More Bad News: The Hunt for Andrew Reeder, Part Eight

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Reeder’s diary.

May 15, 1856 found Andrew Reeder still closeted in a hotel in Kansas City, “elaborately cared for” by various ladies who would bring him food, flowers, “and attend to all my comforts.” All in all, Kansas’ free state delegate to Congress found it downright comfortable if he set aside the great issue of the day. He needed to be off raising support for the free state cause, not stuck in western Missouri. He also missed his “idolized, noble wife” and “precious, dearly-loved children.” That he had sent G.P. Lowrey ahead of him to bring news to his family, as well as lay down a false trail that might help Reeder escape wore on him as well. When Lowrey delivered his news, they would know their patriarch as a man on the run and in danger.

Reeder had news that the dragnet continued to tighten around Kansas. G.W. Brown remained a prisoner at Westport. Proslavery men stopped ordinary travelers on the road and stopped the mail for searching.

One traveler, coming down from Lawrence, was stopped on the road, and ordered to open his carpet-bag to see if he had any letters or dispatches from Lawrence, and, as he refused to be searched, it was cut open by the ruffians.

It would not do for the free state party to get news of their plight out in person or paper. More worrying still:

About 100 young men from the South, said to be from South Carolina and Georgia, arrived, as I am told, last evening, all armed and equipped after the fashion of Buford’s men, who, from their appearance, equipments, acts, and conversation, have evidently come, not as emigrants, but only to fight. About half of them went on to Leavenworth, and the residue landed here and went into the Territory, leaving their trunks here with Mr. Taylor, and saying that they did not want them along, as the fight would probably be over in a few weeks, and then they would go back.

Buford’s men, or a very similar group, had work ahead of him. That evening, Reeder got word secondhand from a member of the Blue Lodge that they had another invasion in the offing. They hoped to get together two thousand men and raze Lawrence for good, entering Kansas in small groups and avoiding the major roads to avoid notice until they arrived. They would take the town at night and under the pretext of enforcing indictments against its leaders. Samuel Lecompte had given them those indictments and proslavery men had come to Kansas back in December allegedly to maintain law and order. Thwarted then, the proslavery men would likely press far harder now.

Advertisements

Misdirection and Another Capture: The Hunt for Andrew Reeder, Part Seven

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Reeder’s diary.

We left Andrew Reeder hiding out in a hotel in Kansas City, where he received news of Charles Robinson’s capture on May 13, 1856. Knowing that the proslavery dragnet reached further into Missouri than just the immediate border can’t have settled the delegate’s mind. Up to this point, Reeder had the company of G.P. Lowery. He advised Lowery to leave without him, on the first available boat and in a disguise. But before Lowery departed, the two arranged some misdirection. Reeder

had him to write a letter directed to me at Chicago, and mail it loosely sealed, to induce the belief that I was in the States, by the way of Nebraska and Iowa, as we were confident they would open it. I instructed him also, if he got safe to St. Louis, to telegraph up here that he had heard from me and that I was safe in Chicago.

Nineteenth century postmasters did open and scrutinize mail, most famously to hunt down antislavery publicans for destruction. Settled precedent dating back to Andrew Jackson’s administration blessed such business. Since postmasters received their jobs through patronage rather than from a professional civil service, even any inclined against such censorship had strong incentive to keep in line.

Reeder remained shut up in his room, though it seems that he had plenty of attention. He writes that no less than four ladies “most kindly waited on” him and “took a lively interest in my safety.” Come evening, Colonel Eldridge brought Reeder less enchanting company: the posse which had came for him at Lawrence had arrived at the hotel. The governor turned delegate assured Eldridge that they had a warrant for Reeder valid in Kansas, but not Missouri. Their authority ended at the border and no harm could come to him from helping Reeder out. However, should they come with a Missourian officer and process in hand, then Eldridge should give Reeder up to keep himself out of trouble.

Expecting them to come, I concealed this diary, and made preparations. I remained up, till midnight, and there was a constant running up and down from the street to their room. At 12 o’clock I went to bed and slept soundly.

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Kansas’ first governor has sterner nerves than I do. He woke on the morning of the fourteenth to more welcome news. Eldridge came up and told Reeder that the posse had said nothing of him, but instead came for Grosvenor Lowery and Samuel Pomeroy, the latter an agent of the Emigrant Aid Company. But the good news came with some bad:

G.W. Brown, accompanied by Jenkins, had started for Lawrence, and had been stopped on the road by M’Gee’s party of Missourians (without any process, of course), and made prisoners. Have not learned what is done with them.

That day also brought a boat up to Kansas City which departed with great cheers from the town. Reeder thought that Robinson must have come through, but learned instead that Kansas City cheered a marshal’s party starting for Leavenworth. It says something for Reeder’s state of mind that news of an armed band heading into Kansas from Missouri came as a relief, though probably also to the fact that Andrew Reeder consistently stood for the party of Andrew Reeder. He had joined the free state movement late, when deprived of other means for political advance in Kansas, and under the condition that they make his grievance over shady land deals their own.

After a while, Reeder changed rooms for the second time. Things had quieted and the proper residents of the room had been out of it for some time. Anybody could start to wonder. At this point, Reeder hoped no one believed him present and so he might safely move on as soon as he could find a boat with a willing captain, which would remain docked through the night so he could quietly board. With Robinson captured, he needed to get moving regardless. It fell now to him to take up the governor’s mission and seek out the executives of Ohio, Michigan, and maybe even Iowa and Wisconsin to come to aid the free state cause.

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.

The Persistent Politics of Disenfranchisement

freedmen votesMost people in the country probably know that not all that long ago white Americans had a serious problem with black Americans voting. The laws they passed rarely came out and said that black Americans simply could not vote, but a byzantine system of residency requirements, registration, literacy tests, poll taxes, bans on felons voting (when combined with laws designed to criminalize the mere act of living while black) ensured that as a practical matter the polls remained whites only. The net might not catch every voter, every time, but its everyday work and the tremendous violence backing it did the job well enough. On paper, these laws just coincidentally kept black Americans from voting. In practice, everybody knew exactly what it all meant. We had a white country, thank you very much.

Denying citizens their right to vote, however one wants to rationalize it, hardly makes for an act of love. One doesn’t disenfranchise a people one considers every bit as deserving as one’s own. Restricting the polls to white Americans requires a hatred of black Americans. White supremacy requires, at least in the long run, a healthy share of that hatred. But, as I’ve written before, it takes more than simple malice. The white power crowd does hate, but they don’t hate because some strange distillation of evil trickled into their ears and poisoned their minds. They hate with purpose.

At the end of the Civil War, white Southerners had a problem. The men they had enslaved for centuries now considered themselves deserving of the vote. This offended them on many levels, but ultimately they understood that hardly any freedperson would even think to vote as his former enslavers preferred. What would happen if they all came to exercise the franchise? In South Carolina and Mississippi, the black vote would surely have decided every election. A distinct polity comprising half the population, united through centuries of horrific abuse would win any election they cared to vote in. White southerners, bar those rare sorts willing to adapt and make some kind of common cause with their former property, would turn from the dominant to the dominated. The math demanded it. In other states, black Americans didn’t quite form majorities but did exist in such numbers as to make them a very major constituency.

As a minority very long accustomed to using their unity to exercise decisive influence in national bodies, the enslavers didn’t have to wonder how that would work out for them. A latter-day Haiti might still come to destroy them all, but even should the genocide fail to arrive the exercise of black suffrage would turn their world upside-down. That black men (and in later decades, black women as well) would come to vote constituted a dire affront on just about every possible level. White men, in the South and elsewhere, built their identities around never submitting to the dictates of another. Women and slaves submitted, not the free white male.

Those concerns bear a serious look, but they don’t tell the whole story. Running through it all, we must acknowledge slavery, Jim Crow, and white supremacy as a political system in themselves. Whites might have their parties and contend fiercely every election, but all whites together shared a party organized for the express purpose of depriving all blacks. They might not have understood it in precisely those terms, but it didn’t take twenty-first century historiography to get that by making black Americans into the de facto opposition party, they ensured that if permitted to vote at all black Americans wold rarely vote as the local whites preferred.

This held true in the South after the war. It also held in early nineteenth century New York, which chose to retain property qualifications for black voters even as it removed them for the state’s whites. Their gradual emancipation plan would soon mean a great more many black voters without such restrictions. The Republicans, Jefferson’s party, understood that their functionally proslavery politics and avowed southern orientation held little appeal for such voters. The black New Yorkers who already could vote preferred the Federalists. As such, they must presume any new black voters members of the opposition twice over. Thus white men in general could have suffrage, but no more black men than already did.

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

Ulrich Bonnell Phillips

The same holds true in Wisconsin, where early this month a Republican congressman admitted that the state’s voter identification law aimed not to fix the phantom problem of voter fraud, a practice singularly rare outside of antebellum Kansas, but rather to minimize the number of black Americans voting. They would vote for Democrats, you understand. That just will not do. My own state, just across the lake from Wisconsin, has a similar voter ID law enacted for the same purpose. So do many others.

Looking at this, among many other examples, I don’t know how one can take white supremacy as simply the central theme of Southern history. Much in American history has no more to do with the South than it does any other area of the nation, but I don’t know anything of significance in the national past or present that doesn’t have a great deal to do with white supremacy. When Ulrich Bonnell Phillips argued otherwise (PDF) decades ago, he didn’t cast his net wide enough.

South Carolina’s First Nullification

Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

One simply can’t run a country according to the plan that the nullifiers and states rights men advocated. If a state can overrule federal law on its own say-so, then federal law loses its force. With federal law impotent, the federal government becomes irrelevant and soon dissolves. Some vestiges might remain, but as a practical matter one reduces the Union to a collection of smaller, quarreling nations. Given many states had neither the population nor the economy to manage easily on their own, they would then likely consolidate into somewhat like-minded blocs. These groups would probably not repeat the same mistakes as the previous consolidation. Some nullification proposals foresaw essentially that, most notably the idea that the United States should try having two presidents with veto power over one another. One would come from the North, the other from the South. The Southern president would thus keep the Union forever safe for slavery.

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

The criticism holds true for matters large and small, in principle. We could leave things there, but doing so would require us to ignore the realities of the past. Certainly one could not expect a nation to endure large-scale acts of nullification. If a state or seven rejected losing the presidency or the program of a victorious party in national elections, that more obviously strains the Union and puts nineteenth century democracy in doubt than if it nullifies on a smaller scale. As a practical matter, many Northern states nullified the Fugitive Slave Act. Wisconsin took the extra step of doing it outright, leading to the Taney Court ruling that states had no power to nullify federal laws in Abeleman vs. Booth. Therein, the Court made much the same argument in contemplating the assertion that a state court could interfere with and prevent the operation of federal law:

It would seem to be hardly necessary to do more than state the result to which these decisions of the State courts must inevitably lead. It is, of itself, a sufficient and conclusive answer, for no one will suppose that a Government which has now lasted nearly seventy years, enforcing its laws by its own tribunals and preserving the union of the States, could have lasted a single year, or fulfilled the high trusts committed to it, if offences against its laws could not have been punished without the consent of the State in which the culprit was found.

The rebelling states, of course, would without a trace of irony cite the practical nullification of the Fugitive Slave Act by the North as one of the injustices which drove them to rebellion. They correctly understood the tradition of states rights rhetoric: the issue, however contested, did not go our way and therefore we claim the right to declare ourselves winners. Obviously no nation could let such a thing stand and call itself democratic even by nineteenth century terms. Yet the United States did eventually let it stand. The nation did not spend vast sums and tie up the military to do as it had done to Anthony Burns a second time. Before that, it accepted nullification of a kind from South Carolina. I draw this account from Freehling’s Prelude to the Civil War: The Nullification Controversy in South Carolina 1816-1836.

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

South Carolina’s cotton flowed out of the nation through Charleston and a few other lowcountry ports. Those ports thus naturally had ships in and out regularly, if nothing on the volume that New York, Baltimore, Boston, or New Orleans did. Like any functioning port, Charleston saw ships from diverse places. Many of its regular visitors hailed from the North and abroad. These ships had the usual complements, including some black seamen. Those seamen could roam freely about Charleston. To Charleston’s whites, that meant that northern blacks tainted by abolitionism could speak to their slaves. Worse still, Haitian seamen could walk free and tell anybody who asked about their country’s successful slave revolt. All of this in a region of the state where enslaved blacks vastly outnumbered whites. To further complicate matters, many enslavers from Haiti had passed through Charleston when fleeing the revolution. In the 1820s, they had had direct, personal knowledge of what a real slave uprising looked like. If they missed the significance, than the fact that Denmark Vesey used Haiti as an example of what his conspiracy could achieve would have highlighted it to even the dullest wits.

Charleston hung Denmark Vesey on July 2, 1822. Before he died, he brought the black seaman “problem” further into the limelight. With the lowcountry’s enslavers anxious about revolts, feeling embattled by the recent debates over the fate of slavery in Missouri, and a fresh uprising narrowly averted, they felt they had to do something. To answer the dire menace to their lives and their property in lives, South Carolina’s enslavers passed a law that required every black sailor locked away in the town jail for the duration of his ship’s sojourn in Charleston. Thus Charleston imprisoned the free to secure the enslaved at the end of the year.

All of that worked out just fine for Charleston’s fretting whites and just terribly for its free black visitors, precisely as intended. However, it put South Carolina on the wrong side of the United States and the United Kingdom. The two nations had a treaty granting their sailors free access to one another’s ports. This treaty, declared the Constitution

shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.

South Carolina passed a state law to the contrary. The UK protested to the Secretary of State, John Quincy Adams. Freehling says that Adams might have gotten Charleston to ignore the law for a time. By the middle of the next year, Haitian and other black seamen moved about Charleston freely once more. This did not suit Charleston’s still-anxious citizens. They arranged a mass meeting in late July, forming the South Carolina Association to supervise enforcement of all South Carolina’s laws controlling black lives. The association named standing committees to do that work, which they soon commenced.

That enforcement led in short order to a court case. Charleston’s sheriff seized a free Jamaican black named Harry Elkinson and locked him up. Elkinson protested and sought habeas corpus proceedings, which he got. Supreme Court Justice William Johnson found the seaman law in violation of treaty and therefore invalid. However, Johnson held that he couldn’t order Elkinson’s release as his power extended only to federal prisoners. The South Carolina Association, for its part, declared the state sovereign and insisted that it had not surrendered its power to suppress revolts. Any act designed toward that end rightfully fell within its power, not the capacity of the United States. The state had not yet articulated a full-blown theory of nullification as Calhoun would later invent, but in pleading its case Benjamin F. Hunt and Isaac E. Holmes laid out an important precursor. Johnson didn’t buy it and laid out a strong refutation in his opinion:

Where is this to land us? Is it not asserting the right in each state to throw off the federal Constitution at its will and pleasure?

John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams

Johnson’s opinion provoked a firestorm in South Carolina. If the state could not pass laws to govern its slaves and keep them in slavery, then how could it retain slavery at all? All Haiti’s alleged woes came back to a distant government meddling with slavery. Now they received the same at the imperious hands of a Supreme Court justice. The state ignored the decision and continued jailing sailors. John Quincy Adams kept getting protests from the United Kingdom. He reached out to the Attorney General, William Wirt, for an opinion on the law. Wirt came down firmly against it. In July of 1823, Adams forwarded Wirt’s argument and the protests to South Carolina, asking the legislature to fix the problem.

Though South Carolina’s legislature could not settle on what tone to take, they agreed on the substance. The Senate held that “self preservation”

will never by this state, be renounced, compromised, controlled, or participated with any power whatever.

The House affirmed

The measures directed towards colored persons brought within the territory of this state, are simply part of the general system of domestic police, defensible as such, and absolutely necessary to ensure the safety of the citizens.

In other words, John Quincy Adams could best repose Wirt’s opinion and the British protests in some area perhaps well-suited to the cultivation of mushrooms but otherwise ill-disposed to agriculture. The state acted accordingly, continuing to imprison sailors. Washington and London could protest all they like, but South Carolina did as it willed. London could not perhaps force the issue short of a war. Washington chose not to and let the nullification stand.

Here, for the first time, the state grappled with the issues of the later Nullification Crisis. South Carolina cited the same reserved power of the states to nullify a treaty in the name of internal security that it would later call upon to nullify a federal law. In both cases, its constitutional thinkers discovered this power to save slavery. Victory in the first instance spurred South Carolina onward. If nullification worked once, it could work again.

The First Republicans

A campaign poster for the 1860 GOP presidential ticket

A campaign poster for the 1860 GOP presidential ticket

Several groups have claimed the name Republican in American history. Thomas Jefferson’s political party, which we call the Democratic-Republicans did. So did the party that Martin Van Buren and Andrew Jackson made, though they eventually settled on calling themselves Democrats. We use anachronistic and partially anachronistic names to avoid the obvious confusion. The modern Republican party traces its descent to the Republicans of this post, not the other ones. In many, though not all, respects that apple fell very far from the tree. A hundred and sixty years will do that.

The discontented northern Democrats, ready to bolt their party over Kansas-Nebraska, had the Whigs waiting for them. By and large, however, they did not want to turn Whig. The Whig party had its own problems and many of them remained on all matters save slavery, traditional Democrats. Instead, they would create their own party in conjunction with discontented antislavery Whigs. This meant a serious risk to the men jumping ship, as they gave up access to party patronage and all the work they had put into advancing within the Democracy and Whiggery for many years…unless the party establishment in an area defected together. Then its existing unity would turn it into the local machine of the new party with little trouble.

Just that happened in some places, especially where the Whigs had little success. Weak parties do not inspire great efforts to save them, so relatively organized contingents of ex-Whigs rapidly turned into the leadership cadre of new Fusion, Anti-Nebraska, and People’s parties. Those names did not quite stick and the movement increasingly coalesced around the name Republican, as they defended republican institutions against slave power aristocrats. On February 28, 1854, a meeting at Ripon, Wisconsin adopted the label. At the time, the Nebraska bill had yet to pass the Senate. In July, after it had become law, the new party got together a convention in Jackson, Michigan and made the name official.

In recent decades, third-party efforts in American politics have taken on a sort of farcical air. A group of people who would count winning 5% of the national vote as a tremendous victory gather together and make speeches, pass resolutions, and have some fun while the rest of us ignore them. In 1854, the new party conventions essentially dissolved the Whig party in several states. In Indiana and Ohio, the Whigs had no convention that year and thus fielded no candidates. They barely did better in Vermont, Michigan, Iowa, and Wisconsin.

Jesse Bright (D-IN)

Jesse Bright (D-IN)

The Democracy had its problems as well. In May, the Indiana Democracy convened under the leadership of Jesse Bright, Indiana’s slaveholding senator. It passed resolutions endorsing Kansas-Nebraska. The next day a different Indiana Democracy met to condemn Kansas-Nebraska and endorsed a platform against any extension of slavery and advocating the prohibition of alcohol. Over in Massachusetts, the new Republicans came mostly from old Free Soil stock just as eager to join in. They resolved to repeal the fugitive slave act, restore the Missouri Compromise, ban slavery in all territories, to stand against any territorial expansion (especially involving Cuba) unless that territory came in without slavery, to prevent the admission of any new slave states to the Union, and to abolish slavery outright in the District of Columbia.

In short, the Massachusetts Free Soilers turned Republicans proposed reversing every single gain slavery had made in the past decade and a radical rollback that would put a powerful squeeze on the institution. On the fugitive slave act alone, they proposed a course of action that the South had soberly warned amounted to a declaration of war and promised to break the Union over. If the white North could not have a free Nebraska today, then a few years down the road maybe the South could have no more slaves at all.

The States Speak

Salmon P. Chase

Salmon P. Chase (FS-OH)

Most sectional disputes prior to Kansas-Nebraska involved something like a united South forcing its will on a divided North. The South had its own internal divisions that we should not ignore, but the common interest in preserving slavery usually trumped the North’s indifference to the subject. The South did not always win all that it wanted, and never pleased its radicals, but one can reasonably argue that Southern, proslavery interests prevailed more often than not. That only stands to reason. A committed minority that cares far more about its signature issue than its opposition often prevails in a democratic system. The rickety constitutional structure of the American republic, packed to the gills with anti-democratic measures proved an able accomplice. Had matters involved just what the House of Representatives preferred, the Wilmot Proviso would have sailed into law. The Senate changed all of that.

One might expect, given the reversal of the usual pattern, that the House’s plan to bury the Kansas-Nebraska act would have succeeded. The more united section would prevail over the less united. Probably the men in the House who voted to bury the bill expected something like that. With Nebraska wrapped up in the Missouri Compromise repeal from the get-go, future Congresses would have a far harder time bringing it back than Stephen Douglas had in pushing the bill through the Senate. The South would accept the loss and move on. Maybe Union-minded Southerners would even come around and vote to defeat the bill as one provocation too far and to show themselves Union men first and Southern men second.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas (D-IL)

Politicians with such hopes had good reason to hold them. In early 1854, as the Senate debated, ten free states had their legislatures in session. Only Douglas’ own Illinois could rouse itself to pass a resolution in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska act, and that with considerable pressure from his supporters. Only fifty of the legislature’s hundred members voted on the issue. Rhode Island condemned it unanimously. Maine, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin damned the bill by large margins. The New York legislature instructed its delegation directly to vote against Kansas-Nebraska. In the other five, Democratic majorities made their influence felt through inaction. Pennsylvania and New Jersey contemplated the issue, but refused to take a vote. Salmon Chase’s own Ohio kept the subject tabled, fearing reaction either way. The California Democracy, in firm control of the state, likewise opted for silence.

Lewis Cass

Lewis Cass (D-MI)

Other states did not have their legislatures in session, but voice their objections by other means. Connecticut, the conservative home of manufacturers with strong Southern business ties, saw its state conventions for both parties vote anti-Nebraska resolutions through. In Pierce’s own New Hampshire, which held the first election after the bill came before the Senate, the Democracy’s majority in the governor’s race dropped by two-thirds and the party lost its House majority of 89. Pierce insisted that Nebraska had nothing to do with the result, which would have surprised the voters. The Pennsylvania Democratic convention let Douglas down too, resisting pressure to toe the administration line. In Detroit, home of Mr. Popular Sovereignty Lewis Cass, elected an anti-Nebraska Whig mayor by the kind of margin that the Democracy customarily enjoyed. The town’s Democratic paper, the Times, insisted that Michigan stood against Nebraska and if the Little Giant’s bill passed, there would be hell to pay.

To answer all of that, and more, the South responded tepidly. Georgia and Mississippi endorsed the bill. The Tennessee Senate came just short, endorsing its principles but not Kansas-Nebraska itself. Alabama, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, and Texas opted for the same silence that Pennsylvania, Ohio, and California chose.