Was Lincoln A Third Party Candidate?

LincolnGentle Readers, I don’t intend today’s post as a commentary on the election come Tuesday. Anybody who reads me for any length of time can figure out who I think you should also support. But I do hope you vote, even if you vote differently. Refraining from exercising your franchise does not make you innocent of any consequences, upon yourself or others. When one doesn’t act to stop something, one has acquiesced in its happening. That’s true no matter how you would cast your ballot.

That said, you often hear that Lincoln ran as a third party candidate or that the Republicans constitute the nation’s only successful third party. These two claims rely on largely the same facts, so I shall treat them together.

When we refer to a third party, we mean a party beyond the big two of the Democrats and Republicans. Every other party counts as a third and just which of the big two holds the top spot can vary from cycle to cycle. The same definition would hold for the nineteenth century, which had its own plethora of small political movements. Lincoln and his generation came of age during the Second Party System, which pitted the Democrats against the Whigs. Most of the time, the Democrats had the upper hand and the Whigs had a remarkably poor run of luck with their presidential candidates. They elected two presidents, both of whom died in office and thus gave way to a vice-president of rather different ideological cast.

Knowing about the Democrats and the Whigs, and knowing Lincoln and many other Republicans as former Whigs, we might assume we have found a third party movement. A closer look reveals something different. The Whig coalition collapses over the course of the early 1850s. They elected a president, Zachary Taylor, in 1848. They tried to elect another, Winfield Scott, in 1852. Come 1856, no one runs for the White House on the Whig ticket.

The end of a movement always involves endless complexities and we can find old school Whigs holding on or trying to revive conservative Whiggery (by no means the only form) in various ways up through 1860. The Republicans themselves thought they had a chance at it during Reconstruction. But as a practical matter, the national party dies at some point between 1854 and 1856. Slavery in the territories killed it. The prolonged crisis over slavery in the Mexican Cession demonstrated to the Lower South that Southern Whigs could not control or restrain their antislavery counterparts in the North, gravely wounding a party that already had a northward tilt. The Kansas-Nebraska Act extended the process to the Upper South, if not quite so completely, and produced the nation’s first lasting and avowedly antislavery party: the Republicans.

The process by which that party came together involves quite a bit more than old Whigs just changing names. Former Democrats came over into the party, as did many supporters of the much more fringe Liberty Party. Together with northern Whigs, generally but not always those more to the left than the rest, they created a party which had plenty of Whiggery in it but also important infusions of Democratic antislavery thought. In the South, most ex-Whigs either quit politics or went into the Democracy, Alexander Stephens’ path, or joined with more conservative Whigs in the Know-Nothing movement in the middle years of the decade. Northern Know-Nothings usually ended up Republicans a bit further down the line. During the transition, a confusing morass of political labels abounded and it seemed for a time that the Know-Nothings might take the Whigs’ place as the nation’s second party. In the end, antislavery proved a more potent platform than nativism.

That leaves us with the Republicans, arguably as of 1856 and definitely by 1860, at least the nation’s second party. That they formed out of fragments of prior coalitions doesn’t materially change that. The GOP contended with the Democrats for control of the nation’s course, possessing as they did sufficient influence to shoulder aside and consign other competitors to marginal status, precisely as the principals in a two-party system do.

Of course, none of those means we should overlook the complexity of the 1860 election. Four men won electoral votes in that race, or rather two each won votes in two parallel races. In the free states, Lincoln faced off against Stephen Douglas of the northern Democracy. In the slave states, where for the most part Lincoln didn’t even appear on the ballot, John C. Breckinridge competed against John Bell of the Constitutional Union party. If one wants to find third party candidates in the race, then all three of Lincoln’s opponents have a case for them.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas went to the Democratic National Convention at Charleston, South Carolina as the favorite for the nomination. However, he had turned against the proslavery government in Kansas and split from the national party over the issue. In order to prove his bona fides, southern delegates wanted Douglas to sign on to a slave code for the territories. Douglas refused and they walked out. Attempts to get the southerners back into the room failed, which eventually left a rump to nominate Douglas as arguably the regular Democratic candidate. His supporters didn’t walk out, after all. Douglas came in dead last in the electoral vote, winning only Missouri and part of New Jersey’s slate, a decidedly third party sort of performance. But Douglas did represent the ordinary Democracy and garnered second in the popular vote.

John C. Breckinridge

John C. Breckinridge

The Democrats who seceded from the party, most of them soon to secede from the Union too, nominated John C. Breckinridge. As a splinter of a still-extant party, Breckinridge’s looks like a third party movement. He came in third in the popular vote, but second in the electoral college. However, Breckinridge also represents the long-dominant constituency within the Democracy. If Douglas came to the polls at the head of the institutionally regular Democracy, then Breckinridge represented the beating heart of the coalition: Southerners committed to slavery’s perpetuation and expansion.

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell

Which leaves us with John Bell. Bell, like Lincoln, hailed from the Whig Party back in the day. His Constitutional Union party aimed to revitalize conservative Whiggery and its platform as an alternative to the slavery question, containing and frustrating agitation on, and functionally against, the issue through a kind of revitalized Second Party System. Bell won his own Tennessee, as well as Virginia and Kentucky. Both of the latter had long Whiggish associations. While Bell would surely have liked to see a president in the mirror come March of 1861, the realistic hope of his movement involved denying both Lincoln and Breckinridge an electoral college majority. That would have thrown the presidency into the House, where his candidacy might seem like the best compromise to keep the Union together by the skin of its teeth rather than burst it asunder. If we consider third parties oriented around disruption of the dominant political system and aimed at reorienting it from its dominant issues, Bell makes the best third party candidate in the race.

Abraham Lincoln ran as and considered himself a Whig until the Whigs expired. He then made himself a Republican and remained with the party until Ford’s Theater. In both cases, he consciously chose a position as a regular, loyal party man for one of the two dominant parties of the era. Of all the men who sought the nation’s highest office in 1860, Lincoln deserves the third party title least of all. If a third party designation means anything useful at all and we care about understanding the past through it, then it must mean the opposite of Lincoln.

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Eight

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Full text.)

Lincoln’s history lesson, if crossing familiar ground, did it well and thoroughly. But at last, six pages into my printed version, he came out of the Mexican War and the Compromise of 1850 and reached the KansasNebraska Act. For all the controversy of the late 1840s

Nebraska had remained, substantially an uninhabited country, but not emigration to, and settlement within it began to take place. It is about one third as large as the present United States, and its importance so long overlooked, begins to come into view. The restriction of slavery by the Missouri Compromise directly applies to it; in fact, was first made, and has since been maintained, expressly for it.

Until Stephen Douglas stuck his nose in, anyway. Lincoln agrees, at least by implication, with Douglas that Nebraska needed territorial government on account of white settlement. Sam Houston and John Bell had it right here, though. The settlement amounted to a handful of people just over the border. Strictly speaking, they squatted there illegally. A moderate politician or one disinterested in slavery could rest on that fact, call the whole law needless, and stand against it. But Lincoln came from Illinois, itself still something of a frontier, and would not place himself in the path of history and demand it stop. He believed in the nineteenth century every bit as much as Stephen Douglas did. A man in his position almost had to. Maybe Sam Houston, Mr. Texas himself, could dismiss the imperative of white expansion. Maybe John Bell, safe in his Senate seat, could agree. A failed politician trying to restart his career had no such luxuries, whether he had private doubts or not.

In 1853, a bill to give it a territorial government passed the House of representatives, and, in the hands of Judge Douglas, failed of passing the Senate only for want of time. This bill contained no repeal of the Missouri Compromise. indeed, when it was assailed because it did not contain such a repeal, Judge Douglas defended it in its existing form. On January 4th, 1854, Judge Douglas introduces a new bill to give Nebraska territorial government. He accompanies this bill with a report, in which last, he expressly recommends that the Missouri Compromise shall be neither affirmed nor repealed.


about a month after the introduction of the bill, on the judge’s own motion, it is so amended as to declare the Missouri Compromise inoperative and void; and, substantially, that the People who go and settle there may establish slavery, or exclude it, as they may see fit. In this shape the bill passed both branches of congress, and became a law.

This is the repeal of the Missouri Compromise.

And now that the crowd knew exactly what Lincoln meant, and knew that he knew as much as they did:

I think, and shall try to show, that it is wrong; wrong in its direct effect, letting slavery into Kansas and Nebraska-and wrong in its prospective principle, allowing it to spread to every other party of the wide world, where men can be found inclined to take it.

Moderate Massachusetts

Edward Everett

Edward Everett (W-MA)

If the Massachusetts Free Soilers-cum-Republicans wanted to call the South’s bluff and throw out not just Kansas-Nebraska but also the Fugitive Slave Act, on which the South insisted the Union rested, they could very well do so on paper. Doing so once elected would take rather more effort. They would have to master not just the large advantage that the near-equal division of the Senate between North and South presented, but also Northern interests that did not share their enthusiasm for brinksmanship. That included many in their own party. The man they finally sent to the White House in 1860 stood before the unfinished dome of the Capitol and pledged himself to upholding the law…including the Fugitive Slave Act.

New England had long been the seat of northern Whiggery, and before that Federalism. Our own interests, especially in the context of the war at the end of the decade, naturally lead us to connect Whiggery and antislavery. The issue, after all, wrecked the Whigs but not the Democracy. The Whigs had a strong concentration of Puritan men with Puritan ideas from historically Puritan states. Massachusetts, the original home of the Puritans, voted against Andrew Jackson in 1836 and thereafter voted for the Whigs in every presidential election up through 1852. Vermont alone could match that record. But even in hyper-Whig, hyper-Puritan antislavery Massachusetts the Free Soilers pressed well ahead of the pack.

I must confess here that as a person of generally secular bent, I rarely find myself well-disposed toward Puritans. I sometimes suspect we’d do better as a nation if some Indian INS met them at the shore and turned them back. But they came and stayed and, if they no longer had quite the fanatical austerity that the first few generations brought to New England, they had also not surrendered all their fervor to a more moderate nation. They deserve credit for the good and the bad. Puritanism always had a strong communitarian strain. A Puritan man believed in moral stewardship. He served as his brother’s keeper, however widely he cast that net. Some cast it nationally and saw Southern brothers lost in the sins of slavery. This went beyond corrupting the slaveholders and degrading the slaves. The contagion of sin attached to those who made excuses for slavery, who accommodated it, who brought it where the law forbade it even if those men came from more Northern climes. Even those, like William Lloyd Garrison, who cast smaller nets and wrote Southerners off as hopelessly damned and so insisted that the righteous Union must cut away such moral cancers, could find defenders of the proslavery status quo and preachers of accommodating silence on slavery among their neighbors.

Bell and Everett on a Constitutional Union poster from 1860

Bell and Everett on a Constitutional Union poster from 1860

Those neighbors inherited the same Puritan traditions. They could listen to the Garrisons and Sumners in their midst go on about how they stood at variance with their ancestral faith. The Daniel Websters, Edward Everetts, and Robert Winthrops of the state could give the same sermon right back. If Puritans believed in creating a city on a hill, they also had to look aghast at what their fellow citizens proposed. The abolitionists would burn the city down. They would cast aside all respect for property. They would abandon the very respectability that made Puritans fit to create that shining city with their wild lawbreaking and talk of splitting the Union. These conservatives wanted consensus and quiet, with the strategically-placed silences that permitted both when deep division arose. Everett kept on preaching the same when he ran with John Bell on the Constitutional Union ticket in 1860.

Whiggery’s successes in Massachusetts also worked against them. With such successes, and a party at least amenable to antislavery thought, why would they desert a party that could and had given them such rewards? Even if they couldn’t win the White House, they had Massachusetts. Furthermore, close allies of Massachusetts’ cotton mills had ample motivation to stay in the good graces of their cotton-growing southern compatriots. Those Cotton Whigs had money on the line.

Thus when the Free Soilers met and resolved to overturn the apple cart in Massachusetts, few Whigs joined them. Likewise, few Democrats rushed to the banner. Their Worcester convention drew between 800 and 1,500 Free Soil diehards, four-fifths of them veterans of 1848, but even with a special convention train to carry them less than two hundred came from Boston. Most of the convention-goers came from central and western Massachusetts, away from most of the textile factories.

Bell’s Dissent, Part Nine

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bell’s Dissent, Part Eight

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bell’s Dissent, Part Seven

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bell’s Dissent, Part Six

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Parts 12, 3, 4, 5)

John Bell, the Tennessee Whig, laid into Stephen Douglas for his unorthodox and precipitous bill to open the Great Plains for settlement. It would give away all the public domain and so close the book on the frontier for future generations. It came in advance of any real settlement, instead of in recognition of that settlement. It came while ample and good land existed in the states bordering on the Indian country. It would break the nation’s word to the Indians that they could have the land forever. Other countries could even look at the United States and take note of how scrupulously it abided by its treaty obligations from this example. All of that amounted to a lot of questioning Douglas’ motivation and Bell wondered what grand plan Douglas had in mind, besides the obvious fast train to the White House.

To Douglas, that must have sounded a great deal like when Salmon P. Chase called him an accomplished architect of ruin. That a southerner like Bell went on to talk about how Douglas would inflame the North against the South by giving its future up to slavery. And even if everything worked, Bell did not think slavery would take root. He tempted southern senators with an empty repeal for a needless cause that would bring at best a Pyrrhic victory. The Little Giant rose to object, denying that he had any secret plans. If Bell wanted to accuse him of something, the Tennessee Whig should come out and say it.

Bell did not. He denied any such intentions. No, he

was pledging myself to the honorable Senator, that if he would give me any sufficient explanation or exposition of the points of objection I have taken as to the vast extent of this country which he proposes to embrace in the new Territories -the departure he purposes from the long-established and guarded policy of the Government in the interposition of some barrier to the intrusion of the white man, and the formation of detached settlements in a country occupied by wild and savage Indian tribes, far beyond the regularly advanced line of frontier settlements; and throwing open at once unnecessarily the whole public domain- I will go with him in the accomplishment of his great schemes.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Don’t take it personally, Stephen. He just wants some reasons you can’t give him. But even if Douglas couldn’t answer, Bell might come around. He had an open mind and knew progress, meaning the advance of white settlement across the continent, could never stop. He believed in the nineteenth century. So he gave Douglas some advice:

Wait a season; be not so impatient to build up a great northwestern empire. In due time all your great plans of development will be accomplished, without any great sacrifices of any kind, and without conflicting with any other great public interest. In a few years, by the regular law of progress and settlement, which swept first all of the Atlantic States, and then the eastern slope of the great valley of the Mississippi, of the Indian tribes which once held possession of them, by a greatly accelerated process, they will disappear from the plains, and the whole of the vast region beyond the Mississippi; and then, without any abrupt departure from the old and established policy of our Government in relation to the Indians or the public domain

Bell had a bit of cheek to call the forced removal of Indian tribes from east of the Mississippi some kind of force of nature. He wrote the bill that required them to vacate the Southeast. We would say that today and might call it unfair to judge him by our standards. Bell could certainly believe that his bill just ratified natural processes already underway. But he rose to speak against another bill in the same vein of his own, except far less radical.

Bell knew that he asked a lot of Douglas, who had been after organization of the plains for a decade. The Little Giant had fire in his veins, not all of it from his appetite for drink, and waiting still longer would chafe:

If the honorable Senator will indulge me, and not think it offensive, I must say here, because it occurs to me, that I think for a long time he has had a passion, amounting to a sort of mania, for the organization of new Territories, and the founding of new States. Sir, to my certain knowledge, the honorable Senator drew up the Utah and New Mexico bills, and almost in the very terms in which they finally passed into laws. I believe he is also entitled to the credit of having originated the bills for the establishment of the Territories of Oregon, Minnesota, and Washington. It seems, from present indications, that it will not be long before he will have succeeded in organizing three or four more. Not content with the fame which may attach to him as the conditor imperii […] he is emulous of the title of clarissimus conditor imperiorum. It seems to me that whatever other rewards he may receive from his countrymen, if they should imitate the policy of the ancient Greeks and Romans in bestowing honorary crowns on citizens who distinguish themselves in the service of their country, the honorable Senator will be entitled, not to one, but to ten civic crowns! I hope the honorable Senator will not be offended at anything I have said on this.

The Latin translates to “founder of the empire” and “most famous founder of the empire,” I think.

Douglas assured Bell that he caused no offense, to the Senate’s laughter. Amid all the flattery the Tennessean had grasped a bit of truth. Douglas saw himself as a great man on the make, a common enough affliction among politicians, and must have expected that the storm his Missouri Compromise repeal would bring would blow over and leave him the conquering hero of white America, who opened the West and saved the Union. Surely that man deserved to move into the White House.

Bell’s Dissent, Part Five

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Parts 12, 3, 4)

Once Tennessee’s John Bell started challenging Stephen Douglas, he got on a roll. Where did Douglas find the white Americans desperate for the new land? Why did they not settle available land already organized? What so lit Douglas on fire that he would put forward such radical, sweeping legislation to give away all of white America’s future in one sudden rush? Bell asked the questions with the usual rhetorical flourishes, but they amounted to more than a show for his Senate peers. If nothing else, they served to demonstrate to his Tennessee supporters that Bell had sober, considered reasons for opposing the South’s new favorite bill.

Douglas needed to answer those objections. They did not all amount to theory and issues of precedent. The whites living in the Indian country illegally could not make a very convincing case that the Congress ought to support them there with all the land still available elsewhere. So where would Douglas come up with a batch that did deserve their good favor? And so unprecedented a grant as the entire remaining public domain? Bell did not quite say that no such people existed, but he instead advanced his own theory as to why the Little Giant wanted Kansas-Nebraska so badly:

I know that he does not act without motives or a purpose, and as he has given us no expositions of his views upon this point, I trust he will indulge me in conjecturing what they may be. That I mean nothing offensive or unkind to the honorable Senator he will understand, when I say that, upon a full consideration of his policy as shadowed forth in this bill, taking it altogether, I am at a loss which most to admire, the genius or the boldness of his conception. And I can tell honorable Senators around me, that when that Senator, shall be arraigned before the tribunal of the public in the Northwest, for his advocacy of any feature of this bill which may be obnoxious to them, and he shall come to unfold the grandeur of his plans, and the skill with which he managed to combine in their support both the North and the South, they will speak trumpet-tongued in his defense.

It took a genius to pull this off, so absolutely sure of himself to risk so alienating the North by giving away its future to slavery. Douglas would win great fame for it, unite the nation, revitalize his ailing northern Democracy, and sail into the White House. Bell didn’t have to spell it all out. Every Senator sees a president when he or she looks in the mirror, then and now.

I trust the honorable Senator understands me: but I will nevertheless say to him, that although by the offer of a principle, an abstraction -a dangerous temptation to southern Senators- which I fear will prove utterly barren- bearing neither fruit nor flower, he has drawn into the support of his plans the whole South and Southwest, yet, if he will give me but a reasonable answer to the objections I have taken to this provision of the bill, I will go with him in its support.

Give him a reason, Stephen. Convince John Bell that he can vote for your bill without disaster ensuing. Slavery will not take off in Kansas or Nebraska. Douglas had said so himself. The way Bell phrases it speaks deeply to his, and other southern politicians’, predicament. By dangling repeal of the Missouri Compromise out in front of them, Douglas offered a long-sought victory. It will thrill the radicals but enrage the North and set it further against the South for a hollow triumph. Archibald Dixon and Phillip Phillips twisted Douglas’ arm to get the repeal into the bill and now that repeal twisted the arms of every southern senator. If they voted against it, they named themselves traitors to slavery and wrote their epitaphs. If they voted for it, yielding to the temptation, they brought the North down on them for their folly.

Bell’s Dissent, Part Four

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Parts 12, 3)

Before I took my vacation from the Congressional Globe, John Bell rose to tell the Senate why he would join Texas’ Sam Houston (123456) in voting against the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would repeal the Missouri Compromise and so open the great plains to slavery as well as organizing all the land between Canada and modern Oklahoma and between Missouri, Iowa, and the Minnesota territory into the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. Of all the southern senators, the Texas Democrat and Tennessee Whig stood alone against the bill.

Bell’s objections began with the lack of any particular need for the bill and how it proceeded to organize government for such a tiny population of white settlers. In the past, Congress waited until more would benefit from a territorial government. He continued to vent his displeasure over how the bill would break the nation’s word to the Indians, who he expected to go West and quietly die to open the way for white settlement. Rushing things would only provoke Indian hostilities.

But Bell saw problems for American whites aside from hostile Indians. Stephen Douglas’ hasty bill would

in addition to the Indians hostilities likely to be provoked by encouraging settlements, at irregular and distant intervals, over such an extent of territory now inhabited by wild Indians, the measure evidently contemplated the exhaustion of all the most desirable portions of the public domain in a few years, leaving no residuum to invite the enterprise or to furnish cheap homes to the young men and young families of the next generation. I held such a policy unwise, unstatesmanlike, and essentially selfish in the present generation. I was of the opinion that there was no necessity arising from a crowded population in the frontier States, or from any deficiency of good unappropriated lands in those States, to justify a measure which proposes to throw open so large an extent of new country for settlement.

That probably sounds a bit obscure today, but in the nineteenth century a great deal of white America’s understanding of itself rested on going west. Your life might not bring you earthly delights or advancement back east, but every young white man could take up and go west to cheap land to set himself up as the fabled yeoman farmer. If the law opened so much land to settlement, the current generation would take the lot and what would become of America then? With no more frontier, that story had to end. With the boundless west all eaten up, the United States could rapidly turn into an ossified, class-ridden society like bad old Europe.

And for what?

I contented that the population in the border States was yet small and sparse, and that there was within their limits an abundant supply of good lands, inviting settlement and cultivation -both by native citizens and foreign emigrants. Two years ago, I objected to the treaty for the purchase of the territory which belonged to the Sioux Indians, in the Territory of Minnesota, upon the ground that it would open a vast wilderness for detached and irregular settlement, when there was no adequate necessity for the measure; and I showed, if I remember aright, that there were then about one hundred and twenty millions of acres of good land surveyed and open to entry and settlement in the adjoining States, after deducting from ten to twenty per cent for lands unfit for cultivation. Nevertheless that treaty, costing the Government some five millions of dollars, was ratified by the Senate; and an additional supply of between twenty-five and thirty millions of acres of land was thus provided for new settlements; and notwithstanding the late increase in the sale and settlement of the public lands in the northwest, we may safely conclude that, at this moment there are not less than one hundred millions of acres, not of indifferent lands, but of good cultivable lands, still remaining to be taken up and occupied by emigrants, in the same section of the country.

Here we have something like sustainable development in a nineteenth century style. Good lands still exist already set aside for white settlement. We should not open more to exploitation until they are full up. If the Senate proposed to add more land to that trust, it ought to have a good reason. Minnesota did not look full up to Bell. Nor did Iowa, Missouri, or Wisconsin. He challenged Douglas to point to the whites who could not find cheap land already available if they wanted it. The illegal squatters opposite Council Bluffs and around Fort Leavenworth could find their land in Minnesota, or in the states Bell named, cheaply, legally, and without requiring any strange new laws to facilitate it.

Bell’s Dissent, Part Three

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Part 1, 2)

John Bell came out against Kansas-Nebraska after carefully voting for it at every procedural step along the way. Whatever his reasons, I grant him a little slack there. His wing of his party supported the bill and the least one should expect from party members is that they vote with the party in the preliminaries, even if they vote against the final bill. If one has no expectation of at least that, in what way does the group really qualify as a political party? Bell did vote against the bill when it really counted, even if he could have easily voted for it and changed nothing about the outcome.

In explaining why, Bell first insisted that the territory had nowhere near enough white settlers to justify organization. Congress traditionally waited for quite a few more. His second objection involved the Indians, just as Houston’s concerns did:

My second objection to the Nebraska bill of the last session was, that it proposed to organize a territorial government, and to throw open for settlement the whole extent of the country lying west of Missouri and Iowa, which is now Indian territory, guarded and protected against the intrusion of a white population by a statute of thirty sections, besides the faith of treaties applicable to numerous emigrant tribes; thus bringing an unnecessary pressure upon the while Indian tribes, and tending to drive them to desperation, by the destruction of the principal source of their subsistence, the buffalo, which, you know, sir, will disappear upon the first clear crack of the frontier rifle, and the ominous appearance of the settler in the neighborhood of their haunts.

That happened, of course, though the buffalo managed to narrowly survive it. The buffalo once ranged as far east as Pennsylvania, down into Mexico, and as far north as Alaska. By 1890, all of 750 remained. Likewise who could argue with the proposition that Indians turned decidedly hostile to whites when whites broke their word, stole land, and otherwise mistreated them? Even if one saw Indians as hopeless savages, as many nineteenth century Americans did, their wrath could imperil isolated white settlers. If Kansas and Nebraska turned into a killing ground for white pioneers, that defeated the whole purpose of opening them to settlement.

Bell, like Houston, had a personal investment here. In his days in the House, Bell chaired the Committee on Indian Affairs and wrote the Indian Removal Act. In addition to worrying about the national honor, he probably saw the matter as touching on his own. He wrote the law that promised the Indians lands west of the Mississippi forever and now Stephen Douglas proposed taking those lands away. But, as befitting the author of the aforementioned law, Bell did not have Houston’s bleeding heart:

I have always differed from my friend from Texas, [Mr. Houston,] and others, who have maintained that the Indian race is susceptible of as high a development of their mental faculties as the white race, and that all their misfortunes are to be attributed to the encroachments of the white man upon their lands. I have never been so hopeful of the results of the experiments which are making to civilize and elevate their condition. I have always held the opinion, that all the Government can do for them, under any plan which may be adopted to wean them from their ancestral habits, and to induce them to cultivate the arts of civilized life, will have no other result than to postpone the period of their final extinction; and that, in the meantime, imbecility, despondency, and indolence, will be their characteristic traits. I believe that the highest development of the Indian character is only to be found in their normal or primitive condition, and before their proud spirit has been bowed by conquest.

Bell’s preferred Indian policy then involved something like sending them far away from white people and waiting for them to die out. They needed their reservations largely to ensure the safety and peace of white Americans.