Eli Thayer Goes on the Road: The New England Emigrant Aid Company, Part Two

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

We left Eli Thayer demoted from a leader of his own invention, the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company, to a promoter of the New England Emigrant Aid Company. His signature idea, to subsidize free state settlement in Kansas to keep slavery from the territory’s bound and then try to roll it back elsewhere, whilst turning a handy profit, fell by the wayside. Conservative Whigs with deep pockets took over, dropping Thayer’s business antislavery strategy for a more conventional charitable frame focused entirely on Kansas. This brings us to July 24, 1854.

By this point, the Kansas-Nebraska Act had Franklin Pierce’s signature and the expansion of white settlement had begun. The word in Missouri had it that Thayer’s operation had its five million on hand and twenty thousand impoverished Yankees ready to turn slave stealing Hessian just down the road from Missouri’s plantation belt. Proslavery Missourians organized for self-defense, with future Squatter Sovereign editor John Stringfellow telling St. Joseph

To those having qualms of conscience, as to violating of laws, state or national, the time has come when such impositions must be disregarded, as your lives and property are in danger, and I advise you one and all to enter every election district in Kansas … and vote at the point of a Bowie knife or revolver.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

The endless hosts of Yankee Hessians numbered twenty-nine. They departed Boston on July 17, with Thayer escorting them to Buffalo. He admitted that he had not mustered the legions he hoped, but you had to start somewhere. At Buffalo Thayer parted company with the expedition, but Charles Robinson and Charles Branscomb joined up. They had gone out in advance to scout locations and see about group rates for transportation. That scouting mission determined the site of Lawrence, named after the Emigrant Aid Company benefactor and slayer of business antislavery, Amos Lawrence. The company fronted a newspaper there, George Brown’s Herald of Freedom. Whilst touring to solicit donations, Thayer took care to have stacks of it on hand.

While settlement got going in Kansas, Thayer started on his lecture circuit on earnest. Past efforts had focused on Massachusetts and New York, but he now traveled all over New England. Over the three years from September of 1854, Thayer traveled north of six thousand miles and gave above seven hundred speeches. He and his companions, most often Charles Brancsomb, would arrange promotion in the local papers in advance. Thayer would give his spiel to a mass meeting and set up a Kansas League. It appears the leagues did the main work of finding people willing to go, whilst Thayer focused on exhortation and fundraising.

Thayer had an ambitious pitch, to the point where NEEAC’s leadership asked him to tone it down. They had no mind to carry the fight from Kansas into the slave states, but Thayer sold the enterprise as one which would free Kansas as the first step. Then they would press on to Missouri and Virginia, whilst also pushing out to make more free states in the west. Thayer extravagantly claimed that they could free Kansas in a year and then add a new state on top each year thereafter, and the stock would pay off whatever the directors thought. This required representatives of the company to walk back their spokesman’s remarks and distinguish between his ideas and their own.

Thayer’s boosterism, combined with the usual wild claims of an earthly paradise just aching for you to go settle it, did little to please those who took the plunge. Many emigrants pronounced Kansas a humbug and went home. At the time of Thayer’s first big tour, Lawrence boasted “one log cabin, one shake house, and a conglomeration of hay houses.” All the same, little had yet transpired in Kansas to make for interesting news. Thayer’s traveling show helped keep the territory in the public mind until the real struggle kicked off.

The Rise and Fall of Business Antislavery: The New England Emigrant Aid Company, Part One

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

Between the Howard Committee and the Buford Expedition, plenty of people have lately come to Kansas Territory. Before them, Missourians went across the border. Many meant to stay, but many also meant to control Kansas’ elections or murder abolitionists and make it home for breakfast. In all this, I have largely left out the people who offered the proslavery forces their casus belli: the Emigrant Aid Company. To a great degree that comes down to the historians I have relied upon. Concerned with matters largely internal to the Kansas-Missouri border, it matters less to their narratives how antislavery Americans arrived in the territory than what they did once present. A few paragraphs suffice. But a kind friend has supplied me with Horace Andrews’ Kansas Crusade: Eli Thayer and the New England Emigrant Aid Company, the hot release of December, 1962.

Andrews points out that as the Kansas-Nebraska Act worked its way through Congress, a sense of inevitability set over certain quarters of the North. Slavery got what slavery wanted and they appeared impotent against the new advance. The Democracy had its house in order, a few dissidents aside, and would continue to do as it liked as the nation’s dominant party. Who could stop it? Eli Thayer of Worchester, Massachusetts though himself the man for the job. He ran a school for women, the Oread Collegiate Institute, for the four years prior to considerable success. In that time he supported the Free Soil party to the end and took a term in the Massachusetts legislature. All this made him prominent enough that the state legislature would grant Thayer his corporate charter, creating the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company.

Thayer advocated what he called “Business antislavery,” to separate it from the tried-and-failed methods of ordinary politics and moral suasion. If Stephen Douglas insisted that popular sovereignty would settle Kansas’ future, then Eli Thayer would take him up on that. Thayer’s business antislavery gained a significant convert in the person of Edward Everett Hale, a Unitarian minister and advocate for settling antislavery men in Texas to turn the state around. Hale had never come up with a concrete plan for doing that, but Thayer thought he had one. Thayer expected to sell stock in his company, use the money to subsidize emigration, and make a profit in the process. Andrews doesn’t go into just how, but presumably Thayer imagined that the company would invest in or found town companies just like many similar projects.

Amos Adams Lawrence

Amos Adams Lawrence

There came the snag. Thayer and his associates could drum up plenty of interest but not much money. The organizing committee itself refused to buy the stock they proposed to sell. Nobody seems to have believed that the five million dollar capitalization authorized would appear and many looked askance at the idea Thayer had to take the crusade into the slave states after they saved Kansas for freedom. At the instigation of Amos Lawrence, from whom Lawrence, Kansas, got its name, plans changed. Lawrence preferred a charitable operation with no expectation of future profit. If the stock wouldn’t generate dividends anyway, why pretend otherwise? And what if it did? Didn’t that suggest a mercenary outlook on the part of good-hearted antislavery men bent on saving the Union?

The Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company thus gave way to the New England Emigrant Aid Company on July 24, 1855, complete with a well-off board of Massachusetts luminaries for directors. Thayer got the news on his way home from a tour in New York where he raised $100,000. NEEAC, now institutionally controlled by conservative Whigs rather than New England radicals, had the form of a corporation but functioned like a charity. It took in gifts, rather than investments. Thayer himself took a demotion from leading light to a promotional speaker.

Hale vs. Pierce: Central American Distractions

John Hale

John Hale

So far as I can tell, the Herald of Freedom did not publish a direct answer to Franklin Pierce’s annual message blaming all Kansas’ woes on antislavery fanaticism. George Washington Brown reprinted a lengthy essay from another paper attacking the theory of presidential impotency that Pierce appealed to as reason to stand aside and let proslavery Missourians dominate the territory. That constitutes a kind of response, but it did not make the president into his debating partner. For that, Brown’s readers had to wait another week.

The January 26 Herald of Freedom included extracts from the speech of John P. Hale, free soil senator from Pierce’s own New Hampshire, to directly answer the presidential message. Hale and Pierce went way back. The Senator began his career as a Jackson Democrat, but split with the party over Texas. That meant denying the explicit instructions of the state party to vote for annexation. For his trouble, the New Hampshire party expelled him. Franklin Pierce led the convention that did the job. Hale embarked on a campaign to win the Granite State for antislavery, which included a debate with Pierce, and succeeded in getting enough Whigs and Independent Democrats elected to the legislature to put him in the Senate. Subsequently Hale ran as the Free Soil candidate in the 1852 election, against Pierce.

The Herald of Freedom’s extracts from Hale open with a disclaimer of any plan to make an account of himself. The people, he reasoned, don’t care what individual senators think. But he wouldn’t damn other Senators for the act. Should some Northern senator want to stand up and explain why he voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, more power to him. However:

there is not a one of them that has ever had his election submitted to the people of a Free State, who has had a chance to make an explanation on this floor, or will be likely to get it very soon. Hence, I have not a word to say about that.

Reading just barely between the lines, Hale commented on that nice election that Pierce had and informed him not to expect another. Should any of his colleagues feel like more proslavery concessions, they could go too.

Hale then addressed the subject of Central America, which so engaged Pierce. It occupies pages of his message, where Kansas managed direct references for barely a paragraph:

I tell the President that there is a central place in the United States-not Central America, Central United States-called Kansas about which the people of this country are thinking vastly more at this time than they are about Central America, down in the land of filibusters; and it seems to me that the President of the United States would have discharged just as appropriately his proper constitutional functions if he had favored us a little with that

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Hale submitted that Pierce devoted such attention to Central America as a distraction

seized upon by those agitators who do not think it prudent to take hold of a subject which really agitates the people. They care nothing about Central America-not a straw; the whole thing is a humbug exploded long ago.

I suspect Pierce, and others, cared rather more about Central America than Hale would allow, but the Senator’s larger point certainly stands. The most pressing news in 1855 had not come from south of the border, but west of Missouri. Furthermore, the Second Party System from its inception had stressed issues unrelated, or ostensibly unrelated, to slavery as a way to preserve the Union. Few Americans could miss that, given the constant fretting over the nation’s survival should slavery become and remain an issue of contention rather than the subject of bipartisan protection.

This didn’t mean that the people forgot they cared about slavery, for or against. You could hardly miss the institution in the South and no one made any secret of it. But so long as slavery remained the subtext of politics, policy might not arouse relatively moderate antislavery interest. Diehard abolitionists would never let it go, but keeping slavery off the table denied them some measure of the platform they would need to interest dormant or inchoate antislavery sentiment. One must expect that the custom frustrated antislavery Americans while doing little to impede their proslavery opposites, given that the founding figures of Democracy and Whiggery alike themselves owned slaves or, in the case of Martin Van Buren, partnered very closely with those who did.

Finding a Speaker

We left the 34th Congress deadlocked on who to elect Speaker of the House. Until they did, they lacked a presiding officer and could hardly get any business done. Someone had to become Speaker, but the administration’s candidate couldn’t get the required majority. The opposition coalition of Know-Nothings, Free Soilers, Whigs, Republicans, and anti-Nebraska Democrats together had the votes to fill the seat, but such a heterodox group has its own problems finding the right man for the job. They agreed on not accepting Franklin Pierce’s choice of William Richardson, but little else.

Lewis Campbell (Whig-OH)

Lewis Campbell (Whig-OH)

After Richardson won a plurality and, consequently, lost the first ballot the opposition made a go of uniting around Lewis Campbell, an Ohio Whig. Campbell earned their esteem through an attempted filibuster against the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the last Congress. Things went so well back then that Campbell nearly found himself physically attacked. That had to count for something, right?

Apparently not enough. Giving it another try after Campbell also failed to command a majority, a large group of Republicans settled on Nathaniel P. Banks. Banks, a Massachusetts man, had the kind of pedigree that would inspire mixed emotions in such a fraught time. In the Bay State, he had stood as a Democrat but then combined with free soilers. Lately Banks had hopped parties again, moving over to the Know-Nothings. That made him a traitor twice over, to more orthodox Democrats, and might look shifty to his latest band of allies. But his career also spanned contentious spectrum of party politics in the middle 1850s.

Bank’s fellow Know-Nothings preferred Kentucky’s Humphrey Marshall and without them he didn’t have a majority either. When Marshall’s run ended similarly, they tried Henry Fuller. The votes went on and on, with no winner emerging. Every ballot came with a new round of recrimination. The Republicans laid into anti-Nebraska men who opposed Banks, which naturally endeared them to their targets. The southerners and administration Democrats had their own frustrations in the minority, still voting for Richardson ballot after ballot.

William Aiken (D-SC)

William Aiken (D-SC)

The 34th Congress opened on December 3, 1855. Yet on the 24th, Allan Nevins reports that with the sixty-eighth ballot,

Banks has 101 votes, Richardson 72, and Fuller 31, with eleven for minor figures.

As part of the process, congressmen quizzed the candidates. Nevins relates how a Mississippian asked Banks if he believed in racial equality. Banks

responded that it seemed to be the general law that the weaker of two juxtaposed races was absorbed or disappeared altogether. “Whether the black race … is equal to the white race, can only be determined by the absorption or disappearance of one or the other, and I propose to wait until the respected races can be properly subjected to this philosophical test before I give a decisive answer.”

Nathaniel Banks

Nathaniel Banks

The House thought that pretty funny, but it probably didn’t win Banks any votes.

With the grinding process, the constant rounds of fruitless questioning and votes, and endless speeches, one might expect tempers to flare. Congressmen had assaulted one another on the floor before, and would again. But only Horace Greeley took any lumps, and he took them away from the floor of the House. I sought further details, but haven’t found a copy of the New York Weekly Tribune for February 2 online.

The battle for the Speakership wore on through December and January, not ending until the start of February when the House voted a rule to elect the Speaker with a plurality. Nathaniel Banks at last prevailed, 103-100, over South Carolina’s William Aiken, Jr. In settling on Banks, the opposition coalition had not repudiated nativism, but the majority within had clearly chosen an antislavery nativist, from Massachusetts no less, over proslavery or indifferent candidates available to them from climes further South. A victory barely managed out hardly made for a grand triumph, and Banks would use his powers in a decidedly impartial way, but the opposition had moved at least a small step beyond single-issue rejection of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and toward a consolidated party.

The Case for Expulsion

JH Stringfellow

J.H. Stringfellow

The legislature of Kansas met in Pawnee, town of many imagined delights, and immediately took on itself the task of deciding just who belonged among its members. The proslavery majority unseated all the free soil members save one, who could claim his seat in right of an election during the Missourian invasion of March rather than the relatively fair special elections of May. In the vacated offices, the legislature placed the men who won the March elections. These included such a moderate voice as John Stringfellow. With a man like him in office, how could free soilers complain about harsh treatment? He only wanted to run them out of the territory and maybe, just maybe, kill Andrew Reeder if the governor refused to leave.

The purge of the legislature continued the dispute that the proslavery party had with Reeder over his calling for special elections to begin with. He had no power to do any such thing, to their minds, and so many proslavery men had boycotted the May elections. Legalities suddenly took on great significance when they injured the free soil side, compared to their relative triviality in the matter of something like proslavery Missourians making themselves Kansans for a day to control elections.

Though the decision obviously had far more to do with partisanship than principle, did the proslavery men have a legal leg to stand on? Our sympathies certainly lay elsewhere, but it only seems fair to ask the question. Previously, I could only go from the text of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Constitution to conjecture their case. But as I have the reports of the committees on credentials before me now, I have the benefit of their own words to share.

After laying out the basic problem that several seats had two claimants due to the two different elections, the committees proceeded to the question of what authority the governor had over elections. They discovered, unsurprisingly, that he had little at all. As the territorial executive, they adduced a general principle that Reeder’s powers extended only so far as clear grant of authority existed:

From the fact that his duties are clearly defined and pointed out, it would follow as a sequence that his authority should be just as clear and explicit. This may be truly said of all merely administrative or executive officers.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

The explicit and clear authority ran as follows:

it will be seen that it devolved upon him [the governor] to declare the places at which, and the time when, the first election for members of the legislative assembly should be held, and that said election should be conducted in such manner, both as to persons who shall superintend such elections and the returns thereof, as the governor shall elect. This is nothing more than an authority to appoint judges of the election, and to direct the manner in which the returns shall be made. It cannot mean an authority to direct in what way the judges shall discharge their respective duties, for it should be presumed that they know the law, and are duly impressed with the duties they have to perform. We hold that a judge of an election, just as any other judge, has a discretionary power in all things where the law is silent, and when that discretion is once exercised, the result thereof becomes final, unless his action is subject to revision by another and higher tribunal.

Reeder could appoint the judges; he had no right power to question their decisions. He had no right power to proscribe a restrictive oath binding them to accept only the votes of Kansas residents. He certainly had no power to receive their returns and then decide that the election did not count and would be done over. No law of Congress or the territory placed any such restraints upon the judges, so they could do as they liked. The governor served strictly as their agent, a clerk who took the returns and wrote out certificates of election.

The committee went on to opine on the dangers of allowing the executive to decide who could and could not sit in the legislature. This looked dangerously royal to them, and they noted that even Bad Old England did not tolerate such an arrangement. Parliament made itself the judge of its membership, just as the US Congress did. Otherwise, the executive could simply expel anybody who did not vote as he liked. Reeder didn’t do that, of course. The proslavery majority did. They, after all, represented the people.

This may sound a bit alien, but fits comfortably in the nineteenth century mainstream. The Whigs made it virtually a test of party orthodoxy to trust the legislature over the presidency, which corrupt King Andrew Jackson had proven inherently suspect. Even Democratic presidents had much greater deference toward Congress than one might see now. The executive of the day had a much more prime ministerial character. The American electorate also generated much more parliamentary returns, regularly electing a working majority from the party of the man who won the presidency.

Stephen Douglas Declares War

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

If Stephen Douglas threw the future of Kansas as free soil into doubt with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he left open the possibility that freedom would prevail. At various points, he said that he expected it to do so and thus the tremendous strife in Washington, in the newspapers, and out in the nation at large over the fact amounted to much ado about nothing. If slavery would not flourish in Kansas anyway, why worry about the fact that Kansans could legally introduce it? They’d just waste their time.

Neither the Missouri slaveholders doing just fine a few miles away from Kansas, drained by the same river, and outraged by its potential as an abolitionist base for slave stealing nor the antislavery North though slavery in Kansas a bloodless abstraction. For both parties, to varying degrees, slavery in Kansas meant the possibility of slavery in Utah and New Mexico to say the least, and perhaps slavery all the way up to Canada. It could mean on one hand the regaining of lost parity for slavery in the Senate and on the other a wall of future slave states that would help turn the Union entire into an empire for slavery.

With its future, and by proxy the Union’s future, in doubt and subject to the verdict of elections in Kansas, antislavery men resolved to make a fight of it. Their threats, both political and otherwise, incensed Douglas greatly. They foretold an era of sectional parties that would pit North against South to the ruin of the Union. He rose to answer the fireworks in the Senate with dire warnings of his own:

No sane man can close his eyes to the fact that this great northern party, which is being organized on sectional issues, contemplates servile insurrection, civil war, and disunion! Sir, every man who joins this new organization with the black flag of Abolition floating over it; every man who prostitutes the pulpit to the advancement of demagogues and the encouragement of violence; every man who goes into this unholy, treasonable alliance, will be marked by the people for his treason.

Douglas would spend some of the summer and fall hearing plenty of accusations of treason tossed his way, but he could give as good as he got:

By your speeches you encourage mobs, you instigate rebellion, you stimulate violence, and then shuffle off the responsibility upon others, and leave your simple, unfortunate instruments and tools to bear the odium, and in some cases suffer the penalty of the law for crimes which you caused to be committed.


Every murder that shall be committed, every drop of blood that shall be shed, every crime that shall be perpetrated must rest, with all its guilt, upon your souls; and I only regret that the penalty of the law cannot fall upon the heads of the instigators instead of the instruments who suffer themselves to be acting under their advice.

Antislavery rhetoric could get pretty wild, sometimes to the point where even sympathetic modern readers find their eyes rolling. I know mine have. But their standards of political speech differed from ours and we must allow that they did grapple with what they saw as existential concerns. Within a decade, they proved themselves right to think that the future of slavery and the future of the nation formed one and the same issue.

Senator William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

Senator William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

If antislavery men like Seward considered the gauntlet thrown down, in the manner of a romantic medieval duel, then so did Douglas. He picked it up on behalf of the Union, just his opposites believed they had:

I accept your challenge; raise your black flag; call up your forces; preach your war on the Constitution, as you have threatened it here. We will be ready to meet all your allied forces. The people will prove true to the Constitution, and true to their allegiance to the Union. You cannot carry out the programme threatened without an attempt to overthrow the Government. You cannot carry it out without destroying all fidelity to the Constitution. Now we are ready for the issue. “Self-government and the Constitution” is our motto, and under that banner we will fight the battle and achieve victory.

That all speaks for itself, but one bit warrants calling out. The black flag, in the parlance of the time, meant not just the flag of a hateful cause. Rather one figuratively raised the black flag at war to announce that one would give no quarter and expect none in return. It meant no mercy and no surrenders. The fight would go on until one side or the other ran out of people to kill.

William Henry Seward Declares War

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

What would happen to Kansas? Would it go free, as Stephen Douglas predicted? Would it go slave, as the Missouri slaveholders just over the river hoped? Douglas imagined that climate and geography would solve this problem and keep it free. He might have even believed it, as slavery qua slavery never meant much to him and thus he never had much occasion to think in detail about it. But William Seward, who cared quite a bit more about slavery, allowed that Kansas might go slave but expected the same thing to happen with Nebraska. I mention the two men on the way to returning to Kansas for the notorious and violent festivities.

Back at the end of May, 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act came back before the Senate because the House had stripped from it an amendment banning immigrants from the land. The Senate could live with that and the act passed again but returning it to the floor occasioned another round of speeches where both sides fixed their eyes on the future of that now troublesome land adjacent to Missouri. Seward took the occasion to remark on what the Senate did:

We are on the even of the consummation of a great national transaction -a transaction which will close a cycle in the history of our country- and it is impossible not to desire to pause a moment and survey the scene around us and the prospect before us.

Seward saw that

what has occurred here and in the country during this contest, has compelled a conviction that slavery will gain something, and freedom will endure a severe, though I hope not an irretrievable loss.


this contest involves a moral question. The slave States so present it. They maintain that African slavery is not erroneous, not unjust, not inconsistent with the advancing cause of human nature. Since they so regard it, I do not expect to see statesmen representing those States indifferent about a vindication of this system by the Congress of the United States. On the other hand, we of the free States regard slavery as erroneous, unjust, oppressive, and therefore absolutely inconsistent with the principles of the American Constitution and Government. Who will expect us to be indifferent to the decisions of the American people and of mankind on such an issue?

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Though he claimed otherwise, Seward clearly saw himself as a spokesman for the North when he issued his challenge. If popular sovereignty would decide the fate of Kansas, and thus the nation, then

Come on, then, gentlemen of the slave States. Since there is no escaping your challenge, I accept it on behalf of the cause of freedom. We will engage in competition for the virgin soil of Kansas, and God give victory to the side which is stronger in numbers as it is in right.

If freedom must fight for Kansas, fight it would. If Douglas opened the door to a brawl over the future of the Great Plains, and thus the nation as a whole, then the burgeoning antislavery movement would walk through and fight it out. Replacing the Missouri Compromise’s settled line with an open-ended future for slavery invited it. The North would come for the fight.

Storms Make Messes

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

We have yet to finish with 1854, that remarkable year when everything happened at once and flowed together into everything else into a confused mix where the South and the Democracy had their great triumph over Kansas and then found themselves nearly ruined by it. Doubling down, whether with new efforts to buy Cuba or with wild, irresponsible threats from the Ostend Manifesto only further got the increasingly antislavery North’s back up. Though meaning just the opposite, Franklin Pierce and Stephen Douglas sure knew how to wreck a party.

The Democrats paid at the ballot box, losing almost half the seats they’d held in the 33rd Congress. Only seven northern Democrats who voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act survived the voters’ wrath. Those who voted against it paid a price too, but where pro-Nebraska northern Democrats found their numbers reduced to a mere seven, losing three quarters of their caucus, the anti-Nebraska northern Democracy came out with only a thirty percent, fifteen seat haircut. It could clearly have gone much worse for the latter. This came on the very heels of the Democracy’s best showing yet, a remarkable reversal of fortune. Douglas got his storm.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Looking back at this it can seem obvious that the new Republican party founded in 1854 picked up the pieces. The Democracy’s loss meant the Republican’s gain. We know what happened next, but people at the time did not have that luxury. In some states the Whigs survived. In others the whole party transitioned relatively smoothly into Republicans. That did not happen in Illinois, where the Republicans tried to draft Abraham Lincoln. He declined and stayed a Whig, interested instead in making Whiggery into the national antislavery party. In many corners of the North, antislavery Whigs, Republicans, and Know-Nothings competed for many of the same votes. The Republicans had only just come on the scene and did not even adopt their name until the summer. This all meant a dizzying array of choices at the ballot box, which David Potter summarizes in The Impending Crisis:

Voters in 1854, therefore, faced a stunning array of parties and factions. Along with the old familiar Democrats, Whigs, and Free Soilers, there were also Republicans, People’s party men, Anti-Nebraskaites, Fusionists, Know-Nothings, Know-Somethings (antislavery nativists), Maine Lawites, Temperance men, Rum Democrats, Silver Gray Whigs, Hindoos, Hard Shell Democrats, Soft Shells, Half Shells, Adopted Citizens, and assorted others.

The who? The whats?

The Maine Law refers to that state’s 1851 prohibition law, which the powerful temperance movement wanted to see enacted in other states. The Anti-Nebraskaites took a somewhat stronger antislavery position than the Republicans. Hard Shell and Soft Shell Democrats disagreed over whether to reconcile the Barnburner Democrats who left the party for the Free Soil party back in 1854 but had since come back. Soft Shell Democrats and Silver Gray Whigs both took less of an anti-immigrant tone and worried about the growing power of the Know-Nothings.

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

Henry Wilson (American-MA)

The Democracy very clearly lost the 1854 elections, but out of all this mess who had really won? Had the Know-Nothings proved their strength over antislavery, or had it gone the other way around? Where did the Temperance movement fit in? If slavery might break the Union, then nativism could save it and serve as a counterweight to the great sectional tensions of the age. The fact that nativism overlapped with antislavery complicated, and ultimately helped thwart, hope but left matters still more confused. Potter counts

about 121 members who had been chosen with Know-Nothing support and about 115 who had been elected as Anti-Nebraska men, with antislavery support. About 23 were antislavery but not nativist; about 29 were nativist but not antislavery (most of these were Southerners); but some 92 were both antislavery and associated with nativism. This situation meant that most of the nativists were antislavery and most of the antislavery members were in some degree nativists.

Who had the majority? The antislavery men or the nativists? Both did, but they did not flow together seamlessly. Some nativists, like Massachusetts’ Henry Wilson, cared quite a bit more about opposing slavery than opposing immigration and Catholicism. Others went the other way. Given the natural affinities between the movements, one would expect them to stick together. Over time, one faction or the other would gain ascendance and the party would become their party, if with the other still a significant minority.

But that question did not resolve itself directly. The 33rd Congress remained in session until the start of March, 1855. The 34th would not take its seats until December. In the meantime, Kansas had its future in the air. Would it fall to slavery, as Northerners feared and Southerners hoped, or would Stephen Douglas’ popular sovereignty bring about his expected outcome through the hard laws of geography and climate?

Lincoln at Peoria: The Short Version

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21. Full text.)

I have no doubt exhausted the patience of even the most generous reader in picking my way through Lincoln’s Peoria speech. It encapsulates antislavery thought so completely that I find it difficult to resist going paragraph by paragraph. But the remainder of the speech repeats largely the same themes as the first half, if with new wrinkles here and there. I think the time has come to move on. But before doing so, I wanted to revisit the speech as a whole in a high-level summary.

The Setting

Lincoln came to Peoria to debate Stephen Douglas on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which opened the great plains to slavery more than thirty years after the Missouri Compromise banned the institution from their soil. Though Douglas had reaped quite the whirlwind from his authoring of and advocacy for the law, his tours of Illinois and the favor of the Democracy’s party establishment had helped blunt some of the outrage. Lincoln shared space with Douglas to give their audience the newly popular antislavery movement’s view alongside Douglas’ version of the story.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Douglas’ Argument

Douglas held that the Missouri Compromise required repeal because:

  1. Nebraska, not just the modern state, but all the lands bounded by Canada to the north, the southern line of Missouri to the south, the territory of Minnesota and the states of Iowa and Missouri on the east, and the Rocky Mountains to the west, imperatively required a territorial government to facilitate white settlement.
  2. The public had repudiated the Missouri Compromise and demanded its repeal by various means, including the Compromise of 1850 and party resolutions endorsing its finality.
  3. The Kansas-Nebraska Act demanded only that the people govern themselves, by their own consent, and so embodied the best and most ancient principles of American democracy.

Lincoln’s Rebuttal

  1. If Nebraska required a territorial government, it could have one without repealing the Missouri Compromise. Iowa and Minnesota had them without any such repeal. Just the year prior, Stephen Douglas himself put forward a bill to organize Nebraska under just those terms. Even in 1854, when the first version of the bill that finally passed came to the Senate, it contained no repeal.
  2. The public did not demand the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, either in 1850 or at any other time. Rather the Compromise measures applied to the Mexican Cession and it alone. No one at the time understood it as touching the Missouri Compromise and no such provisions existed in any of the Compromise laws, either stated outright or by implication. When the parties signed on to the finality of the Compromise, they understood that the Missouri Compromise continued its operation, to the point where even proslavery men only a year prior saw it as a fixed part of American law. Stephen Douglas agreed with them, then.
  3. Douglas’ act did not embody self-government, as it would permit none for any black man. Rather whites would have self-government and also govern blacks, who would have no power to consent or shape their governance in any legal way. Furthermore, the expansion of slavery flew in the face of the intentions of the Founders. They always took pains to exclude it and set it on a path to extinction whenever politically possible, tolerating it only where they must. Lincoln and the rest of the antislavery movement inherited their principles and goals.


Lincoln on Popular Sovereignty

Lincoln 1860

Abraham Lincoln

(Introduction, Parts 12, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20. Full text.)

This post serves as the twenty-first part of my dissection of Lincoln’s Peoria speech, but I think it speaks to important enough ideas of his to give it its own title.

After pounding on Douglas’ weakest points for some time, Lincoln came down to the hard stuff. Whatever Douglas’ laughable claims about recent history, whatever he tried to tell the public about how slavery would never go to Kansas or Nebraska anyway, popular sovereignty amounted to American democracy. Even if Lincoln disagreed with the Missouri Compromise repeal, did he really disagree with the idea that people should govern themselves?

Quite to the contrary, Lincoln proclaimed self-government “absolutely and eternally right”. But then, shouldn’t the people get a vote? If he really believed that, why would he deny self-government to the white settlers who would flood into the new territories? Did he think them a lesser species of man? Certainly not. Rather self-government

has no just application, as here attempted. Or perhaps I should rather say that whether it has such just application depends upon whether a negro is not or is a man. If he is not a man, why in that case, he who is a man may, as a matter of self-government, do just as he pleases with him. But if the negro is a man, is it not to that extent, a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself? When the white man governs himself that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government—that is despotism. If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that “all men are created equal;” and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.

Judge Douglas frequently, with bitter irony and sarcasm, paraphrases our argument by saying “The white people of Nebraska are good enough to govern themselves, but they are not good enough to govern a few miserable negroes!!

Well I doubt not that the people of Nebraska are, and will continue to be as good as the average of people elsewhere. I do not say the contrary. What I do say is, that no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent. I say this is the leading principle—the sheet anchor of American republicanism.

And Lincoln went on to quote the article of his ancient faith, the opening of the Declaration of Independence, to prove it. Slaves receive government. Even the most radical slaveholder agreed with that. They wrote volumes on how to govern slaves and worried over the subject constantly. But a slave, by definition, could never consent. Thus any governing of slaves could not stem from the consent of the governed. In other words, the creed of America forbade slavery even if its laws permitted the same:

Let no one be deceived. The spirit of seventy-six and the spirit of Nebraska, are utter antagonisms; and the former is being rapidly displaced by the latter.