1918 KANSAS AND KANSANS Chapter 15 Part 1

CHAPTER XV

REPEAL OF THE MISSOURI COMPROMISE

The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise was the result of the reaction on the people of Missouri of the movement to organize the Territory of Nebraska. The Nebraska question touched the vital principles underlying fundamental law and the political policies of the times. The people of Missouri, or most of them, if politics could have been eliminated, would have favored the organization of the Territory. A powerful faction of the Missouri Democracy favored it. In the beginning, the Price-Atchison faction opposed the organization of Nebraska Territory, believing the time had not come when it could have behind it the aggressive slave propaganda. The discouragement of this faction was voiced by Senator Atchison in his speech in the Senate in March, 1853:


DAVID R. ATCHISON
[Copy by Willard of Portrait
in Library of Kansas
State Historical Society]
. . . For my own part I acknowledge now, as the Senator from Illinois well knows, when I came to this city, at the beginning of the last session, I was perhaps as much opposed to the proposition as the Senator from Texas [Rusk] now is. The Senator from Iowa knows it. . . . But, sir, I have upon reflection and investigation in my own mind and from the opinion of others, my constituents whose opinions I am bound to respect, come to the conclusion that now is the time for the organization of this territory.

One reason that I will assign why I opposed this measure, and why I still think it objectionable in a local point of view, so far as my immediate constituents, the people of western Missouri are concerned, as well as those of Iowa and Arkansas are concerned, is, if you organize the territory of Nebraska and extinguish the Indian title, and let in the white population upon that territory, it extends our frontiers from seven hundred to one thousand miles west, and we raise up competition with what we now have. The states of Iowa and Missouri now have the best market for all their products. We are an agricultural people, and for all the products of agriculture we have now as good a market as any people of the United States, and it grows out of the frontier trade; food for men, food for oxen, food for mules, food for everything, which we produce for California, Oregon and New Mexico. But if we extend this frontier from year to year competition will increase, and we will be compelled to turn our agricultural products down the Missouri and the Mississippi rivers, to the east instead of to the west. . . . The pressure of population from the older states and from Europe has been such that they roll up against the frontier, and the most populous counties in the State of Missouri are upon the western boundary of that State. In less than three years from this time the most populous counties of Iowa will be upon the western border; and it will be the same case, if it is not now, with the State of Arkansas. . . . And why is it so? Why, sir, the tide of emigration rolls on until it is stopped by the intercourse laws. Such has been the case in our State for the last ten years, and I know that the tide of population has been rolling back upon the interior of the State. Now, sir, I know very well that in a very few years, if it is not now doing it, the tide of population, in defiance of this government, will pass the frontier and take possession of every habitable spot in Nebraska territory; you cannot keep them out. There is a large portion of our population who are ready and anxious to abandon their homes to go into this Territory. You cannot restrain them much longer. . . .

It was my opinion at that time [the opening of the session] - and I am not now very clear on that subject - that the law of Congress, when the State of Missouri was admitted into the Union, excluding slavery from the territory of Louisiana north of 36 30', would be enforced in that Territory unless it was specially rescinded; and, whether that law was in accordance with the Constitution of the United States or not, it would do its work, and that work would be to preclude slaveholders from going into that Territory. But when I came to look into that question, I found that there was no prospect, no hope of a repeal of the Missouri Compromise, excluding slavery from that Territory. Now, sir, I am free to admit that at this moment, at this hour, and for all time to come, I should oppose the organization or the settlement of that Territory unless my constituents and the constituents of the whole South, of the slave States of the Union, could go into it upon the same footing, with equal rights and equal privileges, carrying that species of property with them as other people of this Union. Yes, sir, I acknowledge that that would have governed me, but I have no hope that the restriction will ever be repealed.

I have always been of opinion that the first great error committed in the political history of this country was the Ordinance of 1787, rendering the Northwest Territory free territory. The next great error was the Missouri Compromise. But they are both irremediable. There is no remedy for them. We must submit to them. I am prepared to do it. It is evident that the Missouri Compromise cannot be repealed. So far as that question is concerned, we might as well agree to the admission of this territory now as next year, or five or ten years hence.

The sentiments of Senator Atchison's speech are the same he expressed to Abelard Guthrie on the train between St. Louis and Cincinnati when these gentlemen were on the way to Washington in 1852. Writing to Governor William Walker, December 1, of that year, Guthrie said: "From St. Louis I traveled in company with Senators Geyer and Atchison of Mo. and Representatives Richardson and Bissil of Ills. I am sorry to say our Missouri Senators are by no means favorable to our Territorial projects. The slavery question is the cause of this opposition. I regret that it should. interfere - it ought not. Mr. Atchison thinks the slaves in Nebraska are already free by the operation of the Missouri Compromise Act, and asks a repeal of that act before any thing shall be done for Nebraska."

The strenuous aggression of Colonel Benton, however, put Senator Atchison on the defensive in the Missouri campaign of 1853. It became necessary for him to define his position toward Nebraska Territory and also toward slavery as it affected that Territory and his action in connection with it. It became the settled conviction of the leaders of his faction of the Missouri Democracy that the organization of the Territory could not be longer prevented. It was, too, plain to them that the perpetuation of slavery would depend upon the result of the contest sure to be precipitated by that organization. If the slave power permitted that Territory to come in free, the opportunity to secure a repeal of the Compromise would be forever lost. So, the Price-Atchison faction of the Missouri Democracy combined with the organization of Nebraska Territory the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. The leaders of that faction determined to exact as the price of that organization the repeal of the famous compact. Their conclusion was announced by Senator Atchison in his speech at Platte City, when he said:

Colonel Benton and others "had assumed that slavery was excluded from that Territory by the law commonly called the Missouri Compromise." If so, I was then and as now opposed to interfering with that Territory unless that restriction can be removed. I was in favor of, and did vote for, the appropriation of money to enable the President to make treaties with the Indians to extinguish their title to lands upon which they reside, and to obtain their consent to the organization of a territorial government, and this was all that Congress should in my opinion have done in the premises at the last session. Now . . . I will tell you what I will do. I will vote for the ratification of treaties to extinguish the Indian titles to lands in that Territory and I will support a bill to organize a government for the Territory upon the condition that such bill contains no restriction upon the subject of slavery, and not otherwise. I will vote for a bill that leaves the slaveholder and the non-slaveholder upon terms of equality. I am willing that the people who may settle there and who have the deepest interest in this question should decide it for themselves. As a very large and respectable portion of my constituents are directly or indirectly interested in slave property, I am unwilling that they with this species of property should be excluded. I will give no advantage to one citizen over another. Mr. Abelard Guthrie, in an address or circular to his constituents says that "Atchison politely told him that he would see the Territory of Nebraska sunk in hell before he would vote for it as freesoil territory." . . . I do not remember of making use of expressions so emphatic but I will not deny it. I may have said so. But that there may be no mistake and that I may not be misunderstood hereafter, I now say emphatically that I will not vote for any bill that makes Nebraska a freesoil Territory. I have not, and I do not intend upon any occasion to yield one inch to the spirit of freesoilism and abolitionism, whether they exhibit themselves here at home or in Washington. Our old Senator of thirty years standing, "he who is known in Europe and America" and who will be known if his own account of things proves true to "posterity" is the author of all the doubts and misgivings as to my position upon this question.

Permit me now to ask what has this distinguished personage who has been Senator from Missouri for so long a time done upon this subject? What has he done toward organizing and settling the Nebraska Territory? What has he ever attempted to do? Did he ever introduce a bill to organize a government or to extinguish the Indian titles in that Territory? If he did, when and where? He has only been absent from the Senate since the fourth of March, 1851, not quite twenty-seven months. What has filled him so brimful with fiery zeal and hot haste? What has induced him to make assertions which he knew not to be true as to the opinions and actions of myself and others? . . . Duty to himself and the State he in part represents should have called forth . . . under other circumstances than those which now surround him an exhibition of this latter-day zeal upon this and kindred subjects. This was necessary to prevent his sincerity being now doubted and his motives impugned.

He emphasized these statements at Parkville on the 6th of August, saying:

Colonel Benton, Mr. Webster, Mr. Clay and others told us that the Act of 1820, commonly called the Missouri Compromise, excluded slavery from this Territory and Congress had the power to pass such a law, and that it was constitutional, and so forth. Benton in one of his speeches declared that there was no slave territory belonging to the United States; that Mexican law excluded slavery from the territory acquired by the treaty with that Republic at the close of the war; that the Missouri Compromise excluded slavery from all the Louisiana country north of 36 30' not included in the limits of the State of Missouri (this very Territory of Nebraska). Was it then strange that I should hesitate about sustaining Mr. Hall's bill? Missouri is and always has been a slave State. A large portion of my constituents are slaveholders. Could it be expected that I would be very anxious about organizing a Territory from which a large portion of my constituents would be excluded? The State of Missouri is now bounded on two sides by free States; organize this Territory as free territory then we are bounded on three sides by free States or Territories.

What would be the effect upon slave property in Missouri and in this neighborhood it requires no prophet to tell. It is a problem not difficult to solve. The free States have a pious and philanthropic class of men who observe the "higher law" and whose duty it is to attend to other people's business and think that they are rendering God good service in stealing their neighbors' negroes. But, fellow citizens, that I may be clearly understood in relation to this point, I now declare to you that I will not vote for a bill to organize a government for the Territory of Nebraska unless that bill leaves the Territory open for settlement to all the people of the United States without restriction or limitation; open to the slaveholder as well as to the non-slaveholder. I will vote for no bill that directly or indirectly makes a discrimination between the citizens of the different States of this Union, North or South, slave or non-slaveholding; no bill that strikes at the equality of the States of this Confederacy. . . .

At the last session of Congress an appropriation was made to enable the President to negotiate treaties with the Indians for the purpose of obtaining their consent to the organization of a government and to purchase their lands for settlement by the white men. This was the object of the appropriation and I voted for it; and I doubt not but that the object of the appropriation will be carried out by the President before the meeting of the next Congress. If so, then I will vote for and use all the influence I have in favor of a bill to organize a government and to promote its settlement upon the principles I have indicated. . . .

When Nebraska shall be settled and its people desire to enter this Union as a State, it is the right of the people to form their institutions to suit themselves. They may adopt slavery as one of their institutions or they may exclude it, as they shall deem expedient. If it is the will of a majority of the people of the Territory at that time to exclude slavery, be it so. It is their business, not ours. Let them present us with a republican form of government, this is all that shall be asked. I would vote its admission into the Union. The Territories of the United States, preparatory to their admission into the Union as States, have the right to form their own institutions, as much so as States of the Union have a right to change their institutions.

No person will deny the right of South Carolina to abolish slavery. None will deny the right of Massachusetts to establish slavery. The Territories have the same right when they form their Constitutions and ask admission into this Union as States.

Now am I understood? If there is anything doubtful in my position. I will thank any gentleman to catechize me that I may be clearly and distinctly understood, for I desire upon this question to be understood. I know that my opinion upon this subject has been by some misunderstood and others misrepresented. No person questions me? Then I am understood. . . .

Before the meeting of Congress in December, 1853, there had appeared a new interpretation of the Compromise of 1850. It was contended in some quarters that the terms of the Missouri Compromise were superseded by the Compromise of 1850. This was perhaps intended only as an abatement or saving proviso to be insisted upon should the attempt to repeal the Missouri Compromise fail. At the assembling of Congress the contest which had raged so fiercely in Missouri over the establishment of Nebraska Territory was transferred to Washington. The conditions of the struggle at that time may be stated as follows:

1. In Missouri it had been the engrossing issue for two years. The extreme slavery faction there had first opposed the movement. Its second position had been one of acquiescence under protest. Its third stand was that if Nebraska was organized the Missouri Compromise should at the same time be repealed and the country thrown open to slavery. The Benton Democracy, then drifting toward Freesoilism, stood for the organization of Nebraska Territory under the restrictions of the Missouri Compromise, and for the continuance of that Compromise as the law of the land. In Missouri the Whig and Democratic parties were breaking down, and the new alignment was inclining to pro-slavery and anti-slavery parties, though no clear line of demarcation had developed. The extremists enjoyed the advantage which always falls to the party which stands boldly on the aggressive, but the settled conviction of a majority of the people of the State was then against them and always remained against them, even when in their audacity they made every effort to carry the State into the Southern slave cause - into rebellion.

2. In the South the slavery interests were unanimously behind the Price-Atchison faction of the Missouri Democracy. Atchison represented that faction in the Senate. As Missouri was to be more immediately affected by the result of the struggle, she was to lead, and Atchison was to direct the battle and command all the forces. William C. Price was in Washington and a principal figure in the councils of the slavery interests.

3. In the country at large there was little knowledge of the intensity of the situation in Missouri and no conception of the extreme intentions of the slavery interests. This is particularly true of the North. Only the Southern leaders knew what had been determined.1

The 33rd Congress convened on the 5th day of December, 1853. On that day Senator A. C. Dodge, of Iowa, gave notice that he would prepare and introduce a bill for the organization of Nebraska Territory. He brought in his bill for that purpose on the 14th of December. It was referred at once to the Senate Committee on Territories. Senator Stephen A. Douglas had been long the chairman of that Committee, and, as we have seen, had brought in bills for the organization of Nebraska Territory himself. He had never shown any interest in the Nebraska matter, and had taken care that no action was ever had in the Senate favorable to the establishment of Nebraska Territory. There is no evidence whatever that he had any more interest in the organization at the beginning of the 33rd Congress than at any other period of the agitation of this question. He was a candidate for the nomination of the Democratic party for President of the United States. For the preceding fifteen years, at least, he had seen the party drifting into the control of the slave power. There is no reason to suppose that he had done, at any time, anything pertaining to the Nebraska matter beyond what the extremists in the slavery councils desired. On the other hand his whole course confirms the belief that he had been governed in his action by the desire and policy of these extremists, if, indeed, he had not taken his orders from them. He had spent the summer and autumn of 1853 in Europe. There is nothing to indicate that he entertained, at the opening of the 33rd Congress, any more interest in the Nebraska matter than he had manifested for the preceding ten years.

On the 22d of December, 1853, J. G. Miller, of Missouri, introduced in the House, a bill for the organization of Nebraska Territory. It was very nearly the same as the bill of Senator Dodge, and it was referred to the House Committee on Territories, of which the chairman was Hon. William H. Richardson, of Illinois.2

The final settlement of political questions of National import, coming into Congress, is always effected in the Senate. Little attention was given to the House bill providing for the organization of Nebraska Territory. The action of the Senate would prove decisive. Senator Douglas feared the effects on the North of an outright repeal of the Missouri Compromise. He hoped to bring about the Repeal by indirection. On the 4th of January, 1854, he reported Senator Dodge's bill which had not mentioned slavery, with the following amendment:

Section 21. And be it further enacted, That in order to avoid all misconstruction, it is hereby declared to be the true intent and meaning of this act, so far as the question of slavery is concerned, to carry into practical operation the following propositions and principles established by the compromise measures of 1850, to-wit:

First: That all questions pertaining to slavery in the Territories and in the new States to be formed therefrom, are to be left to the decision of the people residing therein, through their appropriate representatives.

Second: That "all cases involving title to slaves," and "questions of personal freedom," are referred to the adjudication of the local tribunals, with the right of appeal to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Third: That provisions of the Constitution and laws of the United States, in respect to fugitives from service are to be carried into faithful execution in all the "organized Territories," the same as in the States.

The report entered into a discussion of the principles of the Compromise of 1850, saying:

The principles established by the compromise measures of 1850, so far as they are amicable to territorial organizations, are proposed to be affirmed and carried into practical operation within the limits of the new Territory.

In the judgment of your Committee, those measures were intended to have a far more comprehensive and enduring effect than the mere adjustment of the difficulties arising out of the recent acquisitions of Mexican territory. They were designed to establish certain great principles, which would not only furnish adequate remedies for existing evils, but, in all time to come, avoid the perils of a similar agitation, by withdrawing the question of slavery from the halls of Congress and the political arena, and committing it to the arbitrament of those who were immediately interested in, and alone responsible for its consequences.


1 This was constantly asserted by William C. Price in his statements to the author.

2 The fact that Senator Dodge did not provide for the organization of two territories in his bill discredits the statement of Hadley D. Johnson on that point.

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A Standard History of Kansas and Kansans , written and compiled by William E. Connelley, transcribed by Carolyn Ward, 1998.

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