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.

A Free State Fourth, Part Six

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Charles Robinson stood up before the Lawrence Fourth of July gathering and denounced the proslavery party as a band of slavers not content with forcing black slavery upon the country. They wanted to chain up whites as well. To convince his audience that he had not gone off the deep end, Robinson produced lines from proslavery papers where the authors proudly strutted about, declaring their mastery. Ships and houses might have masters, but men? Those with black skin had masters. To enforce their mastery, the proslavery men would make any utterance of antislavery beliefs a crime and outlaw every perpetrator. They said themselves that they would and had set up committees to watch for such transgressors and drive them from Kansas, or just kill them.

Robinson’s examples came from Kansas and Missouri, fittingly enough, but he made sure to add in others to connect the abuses the free staters had endured and expected to endure thereafter with slavery itself rather than simply the circumstances of one territory on the frontier. Thus he also delved into newspapers and sermons from farther abroad:

A Charleston paper from 1835 declared

‘the gallows and the stake’ awaited the abolitionist who should dare to appear in person among us.

The Augusta, Georgia Chronicle had it

The cry of the whole South should be death, instant death to the abolitionist, whenever he is caught.

The Columbia, South Carolina Telescope added

Let us declare through public journals of our country that the question of slavery is not and shall not be open to discussion; that the system is too deep-rooted among us, and must remain forever; that the very moment any private individual attempts to lecture us upon its evils and morality, and the necessity of putting means in operation to secure us from them, in the same moment his tongue shall be cut out and cast upon the dunghill.

A Parson Brownlow finished the tirade:

The true-hearted citizens of East Tennessee and property-holders ought to enter into leagues, and whip, black, and ride on a rail, irrespective of age, calling, family, association, every preacher, citizen, or traveller, who dares to utter one word in opposition to slavery, or who is found in possession of an abolitionist document. These are our sentiments, and we are willing and ready to help others to carry them out.

Robinson began in telling his audience that he would not preach abolition to them. He spoke concerning the plight of Kansas alone and would not ask them to oppose slavery elsewhere. With these lines he turned around and did so anyway. Though Robinson did not ask them to draw the inference, he clearly indicted slavery at large. Their own papers and showed that slavery required the end of white republicanism. It demanded extinguishing free speech and free lives along with the freedom and lives of the slaves. This held not just for slavery in Kansas or Missouri, but slavery everywhere it reached.

If Robinson’s audience would not follow the thinking to its natural end, then at least he couched it in their personal interests in Kansas. That could keep their minds on the destruction of white republicanism that brought them around to begin with, rather than put them off. If they did follow Robinson’s argument all the way, he might make a new abolitionist or two.

About Fort Pillow

I think that I’ve said here before that, with a few exceptions, I’m not very good about observing anniversaries. Perhaps I should improve on that. I knew that Fort Pillow’s sesquicentennial came and went last weekend and said nothing about it. My reasons at the time involved a considerable investment in 1854, not wanting to break the day to day flow of the narrative, and the fact that I don’t know all that much about the subject itself. But others don’t have those shortcomings and I’ve read some really excellent content that I ought to have shared earlier.

Over at the New York TimesDisunion, you can read a basic overview of events. Confederate troops under the command of former slave trader Nathan Bedford Forrest attacked and overwhelmed the garrison of Fort Pillow in western Tennessee. The Union forces holding the fort included a unit of Unionist Tennesseans and freedmen of the United States Colored Troops. They won the fight and

Chaos ensued. With few officers left alive to direct them, some defenders dropped their weapons in surrender, while others scrambled down the steep hillside. But discipline also broke down among the rebels. Forrest’s men had never faced black troops in battle before. In the Confederate mind, opposition from armed black men — in this case, black men who had recently taunted them — was tantamount to a slave insurrection, and few things were likelier to enrage a white Southerner.

“The sight of negro soldiers,” a Confederate witness said, “stirred the bosoms of our soldiers with courageous madness.” Nor was that all: These black men were fighting alongside local white Unionists, whom the rebels despised as “homemade Yankees” and “Tennessee Tories.”

Those Tennessee Tories and latter-day Nat Turners represented an existential threat. Left unchecked, they would flow over the South in a genocidal race war. Fort Pillow rapidly became the most notorious one, but many such massacres involving black soldiers took place during the war and, it must be said, continued after on a smaller scale. Through such violence, and the threat of more, Southern whites successfully instituted Jim Crow laws that would take another century to uproot.

Over at Dead Confederates, Andy Hall has context for the Confederate actions. On the latter count, the massacre of black troops and their white officers actually amounted to Confederate policy. You can read the entire proclamation over there, but two selections:

Sec. 4. That every white person, being a commissioned officer, or acting as such, who, during the present war, shall command nergroes or mulattoes in arms against the Confederate States, or who shall arm, train, organize or prepare negroes or mulattoes for military service against the Confederate States, or who shall voluntarily aid negroes or mulattoes in any military enterprize, attack or conflict in such service, shall be deemed as inciting servile insurrection, and shall, if captured, by put to death, or be otherwise punished at the discretion of the court.


Sec. 7. All negroes and mulattoes who shall be engaged in war, or be taken in arms against the Confederate States, or shall give aid or comfort to the enemies of the Confederate States, shall, when captured in the Confederate States, be delivered to the authorities of the State or States in which they shall be captured, and dealt with according to the present or future laws of such State or States.

The then-present laws of such states, of course, would mean death for blacks as well as whites.

In a separate post, Andy also has firsthand accounts of the aftermath of the massacre:

All the wounded who had strength enough to speak agreed that after the fort was taken an indiscriminate slaughter of our troops was carried on by the enemy with a furious and vindictive savageness which was never equaled by the most merciless of the Indian tribes. Around on every side horrible testimony to the truth of this statement could be seen. Bodies with gaping wounds, some bayoneted through the eyes, some with skulls beaten through, others with hideous wounds as if their bowels had been ripped open with bowie-knives, plainly told that but little quarter was shown to our troops. Strewn from the fort to the river bank, in the ravines and hollows, behind logs and under the brush where they had crept for protection from the assassins who pursued them, we found bodies bayoneted, beaten, and shot to death, showing how cold-blooded and persistent was the slaughter of our unfortunate troops.


We then landed at the fort, and I was sent out with a burial party to bury our dead. I found many of the dead lying close along by the water’s edge, where they had evidently sought safety; they could not offer any resistance from the places where they were, in holes and cavities along the banks; most of them had two wounds. I saw several colored soldiers of the Sixth United States Artillery, with their eyes punched out with bayonets; many of them were shot twice and bayonetted also. All those along the bank of the river were colored. The number of the colored near the river was about seventy. Going up into the fort, I saw there bodies partially consumed by fire. Whether burned before or after death I cannot say, anyway, there were several companies of rebels in the fort while these bodies were burning, and they could have pulled them out of the fire had they chosen to do so. One of the wounded negroes told me that “he hadn’t done a thing,” and when the rebels drove our men out of the fort, they (our men) threw away their guns and cried out that they surrendered, but they kept on shooting them down until they had shot all but a few. This is what they all say.

We should not take this as a one-off act. The Confederate soldiers doing the killing understood themselves as engaged in the maintenance of racial control, a tradition that went back as far as slavery in the New World. If a black man could rise up and kill a white, then others might learn that they too could and, being united in rejecting their status as slaves, go off and kill all the whites. How could a white person sleep at night unless he or she knew that the resentful black people all around had the threat of violence to keep them in line?

Incidents like Fort Pillow naturally generate a certain degree of controversy, some legitimate and some from the usual quarters that see Forrest as a folk hero and, though many shrink from saying it, think he gave to the garrison precisely what it deserved. The latter have been with us for a long time. They’re not all gone off into the sunset just yet, despite all the progress we’ve made in the hundred and fifty years since.

Bell’s Dissent, Part Nine

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bell’s Dissent, Part Eight

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bell’s Dissent, Part Seven

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bell’s Dissent, Part Six

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Parts 12, 3, 4, 5)

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

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

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

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

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bell’s Dissent, Part Five

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Parts 12, 3, 4)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bell’s Dissent, Part Four

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Parts 12, 3)

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

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

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

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

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

And for what?

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

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

Bell’s Dissent, Part Three

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

(Part 1, 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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