Kansas: The Prelude to the War for the Union by Leverett Wilson Spring



THE eminent Union savers, who devised and carried through Congress the compromise of 1850, fully expected that it would drive the question of slavery totally and permanently out of national politics. They drained their vocabulary in applauding that wonderful specific which involved the enactment of a stringent fugitive slave law; the admission of California with a free-labor constitution; the organization of Utah and New Mexico as territories on the basis of popular sovereignty; and the removal of slave marts from the District of Columbia. When at last it received the sanction of Congress, Henry Clay, drawn from retirement by the stress of public affairs to undertake a mission of pacification, felicitated the country upon the peace which quickly followed and gave promise of permanence. General Lewis Cass did not believe that "any party could now be built up in relation to the question of slavery."

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     He even contemplated the extraordinary self-denial of making no more speeches about it. To put the matter beyond recall; to breathe against the great disturber

"The hopeless word of -- never to return,"

forty-four members of the thirty-first Congress, including many leading politicians of the South, solemnly and publicly pledged themselves to oppose the candidacy of any man for the office of president, vice-president, congressman, or state legislator who should favor "a renewal of sectional controversy upon the subject of slavery." In 1852 Whig and Democratic conventions struck hands in eulogizing the compromise, and resolved that mankind should be dumb in regard to the wrongs of the negro. The triumphant election of Franklin Pierce as president turned upon the popular conviction, that he was more unqualifiedly in sympathy with the policy and measures of conciliation than his illustrious rival.

     But the drowsy syrups of compromise were swallowed in vain. After a brief and uneasy repose the conflict, which no genius of skillful temporizing could effectually stifle, broke out afresh. Slavery, so recently and so impressively banned from tile halls of national legislation, returned thither almost before the applause that greeted its exile had died away. In the Senate, December 4th, 1853, A. C. Dodge of Iowa offered a bill, of the usual form and purport, for the organization of

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Nebraska -- a measure unsuccessfully attempted during the preceding session. After consideration by the Committee on Territories, of which Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois was chairman, the bill reappeared in the Senate January 4th, 1854, variously amended and accompanied by an elaborate disquisition upon the status of slavery in the public domain.

     Though Mr. Douglas did not leave his theories in doubt, and insisted that the compromise of 1850 reposed on principles of congressional nonaction in the territories, yet he shrank from definite, downright announcement that the compromise of 1820 was at an end. By the terms of that adjustment Missouri came into the Union as a slave state, but all unoccupied portions of the old Louisiana province north of the parallel 36 30' were perpetually reserved for freedom. January 16th, Senator Dixon of Kentucky, dissatisfied with the hesitation of the bill, offered an amendment that directly assailed the Missouri restriction. Douglas finally espoused the bolder policy -- not without reluctance and uncomfortable augury. "I have become perfectly satisfied," he said to Dixon, "that it is my duty as a fairminded national statesman to cooperate with you as proposed, in procuring the repeal of the Missouri Compromise restriction. It is due to the South; it is due to the constitution; it is due to

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     that character of consistency which I have heretofore labored to maintain. The repeal, if we can effect it, will produce much stir in the free states of the Union for a season. Every opprobrious epithet will be applied to me. I shall probably be hung in effigy.... This proceeding may end my political career. But acting under the sense of duty which animates me, I am prepared to make the sacrifice."

     Douglas recalled the bill, which was subjected to repeated and essential revisions. In its ultimate form, as reported from the workshop of the committee February 7th, it cancelled the Missouri Compromise; cut Nebraska into halves -- styling the southern section Kansas and the northern Nebraska; and enunciated the doctrine that citizens of the United States, peopling the territories, have plenary jurisdiction over all their domestic institutions.

     The debate which instantly sprang up on the reappearance of the slavery question in Congress inferior to none of its predecessors in violence or duration of parliamentary noise -- fell below the contest of 1850 in freshness of thought and expression. It affords no exhibition of scenical and oratorical tableaux so memorable as when Calhoun, wrecked in health but with intellect and power of will still unbroken, listened to the reading of his last speech, thickly sown with anxieties and ill-boding; as when Daniel Webster on

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the 7th of March rallied all the splendid forces of his oratory and renown for an assault on the antislavery movement -- the tendency and outcome of which had been "not to enlarge, but to restrain, not to set free but to bind faster, the slave population of the South."

     Douglas did not assume a new role by leading the crusade against congressional restriction in the territories. He bore a distinguished part in the compromise of 1850, of which popular sovereignty constituted a prominent if not paramount feature. Alexander H. Stephens, who has given in his "War between the States" interesting details not generally known of its evolution through private conferences between representative men of the North and the South, argues with apparent conclusiveness that popular sovereignty "was the compromise of that year;" that "the other associated measures all depended upon it." Mr. Douglas, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, introduced bills for the organization of Utah and New Mexico in harmony with the conference adjustments. "A few weeks afterward," he said in a speech March 3d, 1854, "the committee of thirteen took these two bills and put a wafer between them and reported them back to the Senate as one bill, with some slight amendments. One of these amendments was that the territorial legislatures should not legislate upon the subject of African slavery. I objected to that provision

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upon the ground that it subverted the great principle of self-government upon which the bill had been originally framed by tile territorial committee. On the first trial the Senate refused to strike it out, but subsequently did so, after full debate, in order to establish that principle as the rule of action in territorial organizations." William H. Seward, silent on this particular point during the earlier stages of the Kansas struggle, substantially admitted at a later period all that Stephens and Douglas claimed. The pacification of 1850, he repeatedly conceded, secured for Utah and New Mexico "the right to choose freedom or slavery when ripened into states."

     While Douglas possessed some capital qualifications for leadership; while his resources embraced remarkable endowments of rude, boisterous, half-educated force, of invincible self-assertion, of insolent and unsurpassed dexterity in the practices of forensic gladiatorship, yet he was weak in those essential qualities and inspirations that spring out of a profound ethical conviction. In regard to the moral aspects of slavery, which stirred the conscience of the civilized world, he affected a phlegmatic, nonchalant sentiment an indifference whether it was voted up or down in the territories.

     Southern congressmen, reinforced by liberal Democratic contingents from the North, rallied with enthusiasm in support of popular sovereignty.

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     This doctrine had encountered a very unfriendly reception on its appearance in the arena of politics. "well do I remember," said Thomas H. Benton in the House of Representatives, April 25th, 1854, "the day when it was first shown in the Senate. Mark Antony did not better remember the day when Caesar first put on that mantle through which he was afterwards pierced with three and twenty envious stabs. It was in the Senate in 1848, and was received ... as the quintessence of nonsense." In 1854 Southern political sentiment blew from an opposite quarter. Then the pro-slavery leaders eagerly accepted popular sovereignty as a providential expedient for the defense and extension of their social institutions. They argued that Congress had no legitimate competency to draw lines of restriction across the public domain, which excluded one half of the country from fair and equal occupancy of it; that the Missouri Compromise was in no sense a compact, as it lacked every element of state and party consent; that the principle of popular sovereignty, the right of communities, state and territorial, to legislate for themselves, is distinctly and emphatically an American doctrine; that it was the issue at stake in the colonial struggle with Great Britain and in the crisis of 1850; that the much-quoted anti-slavery sentimentalities of the fathers of the republic carry little weight because notable advances in sociology have been made since their day,

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because the domestic institutions of the South, tested by a wider experience, are seen to embody and define the great race-subordinations of nature. Besides, the geographical makeshift failed to tranquilize sectional disturbances, as it furnished abolitionists a precedent for intermeddling. "It is a disunion line," said Representative Caskie of Virginia. "No, sir," exclaimed Senator Butler of South Carolina, "instead of Peace standing on the Missouri line with healing in her wings and olive branches in her hands, it has been Electra with snakes hissing from her head and the torch of discord in her hand."

     The champions of popular sovereignty disagreed as to the time when the inhabitants of a territory might constitutionally exercise the right "to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way." Current Southern constructions, which the Supreme Court afterwards confirmed, maintained that nothing could be done previous to the formation of a state constitution. Douglas insisted, on the contrary, that the people could act legally and effectively whenever they pleased. Among the questions propounded to him by Abraham Lincoln in the joint debates of 1858, there was one which touched this point. Douglas replied that as slavery could not exist a day nor an hour anywhere, unless supported by local police regulations which the territorial legislature must establish, the people need only elect

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anti-slavery representatives effectually to balk the introduction of it, whatever course the Supreme Court might pursue. In other words, decisions of the highest legal tribunal could be successfully evaded.

     Congressional opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska legislation marshaled chiefly under three leaders, -- Sumner, Chase, and Seward. Other well-known men, like Samuel Houston, John Bell, Thomas H. Benton, and Edward Everett, were among the dissenters; but the trio, inferior to none of their associates in ability, and representative of a more radical antagonism to slavery than was in repute among them, passed easily and naturally into leadership.

     In Charles Sumner, brilliant, scholarly, persistent, courageous, impassioned, at home in tasks of rhetoric rather than of statesmanship, suffusing his opinions with personal intensities that sometimes passed over into intolerance, the fiercer, more radical phases of anti-slaveryism found a strenuous champion.

     Salmon P. Chase, a man of large, roundabout, intellectual mould, came up out of Democratic antecedents, from the influence of which he was never wholly emancipated. Persuaded that the Whigs could not be roused to take the field against Southern encroachments, he purposed to recruit the Democratic party for that service. The dream proved sufficiently unrealizable. Neither

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Whigs nor Democrats were prepared to enlist in anti-slavery enterprises. Despairing of the older parties if abandoned to the impulse of inclination and bias, he threw himself into the Free-Soil movement with an expectation of holding them to the slavery problem by some balance-of-power tactics. Though Chase's radicalism did not fall much below Sumner's theoretically, yet a cooler, more judicial and practical temperament gave it less violent and exasperating utterance.

     William H. Seward did not rank himself among abolitionists, though in the debate of 1850 he pronounced "all legislative compromises radically wrong and essentially vicious," and enunciated the doctrine of a higher law in which constitutions as well as statutes must be read, -- sentiments that naturally would have driven him into their camp. But a cool, sagacious conservatism, a corrective, unfanatical habit of looking before and after, qualified his radicalism and held it down to constitutional methods. He was content to let slavery alone so long as it remained within the ring-fence of stipulated boundaries. Keen, adroit, felicitous in diction, endued with unmistakable intuitions of statesmanship, at times soaring into regions of philosophico-poetic inspiration, he was surpassed by no contemporary politician in comprehension of the present or in forecast of the future.

     These men and their coadjutors, opponents of the Kansas-Nebraska bill, protested that the

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circumstances under which the restrictive Missouri legislation originated, the sanction of Monroe's administration in which Calhoun figured, the repeated acts of congressional recognition and reaffirmation, all conspired to clothe it with the moral force of a constitutional provision. That the latest pacification wrecked the compact of thirty years before they indignantly denied. "It is said," remarked Benton of Missouri, "that the measures of 1850 superseded this compromise of 1820.... If it was repealed in 1850, why do it over again in 1854? Why kill the dead? "There was voluminous argument that slavery existed by virtue of local legislation only, which had no extra-state validity; that in the territories, underage wards of the general government for whom no inconsiderable fraction of their civil machinery is provided arbitrarily and without consultation, popular sovereignty in the nature of things must be fragmentary and delusive; that the federal constitution, interpreted by the utterances and measures of the men who made it, is not committed to slavery, but dips unmistakably toward liberty. The possible, nay probable consequences of a war upon the Missouri settlement -- consequences even then gathering, darkening, turmoiling,

"As clouds grow on the blast,
Like tower-crowned giants striding fast "--

were luridly set forth. Unspeakable calamities would follow this profane attempt to remove ancient

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land-marks "It will light up a fire in the country," said Mr. Chase, with a touch of prophecy in his words, "which may consume those who kindled it."

     The debate, which began in January and terminated on the morning of May 06th with a continuous discussion in the Senate of thirteen hours, was emphatically an affair in which there were "blows to take as well as blows to give." However triumphant the anti-slavery argument may have been along ethical and humanitarian lines, it was not equally successful in other parts of the field. The Missouri Compromise hinged upon degrees of latitude and longitude, upon the principle of parceling unorganized portions of the country between the North and the South. It was not, to say the least, an ideal basis of settlement for questions surcharged with gravest moral considerations. That the enemies of slavery in 1848 and again in 1850 should have declined to expand "the time-honored and venerated policy of a geographical line" into a rule of universal application is not surprising. The past of the Missouri Compromise must not be disturbed, but they moved heaven and earth to hedge it out of an enlarged future. In fact, their creed of territorial philosophy was no more slave states. The compromise of 1850, however, rejected all articles of restriction, and sanctioned the principle of popular sovereignty. The adoption of a new policy, applying to territories

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in the main but not literally, and absolutely untouched by the elder agreement, may not have technically abrogated the compact of 1820, though such eminent legal authorities as Rufus Choate and Daniel Webster are quoted in the affirmative. Yet, practically, the effect of it could only be to overlay and obliterate the Missouri bargain. Mr. Douglas, in the bill organizing Kansas and Nebraska, simply followed the latest precedent.

     The congressional pother, which resulted in the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill by a vote of thirty-seven ayes to fourteen nays in the Senate and of one hundred and thirteen ayes to one hundred nays in the House of Representatives, roused intense excitement throughout the North, where popular sovereignty had an evil, pro-slavery reputation. Conventions, town-meetings, state legislatures denounced the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Clergymen in great numbers and of all denominations swelled the chorus of protest, a spectacle that caused much unfriendly comment in conservative quarters. "Alas, alas," lamented William M. Tweed of New York in the House of Representatives, "such a profanation of the American pulpit was never before known. The head of the devout follower droops." Northern congressmen who befriended the Nebraska business generally found life a burden. In newspapers of the day lists of these reprobates appeared

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bordered with black lines and annotated with denunciatory comments. Mr. Douglas's rueful premonition that storms of indignation and wrath would assail him was signally fulfilled. "I could then travel," he said in an address at Springfield, Illinois, during the summer of 1858, "from Boston to Chicago by the light of my own effigies."

     The immediate political consequences of the Kansas-Nebraska agitation were startling. It utterly overthrew the Whig party and reduced the Democratic party from national to sectional rank. "Where are the men of the North," asked Representative English of Indiana during the Lecompton debate in 1858, "who voted for the Kansas-Nebraska bill in this House? I look around this hall in vain for their familiar faces. The gentleman from Pennsylvania and myself ... are the only persons voting for the bill who have retained seats on this floor. And in the Senate I am told but one Northern man who voted for it has been reelected. Sir, the passage of that bill was followed by an overwhelming defeat of the Democracy in all the Northern States."

     But to these destructive and crippling tendencies a remarkable antithesis appeared, in the integration of Northern anti-slavery sentiment that ensued. The pioneers of abolitionism purposely and persistently devoted themselves to tasks of agitation -- to the creation of anti-slavery

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sentiment in the North -- a measure successfully prosecuted in the face of the most formidable difficulties -- and to the exasperation of the South, "so that every step she takes, in her blindness, is one step more toward ruin" Statesmen they were in the unpartisan, ethical, future-moulding sense of that word -- politicians they declined to be. By the very necessities of their mission they were dedicated to comparative isolation -- solitary knights bestriding

"The winged Hippogriff, Reform."

     They did not melt into the great popular movements which their personal heroism, their brilliancy of newspaper and platform utterance, their genius of moral intuition had made possible. Free-Soilism is the masterpiece of later abolitionists, who, declining to abjure politics, entered the arena of party-building; but Free-Soilism reached its highest uses in offering a convenient rallying point for the great Northern uprising. That memorable outburst of moral indignation against the slave-oligarchy was no fire of straw. The comparatively insignificant anti-slavery vote cast in 1852 swelled, under its powerful stimulus, to a total in 1856 of more than thirteen hundred thousand. From this relative and partial success the mighty revolution stormed on to a complete triumph in the presidential election of 1860. Beyond that decisive event lie the tremendous

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years of war for the Union. "We are on the eve of a great national transaction," said Mr. Seward, in the concluding hours of the Kansas-Nebraska debate, "a transaction that will close a cycle in the history of our country."

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