Samuel R. Walker on Southern Constitutionalism

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

James Dunwoody Brownson DeBow

This post draws from Samuel R. Walker’s filibustering advocacy in DeBow’s Review (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7), but the passage says at least as much about constitutional thought in the late antebellum South as about filibustering. The simple, popular narrative has Southerners united by an intense localism and a set of shared propositions about the nature of the Union. These include the voluntary nature of the Union, the resting of ultimate sovereignty in state legislatures and conventions, the supremacy of local state law over federal enactments, and a constellation of other ideas variously summed up as nullification, states rights, and ultimately secession. 

Those ideas really did exist in the minds of period Southerners, but they did not live there alone. Nor did they, as one sometimes hears, equally dominate the minds of Northerners. Conflicts over the nature of the state and freedom dominate American history, not happy consensus. That remains true even if one restricts consideration of what Americans thought to what white male Americans thought, as virtually everyone then did. Some Southerners and some Northerners believed those things. Others believed other things.

To whatever degree the antebellum South’s leaders believed the ideology ascribed to them, they spent most of the period acting in almost completely the opposite way. Unless it came to preserving slavery in the face of national movements against it, Southerners searched in vain for a situation where they could happily prefer to let states do as they would. This only makes sense, as the South consistently dominated the federal government and so usually had a de facto veto power on federal policy. Any fair reading of the decade before the Civil War testifies to that. If anything, Southern power in Washington reached a remarkable apex in the 1850s. Had secession not intervened, the Southern-dominated Supreme Court probably would have handed down a second Dred Scott-style ruling which would have eliminated the power of Northern states to forbid slavery within their bounds within a few years.

They knew all of that. The doctrinaire states rights ideology probably did not command a majority of the Southern ruling class until after the war. Even during the Secession Winter, the decisions of many states came contingently and as near things indeed. The Upper South stayed out of the rebellion until Sumter, but even South Carolina’s decision came in part thanks to a railroad opening and running its maiden voyage full of Savannah businessmen into Charleston at just the right time. Those businessmen assured the South’s most doctrinaire radicals that if they bolted the Union, Georgia would surely follow. Complaints about the timidity of moderates enervating the counter-revolution fill the writings of fire-eaters and their more sober but still radical counterparts within the Southern mainstream.

Walker gives us something quite like that:

It was a prevailing feeling when our Colonies had, by their united efforts, achieved their independence, that they should lose their recollection of their former separate positions as individual States in the greatness of the result achieved by their Union. This idea was a natural one: we and our fathers have been educated in it, and we seem to view our federal as a centralized government, rather than a federation of independent States, linked together by a league, offensive and defensive, with a common purpose of free government; a common interest in commercial prosperity; a common protection in war, and advancement in peace. A more enlightened view is beginning to prevail and extend among the people, as its necessity increases, and the philosophy of our system is properly considered.

John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Secretary of State, Senator, and the generation's leading secession and slavery booster.

John C. Calhoun

Here we have the complete opposite of the popular narrative. Walker testifies to a nationalist mindset often overlooked in quick glances at the antebellum era. Reading between the lines just a little, he even tells us that nationalist thought generally prevailed and that ideas about states rights, nullification, and all the rest developed as a reaction against the North’s great population growth and increasingly vocal antislavery movement. Its necessity, to safeguard slavery, had increased in the minds of the slaveholding white South. But even in 1854, the ideology had not prevailed. Louisiana, fan of filibustering and home of DeBow’s Review, in particular had a nationalist bent despite its location in otherwise more radical Lower South.

Old Calhoun might have invented a Southern consensus and rooted it back in the foggy mists of the revolution as the official ideology of everyone, but each time he called on the South to join it he found no shortage of uninterested Southerners. Sometimes, as when it came to the Pacific railroad and the Missouri Compromise, he declined to even join himself.

Appeasing F Street

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

David Rice Atchison and his F Street housemates dug their feet in against Stephen Douglas’ bill to organize the Indian country as Nebraska Territory. Congress reserved that land to freedom under the Missouri Compromise thirty years before and for that reason the South had spent most of a decade killing any bill that would open it to white settlement and thus make it into free states down the road. But by 1854 they must have felt like they swam against the tide of history. Some settlers from Missouri and Iowa already lived on the land illegally. The West, at the time meaning the states bordering the Mississippi, clamored for a railroad to the Pacific and the rest of the nation largely wanted to give it to them. They needed only agree on the specifics. Against that tide, Atchison himself briefly yielded at the end of the last Congress. But he returned, after getting an earful from his angry constituents, committed to stopping Douglas unless he could collect a pound of flesh for slavery.

By 1854, the Democracy had withered in the North. It did not have the same degree of problem that the Whigs did in the South, but by proving itself the safest party for slavery it had alienated many of its Northern supporters. The party’s decline in the North put men like Douglas increasingly at the mercy of proslavery extremists like Atchison. As the party’s rising star in the North, the Little Giant did not make it his business to crusade against them. He cared little about slavery and so yielding to its advocates cost him nothing personally. Politics requires uncomfortable compromises, but a compromise that advanced slavery didn’t even amount to that for Douglas. He needed only give ground on something unimportant to him to get what he really wanted: the West opened to white settlement. Furthermore, in opposing the Missouri Compromise prohibition on slavery, Atchison appealed to Douglas on grounds he had long supported: popular sovereignty.

Putting on Douglas’ shoes for a moment, this looks less like a hard bargain than a great deal. Douglas gets what he really wants though a just slightly altered means and then gets more on top of it by having his favorite doctrine adopted as the law of the land. No fool, Douglas knew that appeasing F Street would have some political costs in the North. He underestimated those costs, but he knew enough to sound out ways to make his bill acceptable to F Street and the South without also burning all the bridges in the North. The man who managed passage of the Armistice had sailed those waters before and could do it again.

On January 4, 1854, Douglas’ committee reported out not Iowa Senator Dodge’s bill that had begun the previous March as Illinois Senator Douglas’ bill, but rather a new measure entirely. It would organize Nebraska but remained mute on slavery except for the provision, quoted by Allan Nevins:

And when admitted as a State or States, the said Territory, or any portion of the same, shall be received into the Union, with or without slavery, as their constitution may prescribe at the time of their admission.

The committee attached a report to the bill saying that they had no consensus on whether the Missouri Compromise ban stood or not. Douglas called it a virtual repeal as the bill at least contemplated slavery on the land. He replicated the language of the New Mexico and Utah territorial bills, neither explicitly enacting popular sovereignty nor repudiating it.

Repeal of the Missouri Compromise in full seemed impossible. When Atchison said he had no hope that it would ever fall, no Senator rose to gainsay him. If the South could withstand that ambiguity on New Mexico and Utah, and already accepted far worse for slavery on the Great Plains, surely the section could tolerate the same in Nebraska. In fact, even Douglas’ virtual repeal offered more than proslavery men could have hoped for just a year prior. Surely that would satisfy F Street.

The F Street Mess

Augustus Caesar Dodge (D-IA)

Augustus Caesar Dodge (D-IA)

Chastened and committed once more to proslavery extremes, David Rice Atchison returned to Washington for the 33rd Congress in December, 1853. His Democratic party had control of both chambers by a safe margin and Bourbon Dave took his place as President pro tempore of the Senate. Even if Atchison had pulled back from his earlier surrender, he had the clout to get a Nebraska bill through and the momentum seemed to press for just that. Iowa’s Augustus Caesar Dodge submitted the same bill that passed the House last Congress, the Douglas-approved legislation that would leave the Missouri Compromise in place. The Senate referred it to Douglas’ Committee on Territories.

Bourbon Dave had influence and he returned to Washington determined to use it against Douglas’ free Nebraska bill, beginning with his housemates. In an era before airplanes or easy rail travel, members of Congress went to Washington to stay. For the length of a session, they would hear from their constituents through letters, newspapers, and the telegraph, but not in person unless the constituents came to them. As people naturally do, they congregated with like-minded sorts to create little homes away from home. Some preferred to live alone, but many threw together to rent a boarding house they then called a mess. Atchison lived, amid house slaves and Senators, in a mess on F Street. His housemates included Virginia’s Robert M. T. Hunter, chairman of the Senate Finance committee, and James Mason of Fugitive Slave Act fame, chair of the Foreign Affairs committee and South Carolina’s Andrew P. Butler, chair of the Judiciary committee. Atchison bent their ears about Missouri’s vulnerabilities and how a free Nebraska could mean the end of Missourian slavery. Furthermore he assured them that he had a practical issue, not just one touching on the South’s always prickly sense of honor. Hemp and tobacco would grow in Nebraska territory just as they did across the border in Missouri.

James Mason

James Mason (D-VA)

The F Street mess had some reservations. They did not all see a rosy future for slavery in the future Kansas, or for that matter in Missouri. Even if Atchison had it right and plantations could creep up the Missouri river they could not hope to match the huge profits of the cotton kingdom. Maybe, even if it presented greater risk, the South would do better to concede Nebraska and look to enslaving New Mexico, Utah, or a section of Mexico proper stolen away fair and square. Perhaps old man Calhoun even had the right of it and they should focus not on regaining a majority but instead on ensuring a permanent slave power veto on all national laws to preserve the slavery they had.

But the mess had other things on its mind than just the practicalities. Restriction on slavery entailed its immorality. One does not embrace laws to ban things one approves of and so accepting the restriction meant at least implicitly accepting that slavery deserved banning. No Southern politician could lightly court that impression, lest he face a firestorm back home. The Missouri Compromise, they decided, had to go because as long as it stood it declared Southerners inferior just as the Wilmot Proviso did, unclean lepers that belonged not in the nation’s future but on the dustbin of history. Douglas’ old bill, now revived by Dodge for the new Congress, could not stand. If the Little Giant wanted Nebraska, he would have to win over the F Street patriarchs.

Bourbon Dave Reverts to Type

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison returned to Missouri fresh off his surprising about face on permitting a free territory to his state’s west. There he found Missouri slaveholders quite irate. It appeared, as he joked in the Senate, that he had said too much. His old enemy, Thomas Hart Benton, insisted that Bourbon Dave had betrayed the South. This after ten long years of Atchison standing in the way of letting nonslaveholding Missourians settle Nebraska. Benton could argue that even in surrendering Atchison kept up his real opposition to a free Nebraska, as his vote did not move the South to drop its opposition to another free territory and left the land closed to white settlement. Whatever Bourbon Dave did, however he did it, Missouri lost. The state should do the sensible thing and replace Atchison with Benton in the Senate. Old Bullion, after all, came right out and told people he would not go to great lengths to save slavery any more than he would go to great lengths to destroy it.

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

Facing Benton’s assault from the right, left, and center, and the outrage of his own supporters, Atchison decided to revise his earlier calculations. He told Missouri that, whatever happened back in March in the Senate, he stood with the South and slavery. He emulated Benton’s campaign, taking to the stump to prove his bona fides. He would not suffer the risks of a free territory to Missouri’s west after all. Speaking in Weston, just over the river from the future Kansas, Atchison declared he would rather see the land “sink in hell” than see it free. His supporters agreed, writing to steel his resolve. One turned the racial and intellectual mores of nineteenth century America on their heads, proclaiming he preferred Indians to white abolitionists if he had his choice of neighbors. In the same speech he came out for a Pacific railroad reaching from Kansas City or St. Joseph, through the Kansas river valley. Supporters of a more northerly route, through the Platte valley and had lately courted Benton’s patronage and their illegal settlement opposite Council Bluffs endorsed his railroad vision.

All of this may sound very partisan and certainly Old Bullion and Bourbon Dave each yearned to prevail over the other come the 1854 elections. But both men understood their battle also as one about the future of the West and thus the future of the United States. If the rest of the West remained closed to slavery, it could only dwindle. Radical dreams to seize more of Mexico, Cuba, Nicaragua, or other territory south of the border for slavery involved far more risk than securing the institution’s future on land already within the nation’s bounds. Even if Nebraska did not become a second Mississippi, lightly enslaved states could still produce proslavery radicals. Atchison only had to look in the mirror to know that. A new slave state would undo the loss from admitting California free and undivided. If the South could score a few more slave states, it could buy decades of insurance.

Benton knew all of that too. A free Nebraska would weaken slavery in Missouri, setting it on the road to extinction in the future. If Missouri could roll slavery back, why not Arkansas or Texas? The nation could quarantine slavery away from its future and over long years drown it out under a tide of free states without strife and without straining the Union. More urgently, radicals like Atchison provoked the North to new antislavery heights. They played with fire and would surely burn the Union if not put soundly in their place. The future of the nation depended on it.

Atchison bent over backwards to give Benton ammunition. He came out for repealing the Missouri Compromise. Their blood up, Missouri slaveholders agreed and a meeting pledged that should Congress open Nebraska to settlement they would bring slavery to it “whatever sacrifice of blood or treasure.”

Missouri Slaverholders Respond

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Things looked good for Stephen Douglas’ dream or organizing Indian country for the white race, the transcontinental railroad, for his investments in real estate, and for his political aspirations. Even if the South got its revenge for his amendment that killed a southern route for the Pacific railroad, a new Congress meant new opportunities and over the summer between the 32nd Congress adjourning and the 33rd beginning momentum seemed to swing in the Little Giant’s favor. Douglas could go home with high hopes of success in the winter.

David Rice Atchison went home too. There the spokesman of Missouri valley slaveholders found his neighbors not at all pleased with his calculated surrender. Submitting to a ban on slavery meant at least the silent implication that it soiled its practitioners. Did Bourbon Dave really expect them to take that? They should not have to skulk about and steal Kansas, or accept exclusion from land practically within sight of their Missouri plantations. As much as we struggle to imagine it now, many believed slavery right and good and took attacks on it as attacks on their own good character. Plenty of abolitionists, if not always for the same reasons we would cite today, certainly agreed.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

On top of the insult came practical fears: if the railroad ran through enslaved Missouri from free Illinois to free Nebraska, every passing train would invite slaves to hop on and steal themselves freedom. Free soil Nebraska would invite a flood of free soil northerners to rush up to their border on a third side with their slave-stealing and slave-inciting ways. How could they sleep at night if they knew thieving abolitionists lived just down the road and would inflame their slaves to murderous rebellion?

With the book finally closed on slavery west of Missouri, southern immigration to that state’s own lightly enslaved land would ebb and into the gap might come more whites who wanted no slaves, Benton’s kind of people, who threatened to demographically transform not just the unsettled territory but Missouri too. With slave property so insecure and demand flagging, prices would plunge. Slaveholders would have to sell out before the price got too low to minimize their losses, thus driving the price down even further and deporting the slaves down to the Lower South where prices would remain higher in an economic death spiral. In just a few short years, Missouri could turn into a free state in all but name.

Allan Nevins quotes the St. Louis Republican on the matter:

If Nebraska be made a free Territory then will Missouri be surrounded on three sides by free territory, where there will always be men and means to assist in the escape of our slaves. … With the emissaries of abolitionists around us, and the facilities of escape so enlarged, this species of property would become insecure, if not valueless, in Missouri. The Free-Soilers and Abolitionists look to this result, and calculate upon the facilities which will be offered by the incorporation of this Territory with a provision against slavery, as a means of abolishing slavery in Missouri. This is the more evident from a pamphlet recently issued in new York, thousands of which have been scattered over this States, urging the incorporation of Nebraska Territory, with a provision against the introduction of slave property into it; and in the same pamphlet the reelection of Col. Benton to the United States Senate is urged with the understanding that he would support such a measure. … If this scheme be accomplished, then it is not too much to say that six millions of property will be rendered valueless by this single act of legislation.

Bourbon Dave, their senator, wanted to call down the apocalypse on them. Their own man, a Missouri valley planter, would ruin them all. What did they cheer his ousting of Benton for, if not the same closet abolitionism Atchison now courted himself?

Good Omens for the 33rd Congress

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

The short session closed on March 3, 1853 and with it the 32nd Congress ended. That brought an end to Stephen Douglas’ latest attempt to organize the territory west of Missouri and Iowa, but for whatever reasons and whatever his constitutional scruples, one of Douglas’ most persistent Southern foes gave way. David Rice Atchison, proslavery firebrand, switched to Douglas’ side. Bills to organize the Indian country as Nebraska Territory passed the House before so the Little Giant had good reason to think they would again in the 33rd Congress come December.  The Senators from Texas opposed the bill only in terms of timing and disposing properly of Indian title to the land first. Even in the rush at the end of the 32nd Congress, Douglas only lost 23-17. If Douglas could get Sam Houston and Thomas Jefferson Rusk, both returning for the new Congress, to join the yeas he would have 21-19. The focus on extinguishing Indian title to the land and resigned acquiescence to the Missouri Compromise’s ban on slavery augured no proslavery firestorm. The Armistice held.

That given, Douglas must have expected an easy time of shaking loose a few more Southern senators. Franklin Pierce, always an eager expansionist, gave Douglas a hand by dispatching George Manypenny to negotiate with the Indians. Allan Nevins describes his results in Ordeal of the Union, volume two, A House Dividing:

treaties were shortly concluded with the main tribes north of Kansas River (the Otoe, Iowa, Kickapoo, Delaware, and others), under which about 11,500,000 acres were ceded to the United States; most of this land being unconditionally transferred and therefore subject to preemption, but 634,500 acres being given up on condition that the government pay the proceeds of sales to the tribes. Treaties were also presently written with tribes south of the Kansas ceding slightly more than 2,000,000 acres, all but a bout 208,000 acres of which were subject to preemption. It remained only for the Senate to ratify these treaties, and for the Indian Office to take steps to have reservations and selections of land made for the Indian.

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell (Whig-TN)

The Indians would have a place to go, so they would not be thrown on the Texas hinterlands to menace white Texans. That ought to please Thomas Rusk and salve Sam Houston’s conscience. It would also give Tennessee’s John Bell something to think about, as he opposed the bill out of concern about Indian claims and on the grounds that ample land remained unsettled in existing territories. With all of that, why did the nation even need to organize the territory just then? Come winter, Bell had the harder task of standing up to suggest taking from white America lands the Indians agreed to give up.  Put in that position, with a fait accompli before him, would Bell decide to stand against everything nineteenth century white America called progress? His state lay close enough that some of its citizens would probably move into the open lands given the chance, and in the March debate he said that expected they would. If Bell joined Atchison and the Texans, Douglas had three new votes in his column and the whip count went 20-19. Surely a skilled, influential senator like Stephen Douglas could scare up two more votes. The yea vote would cost them little and they could tell angry proslavery constituents that the ironclad Missouri Compromise bound their hands, just as Bourbon Dave could.

As the summer of 1853 rolled on, it looked more and more like David Rice Atchison had it right: white settlement of Nebraska would happen soon whatever Congress did, so better vote through territorial organization now. The inevitable had come.

Why did Atchison Surrender? Part Three

 

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Drink did not play a substantial role in Missouri senator David Rice Atchison’s sudden about-face on permitting Congress to organize a free territory of Nebraska to his state’s West, or at least no more role than it played in Bourbon Dave’s previous decision otherwise. His battle with Missouri’s ex-senator Thomas Hart Benton certainly did factor in. Having not so long before worked Missouri politics to oust Benton from his seat, Atchison had to know that Benton could use the same trick on him. Calhoun, Jefferson Davis, and the rest of the radicals could fume from deeply enslaved states. Atchison lacked that luxury and knew it well enough that for a decade he chose to focus his objections to an organized Nebraska around the plight of the Indians that white settlement would displace and dispossess. That didn’t stop Bourbon Dave from inveighing against the Missouri Compromise, the Northwest Ordinance, the Wilmot Proviso, or just about anything else that limited slavery but could at least gave him a small measure of plausible deniability. He cared about the Indians, so Atchison couldn’t be a complete proslavery obsessive, right?

By 1853, Atchison had given up on caring about the Indians and, ostensibly, about having free soil on a third side of Missouri. Or had he? Say Douglas’ bill passed and a free Nebraska grew on Missouri’s western flank. Who would enforce the ban on slavery there? Atchison’s supporters in the Missouri river gray belt sat just across the border. They grew hemp and tobacco in areas immediately adjacent to the virgin lands that the bill would open to them, lands watered by the same river and enjoying the same climate. Would they really stay away? Most western migration came from areas directly adjacent to newly opened lands and for the future Kansas, that meant Missouri slave country. If planters came with their slaves, who would evict them?

Certainly not the Army, even if such an eviction would not have caused a firestorm. It tolerated quite well the illegal settlement of Missouri slaveholders and their supporters around Fort Leavenworth and likewise could stir itself to evict those free soil men who came across the river from Council Bluffs, Iowa. Under the Non-Intercourse Act of 1834, the Army had the power and legal responsibility to evict any whites settling in Indian country. In the March, 1853 debates all parties acknowledged that any settlers in the territory lived there illegally. Yet the Army did nothing. The new land would have no police and only a governor dispatched from Washington. If the Army would not remove the illegal settlers, would a future territorial government really evict legal settlers with illegal property?

Henry S. Geyer (Whig-MO)

Henry S. Geyer (Whig-MO)

Probably not. When the Northwest Ordinance barred slavery from the land north of the Ohio, it did not stop slaveholders from coming up out of Kentucky and Virginia with their human property and establishing rather Southern-style societies on the territory’s margins. Congress neglected to make any law to evict them and they arrived in Illinois in sufficient numbers that the Land of Lincoln came fairly close to making itself a slave state. Instead for some time it had black “apprentices”. Knowing that, and realizing the practical limits of federal writ in the sparsely populated West, Atchison could have simply expected slaveholders to do their work with or without legal sanction and steal Nebraska for slavery just as filibusters tried to steal Cuba, Nicaragua, parts of Mexico, and had successfully stolen Texas.

Whether or not Atchison had it in mind when he yielded before Douglas at the beginning of March, 1853, he took it on himself to lead the Missouri filibusters once the chance came a few years later. But for now, the time ran out on Douglas’ bill. Even with Bourbon Dave supporting the Little Giant, the measure went down 23-17, with the South opposed 19-2. Only his fellow Missourian, Henry S. Geyer, voted with Atchison.

Why did Atchison Surrender? Part Two

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

On March 3, 1853, Missouri’s proslavery radical in the Senate, David Rice Atchsion, unexpectedly yielded his previous objections to organizing Nebraska to his state’s west as free soil. The Missouri Compromise required just that and Stephen Douglas’ frequent bills to organize the land left it in place. Atchison rejected the Missouri Compromise and the Northwest Ordinance before it for their restrictions on slavery, a power he thought the Constitution sanctioned no more than it did cancelling elections. Even when Atchison surrendered, as he put it, to the inevitable white settlement, he reiterated his objections. He could not help that Congress had barred slavery and saw no hope of ever rolling back the prohibition.

Fair enough, but Atchison could have delayed the inevitable. He could have done as and the rest of the South’s senators preferred and left Nebraska permanently unorganized and in the hands of the Indians. That would inevitably have meant the Pacific railroad ran through the Lower South, a prospect much appreciated by the pocketbooks of certain investors. Without Nebraska, the railroad had nowhere else to cross the continent. But that would also have put the railroad outside Atchison’s Missouri. That may have factored into Old Bourbon’s surrender, as the central route for a transcontinental railroad put him in the very unusual position of agreeing with Thomas Hart Benton.

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton (D-MO)

Benton might have the answer. Atchison forced him out of the Senate, but Benton lacked the generosity in defeat to lay down and die or, at the very least, to retire. He won a seat in the House and came right back to Washington. Benton knew Atchison had to stand for reelection in 1854 and Old Bullion would love nothing more than to return to the Senate by knocking Atchison off his perch there. He still had plenty of friends and supporters in Missouri, men who didn’t much care for Atchison’s Lower South style of slavery agitation. By forcing Benton out, Atchison painted a target on his back and gave his enemies plenty of ammunition.

Atchison could count on Missouri’s proslavery elements. By ousting Benton he gave them the biggest victory they could hope for in state politics. He could afford to disappoint them some by moderating his stance on Nebraska. Who would they support instead? Benton, to their minds a closet abolitionist? Not likely. Bourbon Dave could hope to neutralize some of Benton’s attacks on him by going soft on Nebraska and maybe even pick up some of his less devoted supporters. Easing up, at least temporarily, in a situation where Atchison could plausibly claim precedent tied his hands made good political sense and a man with the skills to organize the bipartisan movement to oust Benton had to see the opportunity. He stood to lose little to nothing by yielding this once.

Political calculation makes much more sense than finding Atchison’s reasons at the bottom of his bottle. It fits with the tenor of Missouri politics and with Benton’s continued presence and threat to him. Though they often expressed themselves in dogmatic tones, even the most extreme proslavery politicians could make hard choices and sacrifice stated principles for practical gains. If Calhoun could both preach states’ rights and demand Congress force Northern states to censor their mail, or inveigh against internal improvements but support a Pacific railroad that dwarfed all the rest, Bourbon Dave could curse restrictions on slavery with one breath and give join the yeas for organizing a new free territory with the next.

Nebraska Deadlock

 

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

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

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

David Wilmot, author of the insult to the South

David Wilmot

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

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

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

 

Indian Country and the Railroad

Thomas Hart Benton

Thomas Hart Benton

Missouri, at the exposed edge of the South with freedom on two sides and oddball demographics, disposed of its more atypical senator, Thomas Hart Benton, at the instigation of his nearly as atypical fellow senator, David Rice Atchison. For the moment, rather white, rather free, almost Northern Missouri cast its lot with the Lower South extremists. The apparent paradox of such a lightly enslaved state throwing in with the deeply enslaved states further south makes a certain amount of sense. Knowing Missouri slavery vulnerable, its advocates would naturally make themselves extremely vigilant and sensibly adopt the most extreme proslavery politics to deter their opponents and so both put themselves and their opposites on notice against hidden subversion like that which might hide behind Benton’s stand for silence on slavery.

But Benton’s almost free Missouri did not evaporate. He returned to Washington in 1853, representing St. Louis in the House. His supporters worked, without success, to repeal the Missouri legislature’s resolutions against him. But their efforts signaled that Benton had not closed the book on holding higher office again. Atchison would stand for reelection in 1855 and few things would please Old Bullion more than taking the seat of the man who took his away.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Benton and Atchison both favored a central route for the transcontinental railroad, and there the grudge match between them joins with the great sectional crisis that undid the Armistice’s finality after a mere four years. With the demise of the southern route, disposed of by Lewis Cass, Stephen Douglas, and Benton’s replacement Henry S. Geyer, any route chosen had to run through not Texas and organized New Mexico or Utah territory, but through Indian country. Per the Non-Intercourse Act of 1834, whites could not settle there. They couldn’t even trade there without a special license. They could not buy or hold land. They could only pass through on their way to the coast. All of that had to change for the railroad’s construction and, deeply connected in the minds of nineteenth century Americans, for the white race to fulfill its destiny by filling the continent.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Douglas had worked on organizing Indian country as Nebraska Territory since he first entered the House. He didn’t care one way or the other about slavery. Douglas wanted his railroad, his profits, and the advancement of his race. But where Douglas in the House failed, Douglas in the Senate could succeed. In 1852, on his third try, the Little Giant submitted a bill to recruit a volunteer military force to build a series of forts across Indian country, string a telegraph line, and support itself through farming. After three years, each man in the force would get a section of land on the route. The law did not pass, says something about both Douglas’ ingenuity and how badly he wanted the land settled.

Douglas had good reason to think the time ripe. By the fall of 1853, two groups of whites had ignored the prohibitions of the Non-Intercourse Act and settled in the area. A group of Missourians settled around Fort Leavenworth, amid the very army charged under the law to evict them. To signal their enthusiasm, they elected a slaveholding Atchison man as their delegate to Congress. They had no authority to do any such thing, of course. Nor did the Iowans who settled across the river from Council Bluffs and elected a free soil man to send to Congress. Both groups stood in blatant defiance of the law, but like the filibusters they took what they wanted and dared Congress to make them give it back.