A Memorial for a Free Kansas, Part Three

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Parts 1 and 2

Knowing full well that appealing to Congress for redress because the Missourians and their allies sought to impose slavery on Kansas would win them no new friends, the free soil men who wrote the memorial had other ideas. If the Kansas-Nebraska Act meant that the people of the territory got to decide for themselves for or against slavery, then the Missourians gave them ample cause to protest. No one could conceal the massive fraud at the ballot boxes. If the Kansas-Nebraska Act ended the last sacred compact between the sections, the Missouri Compromise, then surely it replaced that with a new one. North and South together agreed, if with great controversy, that the people of the territories now stood sovereign in their choice of labor system. Yet here came the Missourians, charging across the border with guns, threats, tar and feather. Surely Congress, having agreed to popular sovereignty, could not accept that. For Washington to stand idly by would transform the meaning of the new settlement entirely, from a fair contest which both sides accepted, to something else entirely.

That bill is made to mean popular sovereignty for them, serfdom for us. The doctrine of self-government is to be trampled under foot here, of all other places in the world, on the very spot which had been hallowed and consecrated to its most signal vindication. The altars which have been reared to it on this chosen ground, and around which at least the democracy of the whole Union had sworn allegiance, and to which we had come as pilgrim worshippers in the wilderness, are to be ruthlessly demolished. The compact is to be basely broken, and the ballot of the freeman (in effect) torn from our hands, almost before the ink of the covenant is dry. Not only, too, is the principle of popular sovereignty to be blotted out, but more than this, even the object of the contest is to disappear. The question of negro slavery is to sink into insignificance, and the great portentious issue is to loom up in its stead, whether or not we shall be the slaves, and fanatics who disgrace the honorable and chivalric men of the south shall be our masters to rule us at their pleasure.

The memorial came far short of Charles Robinson’s recitation of slavery’s evils, but used the same theme of white men enslaved. Having dared that far, the authors at once pull back and appeal to the loftier sentiments of the wider South. Surely they could not countenance this and would discover in themselves some principle beyond the greater glory of slavery?

They could have found such an audience. Missourians might care desperately about Kansas, but to the rest of the South the new territory stood on the extreme northwest corner of the world. Far greener pastures remained in Texas, in Arkansas, and in time probably in some new acquisition from Mexico. They didn’t need Kansas like the Missouri slaveholders did. So the free soilers reached out to both sections:

We want the men of the north and the men of the south to protect us. Through yourselves, their representatives, we appeal to their honor, to their justice, to their patriotism, to their sympathies, not for favors but for rights-not for trivial rights, but for the dearest rights guarantied to us by the Declaration of Independence, by the Constitution of the Union, and by the law of our organization, by the solemn compact of the States, and which you pledged to us as the condition of our coming here.

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston (D-TX)

They still had faith in the old Union, even in the section with which their adversaries aligned. Painting the border ruffians as isolated fanatics, much the same way southerners liked to describe abolitionists, they insisted they could not

believe that the States of the South will sanction the outrages that have been perpetrated upon us, or will allow them to be continued.  And, although we might reason the matter as a question of policy, and show that it is contrary to the laws of nature and society, and opposed to all human experience, that good can come from such an evil, (although we might prove that it is “sowing the wind to reap the whirlwind,” and that the reaction will be fearful,) yet we feel that this is unnecessary, that it is enough to appeal to their honor and their sense of justice, and to reply upon their plighted faith.

Some former Missourians, alienated by the great fraud, might have had a hand in these passages. Even if they did not, an awareness that fence-sitting neighbors would inevitably read the document would have argued for some well-placed flattery. The free state men came to their position by many roads. They could look over their shoulder and see room for others on the same paths. It did not take a New England abolitionist to see the border ruffians’ conduct as outrageous. Sam Houston prophesied such strife when he opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act to start with. There might yet be other Sam Houstons to come to Kansas’ relief. By making an appeal on such terms, the memorialists could give them rhetorical cover to buck the prevailing sentiment of the section. They could stand on the Union, on self-government, and rebuff accusations that they’d gone over to the abolitionists in secret.

Advertisements

Lincoln’s Peoria Speech, Part Eight

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

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

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

This is the repeal of the Missouri Compromise.

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

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

Bell’s Dissent, Part Three

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Part 1, 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bell’s Dissent, Part One

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

Unlike Sam Houston (12345, 6), Tennessee’s John Bell waited until the eleventh hour before delivering his big speech against the KansasNebraska Act. Both men, probably from the start, knew that they couldn’t change much. Douglas had the F Street patriarchs behind him and they largely controlled the Senate. He also had the party apparatus working for him, thanks to Pierce’s coerced support. Does all of that mean Houston’s and Bell’s, and indeed everyone else’s, speeches meant nothing?

Maybe. You can’t go into the Congressional Globe and read these men for long without realizing how madly they loved the sound of their own voices. I very much doubt any modern Senate speeches make any real difference in votes, unless someone makes a gaffe that could hurt come reelection time. People simply do not change their positions, especially on weighty issues, on a dime. The men in the Senate then cared about slavery and the Missouri Compromise as much as senators do any major issue today.  Houston, Bell, and all the rest clearly spoke with an eye toward the newspapers and posterity more than their peers. But at the same time, back then they actually lived in Washington, often together, for the duration of sessions and so probably had a lot more opportunity to influence one another than today’s politicians that fly home every Wednesday or Thursday.

Rising on March 3, in the session that ended with the Senate’s vote on the bill, John Bell did not expect his remarks to change minds. He began in resignation:

I feel greatly embarrassed in undertaking to address the Senate at this time, particularly since the sentiment of the body has been so decidedly expressed, not only in regard to the feature which is considered the most important in the bill, but in regard to every other to which I propose to address my remarks. I regret, sir, that I feel under any necessity to trespass at all upon the attention of the Senate, upon this subject; and particularly when I observe the solicitude of the friends of the bill for its immediate passage. But the relations in which I stand to this measure, I think, forbid me to forebear. My own self-respect would forbid that I should forebear, however painful it may be to me to express any views in opposition to a measure which seems to commend itself to the almost unanimous approval and support of my southern friends.

Bell reminded the Senate that he opposed even the repeal-free version of the bill that came up last Congress. He sat on the Committee on Territories, but had not supported changing the bill to include the repeal. When it came up before them, Bell was not in town. Still, the bill came through his committee and Bell had some explaining to do if he wanted to oppose it:

I saw that the objections I had urged to the Nebraska bill of the last session of Congress would apply to the measure then before the committee; and my impressions against the expedience of introducing any clause affecting the Missouri Compromise were strong; but as I had not considered the proposition in all its aspects, I agreed that the amendment might be reported; but as the honorable chairman of the committee will do me the justice to admit, I did so with the express reservation of the privilege of opposing the passage of the bill, if, upon careful examination of the subject, I should feel it my duty to do so.

I can only speculate, but this all has a whiff of Bell never expecting the bill to come near passage and so passing the buck back in committee. At any rate, Douglas agreed that Bell had his reservations and reserved the option to vote against the committee’s work. Bell proceeded to do just that.

Houston’s Dissent, Part Six

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston (D-TX)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Houston’s Dissent, Part Five

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston opposed Stephen Douglas’ reopening of Kansas and Nebraska to slavery out of concern for the Indians, personal sentiment, and political commitment. He cared about the Indians from his time living among them and marrying one. He personally signed on to the Missouri Compromise and voted for its extension over Oregon. He saw Texas as legally obliged to hew to it by the terms of its annexation and Houston had probably a better claim than anybody then alive to the title Mr. Texas. He believed the Missouri Compromise right, proper, and vitally important to keeping the peace and keeping the Union. The law brought the United States prosperity and peace enough to call it providential and proclaim it a solemn compact.

When politicians, then or now, get mystical about work they or they predecessors did it bears a closer look. No shortage of elected officials have invented sacred pledges and solemn compacts that “everyone agreed to” out of thin air. Houston knew as much and brought out the evidence. Between the Missouri Compromise and the Armistice, Congress settled the slavery question. Everyone at the time thought so. They wrote it into the Democratic party platform:

Resolved, That the Democratic party will resist all attempts at renewing, in Congress or out of it, the agitation of the slavery question, under whatever shape or color the attempt may be made.

Franklin Pierce signed on to that platform in a letter declaring that he did so not out of obligation, but because he genuinely agreed with it. In his inaugural, he said:

I fervently hope that the question is at rest, and that no sectional, or ambitious, or fanatical excitement may again threaten the durability of our institutions or obscure the light of our prosperity.

Houston applauded all of that:

I had hoped that so long as I might be connected with this Government, or even in the shades of retirement, if I should have the felicity of reaching them in quiet, I might live in peace, under my own vine and fig tree, with none in all the land to disturb me by agitation.

At the time, nobody thought the Missouri Compromise repealed. It and the Armistice together finished all debate. Everyone lined up to support it, except the fire-eaters and abolitionists. Neither of those, nor both together, comprised a majority of Americans. They voted for Franklin Pierce on those grounds. They voted for the Democracy on those grounds. They lived under that law, even if they grumbled a bit about it. It sounds very much like a consensus.

Then, if that was a finality at that time, why is it not a finality now? What harm has resulted from the Missouri compromise from that time to the present? What new intelligence has sprung upon us? What new light has dawned which requires the annihilation of a solemn compact made between the two sections of this Republic, and from which harmony has resulted?

What could possibly have happened in a mere four years to warrant reopening the slavery question, when everyone save some radicals on either side considered it closed? And then go on to rail against traitor Democrats who stuck closer to the party platform from outside the party than the law’s proponents did within it? Houston asked a question that Stephen Douglas couldn’t answer with his fairy tale about how Congress secretly, even accidentally, repealed the Missouri compromise in 1850. Nor, of course, could he tell the Senate that F Street, Phillip Phillips, and Archibald Dixon twisted his arm until agreed to do it.

Houston’s Dissent, Part Four

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston had more than concern for the Indianspersonal sentiment, or political commitment to keep him faithful to the Missouri Compromise. I’ve mentioned before that he saw it as critical to the Union’s survival, but the man himself wrote well and at length on the subject. Houston called himself a conservative and approached the question with a conservative’s firm belief that upsetting the status quo would lead to disaster. At the time, one could dismiss that. Conservatives of every era make very similar arguments about just about everything. The decade that followed, however, proved his fears justified.

what must be the consequence if an attempt to repeal the Missouri compromise is urged upon us? Will it produce no excitement? Has it produced none? If my opposition to a measure which I conceive fraught with danger to the whole section from which I come is misconstrued to be agitation, I am responsible to my constituents. Can any one doubt that agitation will be consequent upon the adopt of the measure? Has not the Missouri compromise been of great benefit to the country? Has it not wrought wonderful changes? For more than a third of a century it has given comparative peace and tranquility to us to an extent which would never have been enjoyed had that compact not been entered into. I can well recollect the scenes which transpired at its adoption. I know what fearful apprehensions were entertained by the most sagacious, patriotic, and wise men in the land. Those apprehensions were entertained for the safety and preservation of this Union; and when that pacification was completed; when the compact was solemnly entered into between North and South, it was ratified by the national will. It was not resisted by one Legislature in the States, nor was it opposed by individuals.

Houston could have added that the Armistice measures back in 1850 never garnered such acceptance. Even radicals like Calhoun and the fire-eaters would fume, protest, and then accept the Missouri Compromise. If they could take half the nation, they could live with it despite all the talk and conspiracy about secession.

But Houston saw more than just sectional peace in the Missouri Compromise:

it has been of vast importance to the prosperity and glory of this country from that time to the present. Its results are impressed upon the American mind and heart, and the nation’s feelings and pride have united in sanctioning the benefits resulting from the adoption of that measure. It is a compact, a solemn compact.

Houston also credited the Compromise with allowing the nation to expand to the Pacific, the American population to grow, and the nation’s rapid economic growth. The Union that Henry Clay saved in 1820 did all of that and could only do it because the Great Compromiser saved it.

Now Stephen Douglas wanted to throw all that away. From that, to Houston, only ruin could come. With hindsight, we can only nod along and then remind ourselves that from all the death and destruction came the end of slavery. That justifies a considerable amount of ruin that often gets lost in conventional regrets. But at the time, Houston must have sounded very much like a politician stuck in the past, an old crank doddering about obsolete orthodoxies. Only one other Southern senator voted as he did. To other proslavery men, Kansas-Nebraska meant the chance to regain what they and their fathers wrongly gave away: their rights to the whole of the nation.

Houston’s Dissent, Part Three

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston stood up for the Indians and the Missouri Compromise. That might make him sound like a Southern Salmon P. Chase, and both men came up in the Democratic party, but Houston owned slaves. He had a bleeding heart for Indians, in a nineteenth century kind of way, but slavery did not much bother him. Nor did its defense much excite him. Houston, an old school Jackson man, cared about the Union. To him, the Chases and Calhouns alike upset the Union’s peace and stained its bonds. They did so gratuitously, as the Union ensured both freedom and slavery, and perversely as if one side abandoned the settlements that served the Union well then the other would do so and throw the whole matter into question. For Houston, the sensible, conservative solution came from Henry Clay in 1820: maintain the Missouri Compromise peace and the Union would endure. Given how the 1850s progressed, he had a point.

But Houston had more than ideological loyalty to the Missouri Compromise. He saw himself as personally committed to it. He quoted one of his own letters, to Carolina-born California colonizer turned Mexican land buyer James Gadsden on the subject:

As a Texan, I could not consistently have voted otherwise. The compromise forms a part of the constitution of that State, and her Senators in Congress must be bound by it so long as it constitutes a portion of her organic law. Upon her citizens, her officers and agents, in whatever capacity they may be acting, it rests with paramount authority, which admits of no waiver or dispensation.

Houston raised one of the same points that Chase had. The joint resolution that annexed Texas, which the people of Texas ratified in a referendum, allowed slavery. But should Texas later have its territory divided, that portion north of the Missouri Compromise line would fall under its provisions and be allowed no slavery.

The Missouri compromise has been repeatedly recognized and acted upon by Congress as a solemn compact between the States; and as such, it has received the sanction of each individual member of the Confederacy. I consider that the vital interests of all the States, and especially of the South, are dependent, in a great degree, upon the preservation and sacred observance of that compact. Texas, in adopting the compromise line, in compliance with the imperative demand of the other States, as a part of the price of her admission, surrendered more than one third of her territory in latitudinal extent, her right to continue the institution of slavery. This sacrifice was exacted by the southern as well as by the northern States. The sacrifice was received at the hands of Texas, and among the solemn guarantees then made to her in behalf of the Union, to the full benefit of which she is now entitled, that of preserving the Missouri compromise is, in my humble judgment, not the least in value.

Houston’s italics.

Thomas Rusk (D-TX)

Thomas Rusk (D-TX)

Houston’s fellow Texan, Thomas Jefferson Rusk, felt no particular obligation to hew to the Missouri Compromise and voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Houston did. He called it a solemn compact, words differing little from Chase’s preferred sacred pledge. Like Chase, and everyone else in Congress and the nation at large at the time, Houston did not think that the Armistice measures repealed it.

I took my ground early upon the compromise bill of 1850. I am not behind any man in devotion to it. But, previous to its adoption, I had taken my position on the Missouri compromise, and I stand there established as firmly as I now stand upon the compromise of 1850. I am the only Senator upon this floor who voted “straight out,” as they say, for every measure of the final compromise, and then for the whole collectively. […] When I voted for that, I did not suppose that I was voting to repeal the Missouri compromise.

Only one other Senator shared Houston’s distinction and he had left the Senate in the interim. If anybody in the Senate stood for the Armistice, Sam Houston did. And now Stephen Douglas, who could not match his record, stood to lecture the Senate about how they had repealed the Missouri Compromise in those votes and never noticed it? Not likely! Houston came to much the same position that Chase did on the law, even if he arrived there from a very different place.

Houston’s Dissent, Part Two

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Houston began his objection to the KansasNebraska Act by speaking at length about the injustices that Stephen Douglas and the act’s supporters would inflict upon the Indians to whom the United States had pledged that land in perpetuity. They could have it forever…unless white American decided it wanted the Indian country after all. That same story played out constantly, virtually from Jamestown onward. The colonists revolted against the British at least in part because London placed limits on how far inland they could settle, on behalf of the Indians. Houston had personal ties to the Cherokee nation and a political record that made his concern convincing, if still tightly bound to nineteenth century convictions that doing right by the Indians meant converting them to Christianity and convincing them to live as white men did.

The majority of Houston’s remarks concern the importance of the United States keeping its promises to the Indian tribes. At times, his words come across as very modern. Then a paragraph or so later Houston reminds the reader that his principles don’t mesh very well with those of modern multiculturalism. He called the bill needless, as the land in question belonged to the Indians and had no white settlers. He objected to pushing organization of Kansas, Nebraska, and the repeal of the Missouri Compromise into a single bill.

They are not to be separated, I presume, sir; and as my position in relation to the repeal of the Missouri compromise, if unexplained, might not exactly be comprehended, I must speak of it. This subject is not a new one to me. I have met it of old, not in its present phase, but in one equally as formidable and imposing as on the present occasion. Although I stood alone in the South, with the exception of a southwestern senator, [Mr. Benton, of Missouri] I expressed my opinion, and voted my principles upon it.

Houston reminded the Senate that he walked the walk on the Missouri Compromise: None of Oregon extended below its line so he voted to have the territory free. He took the political knocks for that and stuck to his guns. He opposed Douglas’ last Nebraska bill, even though it didn’t touch on the Missouri compromise, out of his sympathy with the Indians. If anything, the new bill reached farther. For that, Houston already had the Southern press attacking him. He quoted the Richmond Inquirer on the matter:

What objects Mr. Houston has in view, and what excuses he may have to attempt to gratify them, I know not. Nothing can justify this treachery; nor can anything save the traitor from the deep damnation which such treason may merit. It will, however, effect no injury; and its impotency will but add to its infamy. The man who deserts at this crisis-one affecting the future destiny of half the continent, and the perpetuity of the Union-will be consigned to a proper fate. The South, with a blush of shame, and the North with secret delight, will alike look without sympathy to the execration of a man who is destitute either of the power to benefit or to injure. ‘Hissing, but stingless,’ let the viper crawl.

The Senate gave him a round of laughter for that one. But Sam Houston didn’t take that personally. He wouldn’t lower himself to hate like that editor, who talked so much about slime. If he left any of that slime on his track, Sam Houston would just step over it. The Senate laughed at that news too. But whatever slings and arrows of editorial comment, even from a paper he knew from his Virginia childhood, Sam Houston would stick with the Missouri compromise.

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?