us to May of 1854, when Solon Borland came to Greytown. I’ll have much more to say about him and his doings in the next part.

The Nicaragua-Cuba Connection, Part One

John Slidell

John Slidell

Original Stealing Cuba: parts 123456 and revisited.

In revisiting the Cuba filibusters, I dropped one thread of the narrative that I should pick back up. Back in May of 1854, Louisiana’s John Slidell stood in the Senate and presented a resolution that the Congress should give Franklin Pierce the power to set aside the Neutrality Acts and generally tell John A. Quitman to go on his merry way. He did so in support of a like resolution by the state legislature that appointed him and on the grounds that the British had a conspiracy (parts 1, 2, 3, 4) with the Spanish to Africanize the island and turn Cuba into a base from which to harass American shipping and foment servile insurrection in the South. Slidell’s resolution did not win the approval of the Congress, even after Pierce asked for extraordinary powers relating to Cuba later on in August.

All of this leaves unanswered why Congress did not grant Pierce those powers. The same Congress assented to at least a reduced form of the Gadsden Purchase (parts 1, 2, 3) so it did not have a dogmatic opposition to territorial expansion. Pierce ran on an expansionist platform and promised more land in his inaugural address. Everybody in 1852 expected the Democracy to pick up where it left off in 1848 and continue painting the map red, white, and blue. Certainly the Kansas-Nebraska backlash complicated those efforts, but at least some Northerners would happily sign on to more American territory still. Most everyone believed that the United States had some kind of natural destiny to dominate the continent.

Cornelius Vanderbilt

Cornelius Vanderbilt

What happened? Nicaragua happened. As gentle readers might recall (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5), few people wrote home from Nicaragua to comment on its remarkable stability and strong government. Internal divisions and rugged terrain did it no favors on those fronts. Yet Nicaragua sat astride a quick route across the Central American isthmus and thus drew the intense interest of major commercial powers like the United States and the United Kingdom keen on skipping the long haul around South America to reach the Pacific. A steamer line already ran down Nicaragua’s San Juan river to Lake Nicaragua and from there wagons and stagecoaches took goods and people the few miles to the Pacific coast. Cornelius Vanderbilt set up a steamer route between New York and the Pacific using Nicaragua to get people to California for the gold rush and his Accessory Transit Company continued to operate that route.

The United States thus had an obvious interest in Nicaragua. The United Kingdom had ill-defined claims to various parts of Central America, including British Honduras (now Belize) and the adjacent Mosquito Coast (now the Caribbean coast of Honduras and Nicaragua). Those claims overlapped with both the Nicaraguan isthmus route and the oft-proposed canal to make a direct sea connection to the Pacific. The Americans very much did not want the British to dominate an eventual canal through their control of its eastern terminus, a prospect made still more dreadful by various bouts of anglophobia in the American political class.

That anglophobia had some informing it. The British had moved into the Mosquito Coast when it looked like the United States might take larger sections of Mexico than it in fact did. The British guarantees to Spain over Cuba fit in here too, as did British efforts to deny the United States a naval base in the modern Dominican Republic, British efforts to preserve Hawaiian independence, British protests over a commercial convention with Ecuador, and real and perceived past efforts to establish some kind of protectorate over Texas. It looked very much like Albion intended to contain the United States and deny it its geographic, racial, political, and religious destiny.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Eighteen

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17. Full text.)

Stephen Douglas could not relocate the Ohio; Lincoln knew it too well. But he had still another story. Whatever status the Missouri Compromise had back in the day, the Compromise of 1850 did not extend the old line and therefore the nation had embraced a new settlement on slavery in the territories. Thus the Missouri Compromise had fallen, even if no one noticed. When both parties endorsed the compromise’s finality two years later, they endorsed the new reality. The wheel of ages turned and now they lived in a popular sovereignty universe, not a geographic partition universe.

Lincoln would not have it:

This again I deny. I deny it, and demand the proof. I have already stated fully what the compromises of ’50 are. The particular part of those measures, for which the virtual repeal of the Missouri compromise is sought to be inferred (for it is admitted they contain nothing about it, in express terms) is the provision in the Utah and New Mexico laws, which permits them when they seek admission into the Union as States, to come in with or without slavery as they shall then see fit. Now I insist this provision was made for Utah and New Mexico, and for no other place whatever. It had no more direct reference to Nebraska than it had to the territories of the moon.

It did say, right in those territorial laws, that they applied to the territories named. What strange alchemy would extend the provisions of, say, the Utah territorial bill to the plains of Nebraska? Nothing in the words of the law did so, as Douglas would admit. Furthermore, neither the New Mexico nor the Utah bills included even clear popular sovereignty language. At the time, Douglas admitted that no agreement existed on whether or not they put popular sovereignty into operation, or if so under what circumstances. Both territories, late in the decade, did take the latitude given them to pass slave codes, but silence does not explicitly institute policy.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

However, say Douglas had it all right about New Mexico and Utah. They had popular sovereignty authorized.

But, say they, it had reference to Nebraska, in principle. Let us see. The North consented to this provision, not because they considered it right in itself; but because they were compensated—paid for it. They, at the same time, got California into the Union as a free State. This was far the best part of all they had struggled for by the Wilmot Proviso. They also got the area of slavery somewhat narrowed in the settlement of the boundary of Texas. Also, they got the slave trade abolished in the District of Columbia. For all these desirable objects the North could afford to yield something; and they did yield to the South the Utah and New Mexico provision.

Even if Douglas had some of the facts on his side, Utah and New Mexico amounted to concessions that the North tolerated in exchange for getting a free California, an end to the public slave trade in Washington, and a reduced Texas.

Now can it be pretended that the principle of this arrangement requires us to permit the same provision to be applied to Nebraska, without any equivalent at all? Give us another free State; press the boundary of Texas still further back, give us another step toward the destruction of slavery in the District, and you present us a similar case. But ask us not to repeat, for nothing, what you paid for in the first instance. If you wish the thing again, pay again. That is the principle of the compromises of ’50, if indeed they had any principles beyond their specific terms—it was the system of equivalents.

Lincoln found there perhaps the one consistent piece of the Compromise of 1850: paying up. If Douglas wanted to wrap himself in its principles, then he offer the North some kind of compensation for the Missouri Compromise repeal. Yet none had come. In fact, the Kansas-Nebraska act that went through the Congress contained almost the most absolutely extreme territorial settlement that it could. Phillip Phillips and Archibald Dixon ensured that. Douglas wanted one hell of a freebie. He got his one hell of a storm.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Seventeen

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16. Full text.)

Lincoln kept on hammering away at Douglas’ claim that the public wanted the Missouri Compromise gone. If Lincoln could point to all the ways the political establishment accepted the Missouri Compromise and treated it as a natural default position in the late 1840s, Douglas could switch principles and tell another story.

Senator Douglas sometimes says the Missouri line itself was, in principle, only an extension of the line of the ordinance of ’87—that is to say, an extension of the Ohio river.

Douglas could tell some whoppers. This one sounds almost plausible, since the line of the Ohio and the Missouri Compromise line purported to do the same thing: split off lands reserved to slavery from those reserved to free labor. Furthermore it had the appeal of turning the antislavery movement’s favorite law, the Northwest Ordinance, back on them. They used Jefferson’s slavery ban language in the Wilmot Proviso. They hailed it as the beginning of their movement. They pointed to each repetition of it in territorial law as another strike against slavery and another sign that the nation, as a whole, once thought slavery should someday end and before that be contained.

As an old riverboat man, Lincoln knew his geography. More than that, Lincoln held a patent on a method for lifting riverboats over sandbars, shoals, and other obstructions. You can read it here, if you can handle the poor OCR. He got the idea after a boat caught a snag and stuck with him on it. Flatboats took him twice to New Orleans, where he got to see the heart of slavery up close and personal.Lincoln had been down the rivers too often to miss the absurdity:

I think this is weak enough on its face. I will remark, however that, as a glance at the map will show, the Missouri line is a long way farther South than the Ohio; and that if our Senator, in proposing his extension, had stuck to the principle of jogging southward, perhaps it might not have been voted down so readily.

Mark Twain could move a plantation six hundred miles south for the convenience of fiction, but Stephen Douglas would not haul the Ohio down from where it joined the Mississippi north of Missouri’s southern border.

Lincoln did, however, grant Douglas half a point. If he really meant to extend a line from the Ohio, then the angle the river flowed at would reserve most of the continental United States to freedom. Few antislavery men would have passed up a deal that gave them probably more than even the Wilmot Proviso would.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Sixteen

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15. Full text.)

Douglas had a plethora of reasons that the public had secretly repudiated the Missouri Compromise, making his repeal of it in the KansasNebraska Act no big deal. Lincoln began by grappling with the most potentially damaging one, the support he and other antislavery men now incensed with Douglas gave to the Wilmot Proviso. He first set out how the Missouri Compromise did not include any automatic provision to extend its line past the Louisiana Purchase. But he had still more to say about the Missouri Compromise and the great principle Douglas supposed it embodied:

Another fact showing the specific character of the Missouri law—showing that it intended no more than it expressed—showing that the line was not intended as a universal dividing line between free and slave territory, present and prospective—north of which slavery could never go—is the fact that by that very law, Missouri came in as a slave state, north of the line. If that law contained any prospective principle, the whole law must be looked to in order to ascertain what the principle was. And by this rule, the south could fairly contend that inasmuch as they got one slave state north of the line at the inception of the law, they have the right to have another given them north of it occasionally—now and then in the indefinite westward extension of the line. This demonstrates the absurdity of attempting to deduce a prospective principle from the Missouri Compromise line.

The line itself must rest on a great, deep truth of the universe that permanently divided slavery and freedom. After all, it reserved a section of land to freedom north of it and then reserved another section, also north of it, for slavery. If this encoded some principle of deep constitutional truth, then surely the North deserved a free state south of the line. Right, Stephen? The North accepted that compromise, so why not the South? Why did it break with the sacred pact and not suck up, say, a free Arkansas? Or, more on the point, why would it not accept a free California transgressing the line? That shouldn’t cause any problems, right?

Lincoln hammered it home, returning to Wilmot:

When we voted for the Wilmot Proviso, we were voting to keep slavery out of the whole Missouri [Mexican?] acquisition; and little did we think we were thereby voting, to let it into Nebraska, laying several hundred miles distant. When we voted against extending the Missouri line, little did we think we were voting to destroy the old line, then of near thirty years standing. To argue that we thus repudiated the Missouri Compromise is no less absurd than it would be to argue that because we have, so far, forborne to acquire Cuba, we have thereby, in principle, repudiated our former acquisitions, and determined to throw them out of the Union! No less absurd than it would be to say that because I may have refused to build an addition to my house, I thereby have decided to destroy the existing house! And if I catch you setting fire to my house, you will turn upon me and say I INSTRUCTED you to do it!

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

This struck at the weakest point of Douglas’ story: the transparent lie that everyone had secretly, but knowingly, repudiated and repealed the Missouri Compromise in 1850 and then, one supposes, forgot thereafter. Even Douglas’ liver probably couldn’t take the amount of lubrication required to honestly believe that. Everybody, even those who hated it, agreed in 1850 that the Missouri Compromise still stood.

And furthermore, antislavery men did not adhere to the Missouri Compromise only when it served them:

The most conclusive argument, however, that, while voting for the Wilmot Proviso, and while voting against the EXTENSION of the Missouri line, we never thought of disturbing the original Missouri Compromise, is found in the facts, that there was then, and still is, an unorganized tract of fine country, nearly as large as the state of Missouri, lying immediately west of Arkansas, and south of the Missouri Compromise line; and that we never attempted to prohibit slavery as to it. I wish particular attention to this. It adjoins the original Missouri Compromise line, by its northern boundary; and consequently is part of the country, into which, by implication, slavery was permitted to go, by that compromise. There it has lain open ever since, and there it still lies. And yet no effort has been made at any time to wrest it from the south. In all our struggles to prohibit slavery within our Mexican acquisitions, we never so much as lifted a finger to prohibit it, as to this tract. Is not this entirely conclusive that at all times, we have held the Missouri Compromise as a sacred thing; even when against ourselves, as well as when for us?

That territory, the future Oklahoma, remained Indian Country at the time of Lincoln’s speech. But some of the tribes there did practice slavery, and would fight for the Confederacy to save it, and no antislavery man proposed a slavery ban there. Back in 1820, such a movement had existed to keep slavery out of Arkansas. While slavery only explicitly got to keep Missouri, the men who drew the line knew that Arkansas would come into the Union eventually and knew they gave it up to slavery then. So the South really got two states for a compromise named after only one. It might have gotten still a third in years to come, possibly still more if the South endeavored to split up Texas.