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The Compromise of 1850 did not resolve the slavery issue. It merely postponed the reckoning. The reckoning came closer to beginning in the early 1850s with the effort to organize a central portion of the Louisiana Purchase territory. The critical issue again was whether slavery would be allowed in the territory, complicated by the issue of whether a transcontinental railroad would take a Northern or Southern route. In an effort to resolve these issues, Stephen A. Douglas (1813–1861), Democrat Senator from Illinois, after consulting with President Franklin Pierce (1804–1869), a Democrat from New Hampshire, eventually proposed a law to organize two territories, Kansas and Nebraska, whose inhabitants would decide for themselves whether the territories would permit slavery. This was the principle of popular sovereignty that Douglas claimed was a solution to the slavery question in accord with the fundamental principles of American government (“Nebraska Territory” (1854)). In making this claim, Douglas hoped to increase the chances that his bill would become law. By apparently transferring the political fight over slavery from Congress to the territorial conventions that would adopt constitutions and apply for statehood, it might make it easier for some members of Congress or senators to vote for the bill. Basing territorial organization on popular sovereignty, however, also meant repealing the Missouri Compromise that had prohibited slavery north of 36 degrees, 30 minutes north latitude in the Louisiana Purchase territory (Missouri Compromise Act (1820)). Debate over the law was bitter, especially in the House of Representatives, where violence almost occurred. The law passed by a large margin in the Senate, but only by three votes in the House. President Pierce signed the bill into law May 30, 1854.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act had several consequences. It led to actual not just political warfare in Kansas, which bordered Missouri, a slave state, as pro- and anti-slavery forces battled for control. It caused the Whig Party to cease to exist as a national party, since Northern Whigs voted against the law, finally breaking the party into Northern and Southern wings. Northern Whigs joined with Free-Soil party members to form the Republican Party. This left only the Democrats as a national party, but as this appeal makes clear, the law strained the party to the breaking point. That point came in 1860 (Democratic Party Platform (1860)). Finally, instead of decreasing division over slavery, the Kansas-Nebraska Act increased it, since those opposed to slavery saw the repeal of the Missouri Compromise line as a breach of faith and an opportunity for slavery to spread across the western lands.
The Appeal of the Independent Democrats shows how strong was opposition to Douglas’s bill, even among some Northern Democrats. Douglas, who aspired to be president, had to answer this criticism, which he did in a speech on the Senate floor eleven days after the appeal appeared (“Nebraska Territory” (1854)).
Source: Congressional Globe, Senate, 33rd Congress, First Session, 281–282, https://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage.
As senators and representatives in the Congress of the United States it is our duty to warn our constituents, whenever imminent danger menaces the freedom of our institutions or the permanency of the Union.
Such danger, as we firmly believe, now impends, and we earnestly solicit your prompt attention to it.
At the last session of Congress a bill for the organization of the Territory of Nebraska passed the House of Representatives by an overwhelming majority. That bill was based on the principle of excluding slavery from the new Territory. It was not taken up for consideration in the Senate and consequently failed to become a law.
At the present session a new Nebraska bill has been reported by the Senate Committee on Territories, which, should it unhappily receive the sanction of Congress, will open all the unorganized territories of the Union to the ingress of slavery.
We arraign this bill as a gross violation of a sacred pledge; as a criminal betrayal of precious rights; as part and parcel of an atrocious plot to exclude from a vast unoccupied region immigrants from the Old World and free laborers from our own states, and convert it into a dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves.
Take your maps, fellow citizens, we entreat you, and see what country it is which this bill gratuitously and recklessly proposes to open to slavery….
This immense region, occupying the very heart of the North American Continent, and larger, by thirty-three thousand square miles, than all the existing free states including California . . . the bill now before the Senate, without reason and without excuse, but in flagrant disregard of sound policy and sacred faith, purposes to open to slavery.
We beg your attention, fellow-citizens, to a few historical facts:
The original settled policy of the United States, clearly indicated by the Jefferson proviso of 1784 and the Ordinance of 1787, was non-extension of slavery. In 1803 Louisiana was acquired by purchase from France. . . . Congress, instead of providing for the abolition of slavery in this new territory, permitted its continuance. In 1812, the state of Louisiana was organized and admitted into the Union with slavery.
In 1818, six years later, the inhabitants of the territory of Missouri applied to Congress for authority to form a state constitution, and for admission into the Union. There were, at that time, in the whole territory acquired from France, outside of the state of Louisiana, not three thousand slaves.
There was no apology, in the circumstances of the country, for the continuance of slavery. The original national policy was against it, and not less the plain language of the treaty under which the territory had been acquired from France.
It was proposed, therefore, to incorporate in the bill authorizing the formation of a state government, a provision requiring that the constitution of the new state should contain an article providing for the abolition of existing slavery, and prohibiting the further introduction of slaves.
This provision was vehemently and pertinaciously opposed, but finally prevailed in the House of Representatives by a decided vote. In the Senate it was rejected, and in consequence of the disagreement between the two Houses the bill was lost.
At the next session of Congress, the controversy was renewed with increased violence. It was terminated at length by a compromise. Missouri was allowed to come into the Union with slavery; but a section was inserted in the act authorizing her admission, excluding slavery forever from all the territory acquired from France, not included in the new state, lying north of 36° 30’. . . .
The question of the constitutionality of this prohibition was submitted by President Monroe to his cabinet. John Quincy Adams was then Secretary of State; John C. Calhoun was Secretary of War; William H. Crawford was Secretary of the Treasury; and William Wirt was Attorney-General. Each of these eminent men, three of them being from the slave states, gave a written opinion, affirming its constitutionality, and thereupon the act received the sanction of the president himself, also from a slave state.
Nothing is more certain in history than the fact that Missouri could not have been admitted as a slave state had not certain members from the free states been reconciled to the measure by the incorporation of this prohibition into the act of admission. Nothing is more certain than that this prohibition has been regarded and accepted by the whole country as a solemn compact against the extension of slavery into any part of the territory acquired from France lying north of 36° 30’, and not included in the new state of Missouri. The same act—let it be ever remembered—which authorized the formation of a constitution by the state, without a clause forbidding slavery, consecrated, beyond question and beyond honest recall, the whole remainder of the territory to freedom and free institutions forever. For more than thirty years during more than half our national existence under our present Constitution—this compact has been universally regarded and acted upon as inviolable American law. In conformity with it, Iowa was admitted as a free state and Minnesota has been organized as a free territory.
It is a strange and ominous fact, well calculated to awaken the worst apprehensions and the most fearful forebodings of future calamities, that it is now deliberately proposed to repeal this prohibition, by implication or directly—the latter certainly the manlier way—and thus to subvert the compact, and allow slavery in all the yet unorganized territory. We cannot, in this address, review the various pretenses under which it is attempted to cloak this monstrous wrong, but we must not altogether omit to notice one.
It is said that Nebraska sustains the same relations to slavery as did the territory acquired from Mexico prior to 1850, and that the pro-slavery clauses of the bill are necessary to carry into effect the compromise of that year.
No assertion could be more groundless….
The compromise acts themselves refute this pretension. In the third article of the second section of the joint resolution for annexing Texas to the United States, it is expressly declared that “in such state or states as shall be formed out of said territory north of said Missouri compromise line, slavery or involuntary servitude, except for crime, shall be prohibited;” and in the act for organizing New Mexico and settling the boundary of Texas, a proviso was incorporated, . . . which distinctly preserves this prohibition, and flouts the barefaced pretension that all the territory of the United States, whether south or north of the Missouri compromise line, is to be open to slavery.
. . . These pretenses, therefore, that the territory covered by the positive prohibition of 1820, sustains a similar relation to slavery with that acquired from Mexico, covered by no prohibition except that of disputed constitutional or Mexican law, and that the Compromises of 1850 require the incorporation of the pro-slavery clauses of the Utah and New Mexico Bill in the Nebraska act, are mere inventions, designed to cover from public reprehension meditated bad faith. Were he living now, no one would be more forward, more eloquent, or more indignant in his denunciation of that bad faith, than Henry Clay, the foremost champion of both compromises. . . .
We confess our total inability properly to delineate the character or describe the consequences of this measure. Language fails to express the sentiments of indignation and abhorrence which it inspires; and no vision less penetrating and comprehensive than that of the All-Seeing can reach its evil issues. . . .
We appeal to the people. We warn you that the dearest interests of freedom and the Union are in imminent peril. Demagogues may tell you that the Union can be maintained only by submitting to the demands of slavery. We tell you that the Union can only be maintained by the full recognition of the just claims of freedom and man. The Union was formed to establish justice and secure the blessings of liberty. When it fails to accomplish these ends it will be worthless, and when it becomes worthless it cannot long endure.
We entreat you to be mindful of that fundamental maxim of Democracy, equal rights and exact justice for all men. Do not submit to become agents in extending legalized oppression and systematized injustice over a vast territory yet exempt from these terrible evils.
We implore Christians and Christian ministers to interpose. Their divine religion requires them to behold in every man a brother, and to labor for the advancement and regeneration of the human race.
Whatever apologies may be offered for the toleration of slavery in the states, none can be offered for its extension into territories where it does not exist, and where that extension involves the repeal of ancient law and the violation of solemn compact. Let all protest, earnestly and emphatically, by correspondence, through the press, by memorials, by resolutions of public meetings and legislative bodies, and in whatever other mode may seem expedient, against this enormous crime.
For ourselves, we shall resist it by speech and vote, and with all the abilities which God has given us. Even if overcome in the impending struggle, we shall not submit. We shall go home to our constituents, erect anew the standard of freedom, and call on the people to come to the rescue of the country from the domination of slavery. We will not despair; for the cause of human freedom is the cause of God.
Alexander De Witt
- 1. Salmon P. Chase (1808–1873) was a senator from Ohio. He later served in Lincoln’s cabinet as Secretary of the Treasury. Charles Sumner (1811–1874) was a senator from Massachusetts. Joshua R. Giddings (1795–1864) was a representative from Ohio. Edward Wade (1802–1866) was a representative from Ohio. Gerritt Smith (1797–1874) was a representative from New York. Alexander De Witt (1798–1879) was a representative from Massachusetts.