Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Six

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

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

By confronting Stephen Douglas with the words of a moderate politician disinterested in slavery who avowed the sacred permanence of the Missouri Compromise, both reinforced his own argument for the same position and forced the Little Giant to face his own speech. One need not be an antislavery ideologue, like Salmon P. Chase, William Seward, or Lincoln himself might come across. In Douglas’ mind, and the minds of his supporters, those men might all share the same flesh. But Douglas himself? Surely not! The Little Giant might fancy himself a great statesman, with some reason, and see a president in the mirror every morning, but never an antislavery fanatic.

But Lincoln did dig up a quote from 1849. Douglas always said that things changed in 1850. Before that, he accepted the Missouri Compromise as the best the nation could do. As Douglas now told it, he always preferred popular sovereignty. The Little Giant further insisted that the antislavery sorts fouled up the whole business, necessitating the change in policy.

All of this, Lincoln knew. When the Mexican War erupted, then-President Polk asked Congress for an appropriation to negotiate the peace treaty:

A bill was duly got up, for the purpose, and was progressing swimmingly, in the House of Representatives, when a member by the name of David Wilmot, a democrat from Pennsylvania, moved as an amendment “Provided that in any territory thus acquired, there shall never be slavery.”

This is the origin of the far-famed “Wilmot Proviso.” It created a great flutter; but stuck like wax, was voted into the bill, and the bill passed with it through the House. The Senate, however, adjourned without final action on it and so both the appropriation and proviso were lost, for a time.

But the war went on. Polk asked again. Congress went to work again. The proviso came up again. The bill died again. A new Congress came in December, 1847, and Lincoln himself

was in the lower House that term. The “Wilmot Proviso” or the principle of it, was constantly coming up in some shape or other, and I think I may venture to say I voted for it at least forty times; during the short term I was there. The Senate, however, held it in check, and it never became law.

In due course Nicholas Trist negotiated a proviso-free treaty handing over to the United States the vast Southwest. The Mexican Cession ran right west of the Louisiana Purchase. Why not draw the Missouri Compromise line out to the Pacific? Douglas thought that a great idea at the time:

On Judge Douglas’ motion a bill, or provision of a bill, passed the Senate to so extend the Missouri line. The Proviso men in the House, including myself, voted it down, because by implication, it gave up the Southern part to slavery, while we were bent on having it all free.

That point really does cut both ways. The South would not tolerate a Mexican Cession all free. Antislavery men would not tolerate a Mexican Cession all slave. This left the issue in doubt as the 1840s wound down. Did principle or precedent require either side to accept extending the Missouri line? Perhaps, both other principles came into play as well. If one saw slavery as right, why should it suffer any special restrictions? If one saw it as wrong, why should any new territory be reserved for it at the expense of freedom?

On paper, the sacred pact applied only to the Louisiana Purchase. The provision, which Douglas favored at the time, that extended the line across Texas contained within it the tacit admission that the line did not extend on its own across Texas. Each new parcel of land, at least in principle, opened the question anew. If both antislavery and proslavery men departed from established precedent, they did so in accord with a separate precedent that each territory needed its own slavery settlement.


Kansas-Nebraska: Shattering the Democracy

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

The dream that Kansas-Nebraska would give the Union some tough love that restored its strength rested on the proposition that northern voters, most especially northern Democrats, cared very little about slavery. If the North, most especially the Northwest, had decent portions of men like Stephen Douglas, they could combine with men like Jesse D. Bright, Indiana’s slaveholding senator, to revitalize the Democracy and restore its position as a true bisectional party and thus, they hoped, confirm its position as the natural party of American governance. The new final settlement on slavery and the territories, unlike the old final settlement, would retire slavery from the national consciousness. Abolitionist and fire-eater alike could go fume in the corner while sensible, moderate, compromise-minded adults ran the nation.

This meant a very small word, if, had to carry a very large burden. If Stephen Douglas had taken the North’s temperature correctly, if slavery really did not pan out in Kansas, if no new provocation for either section arose, if proslavery men could take yes for an answer, then they could have the sectional comity of the 1840s back again. It worked once before. Henry Clay got the northern votes he needed for the Missouri Compromise in part from enslaved Illinois.

If only the men of 1854 lived in the same world as the men of 1820. The world had changed. Railroads realigned Northwestern commerce toward Chicago and away from New Orleans. Texas, then Mexico and Wilmot, CalhounNashville, the Fugitive Slave Act, the secession conspiracy, the Georgia Platform, fugitive slave rescues, and all the rest shined a spotlight on slavery. Neither section consented to playing by the old rules.  Old times would not come again.

The Democrats held the majority in both chambers of Congress in 1854. The fact that a majority of the House voted to bury Kansas-Nebraska speaks volumes. Douglas’ own party would not unite behind him. Instead the Democracy split at least three ways. Some Democrats, more than Douglas or anybody else supporting the bill counted on, increasingly disliked slavery and especially loathed its expansion.  Still others, in the South, supported Kansas-Nebraska for the Missouri Compromise repeal but fiercely loathed popular sovereignty. If the people could decide, they could after all decide against slavery. Douglas himself said so often. The Northwestern Democrats who did accept Kansas-Nebraska often loved popular sovereignty but loathed the Missouri Compromise repeal.  Thus even the coalition in support of the bill split diametrically: the repeal that made the bill so appealing to Southern men made it a bitter pill to swallow for Northern men who supported it on grounds that Southern men could barely tolerate.

Those divisions existed already, but Kansas-Nebraska threw them in sharp relief. Whatever hopes Douglas and other Democrats had for revitalizing their party came up hard against deep divisions that their strategy could only deepen further. Stephen Douglas might passionately believe in popular sovereignty and not mind slavery either way, but he may have been the only man in the party who did.

Competing Cultures and Competing Futures

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Sam Houston (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) and John Bell (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9) had their say. So did Stephen Douglas (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) and Salmon P. Chase (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10). The Senate voted in the early morning of Saturday, March 4, after listening to Douglas’ final five and a half hour speech. Houston and Bell joined Chase, Seward, Sumner, and a divided North against a virtually unified South that carried the bill 37-14. I’ve touched on why the bill evoked such passions before, but it warrants a bit more unpacking.

In a functioning political system, people divide themselves and vote based on different value structures and priorities. Over time these tend to cohere into ideologies. To some degree certain values entail, or at least combine naturally with, other values. Others do not naturally match, but as one grows accustomed to sharing a side the combination appears more natural through habit. As social animals, we must accept that this will happen. The longer differences endure and the more hard-fought they become, the stronger partisan identity becomes.

Americans had lived together in a nation half free and half slave for decades. Even back in the colonial era, the colonies that practiced slavery on a larger scale developed differently from those which did not. The line dividing them came largely as a result of historical accidents. Englishmen who came to the Chesapeake more often arrived with dreams of getting rich quick and sailing for home than did Englishmen who settled New England. The latter wanted to go away from England and stay away from England so they could achieve a high degree of religious freedom for their religions and hitherto undreamed degrees of religious persecution for everyone else. Those generalizations don’t tell us everything, but they did impact the development of the colonies and up into the revolutionary era, the colonies remained substantially separated from one another so cultural cross-pollination took place on only a limited scale. Most had stronger ties with the mother country than with other parts of British North America.

New England, as every American child learns in history class, did not have great land suited to intensive cultivation. Nor did its climate suite the big cash crops of the colonial era, most famously tobacco. The geography and climate dictated smaller-scale farming for subsistence. While the Puritans would not have minded striking it rich in the slightest, they came over to found communities of like-minded men and women. To some degree, that naturally inclined them to form towns with fields around. It would be hard to police the religious conformity of a widely scattered populace, after all.

Down South, something very different went on. While they did have towns, from Jamestown onward, early Virginia in particular suffered from every man thinking himself a natural lord and none a natural subordinate. They had better land and better climate for cash crops, but ran short of people on the ground willing to work it for them. Even the most motivated single person or small family can only work so much farmland before hitting the limits of their energy and ability. They had all this land and not enough people. To solve the problem, they imported their fellow English subjects as indentured servants. While economic bad times ruled back in England, plenty signed on. When the economy turned around, indentures sounded like a terrible idea and fewer people took the bait. Into the gap, the Chesapeake brought stolen Africans.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

One could call the rest history and stop there, but it went deeper than that. In New England, decisions often happened at the town meeting. Most everyone of the right religion and sex had a vote and thus the community decided, invested in that decision, and saw it enacted. A natural idea of themselves as a body politic, a commonwealth or res publica (from which we get republic) developed. This did not happen to the same degree down on the Chesapeake tidewater. There, town did not run into town, but rather plantation into plantation. Virginians even called their towns “plantations”.

A plantation did amount to a small community when it got big enough, but a decidedly private one. The planter owned the land and if you lived there, you worked for him. Maybe you rented some of his land to work. Maybe you lived adjacent on a much smaller plot and relied on the local planter to help you market your crop, with an eye towards maybe marrying one of his daughters and moving up in the world. If the roads washed out in a storm or a bridge needed repair, getting it fixed often meant not petitioning the distant government but rather going to the local government equivalent: the planter. Convince him that the problem needed fixing and he would open up his deep pockets and make it so.

That colonial pattern did not hold in all places or at all times, and certainly did not spread unmodified into the west, but it laid down deep cultural roots that successive waves of white Americans carried with them when they moved west. On that, both sections agreed. If one did not like one’s situation back east, one should save up, most west, and set up a farm. They differed on whether that meant moving west to become, or become a client of, a local planter or if it meant setting out to become the first members of something like a new town meeting, but in either case one went west for one’s future. After all, the land back east already had white owners. It also had the kind of social stratification which, in theory, the west would not have as nobody had lived there long enough to entrench their wealth and privilege.

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

Why not go west? A white, male nineteenth century American could have a big house, or just a prosperous farm in his future. There he would have no master save himself and make his own fate. Even if he did not strike it big, he could still strike it better than he could in the east where the old American dream became less attainable by the year.

The sections agreed on going west, but not on what west to go to. Would it be a private west of plantations and planters, with life centered around big houses and their social and economic clients or would it be a west of little commonwealths centered on towns? The nation settled things in 1820 by splitting the west in two, but Texasthe Mexican War, David Wilmot, California, and Stephen Douglas reopened the issue. By 1854 the sections had contended for their share of the American west for six years. It highlighted their differences and animated white America’s passions far more than it had in the past. Each section had the American Way. Why couldn’t the other section see that and adopt it? Or accept its equal share of the American future? Why couldn’t the other section play by the agreed upon rules?

The sections had very different views of America which probably no one could reconcile. The only solution that lasted any length of time required not speaking of those differences. By the middle 1850s, nobody could stay silent any longer. How did one make peace between the Atchisons, Calhouns, Chases, and Sewards of the nation? They wanted opposite things. Someone had to win and someone had to lose.

Houston’s Dissent, Part Six

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Previous Parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

I ended yesterday with Sam Houston asking what calamity befell that justified abandoning a solemn constitutional pact between the sections, the Missouri Compromise, and opening the Great Plains to slavery. No such need had existed in far more dangerous times for the Union, all of four years prior. In that case, no prior settlement explicitly covered slavery in the Mexican Cession.

Houston would probably have joined Douglas in condemning free soil men like David Wilmot for getting in the way of extending the Missouri Compromise line to the Pacific. Douglas repeated that charge to defend himself on Kansas-Nebraska. The argument over whether or not the free soilers opened Pandora’s box in the late 1840s could go around in circles forever. Many, though not all, of them opposed the Mexican War on the grounds that taking land from Mexico inherently reopened the issue, so they could point their fingers right back at the pro-war and proslavery contingent.

One could make a case either way.  Southern politicians, with rare exceptions like Thomas Hart Benton, had their fingers fairly glued to antislavery politics. The abolitionists provoked. They agitated. To satisfy Southern honor, they must manfully resist. They acted, they offended, and the South could not help but respond. The more moderate, and secure in their seats, might pretend to be above it all and point their fingers both ways. Houston would have none of that and set his sights on overthrowing that comfortable Southern orthodoxy:

at one time it was apprehended that the class of politicians in our country, denominated as Abolitionists, would attempt to agitate, and, if possible, to procure a repeal of the fugitive slave law. That was threatened in the newspapers. The New York Tribune, among others, denounced that law, and proclaimed to the world that it would wage unceasing war upon it until its repeal was accomplished. But, sir, that discordant note had died away before this Congress had assembled. The requiem of Abolition seemed to have been sung. If there were ultras in the South, their dissatisfaction were silenced; they had acquiesced in this great healing measure; and the wounds which had afflicted the body-politic were cicatrized and well. I rejoiced in it; every patriot in the land rejoiced in it.

I had to look it up: citatrized means healed by scarring.

Houston would hear no abolitionist blaming this time. No David Wilmot came forward to provoke confrontation. They could not pin this one on Salmon P. Chase, who wrote only to oppose a measure already before the Congress. This matter did not involve Southern pride, for Houston if not for others. It did not touch on the prickly honor of slaveholders. It did not come out of genuine ambiguities or changed circumstance. The offensive came from from the South. In Kansas-Nebraska, Southern radicals had a purely gratuitous, invented crisis. He would not stand for it:

if it were opposing the whole world, with the convictions of my mind and heart, I would oppose to the last by all means of rational resistance the repeal of the Missouri compromise, because I deem it essential to the preservation of this Union, and to the very existence of the South. It has heretofore operated as a wall of fire to us. it is a guarantee for our institutions. Repeal it, and there will be no line of demarkation. Repeal it, and you are putting the knife to the throat of the South, and it will be drawn. No event o the future is more visible to my perception that that, if the Missouri compromise is repealed, at some future day the South will be overwhelmed.

Douglas Defends Himself, Part Two

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas rose on January 30, 1854 to defend himself against the accusations Salmon P. Chase made in the Appeal of the Independent Democrats (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6). In that defense, he insisted that Chase had the whole history of the slavery problem wrong, and used his native Illinois (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, and addendum) as the case study to prove it. Contrary to Chase’s claims, Illinois practiced slavery. Then, later, Illinois chose on its own to abolish the institution. The Northwest Ordinance did not stop them from having a try at slavery and did not force them to give it up. Illinois did both itself. Popular sovereignty, the Little Giant’s favorite solution to the slavery question, did its work even if it had not yet gained that name. Douglas went on to tell the Senate that much the same story played out in Indiana and even, on a much smaller scale, in Ohio. It went on after to play out again in Wisconsin, Iowa, and Minnesota.

He had a point. The Old Northwest did flirt with slavery. Its southern fringe had a largely southern population that brought their slavery-oriented culture with them in the first wave of settlement. But Douglas offered more to those outraged by his repeal of the Missouri Compromise. They could do more than hope for the best from local, democratic governments. The decision on slavery, he always said, came down to a question of climate and geography. White men could not work in the tropics, but black men could. Thus while the South needed slavery and could count it a positive good, the North did not and could dispense with it. Politicians did not really make the decision, but rather ratified the clear verdict of nature. So Douglas did not really propose to enslave Kansas, Nebraska, or any other territory. It just happened, like the weather. The fact that the vote came rather close and both sides hotly contested the issue at the time, despite the alleged clear verdict of nature, Douglas simply ignored.

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

It all just happened unless, of course, Abolitionists got in the way and tried to force things. Maybe in the stormy years around 1850, Congress imposed antislavery in the Oregon territory bill. But Congress had left Oregon without government for years. One grew up anyway and prohibited slavery on its own before Congress got involved. Much the same happened in California:

How was it in regard to California? Every one of these abolition confederates who have thus arraigned me and the Committee on Territories before the country, who have misrepresented our position, and misquoted the law and the fact, predicted that unless Congress interpose by law, and prohibited slavery in California, it would inevitably become a slave-holding state. Congress did not interfere; Congress did not prohibit slavery. There was no enactment upon the subject; but the people formed a State constitution, and then prohibited slavery.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

See, Abolitionists? You don’t need a legal ban on slavery, imposed from Washington, to keep it out.  When you predicted that Congressional silence would enslave Utah and New Mexico, we stayed silent and made it an experiment. They remained free. Both territories did pass slave codes later in the decade, but Douglas couldn’t know that in 1854. This all amounts to no more than a bunch of folderol.

Like Chase, Douglas took some liberties here. Mexican law had made the Mexican Cession free soil. One can plausibly argue, and David Wilmot did, that the law stood unless Congress overruled it. That law, and the uncertainty of slavery in the west, helped keep it away in ways that an explicit repeal of an earlier ban would not. The Lower South furthermore had plenty of wide open space to expand still in Texas and Arkansas. Missouri, however, had Kansas just over the border from its most enslaved region. Chase’s fear of an enslaved Great Plains looks much more reasonable in light of that.

The Appeal’s History Lesson, Part Six

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon Chase pointed his finger at Stephen Douglas, the villain who would profane the statute books with his dastardly repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Stephen Douglas pointed his finger at Salmon Chase and his fellow antislavery men for the same reason. Neither had all the facts on his side. Both, as people do, selected those facts which helped their argument and ignored or found reasons to excuse those that harmed it. Both men argued that a national policy on slavery existed, if with a few bumps and detours, from the earliest days of the Republic. Chase imagined a policy that limited slavery with an eye to its eventual end. Douglas imagined one where impersonal, natural lines of climate and geography made the decisions about slavery and then local governments recognized them.

But the Appeal of the Independent Democrats did not limit itself to questions of remote history. Chase took aim at Douglas’ preferred evasion:

It is said that the Territory of Nebraska sustains the same relations to slavery as did the territory acquired from Mexico prior to 1850, and that the pro-slavery clauses of the bill are necessary to carry into effect the compromises of that year.

No assertion can be more groundless.

Three acquisitions of territory have been made by treaty. The first was from France. Out of this territory have been created the three slave States of Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri, and the single free State of Iowa. The controversy which arose in relation to the then unorganized portion of this territory was closed in 1820 by the Missouri act, containing the slavery prohibition, as has already been stated. This controversy related only to the territory acquired from France. The act by which it was terminated was confined, by its own express terms, to the same territory, and had no relation to any other.

For Florida, the nation chose slavery. For the Mexican Cession:

The controversy which arose from this acquisition is fresh in the remembrance of the American people. Out of it sprung the acts of Congress, commonly known as the compromise measures of 1850, by one of which California was admitted as a free state; while two others, organizing the Territories of new Mexico and Utah, exposed all the residue of the recently acquired territory to the invasion of slavery.

These acts were never supposed to abrogate or touch the existing exclusion of slavery from what is now called Nebraska. Thea applied to the territory acquired from Mexico, and to that only. They were intended as a settlement of the controversy growing out of that acquisition, and of that controversy only. They must stand or fall on their own merits.

I probably sound too influenced by the last man I read here, but Chase has a point. Even if later on people came to see the Missouri Compromise as part of an unwritten constitution, the law only said what it said. As I’ve read the back and forth between the Appeal and Douglas’ rebuttal, both understandings strike me as at least reasonable. Certainly the nation never explicitly adopted a single policy on slavery. It chose complete exclusion in the Northwest Ordinance, but then territorial partition in the Missouri Compromise. It chose free expansion in the Southwest Ordinance, in Florida, and the Mississippi territory. One could call those decisions popular sovereignty. For California, which chose freedom, one could say the same. For Utah and New Mexico, the nation chose no policy at all.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

One can generalize any number of policies from the record, each with strong points for and against it. Chase and Douglas agreed on probably the hardest point to sustain: that a national policy existed at all.

Chase went on to point out that David Rice Atchison himself understood all of that and accepted the permanence of the Missouri Compromise just last March, quoting him directly:

It is evident that the Missouri compromise cannot be repealed. So far as that question is concerned, we might as well agree to the admission of this Territory now as next year, or five, or ten years hence.

Why would Atchison say such a thing, if he thought that he and his fellow senators repealed the Missouri Compromise three years before? Furthermore, Chase produced sections of the compromise acts that preserved the Missouri Compromise explicitly. He even dug up a section written by James Mason, Mr. Fugitive Slave Act, in the New Mexico territory act, repeating the extension of the compromise line across Texas, should Congress carve future states from it.

It is solemnly declared, in the very compromise acts, “that nothing herein contained shall be construed to impair or qualify” that prohibition of slavery north of 36°30′; and yet, in the face of this declaration, that sacred prohibition is said to be overthrown. Can presumption further go?

At least on the point that Congress repealed the Missouri Compromise in 1850, Douglas clearly and consciously lied.

The Appeal’s History Lesson, Part Five

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Salmon P. Chase, free soil senator from Ohio, charged Stephen Douglas with breaking a sacred, if unwritten, constitutional pact with his Kansas-Nebraska act. His arraignment, the Appeal of the Independent Democrats, traced a sometimes questionable, sometimes outright false history of slavery and the law in the early Republic. But even had Chase gotten everything right and exaggerated none of it, he only established policy up to 1820. There he found his real subject in the Missouri Compromise’s slavery ban. He argued, quite reasonably, that both sections treated that compromise as a final, perpetual settlement in principle of the slavery issue. Stephen Douglas agreed. Radicals like David Rice Atchison concurred. In defending himself, Douglas put up his own Missouri Compromise bona fides. No one ever dreamed of repealing the Missouri Compromise…until someone did. What dastardly villain did that dirty deed? Not Stephen Douglas:

Then, sir, in 1848 we acquired from Mexico the country between the Rio Del Norte and the Pacific ocean. Immediately after that acquisition, the Senate, on my own motion, voted into a bill a provision to extend the Missouri compromise indefinitely westward to the Pacific ocean, in the same sense, and with the same understanding with which it was originally adopted. That provision passed this body by a decided majority-I think by ten at least-and went to the House of Representatives, and was defeated there by northern votes.

Now, sir, let us pause and consider for a moment. The first time that the principles of the Missouri compromise were ever abandoned, the first time they were ever rejected by Congress, was by the defeat of that provision in the House of Representatives in 1848. By whom was that defeat effected? By northern votes, with Free Soil proclivities. It was the defeat of that Missouri compromise that reopened the slavery agitation with all its fury. It was the defeat of that Missouri compromise that created the tremendous struggle of 1850. It was the defeat of that Missouri compromise that created the necessity for making a new compromise in 1850. Had we been faithful to the principles of the Missouri compromise in 1848, this question would not have arisen. Who was it that was faithless? I undertake to say it was the very men who now insist that the Missouri compromise was a solemn compact, and should never be violated or departed from. Every man who is now assailing the principle of the bill under consideration, so far as I am advised, was opposed to the Missouri compromise in 1848. The very men who now arraign me for a departure from the Missouri compromise, are the men who successfully violated it, repudiated it, and caused it to be superseded by the compromise measures of 1850. Sir, it is with rather bad grace that the men who proved false themselves, should charge upon me and others, who were ever faithful, the responsibilities and consequences of their own treachery.

David Wilmot, author of the insult to the South

David Wilmot

The hateful sinners against the constitutional faith of their fathers? Northern antislavery men who rallied to the despicable banner of diabolical David Wilmot.

Douglas told the truth, mostly. Free Soil men did reject the Missouri Compromise in 1850. But they rejected it for the Mexican Cession, not for the Louisiana Purchase. Douglas omitted also that Mexican law forbade slavery in that land, so Wilmot could plausibly argue that he simply wanted to keep existing law in place there. Likewise, California asked for admission to the Union as a free state. Would Douglas, Mr. Popular Sovereignty, have imposed slavery upon it? And despite his protests to the contrary few, if any, men who voted for the compromise measures in 1850 understood their votes as throwing away the Missouri Compromise. They made a new settlement for the Southwest, but not a new national order.

Furthermore, Texas annexation and the Mexican War had drawn opposition, if not quite so much as later measures did, from Free Soil quarters on the grounds that by adding territory to the nation they reopened the slavery question that the Missouri Compromise had closed. Douglas, a proud expansionist, would never say as much but the fact remains that adding territory with an uncertain future to the United States inherently raised the question of whether it would have slavery. Douglas and his fellow manifest destiny true believers, even before 1850 and Kansas-Nebraska, at least deserve a generous portion of the blame he tried to pin entirely to Chase, Wilmot, and the rest of the Free Soil contingent.

Nebraska Deadlock


Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

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

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

David Wilmot, author of the insult to the South

David Wilmot

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

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

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


The Little Giant’s Railroad

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Asa Whitney’s dreams of conquering the world with the commerce that flowed down the railroad he would build, with generous land grants, from Milwaukee to the Columbia river did not come to pass. Americans could not agree to a state-run railroad, even if they had long survived a state-run postal service that served many of the same goals of the transcontinental railroad by securing communications and providing ample opportunity for patronage.

The United States rarely suffered corporations in those days, distrusting their ability to concentrate wealth and limit risk. But the republic did endure joint stock companies to create and operate local infrastructure, often for a term of years. When those years ran out, the legislature that granted the charter would review it and if satisfied or adequately compensated vote to continue the contract. So it made good sense to nineteenth century Americans that the nation would hire out the work to private business, if not to Whitney’s sole proprietorship.

Young Stephen Douglas certainly thought so. All of thirty-two and serving his first term in the House, as the first representative of Illinois’ new 5th district, he advocated for a railroad like Whitney’s not a year after the New Yorker’s original 1844 proposal. The Little Giant, sixteen years Whitney’s junior, had no patience for such geriatric limping along as Whitney’s plan to build the railroad out of revenue from land sales along its route. Douglas would build the road first and build it fast, drawing settlement along instead of having it drawn along by settlement.

Whitney’s route would not suffice either. The transcontinental railroad should begin at Chicago, just coincidentally Douglas’ constituency, and proceed west. Instead of reaching the Columbia, Douglas would end his railroad in San Francisco. The City by the Bay presented the small impediment of a location hundreds upon hundreds of miles into Mexico, but Douglas allowed with a knowing wink that in time the United States might annex the necessary land. This Douglas wrote on October 15, 1845, before Texas’ annexation and more than six months before the outbreak of war, but just as Zachary Taylor marched his men into the disputed territory on Texas’ border.

Proceeding west from Chicago or Milwaukee alike involved surmounting another obstacle. The Nonintercourse Act of 1834 declared:

That all that part of the United States west of the Mississippi, and not within the states of Missouri and Louisiana, or the territory of Arkansas, and, also, that part of the United States east of the Mississippi river, and not within any state to which the Indian title has not been extinguished, for purposes of this act, be taken and deemed to be the Indian country.

Within Indian country, no one but Indians and authorized agents of the US government could go. You could not trade there without a special license. You could not buy from or sell to the Indians without that license. You could not hunt there or trap there. You could not use the land to graze your livestock. Violating any of the manifold provisions on non-Indian activity in Indian country meant at least a fine, often forfeiture of assets involved in the violation, and could result in your eviction by force. You could not buy land from the Indians in Indian country. You couldn’t even survey it.

Indian country ran right through the middle of both Douglas’ and Whitney’s planned routes to the Pacific. No railroad company could buy that land, survey it, develop it, or settle it. But the nineteenth century had a perfectly legal solution to that problem, used many times in the past: Congress could simply organize a new territory, specify its borders, and remove it from Indian country. Young Douglass proposed just that, drawing up a bill to organize the territory west of Iowa, itself previously separated from Indian country, and organize the new territory under the Indian name Nebraska.

Not yet even a Senator, let alone the floor manager of the Armistice or chair of the Committee on Territories, the Little Giant did not see his bill make it to the floor of the House.

Update: A previous version of this post mistakenly said Douglas’s bill made it to the floor of the House. It did not.

Laying Rail for World Domination

Asa Whitney, railroad promoter

Asa Whitney, railroad promoter

Asa Whitney, a New York merchant, saw the potential rewards of a transcontinental railroad early on and described them in an 1848 memorial to Congress:

our continent is placed in the centre of the world; Europe, with 250 millions of population, on one side, and all Asia on the other side of us, with 700 millions of souls. […] this proposed road will change the present route for all the vast commerce of all Europe with Asia, bring it across our continent, make it the world tributary to us, and, at the lowest tolls, give us 25 millions of dollars per annum for transit alone. It would bind Oregon and the Pacific coast to us, and forever prevent the otherwise inevitable catastrophe of a separate nation growing up west, to rise at our decline, and control us and the world. It would open the vast markets of Japan, China, Polynesia, and all Asia to our agricultural, manufacturing, and all other products. It would open the wilderness to the husbandman, and take the products of the soil to all the markets of the world. It would make available and bring into market lands now too remote from civilization, and all millions of wealth to the nation. The labor of the now destitute emigrant would grade the road, and purchase him a home, where comfort and plenty would surround all. Man’s labor would receive its proper reward, and elevate him from inducement to vice and crime. It would unite and bind us together as one family, and the whole world as one nation, giving us the control over all and making all tributary to us.

Whitney certainly got a bit carried away there, but the commercial and political benefits made sense to all sections even if they did not result in global domination. The new American West, the fruit of the South’s campaign against Mexico and gateway to hoped-for future expansions, required consolidation. California might have slipped into the Union free and undivided, curse it, but slavery could still have a future in the New Mexico and Utah territories and, with some luck, Baja California, Sonora, or other points south of the Rio Grande. For the North, the usual constellation of farming and industrial interests wanted the railroad to open the frontiers to further, speedier settlement. Both sections, naturally, teemed with people who wanted to ride the railroad to riches.

But how could a project of that magnitude, civil engineering on a scale unheard of in the mid-nineteenth century, come to pass? The cost of the railroad and the land it would run on, dwarfed all the previous canals and rails stretched across the nation. While railroads, canals, and riverboats added up to a kind of big business in the early 1800s, to span the continent would demand a bigger business than any before. Whitney had a plan for that too.

From Lake Michigan to the Columbia River, or to Puget Sound, Whitney would build the railroad with his own two hands. A classic self-starting free enterprise entrepreneur of the nineteenth century, Whitney would work these wonders with nothing but a massive government handout: A strip of land sixty miles wide from the Wisconsin shore of Lake Michigan to the Pacific. No need to survey; Whitney would do it himself. No need to sell the land to Whitney at the normal price either, since much of it had little real value and his personal project would double as a tremendous national asset. Sixteen cents an acre would do nicely, thank you. Whitney would resell the land he didn’t need for the railroad itself to fund its construction, moving forward as the money came in. The High Plains and Rocky Mountains, Whitney suspected, would not bring in great piles of money. But Whitney assured Congress that he could build the whole railroad on the profits from selling the eight hundred miles of good land out to the Missouri River.

At the end, fifteen or twenty-five years down the line, he would hand over to the United States a railroad all its own, run by the government at great profit without the nation having to spend a dime to build it. Whitney made a fortune, the nation got a railroad, and everybody went home happy. Congress needed only act swiftly, before the speculators snapped up all the good land on the route’s eastern end.