The Kansas-Nebraska Act, II: Decision in Congress

Davy Atchison’s deployment of minority power would inspire the usual majority cry: an extraordinary Slavepower Conspiracy plotted to rule or ruin America’s majoritarian institutions. The diagnosis erred. Atchison exerted influence through Washington’s ordinary institutions. Atchison’s first success came because of normal living arrangements inside the capital’s “homes.”


In the 1850s, boarding houses were congressmen’s homes away from home. When solons combined to rent boarding houses they called messes, they avoided living with alien fellows. Atchison’s mess, located on F Street, was a little piece of Southern Democratic heaven. The slaves, personal servants from back home, were akin to minstrels—Aunt Betty, sucking her beat-up pipe; liveried Isaac, strutting like Massa; sleepy Bill, unable to mobilize until noon. Patriarchs had but to enter the mess to remember why they defended a Domestic Institution.1

With the exception of Virginia’s Congressman William O. Goode, a conservative leader in the Virginia Slavery Debate of 1831–2 and in the state’s Convention of 1850–1, all F Street patriarchs were senatorial powers. Virginia’s Senators Robert M. T. Hunter and James Mason were chairmen of the Committees on Finance and Foreign Affairs respectively. South Carolina’s Senator Andrew P. Butler was chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Atchison was the Senate’s president pro tempore. The South’s power in the Democracy and the Democracy’s power in the nation could make idle chatter over Aunt Betty’s yams more telling than White House deliberations.

In the winter of 1853–4, Atchison’s chatter was not idle. Missourians, he told messmates, would no longer stay out of Kansas. If the Missouri Compromise continued to bar slavery, slaveholding Missouri would be surrounded, slaves kidnapped, Bentonianism victorious, and gray belts helpless before whites migrating to Missouri. If Kansas was open with slave restrictions removed, slaveholding Missourians would claim it, Big Bully would be defeated, and abolitionizing immigrants would be warned away.

Atchison dismissed rejoinders that climate would keep slavery from Kansas. Missouri slaves worked identical soil across the Missouri River from Kansas. Kansas bottom lands could be as productive of hemp and tobacco. Slavery was just as possible in chilly Kansas as in equally chilly Missouri—and as in the entire non-tropical border area.

Slaveholders, Atchison reassured messmates, had aggressively maintained their institution in Missouri, despite being increasingly outnumbered. They would seize Kansas, however many nonslaveholders opposed them. They wanted Kansas, needed Kansas, had every right to avoid encirclement by capturing Kansas.

Atchison’s view of practicalities convinced only some of his messmates. South Carolina’s Andrew P. Butler privately wrote that with the Missouri Compromise ban repealed, “Kansas will be filled up soon by slaveholders from the neighboring states.” Virginia’s William O. Goode publicly declared that “the natural causes which compelled our institutions to Missouri are in full force to carry them to Kansas.” Every Missouri slaveholder “who desires to maintain the existing order of things there” sees “an outpost in Kansas as essential to the safety of Missouri.” Virginia’s Robert M. T. Hunter wavered. “For a moment,” he had “permitted” himself the “illusion” of “a slaveholding state in Kansas.” He still thought that slavery “might go there for a time.” But virgin soil closer to the tropics would eventually draw slaveholders from so chilly a plain.2

Yet Hunter supported Atchison as completely as did Goode. Both Virginians pronounced Atchison’s moral case against the Missouri Compromise unassailable—unless slavery was immoral. Slaveholders had a right to take their property anywhere—unless slave property was like leprosy. Slaveholders in the hinterlands had a right to seek protection from neighboring thieves—whether or not slaveholders in safer areas thought the protection would work.3

The F Street messmates and soon other southern congressmen here replicated recent positions in Wilmot Proviso and Fugitive Slave Law controversies. Just as some Southern Democrats had thought especially southern California would be practical for slavery, so Davy Atchison thought especially the Missouri River area of Kansas fit for the institution. Not all—perhaps not most—southern leaders agreed in either case. But in 1854 as in 1850, few Southrons considered practicality the only issue. With Kansas as with the Wilmot Proviso, slaveholders scorned being proscribed as inferior. With Atchison’s attempt to protect Missouri slaveholders, as with James Mason’s attempt to extradite fugitive slaves, a self-respecting civilization must support a legitimate warrior, even if his proposed weapon might prove to be ineffective.


Once the F Street messmates lined up behind Davy Atchison, Stephen A. Douglas had to accommodate these chieftains. Douglas had not become the rising star of the southern-dominated national Democracy by conducting head-on collisions with important Southern Democrats. Moreover, the Illinoisan could hardly stonewall against Davy Atchison’s insistence on Popular Sovereignty, Douglas’s own favorite conception. F Street titans could rally southern senators to pass Douglas’s bill and ensure Douglas’s dream of peopling the plains. But if Douglas wanted red men to yield before whites, he had to allow settlers to decide for themselves about blacks.

Atchison, Douglas’s pal, may have dropped hints about how Northern Democrats might safely appease the F Streeters. In Missouri, Atchison had called for “virtual repeal” of the Missouri Compromise.4 If emphasis could be kept on the virtual, repeal might be non-explosive in the North.

The bill Douglas first reported out of committee, printed in Washington newspapers on January 7, 1854, was so heavy on the virtual as to leave the Missouri Compromise just about unrepealed. The evasive Armistice of 1850 was here perfectly replicated: the people of the territories were explicitly given power to decide on slavery at the statehood stage. What about Popular Sovereignty during the territorial stage? Douglas’s bill, like the laws on Utah and New Mexico territory, remained mute.

On January 10, 1854, newspapers reported a “clerical error” in the bill printed on January 7. The corrected “error” explicitly allowed settlers to decide at statehood and territorial stages. The proposed law now affirmed that in the Louisiana Purchase Territory north of 36°30′ “all questions pertaining to slavery in Territories, and in the new States to be formed therefrom, are to be left to the people residing therein.”

Perhaps Douglas himself here corrected a genuine secretarial mistake. More likely, F Streeters forced a change covered up under the guise of “clerical error.” At any rate, the clarified language transcended the settlement of 1850 in a manner crucial to Davy Atchison. Settlers’ decision at the moment of statehood, the only Popular Sovereignty explicitly affirmed in Utah and New Mexico laws and in Douglas’s original bill, would have loaded the dice against Atchison’s small crew of Missouri River Valley slaveholders. After several years of peopling the territory, Yankee settlers would have likely been numerically overwhelming. Neighboring Missourians’ best shot at capturing Kansas was to cross the border first, secure slavery in an early territorial decision, and then cling to the fait accompli until the statehood vote. The corrected “clerical error” invited that early Atchisonian strike.

To receive that boon, Atchison gave Douglas what the Illinoisan most wanted: no actual repeal of the Missouri Compromise. The Missourian conceded much. Until a territorial legislature passed a slavery statute, the 36°30′ line, barring slaveholders, would be operative. If slavery was banned until territorial elections, no slaves would theoretically be there to keep enslaved.

But Bourbon Dave was no man of theory. Not a slave had to be in Kansas, he knew, for slaveholders to triumph. White settlers, not blacks, would decide slavery’s fate at the polls; and whites who wished to bring in blacks would likely make their wished-for slave investment legally secure before importing that valuable property. Davy Atchison could aid Northern Democrats by allowing the Missouri Compromise to remain, so long as Missourians would have their chance to spill over the Missouri River, win an early territorial election, supersede the 36°30′ ban, and then bring in slaves.

Douglas compromised too. He would have preferred a replica of the settlement of 1850. Instead, the corrected “clerical error,” by explicitly allowing a territorial legislature to counter the Missouri Compromise ban, clarified the 1850 ambiguity about whensettlers could act in a manner politically dangerous for Northern Democrats.

Still, Douglas’s step beyond the Compromise of 1850 at least left the Missouri Compromise both unrepealed and arguably a hindrance to slavery until a territorial legislature acted. “No man was so wild,” Douglas privately whispered, “as to think of repealing the Missouri Compromise.”5His January 10 rapprochement with F Streeters, a classic accommodation between power brokers who needed each other, kept the National Democratic Party a tad short of the northern political wilderness.


Unfortunately for this fleeting accommodation, some of the South’s sanest congressmen instantly called the proposed bill too northern. The issue hiding under the bill’s phrasing was too familiar to go unnoticed. Leaving the prior Missouri Compromise ban intact in 1854 was like leaving the prior Mexican antislavery bar intact in the late 1840s. Once again, doing nothing was accomplishing something portentous: allowing an insulting theoretical proscription to continue. The insult could again become practical, as perhaps it had been in California, if the ban on slavery discouraged far-off Southerners from coming to Kansas.

In mid-January 1854, that conclusion was spreading around Washington faster than Douglas could work the legislative halls. The Democrats’ Washington Sentinel, official printer to the Senate, sounded the alarm publicly only a few days after printing Douglas’s latest evasion of Missouri Compromise repeal.6 Simultaneously, Congressman Phillip Phillips of Alabama, a very moderate Democrat on the House Committee on the Territories, lobbied on F Street, telling Atchison and fellows they had to scuttle the 1820 ban.7

Then perhaps the most moderate southern senator shredded fading chances to keep the Missouri Compromise proscription. Archibald Dixon, Whig of Kentucky, rose in the Senate on January 16, 1854, two days after the Washington Sentinel’s editorial, and moved repeal of the Missouri Compromise in Douglas’s proposed territory. As with William Cost Johnson daring the Democracy to pass the severest gag and as with Milton Brown challenging the Democratic Party to multiply the potential pro-southern effect of Texas five times, an exasperated Southern Whig had defied the Democracy to go all the way for the South.8

Familiar Whig disasters in southern loyalty politics led to Dixon’s familiar ploy. The notion that a Whig administration could be as safe for slavery as a Democratic regime, already dubious after Texas, had gone straight downhill ever since the Zachary Taylor debacle. In the Congress of 1850, Northern Whigs’ had refused to make any concession to Southern Whigs, even to Henry Clay’s initial compromise proposals. Even Border South Whigs had found such so-called political allies newly embarrassing, or rather climactically infuriating. Fury escalated when a few prominent Northern Whigs led rescues of fugitive slaves in the early 1850s.

Southern Whig disaster in the Election of 1852 resulted. That contest pitted the Whigs’ latest pet general, Winfield Scott, against the Democrats’ latest northern man with southern leanings, New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce. Pierce won 13 of 15 southern states and a 55% popular plurality. Despite Southern Democrats’ largest sweep since Andrew Jackson’s, Whigs salvaged 48% of the Border South’s popular vote and 47% of the Middle South’s. The disaster was in the Deep South, where Whigs received under 37% of the popular votes, compared with 50% in 1848. No great switch of Whigs over to Democrats occurred in the four years. Rather, Lower South Whigs sullenly stayed home. Democrats’ vote in this region actually dropped 4.3%. Whigs’ ballots plummetted 42.7%. The stay-at-home posture caught the dying Southern Whigs’ mood: resentful at being de-Whigged, not ready to join gloating Democrats, still looking to oust victorious tormentors.9

Instead, Southern Whigs were the ones ousted in the congressional elections of 1853. Their House contingent was reduced to all of 22 seats. The party was now unable to hide, even in an off-year election, from everyone’s knowledge that Northern Democrats were the soundest Yankees on slavery.10

The Kentucky Whig who in 1854 subjected the Democracy’s soundness to climactic test was not so sound himself. Archibald Dixon told Yankee abolitionists that “if anybody has a right to complain of slavery, it is we who are incumbered by it.” Someday, cheered Dixon, a “mysterious Providence” will, “in his own good time, break the shackles of the slave.”11 Yet this Henry Clay Whig who occupied the Great Compromiser’s senate seat moved to strike Clay’s first triumph, the Missouri Compromise, from operating in Douglas’s proposed territory.

Dixon portrayed himself not as a troublemaker daring the Democracy but as a conservative healing a nation. The District, he regretted, was rank with sarcasm and hatred. The slavery issue, he proclaimed, must be run forever out of town. The Compromise of 1820, by excluding slavery from Kansas-Nebraska territory, had harmfully institutionalized congressional hands-on. The Compromise of 1850, by letting settlers in New Mexico and Utah make the final decision, had beneficiently institutionalized congressional hands-off. By voiding its youthful error, Congress would reaffirm its mature wisdom and write finis to the congressional history of slavery.

Dixon thus joined a long line of national statesmen—Van Buren on the gag rule, Zachary Taylor on No Territory, Douglas on Popular Sovereignty, Benton on non-agitation, Thomas Jefferson on everything—who sought to end controversy by avoiding it and succeeded in making the unavoidable more controversial. In Dixon’s hands, the strategy of two generations of national conservatives came to climax—and demonstrated the bankruptcy of avoidance.

New York’s Whig Senator William H. Seward claimed that he had put Archibald Dixon up to the motion. Seward, however, hardly sought to avoid controversy. The New Yorker admitted to plotting that Dixon’s slavery zealotry might goad Southern Democrats and thus the Slavepower-dominated Democratic Party to demand outrageously much for slavery. Then Whigs could whip up greater anti-southern—and anti-Democratic Party—hatreds in the North.12

Seward’s bragging about this so-called statecraft helps explain why a generation of historians theorized that irresponsible demagogues precipitated a needless civil war. The New Yorker was even an irresponsible partisan. His plot aimed at a Democracy so pro-southern and a Northern Whig reaction so antisouthern that Southern Whigs could not have stayed in so obnoxiously Yankee a party.

Still, no proof exists beyond Seward’s bragging that Dixon followed the New York schemer’s instructions. No Southern Whig needed lessons in how to wax more southern than the Democracy.13 Seward’s likely effect, if any, was in failing to discourage a Southern Whig’s natural impulses. Back in 1844, when Milton Brown had made his divide-Texas motion, Northern Whigs had demanded that he cease and desist, and Brown had ultimately voted against his own proposal. Such moderating effects of this national party were now over. Whigs could be as southern as they liked in the South, as northern as they liked in the North, as though it were still 1836 and the party was not national at all.

Even had Seward responsibly sought to restrain Archibald Dixon, his chance of saving the Missouri Compromise would have been next to nil. 1854 was not 1844. A decade of Northern Whig anti-Slavepower rhetoric had left Southern Whigs too disenchanted with their Yankee wing and too desperate about their eroding southern position. Moreover, even had Dixon aborted his demand for Missouri Compromise repeal, Southern Democrats such as Phillip Phillips would have likely gone on demanding a revision of the shaky F Street mess—Stephen A. Douglas rapprochement. Still, once Archibald Dixon moved actual rather than virtual repeal, evasion was impossible for the Davy Atchisons. Southern Democrats had never before and would not now allow Southern Whigs to outflank them on slavery questions.

Douglas, who knew the rules of southern politics, looked up Archibald Dixon. He reasoned that if the Kentucky Whig would ease the pressure, Southern Democrats might again settle for virtual repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Douglas and Dixon huddled in a closed carriage, while horses drew them round and round Washington. Their talk, like their frigid journey, was a circle always ending in the same forbidding spot. Before departing the carriage, the Little Giant promised Dixon that he would make the Missouri Compromise inoperative in the new territory.

The next day, Douglas and the other Kentucky senator, the Democrats’ John C. Breckinridge, sought out Phillip Phillips. Breckinridge, another non-fire-eater, epitomized the continued moderation of Southerners who pressed Douglas. Breckinridge and Douglas begged Phillips to find the least inflammatory language to accomplish modification of the Missouri Compromise. Phillips was then to clear the wording with the sovereign phrase-maker.

That sovereign was not Congress or party or even the southern congressional caucus. Douglas charged Atchison’s F Street messmates with responsibility for approving Phillips’s language. The Illinois senator understood that the tiny group of Southern Democratic titans possessed controlling leverage over Southern Democrats and thus over prospects for passing the bill.

The day after Douglas begged Phillips’s help, the sovereigns met down F Street from the mess, in a rear smoked-filled room of the government’s Patent Office. Not since the cotton gin had the Patent Office observed a southern invention so fateful as Phillips’s phraseology. F Streeters approved Phillips’s wording: that the Compromise of 1820, while not repealed, should be declared “inoperative and void” in Kansas-Nebraska. That phrasing left the Missouri Compromise ban still operatively antislavery in Minnesota Territory, another Louisiana Purchase area.

One Democrat could still stymie this carefully selective voiding. President Franklin Pierce might rally Northern Democrats in revolt against making a sacred compromise partially “inoperative.” The President, after a cabinet discussion, suggested that Congress couple another nondecision on when Popular Sovereignty could transpire, à la the Armistice of 1850, with a new invitation to the Supreme Court to decide the status of slavery in the Kansas-Nebraska area, per the 1848 Clayton Compromise. Douglas approved. F Streeters declined.

The senator accordingly requested a showdown for all parties at the White House the next day. Pierce protested that tomorrow was Sunday, the holy day. Douglas said this business could not wait. Pierce capitulated.

On the sabbath, Douglas dropped by F Street to pick up Atchison. The gesture conceded the Missourian’s stature in pushing the rapprochement between power brokers a little and then a little more southwards. The two key senators, arriving at the White House first, told the President why the Missouri Compromise must become inoperative west of Missouri. The trio was then joined by all F Street messmates, along with John C. Breckinridge and Phillip Phillips. President Pierce, like Douglas, soon agreed to accommodate Davy Atchison, Archibald Dixon, the F Street Mess, and Popular Sovereignty. As in Compromise Tariff and Gag Rule and Texas Annexation and Fugitive Slave Law times, the minority South had seized the leverage of the national majority party.14


The next day, exactly a week after Archibald Dixon’s motion forced Douglas reluctantly southwards, the Illinois Democrat brought to the Senate floor a bill revised to the Kentucky Whig’s specifications. Another key Southern Whig proceeded to inquire how this provocation could help slavery. Making the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery “inoperative and void” in Kansas-Nebraska, John Bell of Tennessee told the Senate, would create in the North “a more decided and deep-rooted hostility to slavery and the whole South.” If slaveholders miraculously captured Kansas, then a still “more widely-diffused and more intense anti-slavery sentiment” would “be awakened.”

The greater “probability,” claimed John Bell, was “that slavery will be prohibited” in Kansas, for odds favoring the more populated North “will deter every prudent slaveholder” from migrating there. Then Missouri, across the river from a neighbor made unnecessarily hostile, would the more quickly “cease to be a slave state.” Bell’s southern friends had warned him, “in our private and friendly conferences, that a southern man who should” utter such opinions “would be considered a traitor.” But a Slavepower minority provoking a northern majority betrayed its own cause.15

At every step towards civil war, some Southerner had voiced John Bell’s message. Chapman Johnson urging the Virginia Convention of 1829 not to impose a Slavepower regime on an egalitarian majority; Carolina Unionists begging Nullifiers not to defy a national majority; Henry L. Pinckney warning Carolina extremists not to insist on the most provocative gag rules; Henry Clay urging Southerners not to demand Texas; Clay again asking slaveholders not to insist on a fugitive slave bill without a jury provision—these statesmen had argued that a vulnerable minority should cease bullying the majority. Your defensive hysterics are awakening a dangerous giant, the John Bells and Thomas Hart Bentons had for a quarter-century been warning Southerners. You are thereby dooming slavery to the earliest possible death.

That analysis remains haunting. By provoking and losing the Civil War, slaveholders brought on themselves the swiftest way to abolish slavery. Worse, southern provocative defensiveness might have paved the only route to emancipation, at least until well into the twentieth century. Did northern abolitionists have the potential appeal or southern apologists the potential bravery to do in the institution, assuming southern hardliners had allowed apologists to work out slavery’s fate?

That puzzle will never be solved, for the solution requires writing a history which never happened about an historical path defiantly blocked. Even guesses about where that other road might have wandered are forbidding, for slaveholders’ tactics shadowed everything on the path chosen. Southern threats and intimidations powerfully influenced both the North’s dislike of abolitionists and the South’s wariness about heretics. If another sort of southern ruling class had allowed calm and constructive discussions, without disunion ultimatums or disloyalty cries to deter Jeffersons and Bentons and Clays and Aberdeens and Lincolns—well this master class did not wish to risk that fantasy. These slaveholders preferred to go down fighting, if they perished at all, whether or not the John Bells called it death by one’s own hand.

The National Democratic Party instantly experienced the hostility which John Bell feared would destroy everything national. The Kansas-Nebraska Bill, if passed, would invite slaveholders onto previously emancipated turf. Worse, republican government, so many Northerners thought, was being annihilated. The majority section was not ruling. A Slavepower Conspiracy was consolidating minority despotism. “A secret conclave,” Bluff Ben Wade of Ohio charged in the Senate, “concocted” Douglas’s surrender in the dead of “night time.”

Douglas’s answer was all innocence: I wrote the Kansas-Nebraska bill by myself, with daylight enveloping the study.16 The southern answer was all injured denial: northern leaders offered us the bill out of their own free will. One Monday morning, both the Northern Democracy’s President and its senatorial leader announced that national principles required equal opportunity for slaveholders.

Because so few Southerners participated in the F Street Mess’s final arm twisting, some southern congressmen may have believed in this free offering absurdity. More Yankees, however, believed in the North’s equally absurd Slavepower Conspiracy thesis. Northerners were right, of course, that a small crew of slaveholders had privately pushed Douglas and Pierce southwards.

Everything else about the Great Slavepower Conspiracy explanation of the Kansas-Nebraska Act erred. Participants at the White House sabbath conference were largely from the Upper South. They were wholly against disunion. Their “conspiracy” consisted of back-room lobbying. Their proof that aggressive minorities can control appeasing or passive majorities was democracy as usual, indeed American democracy as routinely practiced throughout the years of the Democratic Party’s pro-southern legislative victories.

Numerical majorities always have an unconquerable remedy: match the minority’s aggression. Such an invincible northern majority was beginning to appear in the spring of 1854. Anti-Nebraska zealots, precursors of the imminent Republican Party, attacked Douglas’s bill so strongly as to jeopardize passage, particularly in the House of Representatives.

Southerners’ big problem at the time of Texas Annexation, the Senate, was no concern this time. Back in 1844–5, when the National Whig Party had been thriving, only three Southern Whig senators had defied Northern Whigs’ anti-Texas intransigence. A senatorial majority for annexation had thus required every Northern and Southern Democrat, even Thomas Hart Benton. But in 1854, with the National Whig Party fast going under, most Southern Whigs supported the Southern Democrats’ bill. With greater unanimity existing among southern senators, fewer Northern Democratic appeasers were necessary to pass the Slavepower proposal. More than a few Northern Democrats still lined up behind Douglas and the South. The Senate passed the Kansas-Nebraska Bill 37–14 on March 4,1854. Only four Northern Democrats and two Southern Whigs joined the Northern Whigs in voting no.

Southerners faced larger obstacles in the North-controlled House. Since all northern opponents of the Democracy would vote against the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, passage required that almost half the Northern Democrats vote the South’s way. Northern House Democrats faced their usual predicament. They could antagonize either southern allies or northern constituents.

For a time, these hard-pressed Yankees thought they might antagonize no one. They would passively allow Northern Whigs to talk the bill to death. But southern parliamentary maneuvers, particularly Alexander Stephens’s ploys, defeated that stall. On May 22, 1854, the clerk called the most important House roll since 1850—arguably the most important since 1787.

The familiar majority then secured the latest and most notorious pro-southern law. Slaveholding states stood 71–11 for the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, and Northern Democrats voted 42–39 with the South. As usual, Lower North Democrats voted strongest the southern way, 28–17. Upper North Democrats voted 22–14 against Kansas-Nebraska, as did Northern Whigs-Freesoilers-Nativists, by a 50–0 count. In all, the free labor states opposed Douglas, 89–42. The Kansas-Nebraska Bill passed, 113–100, even though two-thirds of the majority section voted nay, because seven-eighths of the minority section and half the Northern Democrats voted aye.17

The Slavepower’s extra representatives aided Northern Democrats in securing the minority’s legislation. Because every five slaves counted as three votes in apportioning House representatives, Southerners received 19 more seats than a one-white-man, one-vote egalitarian republic would have provided. The Slavepower needed a third of those extra votes to pass Kansas-Nebraska. Anti-Nebraska forces had yet another reason to denounce the rape of republicanism.

The three-fifths clause had only occasionally been such a crucial factor in national decisions. But on some occasions, like this one, it had a devastating effect. The three-fifths clause had probably made Jefferson rather than John Adams President in 1800. The Slavepower’s extra house seats had enabled William Cost Johnson’s ultra gag rule to pass. The three-fifths clause had stopped the Tallmadge Amendments in Missouri Controversy times. Now, irony had been piled on irony in the tale of James Tallmadge, Jr. The three-fifths clause, having secured the Missouri Compromise and thus blocked post-nati emancipation in Missouri, had now helped make the Missouri Compromise inoperative and thus perhaps consolidated Missouri’s uneasy Slavepower.


The law’s final wording offered alternate routes to consolidation. The Missouri Compromise was declared “inoperative and void” in Kansas-Nebraska, and “the people” of either “territory or state” were left “perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to the Constitution of the United States.” In other words, Missouri slaveholders were perfectly free to spill over the border immediately and control an early territorial decision. If Yankees instead secured a territorial decree against slavery, Southerners were perfectly free to appeal the edict to the southern-dominated Supreme Court.

That court might strike down a territorial legislature’s ban on slavery. Local lawmakers in national territorial domains, having secured their authority from Congress, arguably were no freer than Congress to seize national citizens’ (slave) property. According to Calhoun’s now old-hat gag rule argument, the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause barred seizure of propertied substances, no matter what the procedure. With Northern Democrats giving Southerners every chance to win a race to the territories and a further chance for a favorable Supreme Court decision even if Yankee feet proved swifter, and with Northern Whigs denouncing every appeasing syllable, how could Southern Whigs remain married to the Whig Party?

The unanswerable question highlights the importance of Southern Whigs’ reluctance to proceed with the now unavoidable divorce. Thirteen Southern Whigs in the House massed behind the Democrats in the Kansas-Nebraska roll call. If those 13 had remained loyal to the Whig Party, the Kansas-Nebraska Bill would have been defeated. But almost as many Southern Whigs in the House, nine, voted against capitulation to the Democratic Party’s legislation. Continued support of the Whig Party by 41% of House Southern Whigs re-emphasized how precious was that shrine of party. But the last lonely nine stalwarts knew they could not prevail in southern elections if loaded down with the latest damning evidence of Northern Whigs’ intransigence. The National Whig Party could be national no longer.


With the death of national Whiggery, as with the sectionalizing of Jacksonian “Democracy,” it is helpful, after following each twist of a journey, to glance back at the whole terrain. From the perspective of the final consolidation of a northern Whiggery hateful to Southern Whigs, the national anti-Jackson movement was from the beginning too sectional. While Jacksonianism began and largely remained strongest in the South and in the southern half of both sections, the Whig Party began and remained disproportionately northern. If the North had had its way in 1828, the anti-Jacksonians’ John Quincy Adams would have been the first re-elected northern President. While Whiggery later became highly competitive in the Lower North and Middle South as well as somewhat competitive in the Lower South, Whigs remained most dominant in the Upper North and in the Border South.

As with the Jackson Party, consequences of a disproportionately sectional power base were long hidden. Men became Whigs for largely nonsectional reasons: to further governmental aid to and control of economic growth, to secure Christian moral community, and, especially in the beginning, to make Andrew Jackson, supposed symbol of an age, the archetype of what the age must not become. Against Jackson’s untrammeled individualism, Whigs pitted communal action; against the supposed Caesar’s imperial presidency, Whigs championed a chaste Congress and cabinet; against the undercapitalized Jacksonian entrepreneur at the mercy of the market’s booms and busts, Whigs would use public authority local and national to augment private capital and to smooth economic cycles. This often patriarchal conception of state and community was relevant to dozens of national congressional and presidential elections and to thousands of state and local campaigns. Localistic crusades created among Whigs no less than Democrats a partisan constituency some 45% strong: voters who detested the other party, citizens who considered nonslavery Jacksonian/Whig issues too important to tolerate slavery’s destruction of the Second American Party System. To crack pre-slavery-controversy institutions, slavery issues had to be relentlessly pounded home over a sustained period of time.

Hammering began in national presidential elections. Then national issues best energized provincial constituents and attracted the relatively few local independents. After abolitionists’ emergence in 1835, playing on southern fears about slavery proved the easy road to zealotry in national elections.

Southern Oppositionists/Whigs first stepped down that easy road. In their 1835–6 pitch for Tennessee’s Hugh Lawson White as a safe Southerner, Southern Whigs for the first time became competitive in national presidential sweepstakes and almost secured a southern dead heat with Martin Van Buren. Similar stress on Whig presidential candidates’ southern upbringing helped secure the region for William Henry Harrison in 1840 and for Zachary Taylor in 1848. This sporadic rhetoric safely focused on men, not measures. By emphasizing in the South that presidential candidates were to the manor born, Southern Whigs augmented their own power and did Northern Whigs no harm.

The damage occurred when controversy shifted from who was born southward to who could pass pro-southern law.. Northern Whigs’ unending opposition to Slavepower proposals differed substantially from Northern Democrats’ compromising maneuvers. The difference stemmed from the anti-Jackson Party’s greater northern power base and from Yankee Whigs’ conviction, at once fiercely partisan and passionately idealistic, that alleged “Democrats” were wedded to the anti-democratic Slavepower. This anti-Slavepower thrust, critical to John Quincy Adams’s forensic duels with Southern Whigs such as Henry Wise and Waddy Thompson, was at first relatively unimportant because nonslavery issues outweighed the gag rule.

Texas was more important. For the first time, the southern election of 1844 focused on which party’s measures, not men, were most loyal to slavery. The result was a Southern Whig drubbing. No Territory, the inventive Whig response, sought above all else to eliminate these party-straining, Union-straining slavery measures. But when Polk secured the Mexican Cession, No Territory was irrelevant, and not even Zachary Taylor’s ingenious policy could make the panacea relevant again. Despite Southern Whigs’ warnings about intolerable insults, Northern Whigs affirmed the Wilmot Proviso, secured free California, said nay to Fugitive Slave Laws and aye to abolition in the District of Columbia. In the Election of 1852 and again in 1853, slavery measures, not men, were most relevant. As always, the Democratic Party better served southern measures.

Demoralized Southern Whigs had only one weapon left. Like William Cost Johnson and Milton Brown earlier, Archibald Dixon would demonstrate that Southern Democrats’ victories were compromised triumphs and that Southern Whigs could set the true southern course. But the National Democratic Party, despite Northern Democrats’ grumbling, again rose to the challenge. After Democrats’ stunning voiding of the Missouri Compromise in Kansas-Nebraska, the national opposition party had to fold in the South.

The Whig Party rather than the Democratic Party succumbed to the slavery issue first because it could never fulfill an American political party’s indispensable function: to find the middle of the road. With Northern Whigs unwilling to be accommodating on slavery-related issues, Southern Whigs could only hope that slavery controversy receded back into the safe form of who was born where. Instead, slavery issues kept multiplying. To a slight extent, Southern Whigs victimized themselves, for their periodic stress on the Democrats’ allegedly disloyal presidential candidates helped awaken apprehensions in both North and South. To a far larger extent, disruptive proposals escalated for the very reason Southern Whigs first became a viable second party throughout the South in 1836: because Southerners found antislavery insulting and potentially damaging, particularly in lightly enslaved hinterlands. A decade of hammering on Texas, the Wilmot insult, fugitive slaves, Kansas, eventually drowned out pre-slavery issues, even in southern local elections. The Democratic Party, albeit with increasing strain, could compromise on slavery. The Whig Party never could. The resulting crash of a great national institution echoed throughout a profoundly endangered republic.18


Southern Democrats’ sectional victory endangered their national party too. Never before had appeasing the South so angered the North. Placing Northern Democratic appeasers at risk might prove justified if slaveholders proceeded to use Popular Sovereignty to enslave Kansas and save Missouri. But if the opportunity was dissipated, the F Street messmates who squeezed such a provocative law out of Stephen A. Douglas might have secured the South’s emptiest and costliest triumph yet.

Victory, to be worthwhile, had to be scored on both sides of the Missouri River. Thomas Hart Benton, one of only two Southern Democrats in the House who had voted against Kansas-Nebraska, seemed likely to challenge Davy Atchison in the Missouri senatorial election of 1855. The issue figured to be more clear-cut than ever: silence on slavery to make Missouri seem a white utopia versus ferocity on slavery to keep Missouri as an outpost of black servitude.

So sharp a clash, Atchison’s advocates hoped, would strip Benton’s disguises. Maybe Benton himself, or at least his young turks such as Blair Junior, would agitate honestly for what Atchisonians always thought lay hidden behind Old Bullion’s arguments for silence on slavery: a future campaign to dump slaves, slaveholders, and blacks outside a whitened mecca. Then the Missouri election of 1855 might yield a clear-cut determination of slavery’s fate in the Border South.

Events across the Missouri River could determine Missouri’s decision. Atchison supporters would assuredly try to win an early Popular Sovereignty decision in Kansas. Should border ruffians quickly lose the other side of the Missouri River, Missouri’s slavery regime might look hopelessly surrounded. Should border ruffians quickly win by riding roughshod over majority processes in Kansas, Benton’s case against despotic polluting of white republicanism might be more compelling than ever.

A politician residing across the Mississippi River would monitor Missouri River happenings with special interest. Illinois’s Abraham Lincoln was a leader of the burgeoning anti-Nebraska movement. Like most opponents of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln emphasized regaining the old, not gaining anything new. He would restore the Missouri Compromise. He would re-establish the Founding Fathers’ anti-slave-expansion policy. Then those inside the South could decide slavery’s fate.

Plans such as Lincoln’s had always raised specters of collaborations of insiders and outsiders, including Thomas Jefferson and Jared Sparks, and Lord Aberdeen and Pearl Andrews, and Cassius Clay and David Wilmot, who might reinforce each other’s exploratory probings. Like many anti-Nebraska compatriots, Abraham Lincoln occasionally dreamed of southern alliances. Lincoln, a former Henry Clay National Whig who did not like being de-Whigged, could conscientiously offer potential southern colleagues Clay’s plan of distributing federal revenues to help states colonize slaves. Lincoln was especially watching neighboring Missourians to see whether Benton’s followers might seek removal of blacks from the state. A nationally-important local showdown was indeed looming on both sides of the Missouri River.19


Missourians could not likely win Kansas alone. Border ruffians could cross the Missouri River first and secure early Popular Sovereignty elections. After Northerners started massing from afar, however, Southerners from afar had better start arriving too.

The congressional Kansas-Nebraska debates created doubt that Southerners would massively come. Davy Atchison’s promise to seize neighboring turf gave the issue a bit of the highly practical aspects of a close-by Texas. Some southern congressmen saw Kansas Atchison’s way. To others, however, Kansas looked more akin to the distant Mexican Cession. Such southern congressmen massed behind Atchison as sectional patriots, in order to give him a weapon perhaps as illusory as the Fugitive Slave Law—and to scotch an insult akin to the Wilmot Proviso.20

But could such an abstract notion bring masses of Southerners to chilly Kansas, when tropical virgin land in Texas and Arkansas beckoned instead? Any such patriotic march on Kansas, in defiance of practical alternatives, would require section-wide cooperation and commitment. In the mid-1850s the southern world remained instead a collection of localized neighborhoods, poorly connected by railroads, poorly integrated by geography, poorly united by ideology. An unending crusade for perpetual servitude had not been remotely achieved. A huge portion of the most populated South still thought that slavery could and should be ended, always assuming that the right conditions existed.

The essence of Conditional Termination had always been distaste—distaste for the Peculiar Institution, distaste for most solutions, distaste for agitators who would crusade for or against the distasteful. Southern crusaders always had more control over such feelings of distaste in Washington than elsewhere. Only in Washington did Southerners from disparate locales crowd into the same hothouse neighborhood. Only in Washington could Southrons stare each other in the face as they demanded demonstration of loyalty. Southern disunity had not yet clearly led to a loss for slavery in Congress, although Southern Whig opposition to Texas had made for a close call, and Upper South repugnance for splitting California had aborted Henry Foote’s plans.

Still, uniting to pass statutes in a single Washington neighborhood was one thing. Combining to make use of the statutes after Southerners scattered to different Souths was another. To take the central pre-Kansas example of the phenomenon, southern congressmen had procured the chance to carve Texas into five slave states. The provocative victory had proved worthless because no collective effort had been mounted in the countryside to move population to the Lone Star State and so capture that potential political treasure chest of senators and representatives.

With zest for slavery battles not rampant throughout their culture, the Slavepower in Washington was like the boy sticking his finger in the leaking dyke. Law after law theoretically closed openings in southern outposts. Every law antagonized more Northerners. No law, except the annexation of Texas, made southern frontiers safer. Kansas could repeat the Fugitive Slave Law’s counterproductive process.

Recognition of the danger would help stimulate fresh attempts at new polemics, new programs, new postures in the mid-1850s. In the spirit of the Resistance Party of 1850–1, southern crusaders would seek to overcome the almost universal apologetics of the Texas Controversy. A proslavery ideology would have to be perfected. The African slave trade might have to be reopened. More arguably practical areas for slavery, such as Cuba, might have to be annexed. A southern nation might even have to be secured. In the aftermath of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, it would be considered high time—past time—to make a South.

Past generations of slaveholders had left behind promising materials to make one world. Elitist Southeasterners, especially those in South Carolina, had gone a long way towards basing a society and viewpoint on a color-blind hierarchy. Egalitarian Southwesterners had made much progress in centering a world and world view on color-infested white chauvinism.

But whichever path toward consistency polemicists chose, their quest for clarity would have to conquer the South’s old essence. The region had long been its contradictions—been its various people’s often colliding, often uneasy reconciliations of antithetical institutions and sensibilities. Proslavery ultras’ insistence that the culture live up to one abstraction rather than all others could seem, to scattered and unabstracted southern folk, vaguely—annoyingly—similar to abolitionists’ fantasies. With their jarring demand that folks cease enjoying comfortable evasions and at last confront the uncomfortable choices, extremists approached their most potentially productive—and treacherous—stretch of the road to disunion.

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