Cass Answers Sumner

Lewis Cass (D-MI)

The Crime Against Kansas: Prologue, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15Full text

On May 20, 1856, Charles Sumner finished his Crime Against Kansas speech and sat down. For all the hours he spoke, no one interjected to call him to order. He inveighed against slavery, against South Carolina, against his fellow senators, and ultimately against the Northern Democracy for serving as slavery’s eager lapdogs. He preceded his last volley of insults by citing the precedent of Michigan to argue that Kansas’ free state government deserved admission to the Union. Through all of it, Sumner’s invective struck at the notion of popular sovereignty first advanced by Lewis Cass and later adopted by Stephen Douglas to legislate slavery into Kansas. Cass, as a member of the Jackson Cabinet when Michigan’s statehood came before the nation, as a northern Democrat, and as Michigan’s former territorial governor and present senator, not to mention President Pro Tempore of the chamber, had a few things to say about all that. He rose to give the first answer to Sumner:

I have listened with equal regret and surprise to the speech of the honorable Senator from Massachusetts. Such a speech-the most un-American and unpatriotic that ever grate don the ears of the members of this high body-as I hope never to hear again here or elsewhere.

Yet Cass rose not to take this out on Sumner, however much he deserved “the highest censure and disapprobation.” Instead, he wanted to check Sumner’s history, which the Massachusetts senator “has so misunderstood and misapplied.” Sumner claimed for the people a right “to form conventions with a view to obstruct the authorized laws of the country.” Cass would have none of that, denying such a right to “any portion of the American people.” Conventions Americans might form, but not to array themselves against the established laws. To do that, “unless they succeed” put one right over into “rebellion.”

Charles Sumner (R-MA)

Here Cass makes what must read as a strange proposition today, but in nineteenth century America the right of revolution had a high cachet. You could rebel and make heroes of yourselves in the doing, as the founders did, fair enough. Had the founders failed, they might have ended on the end of a rope. The right of revolution appears always in retrospect, granted to history’s winners. So far, Kansas had not overthrown the territorial government or the United States. Thus Cass felt no obligation to yield to the demands of an illegal assembly of rebels.

But back to history. Michigan, sixty thousand whites strong, asked admission to the Union. Its constitutional convention, however, originated in an act of the legislature. The people in some vague, abstract sense, had nothing to do with it. The Wolverine State did things properly, thank you. The only difficulty came when Michigan claimed its boundary as set by Congress, rather than the one set by Ohio. Ohioans surveyed their northern boundary and helped themselves to Toledo. The tensions came close to a proper battle, with militias called out on both sides. Cass recalled how the Jackson administration feared a war. To defuse things, Congress agreed to admission contingent on a convention of Michiganders signing off on Ohio’s version of the boundary. They refused.

Senator William H. Seward (R-NY)

William Seward pressed: Just how did that first convention come together? Cass thought the governor and legislature did the work. Then coloring outside the lines ensued:

By a spontaneous act of the people, a second convention was called-not to oppose the laws, like the Kansas convention-not to establish another government-not to get up and oppose acts of Congress, or of the Territorial Legislature-not to make a revolution, but to escape from a civil war, to get out of a difficulty merely by saying that the people of the State were willing to accept the proposition of Congress.

They did so unanimously and everyone went home happy, hint hint. If Michigan could suffer a wrong -and Cass admitted the state did, as it had every right to insist on the original border- then Kansas could take a lump or two as well.

Disappointing Lajos Kossuth

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

 

We left Charles Sumner newly arrived in Washington and caught up in its busy social life. Aware that he did not know the Senate’s norms and that he came with a reputation as a man who cared for antislavery and nothing else, he did not rush to make his maiden speech. Instead Sumner spent his nights studying up with the Congressional Globe, a true hero’s calling, and reading law and manuals of parliamentary procedure. At the same time he kept up a growing correspondence. To dispel the presumption that Sumner thought only of slavery, he chose to make himself heard first on the occasion of Lajos Kossuth’s sensational arrival in the United States.

Kossuth excited nineteenth century Americans as a good looking, heroic revolutionary figure fluent in English. They wanted to wine and dine him. A few over-excited types probably hoped to somehow help with his revolution. The official welcome mat rolled out and almost as soon as it had second thoughts set in. Kossuth, a European radical, might have other ideas in that vein than just freedom for Hungarians. If he opposed slavery, then it followed that giving him a state welcome implied endorsement by the United States of his doctrines. Independent of that, welcoming a foreign revolutionary who would probably solicit support for his cause did not comport well with the national tradition of non-interference in European affairs.

Lajos Kossuth, Hungarian revolutionary

Sumner made an equivocal speech that praised Kossuth and declared all fighters for freedom deserved American admiration. He endorsed the official reception, planting his flag with the revolutionary. Then he took it down and went home by declaring that no one should understand the reception as any kind of endorsement for Kossuth’s politics. Certainly it did not signal that the United States would intervene in the affairs of the Habsburg Empire in any way. The United States might toast Kossuth and feast him at the highest levels, but Sumner would have the nation do so strictly in the role of a fan club.

The speech prompted some grumblings from Sumner’s more radical friends, but went over well with most Massachusetts opinion. Even hostile newspapers praised him for it. Sumner’s fellow senators proved just as effusive. The new person might expect an encouraging welcome, but Sumner had gotten snubs instead. Those assembling to congratulate him after he finished included more than Sumner’s recently-acquired senatorial friends. Even Lewis Cass, who went out of his way to make Sumner unwelcome previously, now said that he felt no shame at presenting the antislavery man to the Senate. Maybe they could make a tolerable senator out of him yet.

 

Senator Sumner Goes to Washington

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Henry Adams, the fourth generation of his family to appear in this blog, brought the good news to Charles Sumner twice: Massachusetts chose him as its new senator. Sumner, with no previous experience in office and a stormy career as a spokesman and activist for prison reform and against war and slavery, had reason to doubt his abilities. Winning appeared relatively easy. Governing, if Sumner had any opportunity to at all, would prove harder. Washington and its politicians had displeased a much less radical Sumner on his one prior visit and he had come to public life only with some reluctance and the encouragement of John Quincy Adams.

Barely elected at all, after great struggle, and by a coalition damned by members of both national parties, Sumner lacked the wind at his back that a newly-elected man might hope for. Nor could he dream of putting his stamp on the nation while he remained a member of a tiny minority. His rhetoric, the one area where he might reasonably expect to excel, would now face opposition from skilled proslavery debaters. To employ it to any use, Sumner would have to master the Senate’s arcane rules and traditions or risk making a fool of himself.

Sumner’s embarrassments began as soon as he presented his credentials. By Senate tradition, the senior senator for one’s state presented a newcomer to the chamber. Sumner’s Massachusetts peer chose to oversleep rather than risk the wrath of Daniel Webster, leaving him to hunt down Lewis Cass and beg an introduction. Instead of the customary phrasing where a Senator begged leave to present a colleague, Cass informed the others only that

I have been requested to present the credentials of Charles Sumner, a Senator elect from the State of Massachusetts.

John Hale

Thomas Hart Benton, just defeated for re-election courtesy of David Rice Atchison, had a more sympathetic but just as disheartening welcome for Sumner. He told the new senator that all the great men had gone and taken the great issues of the day with them. Settling down into the desk previously occupied by Jefferson Davis, Sumner could look across a chamber with few allies. New Hampshire’s John Hale seemed like a shady character despite their shared party. He got on better with Salmon P. Chase. Sumner feared William Seward, who he otherwise liked, would always put Whiggery above antislavery. Hamilton Fish, Seward’s New York colleague, lamented Winthrop’s lost seat but went out of his way to make Sumner welcome.

Sumner found unlikely friends among the chamber’s Southern contingent. They knew many Yankees made antislavery speeches back home, but what went on back home didn’t necessarily translate to personal relationships in Washington. Soon Massachusetts antislavery extremist claimed Pierre Soulé as his best friend. He likewise befriended Andrew Pickens Butler, who sat next to him. Seeing in Sumner a man who knew his classics, Butler relied on him to check the quotations he planned to use in speeches. In these situations, and otherwise socially, Sumner declined to raise his antislavery opinions and instead talked or history and far-off happenings.

Soon Sumner settled, if not entirely comfortably, into the regular spin of Washington society. With everyone far from home, the political class formed their own small world with an unending cycle of dinners and other social occasions where they entertained each other in small groups for a large portion of the week. A single week of his first month saw Sumner hosted by Millard Fillmore, the French Minister, and Francis Blair. His party might earn him political isolation, and a few men rubbed Sumner wrong or took a dislike to him, but he didn’t suffer much from personal ostracism.

Electing Charles Sumner, Part 1

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

 

With the elections of 1850, the Free Soil-Democrat coalition took control of Massachusetts. That coalition did not amount to a full fusion movement, but rather the local Democracy and Free Soil elements jointly agreeing on individual candidates while remaining independent. Massachusetts still returned a Whig plurality, but the Democrats and Free Soilers together outnumbered them. With victory in hand, the real horse trading began. The Free Soilers agreed to back the Democrat’s man for governor, George S. Boutwell, as well as the lieutenant governor and various officers in the legislature. The Democracy could also place their own man to finish the rump of Daniel Webster’s last Senate term. The Free Soilers claimed the state senate presidency and the full term for the United States Senate beginning on March 4, 1851. The leadership of both groups hashed out the settlement and presented it to their caucuses, who agreed. On January 7, the Free Soilers nominated Charles Sumner to go to Washington by a vote of 84-1. The Democrats concurred, with only six opposing.

The Whigs promptly erupted at the outrageous trading of offices, on the grounds of keeping politics pure and free from interested men and, incidentally, because they lost. Daniel Webster blamed the failure at the polls on his replacement in the Senate, Robert Winthrop. Winthrop refused to endorse the Fugitive Slave Act and that torpedoed Whiggery’s chances by making him look like a crazy abolitionist. He should have gone all-in on the entire Compromise of 1850. Godlike Dan, Secretary of State for Millard Fillmore, set to purging Sumner men from the civil service and aimed to lead his Boston Whigs into a new organization. Webster had wished for a party all to himself for probably as long as he had considered himself a Whig of any kind and the fraught times must have seemed ripe enough for another go. His supporters set about wooing the new governor, who had positioned himself as a pro-Compromise man in his inaugural.

Daniel Webster (Whig-MA)

Not every Massachusetts Whig, present or former, bought what Webster tried selling. Far more of them believed Black Dan’s course an excellent way to lose elections and remained open to some kind of alignment with ex-Whigs in the Free Soil movement. They had Charles Francis Adams in mind for the Senate. On the other side of the aisle, the Democracy cared more for breaking Whig dominance than advancing Sumner’s career. But since the senate seat meant less to them than action at the state level, and Sumner had worked well with Democrats before, most found him acceptable.

Caleb Cushing

A minority led by Caleb Cushing felt otherwise and kept strategic silence during the office trading, right up through Boutwell’s election. Then he led them out to make their own caucus against Sumner, the “Indomitables.” More than thirty strong, they had enough votes to swing the senate election against either Winthrop, Webster’s man again, or Sumner. Cushing hoped to defeat both and make himself a senator in the name of conservative Whiggery. Failing that, he turned to Edward Everett. Mainly, however, Cushing put pressure on the coalition Democracy with help from Lewis Cass and other party luminaries. That, Webster’s wooing, or both moved Boutwell to disclaim any interest in Sumner’s election, pawning the matter off on the legislature.

A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part One

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison looms large in the story of Bleeding Kansas. A man of his beliefs and inclinations, living just across the line in Missouri, would have probably taken part regardless of his national prominence. Though all but forgotten today, except for the false trivia about his serving as president for a day, in his time Atchison enjoyed a national following. After Calhoun’s death, he served as one of the most high-profile spokesmen for extreme proslavery politics. He had the high esteem of his peers in the Senate, who elected him president pro tempore, unanimously, during what many consider that body’s golden age. He appears in antislavery sources as a crude drunkard, probably with some justice, but Atchison also received a fine education and served ably as a lawyer and judge before his political career. In the former capacity, he worked to defend the Mormons from their hostile Missourian neighbors. We may know far more about him, except that most of his papers went up in smoke in a house fire. Thus when William Earl Parrish took Atchison as his subject, he produced a spare monograph that remains the Senator’s lone biography. Parrish leans heavily on Atchison’s ease in making political friends to underline his abilities, while not neglecting that Bourbon Dave put them to work in the service of slavery.

Parrish traces Atchison’s involvement with filibustering Kansas from its start. He joined with the Stringfellows, close friends of his, in calling for a meeting to discuss Kansas matters and plan a response to the Emigrant Aid Company in the summer of 1854, with the ink barely dry on the Kansas-Nebraska Act. That meeting formed the Platte County Self-Defense Association, which accepted B.F. Stringfellow’s Negro-Slavery, No Evil. as its manifesto. As soon as Atchison got home from Washington, he took up control of the Self-Defensives. They used their group as a model in establishing the blue lodges that spread across Missouri and joined with a separate group Parrish calls the Kansas League, which operated inside the territory. Then the Senator came into Kansas to speak at his namesake town, just before they began selling off lots.

Atchison’s organization did not elude national notice. Amos Lawrence wrote him in March of 1855, asking the Senator to rein in his followers. Lawrence made no bones about their conflicting purposes: Atchison wanted slavery in Kansas and Lawrence wanted it out. But he asked that the two sides have a fair fight of it and assured Atchison that his organiztion did not actually have a vast legion of militant Yankees bent on conquest. If his side failed, Lawrence promised that antislavery Kansans would accept a loss in good grace “but they will never yield to injustice.”

Amos Adams Lawrence

Atchison answered in April, two weeks after the legislative elections where he and his conducted one of the largest and most flagrant frauds in American electoral history. He had no regrets:

You are right in your conjecture that I and my friends wish to make Kansas in all respects like Missouri. Our interests require it. Our peace through all time demands it, and we intend to leave nothing undone that will conduce to that end and can with honor be performed. If we fail, ten we will surrender to your care and control the State of Missouri. We have all to lose in the contest; you and your friends have nothing at stake. You propose to vote or to drive us away from Kansas. We do not propose to drive you and your friends from that Territory; but we do not intend either to be voted or driven our of Kansas, if we can help it; for we are foolish enough to believe we have as much right to inhabit that country as men from New England. Neither do we intend to be driven from Missouri, or suffer ourselves to be harassed in our property or our peace, if we can help it. At least we will try and make you and your friends share some of our anxieties.

At the time of the first delegate election, Atchison stumped across western Missouri. He told the people of Weston in to do their duty, anticipating what he would write to Lawrence in the spring:

When you reside within one day’s journey of the territory, and when your peace, your quiet, and your property depend upon your action, you can, without an exertion, send 500 of your young men who will vote in favor of your institutions.

That day or shortly thereafter, Atchison ran a convention of the various blue lodges in Weston which nominated John Wilkins Whitfield as delegate.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Bourbon Dave didn’t leave things sit with that, of course. He skipped the first few weeks of the new term of Congress that began in December of 1854. Instead of Washington, Atchison went to Independence where he presided over a meeting to choose blue lodge emissaries to fan out across the South and replicate his work. Some would send men, but Atchison would take money and propaganda too. B.F. Stringfellow drew Virginia (his home state) and Maryland as his assignment. Platte and Buchanan counties would pay his travel expenses. He traveled back east with the Senator.

At Atchison’s request the Senate had elected Jesse D. Bright, a friend of Atchison’s from university days and who represented Indiana whilst owning slaves and a plantation in Kentucky, as his replacement. Bright offered to resign in Atchison’s favor, but the Missourian turned him down. He did little in the Senate, and missed sessions entirely toward the end of January. Parrish couldn’t find proof of it, but suspected that Atchison went with Stringfellow to lobby Virginia and Maryland. The Senator likely last served in his official capacity in Washington on February 2, 1855. Afterwards, he drops off the radar for about twenty days again. The papers, national and Missourian, took no note of him except for the latter complaining that he had vanished.

The absence drew some attention after the fact. Gideon Welles confided to his diary (in a volume I can’t find online) that he asked Lewis Cass after Atchison in that time. A mutual friend told Cass that Atchison had gone

on a tour through the Southern States, concocting measures with the Governors and leading men at the South to make Kansas a slave state.

“Left entirely to the discretion of Congress” The Committee on Territories Weights in, Part One

 

Galusha Grow

Galusha Grow

The Senate took a look at the memorial to Congress that James Lane brought back with him and Lewis Cass presented to the body. It took no time at all for the senators to recognize all the scratched out and rewritten bits of the memorial and the curious fact that all the signatures at the end came in the same hand. Clearly, Lane had perpetrated a fraud on the Senate of the United States. That he swore an oath to the contrary, and we know that the free state government actually did send him off with a memorial, didn’t matter. When he challenged Stephen Douglas to a duel for satisfaction, Douglas fobbed him off with senatorial privilege. Cass withdrew the petition and the Senate moved on.

It happened differently in the House, with its anti-Nebraska majority. They referred the report and its attached materials, including the Topeka Constitution, to the Committee on Territories on April 7, 1856. The Committee’s report doesn’t come dated in my version and I can’t find when they reported back, but it seems to have taken them at least into May. As usual, the Committee released a majority and minority report. They give us a useful window into what actual, if partisan, nineteenth century lawmakers thought of Kansas’ irregular situation.

Galusha Grow, a Democrat turned Republican from Pennsylvania, presented the majority’s findings. The accepted practice involved a territory organized by Congress, as Kansas and other places had been. That territorial government then received permission to write a constitution, which it did. It then forwarded the constitution to Congress, which approved or disapproved. Grow consideration of Kansas’ petition for statehood with a chronicle of past departures from that line that the Congress had seen fit to accept or overlook.

Of the eighteen states admitted to the Union, Grow’s committee reported that five skipped the territorial stage entirely. Among the thirteen others, five gained admission under constitutions they had no permission from Congress to write. Furthermore:

The power of Congress to admit States is of the most plenary character, and is conferred by the constitution (sec. 3, art. 4) in these words: “New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union.” The time, mode, and manner of admission, therefore, is left entirely to the discretion of Congress.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

The conventional way of making states amounted to only that, a convention. Congress had no obligation to treat them as binding precedent, but could do as it liked. The letter of the Constitution demanded only that states have a republican government. If someone named themselves King of Kansas and asked for admission, Congress would have to tell them no. Whatever high opinions they might hold of themselves, no one in Kansas seems to have thought themselves royalty. So did Kansas have a republican government? If so, Congress didn’t have to make it a state but might do so if that appeared the best course for Kansans and for the nation.

Grow noted that the territorial form of government denied the people the full range of self-governance that state possessed in the American system. They could not choose their governors and the Congress had a full veto over any enactments of their legislature. The plight of the initial settlers:

few in numbers, and widely separated […] contest[ing] with the savage and the wild beast, the dominion of the wilderness, and […] not of sufficient numbers, strength, or wealth to protect themselves alone against the uncivilized influences that surround them.

Hard times and meager means required federal subsidy, paying salaries, arranging the construction of public buildings, and otherwise facilitating the development of the territory justified “supervisory power.” Otherwise, Congress might end up on the hook for endless expenses and laws with which “it entirely disapproves.” One obviously couldn’t have that. The people who went to territories did not lose their capacity for self-governance or somehow diminish their moral strength, but they did put themselves in this situation willingly. They chose to leave states and hazard what the Congress might do with a territory.

But when the white settlers had the numbers and the money, and wanted it, they could upgrade to a state government. When they could, Grow’s report averred, they ought to as

there is no longer any occasion for the guardianship of Congress, and no reason why their request should be delayed or refused.

Editing, Liars, and Almost a Duel: The Free State Memorial to Congress, Part Two

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

James Lane came to Congress in April of 1856 with a memorial in hand from the Topeka legislature. It explained that repeated abuses and usurpations of the rights of white men to set their own institutions, rights promised to them by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, had driven the free state men to the extremity of setting up their own state government. The Congress ought to see foot to admit that government to the Union as the sole, legitimate government of Kansas.

Nobody could have expected this to go well, but a shift of just a few senators might have sufficed to get something done. The Congress already had Kansas settlements under discussion, a topic which I plan to return to in future posts. Michigan’s Lewis Cass, the original popular soveriegnty booster, presented Lane’s memorial to the Senate on April 7. Antislavery Kansans might have hoped for a warm reception from Stephen Douglas, who Lane knew from back in the day and on whose popular sovereignty ground the free state movement made its stand.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

The Little Giant would have none of that. He looked over the memorial and called out some curious traits. Someone had crossed out passages and written in others, hardly the mark of a fine state paper suited for a grave situation. Maybe your high school English teacher would let that slide in moderation, but the United States Senate had to wonder if the men who put their names on the memorial had seen the final version. Did someone collect the signatures and then alter the text? Had someone (read: Lane) edited things after the fact to make the memorial a better fit for the political circumstances in Washington? For that matter, why did all the signatures appear in the same handwriting? Just what was James Lane trying to pull?

Lewis Cass

Lewis Cass

Douglas laid out the faults and decided that Lane had come to the Senate with an amateurish fraud. Lane explained that the alterations happened with the approval of Governor Robinson, and the handwriting came from simple re-copying because the original signature page had gone missing. Everybody really signed it; trust him. To prove the point, Lane took an oath administered by a justice of the Supreme Court that he transmitted to the Congress a genuine memorial.

Stephen Douglas called Lane a liar. Lane demanded satisfaction on the field of honor. Douglas wrapped himself in senatorial privilege and refused Lane’s challenge. Lane accepted the refusal in ill grace, implying that Douglas really refused on grounds of cowardice. Few found Lane’s oath or his challenge persuasive. The Senate rejected the Topeka memorial on a party line vote.

Real Fears From Abroad

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church's perceived attempt to "take over" American life

A cartoon attacking the Catholic Church’s perceived attempt to take over American life, via the Library of Congress

Protestant America, especially the sort with a Puritan pedigree, had a long folk memory of Catholic misdeeds. The fact that Protestants back in the Reformation behaved just as monstrously toward Catholics as Catholics did toward Protestants did not really enter into it. The Catholics, they believed, had it coming. Liberal-minded immigrants fleeing the reactionary crackdown in Europe could remind Americans of an older vintage of just that and supply new reasons that those awful thralls of Rome deserved steadfast opposition.

America, of course, already had native Catholics. But their small numbers, outside of certain locales, did little to draw Protestant fears. Louisiana stood no chance of somehow seizing control of national institutions for itself and the Pope. All of these new immigrants, however, could very well turn New York, or Massachusetts for that matter, Catholic. Would it stop there or would the whole nation soon bow, or be made to bow, to Rome?

The Know-Nothings’ fears had a great deal to do with simple bigotry, but they could point to more than phantoms to make their case. The Catholic church did, by and large, side with established reactionary regimes instead of liberal reformers over in Europe. Nor did anybody look to the Papal States, where the Pope ruled outright on all matters civil and spiritual, as a model of liberal principles. In countries where Catholicism predominated, both in Europe and the Americas, it did little to endear itself to unbelievers. Allen Nevins reports that in the Senate, Lewis Cass (D-MI) condemned the treatment of Protestants in Catholic countries, near and far. He highlighted two cases in particular:

Lewis Cass

Lewis Cass (D-MI)

An American woman died in Cuba, which had no place to bury her. Protestant bodies would not sully Catholic cemeteries. For her, the community offered only a hole in the ground where the mortal remains of Protestants heaped on top of each other like a human compost pile. Burying her elsewhere would earn the guilty parties a hefty fine. Taking her from the island required permission that rarely came and would itself involve a large fine.

In the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, the Catholic regime afflicted the living as well as the dead. The Madiais, a married couple, rotted in a Tuscan prison for the crime of owning a Protestant Bible. Archbishop Hughes, of New York, defended Tuscany to Cass. The Grand Duchy had laws against this sort of thing. It had an established religion and prohibited wooing its subjects away from that faith. He would not quite defend the arrest itself, but changed the subject to the burning of a convent in Massachusetts.

With oppression abroad, local churchmen making excuses for it, and the tide of new Catholic immigrants, a person of a certain bent could see the nation easily going the wrong way. Right here in the United States, Irish parades had turned into riots. The Irish, a nineteenth century American could say with confidence, just did that kind of thing. Drunken hoodlums to a man, they menaced the person and property of every godly Protestant American. Fools as well, one could depend on them to riot at the drop of a demagogue’s hat. Moreover, they came dirty and full of disease. This European detritus clogged up the prison and poorhouse alike. Did America really want still more? Even if, by some miracle, they did not imperil the Republic with their Catholic ways, they demonstrated again and again unfit for and unworthy of inclusion in the American body politic.

Of course, native-born Americans could also show strong clannish streaks. They rioted quite often, generally in the same cities where the Irish did. Their ancestors too came with strange ways and alien religions. Past generations had driven Quakers from New England and, a bit later, out of the South. More recently, they had driven the Mormons west with great enthusiasm. Plenty of Americans, right up until 1854, would gladly tell you that abolitionists had the same pedigree of dangerous religious fanaticism. Some still would. More than enough, including those tarred with the same brush in past generations, would eagerly deploy the same arguments all over again against immigrants from “the armpit of Europe”, from Asia, from Latin America, from Muslim countries, and from anywhere else. Some segment of the American population appears to hold it as an article of faith that people come to the United States only to recreate every horror they knew on foreign shores.

The States Speak

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase (FS-OH)

Most sectional disputes prior to Kansas-Nebraska involved something like a united South forcing its will on a divided North. The South had its own internal divisions that we should not ignore, but the common interest in preserving slavery usually trumped the North’s indifference to the subject. The South did not always win all that it wanted, and never pleased its radicals, but one can reasonably argue that Southern, proslavery interests prevailed more often than not. That only stands to reason. A committed minority that cares far more about its signature issue than its opposition often prevails in a democratic system. The rickety constitutional structure of the American republic, packed to the gills with anti-democratic measures proved an able accomplice. Had matters involved just what the House of Representatives preferred, the Wilmot Proviso would have sailed into law. The Senate changed all of that.

One might expect, given the reversal of the usual pattern, that the House’s plan to bury the Kansas-Nebraska act would have succeeded. The more united section would prevail over the less united. Probably the men in the House who voted to bury the bill expected something like that. With Nebraska wrapped up in the Missouri Compromise repeal from the get-go, future Congresses would have a far harder time bringing it back than Stephen Douglas had in pushing the bill through the Senate. The South would accept the loss and move on. Maybe Union-minded Southerners would even come around and vote to defeat the bill as one provocation too far and to show themselves Union men first and Southern men second.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas (D-IL)

Politicians with such hopes had good reason to hold them. In early 1854, as the Senate debated, ten free states had their legislatures in session. Only Douglas’ own Illinois could rouse itself to pass a resolution in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska act, and that with considerable pressure from his supporters. Only fifty of the legislature’s hundred members voted on the issue. Rhode Island condemned it unanimously. Maine, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin damned the bill by large margins. The New York legislature instructed its delegation directly to vote against Kansas-Nebraska. In the other five, Democratic majorities made their influence felt through inaction. Pennsylvania and New Jersey contemplated the issue, but refused to take a vote. Salmon Chase’s own Ohio kept the subject tabled, fearing reaction either way. The California Democracy, in firm control of the state, likewise opted for silence.

Lewis Cass

Lewis Cass (D-MI)

Other states did not have their legislatures in session, but voice their objections by other means. Connecticut, the conservative home of manufacturers with strong Southern business ties, saw its state conventions for both parties vote anti-Nebraska resolutions through. In Pierce’s own New Hampshire, which held the first election after the bill came before the Senate, the Democracy’s majority in the governor’s race dropped by two-thirds and the party lost its House majority of 89. Pierce insisted that Nebraska had nothing to do with the result, which would have surprised the voters. The Pennsylvania Democratic convention let Douglas down too, resisting pressure to toe the administration line. In Detroit, home of Mr. Popular Sovereignty Lewis Cass, elected an anti-Nebraska Whig mayor by the kind of margin that the Democracy customarily enjoyed. The town’s Democratic paper, the Times, insisted that Michigan stood against Nebraska and if the Little Giant’s bill passed, there would be hell to pay.

To answer all of that, and more, the South responded tepidly. Georgia and Mississippi endorsed the bill. The Tennessee Senate came just short, endorsing its principles but not Kansas-Nebraska itself. Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, and Texas opted for the same silence that Pennsylvania, Ohio, and California chose.

The Ambiguity of Popular Sovereignty, Part One

Lewis Cass

Lewis Cass (D-MI), originator of popular sovereignty

Looking at Kansas from the South, suppose the terrain does suit slavery. Suppose it would house profitable hemp plantations, even if more lucrative opportunities existed further south in Arkansas and Texas for cotton. Suppose Douglas got his bill through. That meant the South won, right? Popular sovereignty would permit slavery to rush in, end of story. From Kansas it could flood into modern Nebraska, not all that much farther north. If slavery went to Kansas, it would surely go to any territory west of it organized later. Then, as Chase foretold, Douglas’

criminal betrayal of precious rights; as part and parcel of an atrocious plot to exclude from a vast unoccupied region immigrants from the Old World, and free laborers from our own states, and convert it into a dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves.

Whatever the practical chances of the whole of the Great Plains falling to slavery, free soil men really believed that. The proslavery men also understood the Kansas-Nebraska bill as a portentous event. Here they could turn history around and undo ancient wrongs. They could strike out the stain on slavery and the honor of the slaveholding class that Thomas Jefferson put on them by hedging them out of the Northwest Territory, then compounded by the Missouri Compromise, by free California, by Northerners flouting the Fugitive Slave Act. A litany of defeats that each reaffirmed slavery as somehow toxic could end and a new sequence could begin announcing the virtues of a slaveholding culture. For Douglas, who remained indifferent and uninterested in slavery, the great principle of self-government hung just as much in the balance.

Senator William H. Seward (Whig-NY), Taylor's antislavery friend and advisor.

William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

That knowledge, combined with the anticipation of epic fireworks, emptied the House so its members could sit in the gallery and listen to Douglas hold forth. It drew the eyes of the nation. Never ones to underestimate their importance, Douglas’ fellow senators felt much the same.  Standing at the pivot point of history, William Henry Seward, the New York Whig who led the ailing party declared:

We are on the even of a great national transaction, a transaction that will close a cycle in the history of our country.

The elder statesmen that had dominated the Senate for decades: Clay, Calhoun, Webster, and even Benton had left the body. All save Benton had died. While Douglas, and many of the others, had played roles in the storm in 1850 they had done so in the shadows of giants now gone. They had before them the first great sectional struggle to resolve all on their own. Some historians, and commentators at the time, blamed that generational turnover for the disaster that ensued as if the 1850 club could have done better. But Kansas-Nebraska did not mean 1850 came again. Four years passed full of fugitive slave rescues, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and other controversy that did much more to alienate the sections.

Still, one thread remained the same: In 1850, Douglas and Lewis Cass promised that popular sovereignty would solve the slavery issue in the Southwest. Then, as in 1854, they declined to say just when it could do so.