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HIST 119: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
- "A Hell of a Storm": The Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Birth of the Republican Party, 1854-55
Professor Blight narrates some of the important political crises of the 1850s. The lecture begins with an account of the Compromise of 1850, the swan song of the great congressional triumvirate–Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun. The lecture then describes northern opposition to the Fugitive Slave Act passed as part of the Compromise, and the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s classic Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. Professor Blight then introduces the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the most pivotal political event of the decade, and the catalyst for the birth of the Republican party.
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The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877
HIST 119 - Lecture 7 - "A Hell of a Storm": The Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Birth of the Republican Party, 1854-55
Chapter 1. Introduction [00:00:00]
Professor David Blight: There was trouble in the air. I left you the other day with Henry Clay sloshing down some brandy on a late night in mid-January 1850, to try to come up with ways of solving the great political challenges they faced between the sections and over the expansion of slavery. They were doing this, in great part, because gold had been discovered in California. This is an original photograph of panners, gold-miners — white, Asian and who knows, probably somebody mixed black. If California wasn’t ready for statehood in 1850, it’s possible there wouldn’t have needed to be a Compromise of 1850; but it was. And already in its inception, people realized how big California was. And they already realized, North and South, that part of it was north of the Missouri Compromise Line and part it was south. Would that vast territory of California become a free state or a slave state?
The South’s greatest spokesman, its intellectual leader of its states’ sovereignty and states’ rights position, delivered what became known quickly that year as “The Southern Address.” And in it, Calhoun said many things, warning the country what the South might do, or at least the Deep South might do. But he captured it in this ending of the speech: “If you,” and he’s pointing to Northerners, “who represent the stronger portion cannot agree to settle on the broad principle of justice and duty, say so; and let the States we both represent agree to separate and part in peace. If you are unwilling we should part in peace, tell us so; and we shall not — and we shall know what to do when you reduce the question to submission or resistance. If you remain silent you will compel us to infer by your acts what you intend. In that case, California will become the test question. If you admit her, under all the difficulties that oppose her admission, you compel us to infer that you intend to exclude us from the whole of the acquired territories of the West, with the intention of destroying irretrievably the equilibrium between the two sections.”
And one of the oldest ideas in our political culture is that great conflict comes when there’s an issue around which two sides — let’s assume there are two, sometimes there are more than two — but if there are two sides on a great issue of conflict, when one side or the other cannot accept the result; when a vital interest is somehow at stake that they will not, or cannot, or choose not, to accept a political outcome. That’s the question in the 1850s: can compromise, some kind of coalition and consensus around this question of slavery’s future — future in the West, future in the American political culture, future within the Constitution — can some kind of center hold?
Now, Clay invited Daniel Webster to deal with this because Webster’s obviously the most — at that point in time Daniel Webster was the most famous Northern Whig politician. He was from abolitionist Massachusetts. He was anti-slavery, though never a card-carrying abolitionist to say the least. He was a great lawyer, many said the greatest orator in the United States — those were usually the ones that hadn’t heard Frederick Douglass yet. He’d been in Congress since 1823, almost as long as Clay. He’d been in the Senate since 1844. He was seen in some ways as the lion and the spokesman of New England. He had been the great voice in the Nullification Crisis debates of 1830. He had been a voice of union but also law enforcement then — that famous phrase that he had become known for, “Liberty and union, now and forever, one and inseparable.” Webster always seemed to be the union man, at the same time he was an anti-slavery man.
Henry Clay from Kentucky; founder of the Whig Party; candidate for President three and four times over. The organizational genius in some ways behind the Whig Party and its so-called national system, the idea of using government for economic and social change in the lives of immigrants and everybody else. Clay of Kentucky, slave-holder — he owned about 60 people — hemp plantation farmer, original founder of the American Colonization Society, a border state political titan, with great influence in the Congress, pulls in Webster and says, “Daniel, we got to save the union, because look what Calhoun and company in the Deep South are threatening. What will we do? How will we solve this?” I mentioned the other day that when Clay introduced his five measures, which were known first as the Clay Measures and then as the Compromise Measures, he stood up in the Senate, with great theater, and held a piece of what he said was George Washington’s coffin.
Chapter 2. Slavery in the Capital? Texas? Underground Railroad? Issues of 1850 [00:06:39]
What were the issues in 1850? I hope you’ve seen enough of the outline; if not — it’s gone for the moment. The issues are on the map. [Technical adjustments] The issues are that California in the west is ready for statehood, overnight, because of that vast migration of miners, by sea, by land, and by imagination. There’d always been a brewing issue in the U.S. Congress and in the District of Columbia about the fact that the District of Columbia, the capital of the United States, was a slave trading center. Northern congressmen, of all stripes, had always been bothered by the fact that about 2½ blocks down the street from the United States Capitol was a huge slave jail. People said that when the wind was right you could smell it, on the steps of the Capitol. Abraham Lincoln in his one term in the House called it a human livery stable. Foreign visitors would come and they would say — they would stand in awe at that majestic Capitol as it was being built and the dome was being completed, and then they would ask, “Where’s the slave jail, can we see a slave jail?” So there were a lot of Northerners now who were saying, “Okay, there’s going to be some big compromise now about California, about slavery in the West. What are we going to do about this? Let’s deal with this question too.”
Thirdly, there was the question of — and this is what Southerners were exercised about — of fugitive slaves escaping into the North in that so-called Underground Railroad. And the term Underground Railroad appears for the first time openly, over and over, in public debate on the floor of the U.S. Congress. Southerners standing up and saying we need a much stronger Federal Fugitive Slave Act requiring the return of fugitive slaves because they are escaping too much in that Underground Railroad. They didn’t have a clue what it really was; didn’t matter. But Southerners wanted fugitive slaves retrieved to them by law under Federal enforcement, no questions asked.
And then there was the problem of Texas now. It doesn’t quite show it on this map properly, but the other day you remember the map of Texas — the boundaries of Texas had never been determined — to the Mexicans, much less to the Americans. And the idea here now was to — how would you kind of divide up Texas? There was no New Mexico or Arizona yet, it’s just this vast territory called the New Mexico Territory. The idea was if you moved back the border of Texas about three or 400 miles, and you placed it where it actually is today, you would open up new territory, lots of it, to the establishment of at least one new, if not two new states, and those states in the Southern imagination would, in all likelihood, be slave states — they were southern. What to do with the Texas boundary?
Now, Daniel Webster’s support of this came at some price. It came at a huge price for his own career. The five measures that came out of their discussions — they weren’t alone but they really did conceive this. The five parts of the Compromise of 1850 will be on your citizenship test. You shouldn’t have U.S. citizenship if you can’t name the five parts of the Compromise of 1850 — I’ve always believed that — and the three parts of the Kansas-Nebraska Act; that should be a test of citizenship. No Lithuanian should ever get U.S. citizenship without being able to name the five parts of the Compromise of 1850. Never mind. [laughter] California would be admitted as a free state. Clay said there’s no way around this, if they hold a referendum in California it’s going to be a free state; the people who’ve gone there are all, they’re all little people. There are all these miners and these panners, they’re immigrants, they’re people from Germany who’ve come across the sea, all in one year, to go find gold in California, and they’re not going to be slave-holders. All right, California will be admitted as a free state.
But now, remember what Calhoun had said — so what are you going to give the South? In return the South is going to get a whole new, much stronger, Federal Fugitive Slave Act, the most notorious and controversial aspect of the Compromise of 1850. Secondly, Clay said to Webster, “Let’s abolish the slave trade in the District of Columbia. We have Federal jurisdiction over that; the Congress has jurisdiction over the District, let’s abolish the slave trade, let’s get the slave jails out of Washington. Northerners will like that.” Webster said “Yeah. Let’s move the boundary back three, 400 miles” — it was really about 350 miles — “let’s open up a whole new part of the Mexican Session, with a possible establishment of new slave states; let’s let Southerners dream of two and three more states, and four to six more U.S. senators in the next three to five years. Let’s let them feel secure that California may come in as a free state and get two new senators and the number will now be 16 to 15, free to slave states” — people were counting. The idea was “yes, but maybe the South gets two or three out of the Mexican Session.” And then lastly how would slavery be determined in that southwest; the big issue, how do you do it, by what principle? Clay said popular sovereignty, let the people have a referendum and vote — liberal democracy. So that statehood for any territory in the Mexican Session, except for California here — this is the stuff of compromise, don’t look for hard principles here — except for California, everything else in the Mexican Session will be determined on popular sovereignty. The people who settled the territory at some stage of the territorial process — it could be early, it could be late — will vote whether slavery shall exist.
So look at the five measures. California will be a free state; slave trade — trade, not slavery itself — will be abolished in the District of Columbia. Two issues the North will like. The Texas boundary moved back, opened a new territory, new possible southern states, and that Fugitive Slave Act. Two measures Southerners would really like. And by the way, when Clay suggested the Fugitive Slave Act to Webster, Webster says “No, no, no, I can’t take that home to Massachusetts, it won’t fly, you can’t do that.” Clay said, “You have to do that.” Webster said, “I can’t do that.” Clay said, “You have to do that; have some more brandy.” Webster said, “Okay.” [Laughter] I don’t know how much brandy they drank. And popular sovereignty of course, it’s American democracy, let them vote; it’s an appeal to both sides, two for each side and one for everybody.
Chapter 3. How the Compromise of 1850 Was a Compromise [00:14:49]
It is a great compromise, in a sense, but how is it actually passed is crucial; and of course its substance is crucial. The way it was finally passed is that once — and by the way, there was no certainly whatsoever that this would work. After Clay initiated the debate with an emotional appeal for union, Daniel Webster spoke in what became known in his career and in American history as the “7th of March Speech.” He held forth for three hours in one of his classic philippics. It began with the famous lines, “I wish to speak today not as a Massachusetts man nor as a northern man, but as an American. I speak today for the preservation of the Union.” And he appealed to his fellow Northerners to vote for the Fugitive Slave — to vote to make northern states legally complicit in the return of fugitive slaves in their neighborhoods. He got groans and he got jeers and he got cheers. Everybody said one of the greatest speeches ever made in the U.S. Senate; and it ruined Webster’s career. Poets started writing about, as Wittier did, “the Devil and Daniel Webster.”
Calhoun was unable to deliver his speech — it was the 4th of March — he was too sick; he will be dead by the fall. It was delivered by James Mason, his colleague. Calhoun was carried into the U.S. Senate in a chair; he couldn’t walk, they literally carried him in, sat him down. He stared at his shoes, while Mason delivered his speech in which Calhoun said that the South had to stand now as one, for a slave society and for states’ rights and for the protection of what he constantly argued were minority rights. Calhoun’s speech — arguably, I think from an interpretative mode now — frightened, frightened — especially some Northerners, into voting for a compromise they hated. It may have even frightened some border state Democrats and Whigs, to vote for this thing, some of which they hated.
Like any great compromise — if any of you have ever been on major — political committees, dorm committees and so on, you got to pass something, but you got two or three things on the Bill. And there are these people who hate item number one, and these people who hate item number two, and these people who hate item number three. What happens if you vote on all three at the same time? Everybody’s got something to vote against. So the way the Compromise of 1850 was passed — and it was passed largely by the young Stephen A. Douglas, who took over the management. He was about 38-years-old at this point, Senator from Illinois, a young titan — small as he was, five foot six — a young titan of the Democratic Party from Illinois. He was really the parliamentary manager in the midst of the debates from March into the summer of 1850. There were threats of disunion from Southerners every other day — brave threats in Southern newspapers. So what Douglas did is a classic parliamentary maneuver. He voted on each bill separately and ultimately called it the Omnibus Bill, and in each case managed just enough of a narrow majority — getting enough Northerners, especially Northern Democrats, to vote for that Fugitive Slave Act, which they tended to hate, and then just enough Southern — what’s left of the Whigs — to vote for the end of the slave trade in the District of Columbia. And it passed in early August 1850.
Henry Clay, ill, terminally sick, had gone home to Kentucky. He’ll be out of the picture and out of American history before the end of the year. Calhoun was dying at that very moment — was dead, I believe, by September. Webster was now to be denounced politically forever in his own political party and in his own Massachusetts. But the Compromise passed and in some ways the nation celebrated, or so it seemed. The Compromise of 1850 did, in some ways, save the Union, at least at that point in time. But as David Potter, the best historian of this we’ve ever had, said, it was far more — and it’s the best way to remember it I think — it was far more an armistice than it really was a compromise. It began to collapse almost as fast as it passed. There were huge rallies and marches in northern cities celebrating the saving of the Union. People were frightened; I mean, business interests in the north — not just in New York City where the banks all were, but now in this colossus of Chicago, this burgeoning railroad center in the West, in Cincinnati, Detroit — worried, what if there is disunion, what happens to the economy, what happens to trade? So there were great rallies. At the same time, the State of Georgia met its legislature by December 1850 and passed what they called the Georgia Platform and sent it all around the rest of the Deep South. And it said they — it said the State of Georgia gave only its conditional acceptance to the compromise measures, waiting to see whether the North acted in good faith. In other words, “we don’t trust you.” Some Northern State legislatures said, “oh really?” And they passed resolutions saying “we don’t think we trust you either.”
Chapter 4. Consequences of the Fugitive Slave Act and Uncle Tom’s Cabin [00:21:33]
There were vehement protests against the Fugitive Slave Act. The Fugitive Slave Act, above all else, in this crisis, caused much further conflict. It led directly to an estimated 20,000 African-American free blacks — well, free blacks and fugitive slaves, so many of them — living in the northern states — and in some cases, whole church congregations from cities like Philadelphia and Boston — moved north of the border into Canada, between 1850 and roughly 1857, ‘58, when there was another small wave, after the Dred Scott decision. This will lead now to the — established in that Fugitive Slave Act of special Federal magistrates whose job, whose sole job it was now — this is a whole new level of Federal adjudication of fugitive slaves. Magistrates were now appointed to go all over the north to retrieve fugitive slaves — well, to set up a police apparatus to retrieve fugitive slaves, and then to conduct courts to determine their identity. And in the Fugitive Slave Act itself it determined, or it said, that those magistrates would be paid twice as much money — they actually would be paid $10.00 for every fugitive slave they convicted of being that person and sent them back to slavery, and $5.00 for every acquittal. Now I know $5.00 doesn’t seem like much, but on the face of that you look at that and think, “Now wait a second, this is blind justice — you’re going to give me twice as much money to convict you as acquit you? Hey, I need a meal too.”
It led now to famous fugitive slave rescues, like the rescue of Jerry McHenry in Syracuse, New York in 1851, in a violent rescue by abolitionists who spirited — who killed one of his captors and carted him off to Canada. It led to the famous rescue of Shadrach Minkins in early 1852 in Boston, a fugitive slave from Virginia who was working in an abolitionist coffeehouse in Boston, retrieved by slave catchers, taken to a jail, broken out of that jail. One of the jailers murdered on the spot by a mob of abolitionists led by Lewis Hayden, himself a fugitive slave from Kentucky, who lived in Beacon Hill in Boston and dared Federal magistrates to come to his house and try to retrieve Shadrack Minkins by putting an entire posse on the street, and a keg of gun powder in front of his door, which he threatened he would blow up if any magistrate got near it. And that night they spirited Shadrach off to Concord, Massachusetts where the descendents of abolitionists to this day like to argue which house he stayed in, and then off across Route 2, across northern Massachusetts and on up into Canada where Shadrach remained the rest of his life as a grocer in Montreal.
And there were many, many other fugitive slave rescues now. There was a fugitive slave rescue at Christiana, Pennsylvania in 1851. It was really at a farm. A slaveholder named Gorsuch and a posse of only five or six men cornered a group of his former slaves, four of them, in a barn. A group of abolitionists, black and white, defended them in a gun battle. One of Gorsuch’s sons was killed. The fugitive slaves escaped. They ended up going across upstate New York. Two of them ended up in Frederick Douglass’s house in Rochester, New York. Douglass drove them personally in a carriage to the wharf on Lake Erie. And when he bid them goodbye, one of them gave him the revolver that he had used at Christiana, a memento that Douglass kept the rest of his life. Resistance to slavery was now direct, sometimes violent. The Underground Railroad had become an over ground railroad. It was no longer caught up in the romance of a whole lot of people spiriting people to secret hideaways. It was sometimes now a matter of gun violence.
And one could argue that the most important thing to happen in the wake of the Fugitive Slave Act, and therefore the Compromise of 1850, was the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Harriet Beecher Stowe, that brilliant, very short, little woman, who had lived for quite awhile with her husband Calvin Stowe, who was a theologian teaching in Cincinnati, had lived in a house on a hill in Cincinnati for several years, where she first met slave women — where she first met fugitive slaves coming through Cincinnati, and may have hid a few. Heard their voices, tried to learn their dialect, and wrote the greatest novel of the nineteenth century, and still on any list, any short list, of the best selling works of literature in the history of the world. That sugar-coated, anti-slavery story of several characters — Eliza, young Eliza, light-skinned with her baby, escaping across the Ohio, jumping from iceberg to iceberg to iceberg. The Ohio doesn’t have icebergs anymore; didn’t have many then either. Or Uncle Tom himself, the most important Christ-like figure in all of American literature. Harriet Stowe wrote a brilliant book, whatever anyone wants to say about it. She made everybody complicitous in the slave story.
The most despicable character in the book is Miss Ophelia who was born in Vermont, who’s racist to the core, who can’t stand black people and goes down South preaching at Southerners what’s wrong with slavery, at the same time she can’t get near black people. And in some ways the most admirable character in that book was a Southern slave holder. And actually the most evil character — the most heinous character is Miss Ophelia — but the most evil character, of course, is Simon Legree; and Simon Legree was himself from New England. The whole world was suddenly reading a work of fiction about slavery. It sold 300,000 copies in the first year, by far broke every sales record of any book ever published, ever, anywhere. Reprinted into at least 20 languages in its first five years of existence. Made into stage plays within two years. It brought an awareness to the slavery problem as never before. And in the election, the Congressional off-year elections of 1852, for every four votes, for every four votes cast for Franklin Pierce — the Democrat, who will win — one copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold somewhere in the United States. I mean, name a book today that we could even imagine doing that. Would that there was a novel [laughs] that our electorate was electrified by in some way.
Chapter 5. The Case of Anthony Burns [00:29:32]
Now, in the wake of the Compromise of 1850 the country, now though, had to face this question, not just what you’re going to do with the Mexican Session territories — that’s going to take a little while. Northerners, a lot of Northerners are pissed off about the nature of the Utah Territory Bill and the New Mexico Territory Bill, because there are — Southerners immediately propose slave territories for Utah and New Mexico. But the real question, by 1853 and early 1854, was all of the territory that was left of the Louisiana Purchase — the Kansas and Nebraska Territories, which is simply what they were at that point in time.
Now, it is worth stopping for a moment to realize that not every American woke up in 1851, ‘52, ‘53, and worried every moment of every day about the expansion of slavery. They are worried about it, and it proves to us, without question, that there was a political crisis abrewing that the electorate cared about. But it’s worth remembering that a lot of Americans were preoccupied with the same things they always were: price of wheat, a sick cow, wages at a textile mill, a son who wants to marry and needs land, a daughter who wants to marry an Irishman, or, most of all, all those Catholics arriving in New York City and Philadelphia. Huge numbers of Irish Catholics — they’re going to Catholicize America, they’re going to turn every small outhouse into a confessional. We laugh today, it’s easy to laugh at this, but nativism caught hold in the early 1850s — more on this a bit later with the breakup of the American party system as we take it through the 1850s. But a lot of Americans were really worried about those Catholics.
But the Kansas-Nebraska Act — or the establishment now of the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and what to do with them — was front and center on the agenda of the United States Congress by late 1853. In the wake now of numerous of these celebrated, violent rescues of fugitive slaves, the attempts to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act in some parts of the north where it was very successfully prosecuted, and dozens and dozens and dozens of fugitive slaves were returned to the south. But in some celebrated cases they weren’t. Quickly. The most celebrated case of all came in the spring of 1854 at the very time Congress is debating this thing called the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and people are politically waiting with baited breath to find out what are they actually going to do here? We had the rescue in Boston of a fugitive slave named Anthony Burns, who was a young guy in his early twenties. He had escaped out of Virginia, up to Boston by sea. He too was working in — actually a store at one point, in a coffee shop at another point. He was even distributing copies of William Lloyd Garrison’s Liberator. He hadn’t been there even a year and slave catchers found him, captured him.
Now, after Shadrach Minkins got out of Boston in 1852, the Anthony Burns rendition case captured the imagination of the nation, because Franklin Pierce, President of the United States, moved Federal troops, about 3000 of them, into the streets of Boston to guard the courthouse and to guard the jail and make sure nobody broke Anthony Burns out. It became a test case for the Democratic Party of Massachusetts. And on the day Anthony Burns was marched — he was convicted — marched from the jail down to the wharf and put on a ship back to slavery in Virginia, the abolitionist community, black and white, of Boston and all of Massachusetts, gathered in Boston. They held an all-night vigil with candlelight outside of the jail and they draped the streets of Boston, or some of the streets, in black crepe, in mourning. Burns was sent back to Virginia.
His story is amazing though. His owner then sold him — he was too famous — sold him to North Carolina. And one day a white woman in North Carolina wrote a letter to her sister in Amherst, Massachusetts and said, “Helen, that slave named Burns that they captured up in Boston, he’s living on the farm next door. Isn’t that interesting?” And her sister wrote from the First Baptist Church of Amherst, Massachusetts, back to her sister and said, “Really? What if we could raise some money to purchase him? Would you talk to your neighbors?” She talked to her neighbors. One thing led to another. Abolitionists, beginning in Amherst, Massachusetts and then around the State of Massachusetts, raised the money, made the offer, and Anthony Burns’ freedom was sold. And he came North, by 1856. He first arrived in Amherst, Massachusetts where he was celebrated. They took him out on the road — Exhibit A. Then he went to Canada, and he died in 1860 prematurely of disease — lonely, lost, almost unknown.
Chapter 6. The Development of the Kansas-Nebraska Act [00:35:43]
But it was in that environment now, that Congress has to decide what to do with Kansas and Nebraska. Now here was the situation. It was in part a big deal because what was firing the American imagination now was not just the west, but it was the railroad west. Who would build these railroads, where would they be built, and where would its eastern terminus be? Would the eastern terminus of the transcontinental railroad be in the North, Chicago — or maybe St. Louis, in a slave state — or maybe further south in New Orleans, or maybe Memphis? Or maybe there’d be two of them — maybe you could have a compromised transcontinental railroad built — two of them. Well then people said, “no, wait, it’s going to be hard enough to build one of them over those mountains.” The Chairman of the Senate Territories Committee, a very powerful position in these years, was Stephen Douglas. He’s now about 40-years-old in 1854, a political genius with a few terrible flaws. Douglas wanted the terminus of the transcontinental railroad to be in Illinois, in Chicago, and to go across the north to the northwest into northern California.
Douglas’s approach to slavery though is terribly important here. It is in some ways, all of the story. Stephen Douglas believes that climate would solve the problems of slavery. He’s famous for all these speeches he would make where he would say, “you know, if the soil is good and the temperatures are right, then slavery will probably exist. Where the soil is not proper and the temperatures aren’t right, or if you’ve got mountains, slavery won’t exist. Climate will solve the problem.” Now wouldn’t that be great? We’ll just lift — all of our great political troubles are just lifted off our shoulders by the weather; just watch the weather channel, to hell with MSNBC and CNN and all those blabbering pundits, just watch the weather channel. [Laughter] He really believed that though, and there was some reason to believe it.
Now, the problem was, Southerners wanted one thing out of this and a lot of Northerners wanted another thing. But here was the question, which principal will you apply about slavery in the Kansas and Nebraska Territory? Think now of the recent past; think of the distant past — in American terms — to the Compromise of 1850. One, had the Compromise of 1850 already superseded the Missouri Compromise? Think about that. You had that sacred bargain, they said, of the 36º30’ parallel line dividing free territory from slave territory forever, passed back in 1820. That was that vow that Northerners concerned about the expansion of slavery could always assume the great northwest would be free of slavery. But half of California is below it and half of it’s above it. Had the Compromise of 1850 — and half the Mexican Session is above it, and now you’ve said popular sovereignty will determine the Utah Territory and not the Missouri Compromise.
So which rule is in play? Which principle do you apply? Do you apply the oldest principle of the Northwest Ordinance from 1787? The Northwest Ordinance, folks, had said slavery shall never exist in the Northwest Territory; which became those five states of Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin — will never exist. Explicit territorial exclusion — that’s one principle. The second principle, geographical division, Missouri Compromise, draw a line across the continent. Do you go back to that one? Or do you use the third one now? The third one that’s in play — popular sovereignty — just let the people choose. Forget geography, forget old laws, and have a referendum. In other words — and this is the great question of the 1850s and the terrible tragedy, that, in the end, nothing worked. Would the American pragmatic tradition now — yes, we’ve got this — we’ve got principle A, B and C here. We all want principled politicians don’t we? We want principled professors and principled politicians and principled stockbrokers. But, at the end of the day, sometimes there are three principles in play. Would American pragmatism continue to solve this one? Well maybe that principle is best now, but that principle is better then.
Douglas wrote the bill, the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, as it was called, or Act. Now, in this case, folks, numbers matter. We’re going to look at a vote. But first of all, he wrote three different versions of the Kansas-Nebraska Act — this is important — he went from vaguest to most specific, because Southerners put his feet to the fire and made him do it. He first introduced a bill in December 1853 — this is for the establishment of Kansas and Nebraska Territory. Everybody said, “that’s nice for establishing these millions of acres and square miles, but is slavery going to exist?” The first version that he put before Congress on January 4, 1854, said that a state shall be admitted from those territories, quote, “with or without slavery as their Constitution may prescribe at the time of admission.” Note the vagueness. And you all know that in politics sometimes the vaguer you are, the more you get done. “With or without slavery as their Constitution may prescribe at the time of their admission.” How that’s to be done was not mentioned. Douglas said leave it to time, climate, and good sense. It was silent about the old Missouri Compromise Line.
Southerners quickly reacted and said, “Stephen” — his own fellow Democrats in the south who were now dominant in the South said, “nope, not enough.” And there were a lot of powerful Southerners in the Senate. So he drafted six days later, January 10 of ‘54, a second version of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and he gave a direct statement of popular sovereignty. Quote: “The decision on slavery shall be left to the people residing therein.” Now he’s moved one step further and said there’s going to be a vote out there, and however they vote that’ll determine. Again, his fellow Southerners said, “No, not enough.” And there’s a famous episode where as a kind of spokesman for the Southern point-of-view, a Kentucky Whig from the other party named Archibald Dixon took Stephen Douglas for a ride in a carriage one day, in March of 1854 after these — excuse me, in late January — they were going to vote on it later in March — but in late January, took him for a carriage ride. And Dixon in no uncertain terms told Douglas, “no, no, what you have to do is you have to draft an explicit repeal of the Missouri Compromise Line, a specific repeal of any geographic division between slavery and freedom in the West. In other words Stephen, you have to open up the entire West to the possible expansion of slavery.” Douglas didn’t want to do that — he knew this was going to cause a bad time in the north — and he is alleged to have said back to Dixon, quote, “By God, sir, you are right. I will incorporate it in my bill though I know it will raise a hell of a storm.” And he was right.
It may seem a bit odd to us today that Americans could care this much about what was to be done to Nebraska, [laughter] or for that matter with Kansas. We didn’t even know about Dorothy yet, and the Yellow Brick Road. But Northerners really did care, because think back again to this idea of free labor ideology — and we’ll bring this up again and again in the next three lectures. The American Dream to the average Northerner, immigrant or not, was land — free land if possible, cheap land if not — a place to move to, mobility where you would never have to compete with any kind of oligarchy that could control that land.
Chapter 7. The Birth of the Republican Party and Conclusion [00:45:38]
The bill that he finally brought forth and that actually passed had two measures. And I’m going to leave you here. The two measures were the explicit repeal of the Missouri Compromise Line and the principle of popular sovereignty, the formula for the settlement of Kansas and Nebraska. The Kansas-Nebraska Act is, arguably, the pivotal event politically of the 1850s, that will now sectionalize American politics, break apart forever the Whig Party — what was left of it — and give birth to the first successful third party coalition movement in American History — the Republican Party, immediately — which comes into existence immediately — in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
And if you want to understand how sectional that vote was, write down that vote count in the House. Note, Northern Democrats split right in half — that’s Douglas’s party — but nearly half of his own party in the House voted against this bill. Southern Democrats, 57 to 2 — I can’t explain those two, I don’t know what happened to them. Northern Whigs, 45 to 0 against this. This is a polarization, folks. We’ve heard a lot about that recently. Southern Whigs, 12 to 7. The Whig Party is diminishing, it’s all but — it will be dead in the wake of Kansas-Nebraska. And the four Free Soilers, elected in 1852, on a platform that opposed the Fugitive Slave Act, voted, of course, against Kansas-Nebraska. That vote, 113 to 10 [Professor Blight meant to say “110], got the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed but in the long run with terrible results. It will break apart the American political party system. It will bring about for the first time a genuine anti-slavery political coalition that will elect a president within six years. See you on Thursday.
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