The Northwest Ordinance: The Nation’s First Antislavery Law?

Dred Scott (Wikimedia Commons)

Dred Scott (Wikimedia Commons)

If you remember and/or have flashbacks to high school history, you may remember the Northwest Ordinance. My own rusty recollection tells me that I learned the Ordinance established the system of land survey and the framework for territorial organization that would see use for the remainder of the march of white Americans across a continent and all the people who already lived there. If you live in a part of the country governed by it or its many descendants, you can probably drive out of town and navigate by a fairly regular grid of roads that owe much to the law. But mainly, the Northwest Ordinance banned slavery everywhere it reached. Thus it established a precedent for future bans on slavery in the Louisiana Purchase and Pacific Northwest. When Dred Scott sued for his freedom, he did it based on his lengthy residence in two jurisdictions where that slavery ban operated: Illinois and Minnesota. A large part of Minnesota did not originally fall in the Northwest Territory, nor even the United States at the time of passage, but legally Minnesota Territory originates in Wisconsin Territory. Wisconsin sits entirely within the Old Northwest and inherited its slavery ban through a few previous territorial enactments that go back to the Ordinance.

Thus we learn in school that the Founders, those great and good men, set slavery on a path to ultimate extinction. Antislavery Americans believed the same thing, from less ideological politicians like Abraham Lincoln to leading ideologists like Salmon P. Chase. An entire tradition of antislavery constitutionalism flows from the words

There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the party shall have been duly convicted

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Restrictions on slavery’s expansion, all the way up to the Wilmot Proviso, use that language. It meant a great deal to people in the nineteenth century and as we, at least officially, declare our sympathy with those same people we carry on their position. It becomes for us, just as it did for them, a usable past. We can rest assured that our nation really did have its conception in liberty and something simply went awry sometime between 1787 and 1860.

Seeking comfort in history may make us human, but doesn’t necessarily make us good historians. What if we have it wrong? Antislavery Americans took the Northwest Ordinance as a precedent and it absolutely functioned as one down the road, but what did it look like in the 1780s? What might its slavery ban have meant to the men who voted for it? And how well did it function? Looking at these questions makes for a far more complicated picture.

We must begin with the ignoble birth of the slavery article. It came into the bill as an afterthought, at the last moment, and passed without debate. If you read the full law, you will find it replete with references to free inhabitants. For that distinction to have meaning, it must mean that the law contemplates the presence of unfree inhabitants: slaves. The law’s authors didn’t see fit to revise it to remove them, but rather voted the slavery ban through without debate that might have shed some light on their understanding of the issue. Thanks, guys.

We can say that the Northwest Ordinance protects the property and inheritance laws of the French inhabitants of the region. They owned slaves and would pass them on by inheritance. Does the property rights provision or the antislavery provision take precedence? The Confederation Congress may not have known that these people had slaves at the time, but when they and eventually the federal government confronted that issue the slavery ban collapsed into a weak ban on importing new slaves to the territory. It freed no one, but rather as a practical matter protected slavery to the degree it already existed in the territory. Nor, perhaps, should we expect otherwise of a law that could win the united votes of the southern states.

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

The point of precedent still matters, but already we have a very qualified precedent that exists more retrospectively and in form than function. We must indict the Northwest Ordinance further, also on the grounds of precedent. These words immediately follow the slavery ban:

Provided, always, That any person escaping into the same, from whom labor or service is lawfully claimed in any one of the original States, such fugitive may be lawfully reclaimed and conveyed to the person claiming his or her labor or service as aforesaid.

The Northwest Ordinance predates the Constitution. Thus here, for the very first time, we have a fugitive slave clause. This grants to the slave states a power they had previously lacked. Until the ratification of the Constitution, a slave who dared steal his or her body and made it across a state line might have just won permanent freedom. No provision existed under the Articles of Confederation for the recovery of fugitive slaves. When the Constitution introduced that power, it became a sticking point for anti-federalists in Massachusetts. If we grant at the Ordinance set an antislavery precedent in principle, we must also grant that it set a proslavery one in practice. Here, for the first time, slavery attains the kind of extra-territorial status which it will have down through the antebellum.

That may well have sweetened the pot enough to keep the South on board with the Ordinance, but the antislavery features of the law found frustration in another way still. The Ordinance did not grant any clear authority to any body to enforce its antislavery ban. You could sue in the courts, petition the government, or act through the legislature to protect property, but only the extremely dubious and generally inaccessible courts remained open for a person enslaved in defiance of the law. I don’t know that any enslaved person tried them when it mattered, but their prospects with a jury or courts established by a constituency that kept asking Congress to repeal the limited exclusion of slavery that did function in the territory can’t have looked good. The Indians had more avenues to defend their rights.

We must also look at what the Ordinance did not do. It did not cover the whole of the west, as a previously proposed version had. By excluding slavery from a marginal region, the South could have understood the ban as cutting off competition for slaves and in tobacco and hemp. No such ban existed in the Southwest Territory, which soon became Tennessee. Nor would any come in the lands to the south of it. Partitioning the west and surrendering the least appealing part of it might well have looked like a bargain to ensure slavery elsewhere, particularly as southerners proved more energetic in westward expansion during the very early republic. Kentucky and Tennessee both gain statehood in the eighteenth century, a distinction shared in the North only by Vermont.

This leaves us with a Northwest Ordinance that served as an important legal and rhetorical touchstone for the antislavery movement, fair enough. But the facts on the ground on either side of the Ohio or the Appalachians don’t really support an unqualified assertion that it set the nation on a path toward abolition. Rather, looked at in detail and in context, the Northwest Ordinance appears more like the other kind of precedent: an ambiguous law that does little to restrict slavery in practice while trying harder to reinforce and defend it. We might call it the first proslavery-tilting antebellum compromise as easily as the first antislavery law.

Dark Days for the Democracy

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

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

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

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

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

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

John Hale

John Hale

 

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

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

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

Parties Divided and Uniting

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas misjudged the North. Any hope he had that finishing forever debate over slavery and its future, as well as opening the floodgates for white settlement in the plains, would win the white North back for the Democracy and meet the challenge of antislavery Whiggery by removing its signature issue died hard over 1854.

Antislavery politics had spawned the tiny Liberty Party in the Burned-Over District of New York back in the early 1840s. They split off from more radical abolitionists like Garrison in reading the Constitution as an anti-slavery document. That core of a few thousand supporters went into the Free Soil party in 1848, briefly turning into a major movement. But the free soil movement largely subsided, at least on the presidential stage, after the Compromise of 1850. Antislavery found a more congenial home among the northern Whigs. William Seward’s wing of the party happily welcomed them. The party’s ailing southern wing did not, but the Democracy’s successes in the South helped limit their ability to reign in Whiggish moves against slavery. This in turn set up a vicious cycle where the party’s northern wing felt less beholden to its southern compatriots and thus could adopt policies increasingly hostile to those same men and their prospects of election in the South.

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward in 1851

Despite successes, the northern Whigs had their own problems. Without a functioning Southern wing, they had little hope of gaining the White House again. Their past success there, however fleeting, had also brought about results from Texas annexation to the Fugitive Slave Act that many of the same northern Whigs found obnoxious. Furthermore, the Democrats who might switch over had seen the Whigs and Whiggery as the enemy for decades. They may agree on slavery, but not necessarily the rest of the Whig program that would come with joining in. Chase appealed to the Independent Democrats, not the Whigs-in-waiting. To top it all off, Whiggery had both lost its southern wing and now faced a potent challenge from tides of immigrant voters. In the four years before 1852, more immigrants had flooded into the country than Winfield Scott’s entire popular vote. Those immigrants, the Irish prominent among them, tended Catholic and Democratic.

We can easily forget that trend, but in other circumstances it might have saved the Democracy in the North. To the extent most immigrants, especially the Irish, cared about slavery they saw it through the lens of free blacks competing with them for jobs. Slavery might protect them from such competition. While the Whigs made token efforts to sweep up the Irish vote but more often treated them as a band of drunken undesirables better kept from voting to begin with. They would just go vote democrat anyway. The Irish could very well see all of that. They could also see the Puritans, Scots, Welsh, and Ulster surnames, faces, and attitudes and know where they ought to go instead.

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Thus alienated antislavery Democrats and antislavery Whigs both had problems in their parent parties. The Democrats had a party establishment dominated by proslavery men and their lackeys, bent on striking against the vital interests of the free, white North. They could, if they could overcome their other differences, go Whig. That might very well have worked out, as increasingly slavery trumped all other issues. More and more of the white North would compromise or take a loss on some other front in order to contain slavery. But the Whigs they could have joined also saw their own ship sinking. If they could not get what they wanted inside Whiggery, why not do it outside? That would at once free them from the encumbrance of party members opposed to their interests and duck what might prove a very difficult fight between antislavery and anti-immigrant Whigs for the party’s future.

The Free Soil party gave a partial blueprint for them. Though it never elected a president, it set a precedent for antislavery Whigs and Democrats to coalition. Furthermore, it still had senators that it elected in coalition with one party or the other as state politics dictated. If a new anti-Nebraska, antislavery party could not take over a state or two on its own then the Free Soil party’s route remained open to it.

The States Speak

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase (FS-OH)

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

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

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas (D-IL)

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

Lewis Cass

Lewis Cass (D-MI)

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

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

The Antislavery Mass Movement

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

While the Democracy split in three parts when the Kansas-Nebraska Act, with its repeal of the Missouri Compromise, came up for a vote, two of those three parts voted for the bill in the end. We should not discount the difference between Northwestern democrats who voted for the bill in the name of popular sovereignty even if they hated the repeal and those Southern democrats who voted for the opposite reasons. That said, the third part of the Democracy deserves some attention too.

As one would imagine, antislavery men lined up to denounce Kansas-Nebraska. The usual suspects from 1850 could do no less. However much we might admire them for their consistent antislavery politics, no one expected Salmon Chase or Charles Sumner to change their minds and vote for the bill. But in the North, Kansas-Nebraska changed the minds of conservative businessmen who had always before deplored antislavery agitation. Horace Greeley reported that in New York, the businessmen rose against the bill, then the tradesmen, and they drew the clergy along.

Many of these anti-Nebraska men had stood for compromise and Union in 1850. They voted for Franklin Pierce and his finality platform. They, with their commercial ties to the South, had before found ample cause to give the section concession after concession. Their banks held Southern mortgages. They accepted slaves as collateral for Southern loans. They built and owned the ships that carried Southern cotton to Europe and returned full of European luxuries. They damned abolitionists as fanatical troublemakers. But they did not vote for this. They voted for the status quo that the Democracy promised. It suited them commercially, personally, and probably in large part ideologically.  If the Democracy of 1854 proposed to undo the good work of the Democracy of 1850, they would not stand idly by.

Allen Nevins gives pages of examples, beginning on page 125 of volume two of Ordeal of the Union:

  • In Boston, Faneuil Hall held three thousand solid Compromise of 1850 Democrats, convened to denounce and oppose the bill.
  • In New York, the head of the Mechanics’ Bank and a collection of respectable, conservative Democrats rallied against Kansas-Nebraska. So did a young Samuel J. Tilden, sacrificing many friendships in the party to do so.
  • Cleveland’s citizens resolved that the Nebraska bill horrified all Ohio and wrote to the Greeley’s paper that any Congressman who cared vote for Douglas’ bill would be run out of the state. In Cincinnati, on the other end of the state and within sight of the South, a thousand “unquestioned and adamantine” Democrats agreed.
  • Four hundred Chicagoans, led by a former mayor who led rallies for Douglas in 1850 denounced the bill. One of Douglas’ friends addressed their meeting, calling himself an Old Hunker Democrat as he did. When loyal Douglas men tried to organize a counter meeting, the drew a crowd that declared their support for the Little Giant in all things but Nebraska. In Quincy, foes of the bill took over a pro-Douglas meeting and passed resolutions damning him.

These men once fell over themselves to declare how much they hated abolitionists and supported the rights of the South. But the South had its rights and now demanded more, at the expense of the North’s rights. The partition of the West back in 1820 saved the Union and promised both sections a future beyond the Mississippi. This could not stand and they resolved to fight and went beyond public meetings and resolutions to do it. From late January of 1854, these men assembled fundraising apparatuses, circulated petitions, and reached out to other groups of like mind in different places.  This went beyond protest; they consciously constructed a political movement and self-consciously cast themselves as latter-day committees of correspondence. They would rouse the North against Stephen Douglas and his monstrous bill literally selling their future and their rights as white men to slavery. The future of their Republic hung in the balance.

For maybe the first time, a large portion of the white North agreed with free soilers and abolitionists that the slave power, working behind closed doors, schemed nefariously to subvert the nation. The Accomplished Architect, it appeared, had devised his own ruin.

Burying the Bill

A contemporary map of the territories. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

A contemporary map of the territories. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

Whatever Sam Houston (123456), John Bell (123456789), Salmon P. Chase (1,2345678910), Charles Sumner, or William Seward said against it, the KansasNebraska bill passed the Senate. Usually when slavery stepped into the limelight, getting bills through the Senate took more doing so one might think that Stephen Douglas had smooth sailing from the vote on the morning of March 4 over to Franklin Pierce’s desk. But the repeal of the Missouri Compromise turned the law from one that first proposed to open up land for new free states into a bill that opened land for new slave states. southern opposition, so powerful in the Senate, had successfully transformed a clean and relatively uncontroversial bill into the proslavery cause of the moment. Southern senators, save for Bell and Houston, lined up to vote for the valentine they wrote themselves.

That same dynamic worked the other way in the House, with its northern majority. The same passions that drove the Senate debate played out here. Salmon P. Chase’s Appeal of the Independent Democrats had the signatures of representatives on it and those men, if signing only for themselves, expressed broad fears in doing so. Fears about the slavepower, with its undue influence on national events thanks to the Senate and the 3/5 Compromise, combined smoothly with the fact that Douglas persisted in claiming that the nation abandoned the Missouri Compromise in 1850. The North as a whole had never done any such thing. Stephen Douglas himself knew that it hadn’t, but kept up the story. That could only make him look more suspect of secret plans. What really went on when Douglas went to F Street? Or to the White House? With the benefit of distance, we can see that Douglas engaged in relatively ordinary political horse trading but at the time and with the nation’s future very much in doubt, he had to look like an Accomplished Architect of Ruin.

The United States after the Kansas-Nebraska Act. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

The United States after the Kansas-Nebraska Act. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

And this from a Congress the North seated on a status quo platform? What happened to the finality of the Compromise acts? With northerners already chafing under the Fugitive Slave Act and the ways it forced them to compromise their democratic institutions in the name of slavery, they now had to accept yet more? While asked to swallow all of this, the North also had to deal with the spectacle of repeated attempts to steal Cuba (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), Nicaragua (1, 2, 3), and James Gadsden’s expedition to buy enough land from Mexico for still more slave states (1, 2, 3). If Kansas went for slavery, then with it and Missouri as a firewall New Mexico and Utah would soon adopt the institution. Gadsden’s newly purchased land would inevitably become a new slave state or states. From North of the Ohio river and the Mason-Dixon line, it looked very much like the South had commenced an open campaign to pack the Congress with slave states, undo the hard-fought status quo, and abolish free soil. If they took Kansas and Nebraska, why not Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, or Indiana?

If the South declared war on freedom, the North would fight. Northerners by and large had accepted a nation half free and half slave. Only a hated minority of abolitionists proposed uprooting slavery in states where it already existed. Now southern men would not give them the same courtesy. Few northern men would stand for that. They would not lightly sell their future or surrender their freedom to a band of slaveholding aristocrats, who would degrade their labor by putting it in competition with slave labor.

The northern majority in the House knew that.  On March 21, 1854, the House referred the Senate’s bill to committee. Normally it would go to the Committee on Territories, but the House referred it to the Committee of the Whole and buried it under a pile of other bills in the hope that it would never come to a vote. Maybe they could ride this all out.

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 One

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston (D-TX)

After more than a month, at the end of a seventeen hour session that dragged from Friday into Saturday morning, the Senate finally voted on the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It passed and the fourteen nay votes came largely from northern antislavery men. Salmon P. Chase, Charles Sumner, and William Seward all had respectable antislavery credentials. Their votes make intuitive sense. The votes of other northern Whigs likewise seem to fit with the general trends in the party toward greater antislavery politics in the North and increasingly desperate proslavery politics in the South. But two of the fourteen nay votes came from southern senators: Sam Houston of Texas and John Bell of Tennessee. Those dissents come against the general thrust of southern politics, which so often revolved around who would best protect slavery. They bear some looking into.

Houston spoke on February 14 and 15, 1854. He assembled before himself piles of books full of treaties between the United States and the Indians and took the Senate on a tour of the broken promises within. Houston did not take the Indians as a political prop or an excuse to cover for his unpopular votes. He had lived among the Cherokee, married a Cherokee woman, and been adopted into the tribe. While president of Texas, he pursued friendly relations with the Comanche. That did not make him a modern liberal, keen on cultural diversity. He referred frequently to the need to convert the tribes to Christianity and bring them the blessings of civilization, by which he meant they should become settled farmers. Of course, many tribes had settled down and lived more or less as their white neighbors did. Supposed savages taught the Pilgrims how to farm, after all. But given the times, Houston had a decent record of meaning to do right by the Indians. Few men had that much:

in presenting myself as the advocate of the Indians and their rights, I shall claim but little sympathy from the community at large, and that I shall stand very much alone, pursuing the course which I feel it my imperative duty to adhere to.

Houston recited the familiar litany: the United States promised Indians that if they vacated this land that white men wanted, they could have other land in the west that white men did not want:

the most solemn pledges were made by this Government-that if they would remove to the west of the Mississippi they should never again be surrounded by white men, and that they should have a boundless and interminable outlet as far as the jurisdiction of the United States extended.

Some Cherokee went to Arkansas under that promise, only to find themselves surrounded when the United States bought land to one side from the Osage and white people flooded in. Then a new treaty promised that if they moved a few hundred more miles, they could have land there. When Indian representatives came to the White House, Houston heard the president promise them:

you are now in a country where you can be happy; no white man shall ever again disturb you; the Arkansas will protect your southern boundary when you get there. You will be protected on either side; the white man man shall never again encroach upon you, and you will have a great outlet to the West. As long as water flows, or grass grows upon the earth, or the sun rises to show your pathway, or you kindle your camp fires, so long shall you be protected by this Government, and never again removed from your present habitations.

The Indians held up their end of the bargain, and what did the United States do again and again but break its word and make another set of promises? Houston put it bluntly:

I know this may appear a very harsh assertion to make here, that our Government acts in bad faith with the Indians. I could ask one question that would excite reflection and reminiscences among gentlemen. When have they performed an honest act, or redeemed in good faith a pledge made to the Indians? Let but a single instance be shown, and I will be prepared to retract.

And now Stephen Douglas came proposing to take land away from the Indians again and give it to white men. He might say that his bill preserved Indian rights until the Indians chose to surrender them, but his proposed territories and the states they would grow into would surround the reservations. Once they became states, who would stop them from dispossessing Indians within their bounds? Nothing, not even the Supreme Court, stopped Georgia on behalf of the Cherokee. Why would Kansas or Nebraska act differently?

Kansas-Nebraska: The Senate Votes

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

Senate debate on Stephen Douglas’ KansasNebraska Act opened on January 30, 1854. Douglas began it by condemning Salmon P. Chase’s Appeal of the Independent Democrats (The Appeal parts 1234567,89; Douglas’s opposition parts 12345). Chase responded and the battle commenced. It stretched out across February and into March before Douglas concluded with a five-hour speech that went on past midnight of March 3. For seventeen hours the Senate sat before finally voting on the bill. It adjourned at 4:55 AM on Saturday until the next Tuesday, but the chamber voted. Having spent some time reading their debates in tiny print over three columns, I feel a little sympathy for them.

In the 33rd Congress, the Senate had 62 members for the 31 states in the Union. Two of those senators stood for the Free Soil party: Ohio’s Salmon P. Chase and Massachusetts’ Charles Sumner. The Whigs had twenty-two senators and the Democrats commanded the majority with thirty-six. The Senate had two vacant seats,  a common problem in an era when the state legislatures elected senators and the chief reason they no longer do so. When those sixty senators voted, they followed the usual pattern on slavery: section trumped party. The vote came down a lopsided 37 for to 14 against. Several senators missed the day due to illness or personal business, some of whom had friends tell the Senate how they would have voted if present.

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

The nays came overwhelmingly from the North. Only Texas’ Sam Houston and Tennessee’s John Bell found it in themselves to vote against Kansas-Nebraska. Both men would go on to future adventures: Houston refused to accept his state’s secession, so Texas deposed him and kept him under house arrest for the duration of the Civil War. John Bell ran for president, beating out Houston for the just-formed Constitutional Union party’s nomination. His party aimed to throw the election into the House where he could stand as an uncontroversial compromise candidate to save the Union. Before the presidential run, Bell sat as a Whig and Houston as a Democrat. Except for them, Whigs and Democrats in the South united to vote proslavery.

Henry Dodge (D-WI)

Henry Dodge (D-WI)

In the North, something more like a two-party system existed even on questions of slavery. The North’s twelve nay votes came from the two Free Soil senators plus nine Whigs and Wisconsin’s Democrat Henry Dodge. As a Democratic bill written by Democrats and endorsed by the Democratic president, one would expect the Democracy to line up for it and just that happened. They did not all come eagerly, and Houston and Dodge did not come at all, but Pierce made it known that Democrats who did not vote with their party could expect to lose their share of the party patronage. Without that arm twisting, doubtless more would have voted against. The Whigs in the North also acted according to the logic of a two-party system, serving as the opposition on grounds both partisan and ideological.

Whatever the reservations of some of the men who voted yay, the bill went on to the House.

Liars and Fools

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase

I just noticed when I started this post that I routinely omit Douglas’ middle initial, A, but usually include Chase’s. I think that I’ve picked up the standard convention which, I presume, goes back to how the men tended to refer to themselves. I don’t think it makes much difference, but if anyone wondered I don’t really have a good reason for doing it how I do.

Anyway, neither Stephen Douglas (parts 12345) nor Salmon P. Chase (parts 1234567,89) shrank from playing fast and loose with the truth. Neither took pains to admit inconvenient facts unless they had to. Both treated their preferred interpretation of events, no matter how questionable, as a clear truth. We all do that often enough. I’ve spent some time picking apart both men for that sort of thing and will probably do more. But some historical lies come off worse than others. Chase could plausibly have claimed that some of his historical errors came from haste, not malice. Both men could sometimes claim legitimate, reasonable interpretations of past events. Sometimes, however, they very clearly and blatantly lied. They knew the clear truth but attempted to deliberately mislead others in the service of their political preferences.

Call me an idealist, but I think the latter kind of lie, however common, deeply undermines the whole principle of government by consent. If decision makers don’t tell us the truth, how can we make informed choices between them? I don’t know how to solve that problem, in 1854 or 2013.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Douglas did that from start to finish with his line about how Congress repealed the Missouri Compromise in 1850. It did not. Probably nobody who voted for any compromise measure thought it had. David Rice Atchison did not think he repealed the law. Stephen Douglas did not think he had either. Douglas lied to give himself and his northern supporters political cover. Everyone in Congress knew it, but maybe the lie would blunt the backlash against him and let him change the subject to how his opponents wanted to destroy the sacred, final settlement on all matters pertaining to slavery. It would not fool everyone, but it might confuse the issue enough for voters paying less attention that they would not punish the Democracy as much as they otherwise might for so radical an act.

Chase did the same. Even granting him the most leeway we can because of his haste in revising the Appeal to get it into the papers, he told at least one remarkable whopper:

He [Douglas] says that we, forsooth, have held him up to the country in this address as guilty of certain great and enormous crimes. Why, sir, any man who reads the address will see that in no part of it, from first to last, except in a brief note appended, is the Senator mentioned at all. So far as I am responsible for the document, either by signature or authorship, I tell the Senator he was not at all in my thoughts. He exaggerates his importance when he supposes that we had him, rather than any other member of the committee, specially in view. Sir, I know the gigantic stature of the Senator; I know the weight and importance which he possesses in the country; I know that he has a great and powerful party surrounding him; and I know also the great disadvantages under which I enter into any controversy which he provokes. I am in a minority. I know that full well. It is no very pleasant position. But I dare do that which I should like to see the Senator also do. I dare adhere to principle, even though that adherence must carry me into a minority.

Yeah, right. Chase meant the Committee on Territories in general, not anybody in particular. He certainly didn’t mean its chairman, who dominated proceedings, who introduced the bill under discussion, who submitted all the revisions to it, and who concocted a convenient “clerical error” to hide a revision. This would fool no one in Congress, but could give Chase the same kind of plausible deniability with embattled supporters that Douglas wanted. It could let him separate admirers of Douglas from their man by divorcing Chase’s position from slighting the Little Giant. But no one, let alone an informed Senator privy to that body’s proceedings for years, could investigate Kansas-Nebraska and not once think of Douglas.

I don’t go for the idea that irresponsible, blundering politicians brought about the Civil War. I think those men, and the millions who supported them, knew full well what they meant and did. They may have underestimated opponents, but one need not be a reckless blunderer to do that. They went in with eyes open and embarked on logical courses of action, navigating the political waters as best they could. But an observer who did as Chase claimed he did and never thought of Douglas at all when contemplating the Little Giant’s signature issue for more than a decade? That counts as irresponsible and blundering in my book.

Whatever harm Chase or Douglas did with their respective lies, they did lie. They knew it. They did it deliberately. Kansas-Nebraska, like the Armistice, and all that followed came from them acting not as fools, but as deliberate and rational men trying to achieve their goals. We should call them liars when they lie, but we should think long and hard before we call them a bunch of dummies who knew not what they did. Part of the job of a good historian is trying to understand how they got there.