“A soulless, eyeless monster-horrid, unshapely, and vast” Sumner vs. Douglas

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

We have followed Charles’ Sumner’s career in the Senate all the way to the fall of 1853. At the end of it all, his coalition lost their majorities in Massachusetts. They blamed Sumner’s refusal to campaign for the party. Under their increasing criticism Sumner took out his frustrations on a friend of his, Francis Lieber. It must have seemed likely he would serve only the one term, or less. The elections trimmed the Free Soil Senate caucus by half, leaving only Sumner and Salmon Chase in the chamber. He had no committee assignments. People suspected he would resign rather than spend four years in futile opposition to the Pierce Administration.

The new Congress met for the first time in December of 1853. Augustus Caesar Dodge submitted a bill for the organization of the Nebraska Territory, west of Missouri. Stephen Douglas had big plans for that land: a Pacific Railroad, reunification of the Democracy, and four years in the White House just to start. Come January, he sought out David Rice Atchison to see what the Senator from Missouri would need in order to allow a new territory so near to Missouri’s plantation country. Atchison wanted repeal of the Missouri Compromise.

Sumner smelled a rat in all the quiet negotiating Douglas got up to and put his head together with Salmon P. Chase and Joshua Giddings. Giddings wrote the original draft of the Appeal of the Independent Democrats, which Chase revised and Sumner gave some rhetorical embroidery. He and Chase asked Douglas to delay his bill a week so they could get their message out, claiming that they wanted to study the territorial issue more. The Appeal hit the newspapers that day, after Douglas agreed to the pause, and the Little Giant girded for battle.

Salmon P. Chase

Sumner tried to argue he arraigned the act, not its author. The Appeal might call Douglas an accomplished architect of ruin, but nothing personal. He went on to call the act “a soulless, eyeless monster-horrid, unshapely, and vast.” For some reason, Douglas didn’t buy that. The Appeal focused his attacks on Chase and Sumner, who thus inherited leadership of the anti-Nebraska side. Neither conservative Whigs nor established antislavery men took a major part. William Seward, the horrid antislavery radical of 1850, delivered only a single speech against the act.

Stephen Douglas

Chase took the initial lead, while Sumner embarked on one of his lengthy planning sessions. He didn’t speak until late February, by which point other Senators had answered Douglas at length and thoroughly. As he had against the Fugitive Slave Act, Sumner progressed over well-trod ground. He arraigned Douglas and the bill’s other Northern supporters, saying slavery

loosens and destroys the character of Northern men, even at a distance-like the black magnetic mountain in an Arabian story, under whose irresistible attraction the iron bolts, which held together the strong timbers of a stately ship, were drawn out, till the whole thing fell apart, and became a disjointed wreck.

You could do the math yourself, but Sumner spelled it out all the same: Slavery drew the iron principles right out of Stephen Douglas and company, creating “that human anomaly-a Northern man with Southern principles.” Applause rained down from the Senate gallery.

 

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Sumner’s Rhetoric and Response

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18; full speech

Gentle Readers, with the Freedom National speech blogged through it would do to take a higher-level look at Sumner’s rhetoric. Nothing he argued came originally from him. By his own admission, Sumner more remembered than innovated his doctrines. His mind ran more to carrying notions to their logical ends than to create them anew. But Sumner could package the ideas of others together in an effective form, a valuable skill in its own right. He chose to argue from the rhetorical right, laying out a narrative of decline from the founders’ abolitionism to the ascendancy of proslavery radicalism in the Compromise of 1850. In other words, Sumner argued as a conservative.

The Senator’s natural inclinations may have put him in that position anyway, as his biographer argues, but we should consider the situation he faced. His opponents painted themselves as conservatives too. They fought for the Union of their fathers, against the abstractions of extremists who would rend the nation. They cast themselves as sensible men, dedicated to the established way of doing things and willing to sacrifice their personal convictions to the greater good. Sumner turned their framing on its head and called them out. They, not he, had gone Jacobinical. They created new horrors in the Fugitive Slave Act. Disinterested stewards of the national faith would do no such thing.

Daniel Webster

Sumner’s senatorial colleagues wouldn’t have missed the point. He challenged them on their own ground, rhetorically and physically, in front of a packed gallery. Members of the House gathered on the Senate floor to hear him. Daniel Webster came to see his replacement as Massachusetts’ spokesman and the Secretary of State endured an hour, pacing the chamber, before he left. Sumner had only gotten a quarter of the way through condemning him by then. According to Sumner’s biographer, the almost four hours of oratory reduced many of the women in the gallery and an unnamed senator to tears. Rhetorical tastes have changed greatly since 1852, but even with the remove of years Sumner reads powerfully when he comes to his summations.

Sumner closed with an “Oriental piety”:

Beware of the groans of the wounded souls. Oppress not to the utmost a single heart; for a solitary sigh has the power to overset the whole world.

He took his seat to “unbounded” applause that promptly showed its bounds. A senator from Alabama rose and argued no one should answer

The ravings of a maniac may be dangerous, but the barking of a puppy never did any harm.

A North Carolinian griped at Sumner’s elaborate rhetoric and complained about the untranslated Latin quotations. No one in the Senate could probably follow those, he thought. Stephen Douglas damned Sumner for attacking the Constitution. John B. Weller (D-CA) thought he wanted to incite riots in Northern cities. He found praise in the Senate only from John Hale and Salmon Chase. When the motion that occasioned the speech came to a vote, they and Ohio’s Ben wade joined Sumner in recommending repeal. Four hours of oratory got Sumner only four votes, including his own.

Senator Sumner Goes to Washington

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

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

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

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

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

John Hale

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

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

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

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.