Speech on the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Racial Hierarchy in International Relations

Image: R.M.T. Hunter, Senator from Virginia, Thirty-fifth Congress, half-length portrait. 1859. Photographer Julian Vannerson.
Why was a northern route for the transcontinental railroad so important to Douglas? What would have been the effect of a southern route, through Texas, as many southerners preferred? Would it have increased or lessened their interest in expansion? What if Taney had ruled that those of African descent were citizens, and that slavery was prohibited in all current and future territories?
What might have happened had Stephen Douglas, rather than Lincoln, been elected president in 1860? What might have happened had Lincoln agreed to compromise, by permitting slavery in any new territory that might be acquired below 36°30´? In that case, would the annexation of Canada as free territory have created a sustainable sectional balance?

In 1850 Congress agreed to a tenuous sectional compromise concerning the status of slavery in the territories newly acquired from Mexico. The domestic peace was shattered in 1854 when Senator Stephen A. Douglas (1813–1861) of Illinois introduced legislation that would allow the people of the territory of Nebraska to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery within their borders. Douglas, a Democrat, defended his proposal as an example of “popular sovereignty,” the rule of the people. Douglas’ Kansas-Nebraska Act organized two territories: Nebraska west of Iowa, and Kansas west of Missouri. This arrangement seemed to be a device to reserve Kansas for slavery and Nebraska for freedom. The climate and soil of eastern Kansas were similar to those of the Missouri River basin in Missouri where most of the slaves in that state were concentrated, while Nebraska was unsuitable for agriculture based on slavery. The Kansas-Nebraska Act explicitly repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had prohibited slavery north of latitude 36°30´ in the lands acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase (except for Missouri). Douglas added that provision because he wanted to gain southerners’ support for a northern route for the proposed transcontinental railroad, which would pass through Chicago and then through the then-unorganized Nebraska territory.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act created a political firestorm. Northern antislavery Whigs known as Free-Soilers (who opposed the expansion of slavery into the territories) and many northern Democrats rebelled at what they regarded as a blatant attempt to expand slavery. Southern Whigs and Democrats insisted that they were merely trying to maintain a sectional balance of free and slave states.

In this address to the Senate, Alabama Democrat R. M. T. Hunter (1809–1887) argued the southern case at great length, but he added another twist. Some prominent southerners argued that the sectional balance could eventually be maintained by expanding slave territory southward, either directly or through support of “filibustering expeditions” in which Americans, acting without government approval, fomented revolutions in foreign territory. Others asserted that territorial expansion was secondary to creating a bloc of allied slaveholding regimes in Latin America and the Caribbean. Hunter laid out the logic for these positions. He claimed that there was a hierarchy of races that ought to govern international as well as domestic relations. Enterprising Anglo-Americans who moved into lands currently inhabited by inferior races would naturally need to govern them—certainly on a system based on white supremacy, and at least in some cases, Hunter implied, slavery. Hunter thus presented the vision of territorial expansion that would have guided the United States had the institution of slavery persisted.

Congress passed the act (narrowly in the House), but over the next few years the antislavery forces coalesced into the new Republican Party. The Republicans were further outraged when Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney (1777–1864) ruled in the case of Dred Scott v. Sandford(1857) that Negroes were not citizens, and that Congress had no authority to exclude slavery from any U.S. territory. It seemed to the Republicans that the South was determined to expand slavery, perhaps even into free states—and beyond. After the election of November 1860, President-elect Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865) refused to allow backsliding on the central principle of the Republican Party. “Let there be no compromise on the question of extending slavery,” he advised congressional Republicans in December. “A year will not pass,” he declared in January 1861, “till we shall have to take Cuba as a condition upon which they [the slave states] will stay in the Union.” Over the issue of territorial expansion and slavery, as Lincoln later said, the Civil War came.

—David Tucker

Source: The Congressional Globe, 33rd Congress, 1st sess., 1853–1854, Appendix (Washington: Blair & Rives, 1834–1873), 221, 225, available online at https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=uc1.c040230389&view=plaintext&seq=235.

Mr. President:[1] Complaints have been made that this question of the repeal of the Missouri Compromise has been unnecessarily thrust upon us, and inquiries have been instituted as to the motives of those who brought it before Congress. In my opinion, it comes neither with design nor by the desire of any man here or elsewhere; but it arises out of the nature of the case, and has been forced upon us by circumstances. It is but a logical consequence of the course of argument and of action which was pursued in 1850 upon what were then called the compromise measures of that session. And, sir, there are numbers here—numbers in the other House—a majority, in my opinion, as well as a majority of the people of this Union, who could not refuse, if the question were presented for a repeal of this provision, to vote for it, without any inconsistency with their previous professions and course of action. . . .

Mr. President, is it not time that we were closing our ranks and consolidating our columns for the great march which is before us? We stand upon the eve of a general European war,[2] an event which must hasten that period when we shall engross the largest portion of the commerce of the world. In the conflict between the European forms of society and government, it may be that the destinies of human civilization itself shall be confided to our hands. And how are we to discharge this great trust in a manner satisfactory to ourselves and to which a given number of slaves are to be divided between the country east and that west of the Mississippi River? The empire of the seas, the all-mastering influence of a great example, and the foremost place in the march of civilization are the prizes to which we may justly aspire. Every day, new avenues of commerce are opening up to us, and we are brought into closer and more intimate relations with the nations around us. Opportunities for usefulness—ay, sir, for the acquisition of power and empire—lie around us in tempting profusion. And the lesson we have to learn is not how to acquire, but how to select with wisdom, and how to refuse with moderation, when virtue and justice demand it. It requires high qualities oftentimes to do what ought to be done; but it puts into exercise much rarer and more valuable qualities and virtues to leave undone what ought not to be done.

If we would play the great part which becomes us in both these respects, it will need the united energies, and wisdom, and patriotism of all our statesmen, operating and cooperating harmoniously and for one purpose, and to one end. I have said that day by day our relations with foreign nations are growing closer and more intimate, particularly with those neighboring nations which are composed of different races, and in which the law of their welfare depends upon the possession of power by that which is the superior of them all,—the race which, if left to itself, will certainly seize the supreme power, and which alone can wield it so as to improve the people and develop their resources. If, then, we would exercise a beneficent influence over them, one which will be felt as a kindly, generous, and advantageous influence we must act in relation to them upon the great principle of nonintervention, such as would leave the power in the hands that wield it now, which would respect the natural relation of the races, and not seek to disturb the authority of those who alone can conduct the people to prosperity and happiness.

How are we to do this, if we deal in this narrow and bitter spirit of exclusion at home? If we discriminate between our own State organizations, without regard to equality of rights, how can we avoid carrying that spirit abroad, as the English have done? Shall we imitate the English, who have so often appeared of late amongst nations composed of different races as intermeddlers and architects of ruin, and whose influence is used to wrest the rule from the superior, although the certain consequence may be to substitute anarchy for government, and restore barbarism at the expense of civilization?[3] It is in this spirit that they would devote some of the fairest portions of the globe to the use of wandering savages, and lock it up from the occupation of any race which would improve it, and make it contribute somewhat to the purposes of civilization and the common good of mankind. They are even now engaged in the project of Africanizing some of the most beautiful islands of the world, islands which lie at our very doors, almost within sight of our southeastern coast.[4] It would seem to be their fixed policy to expel the white race from those islands, and to devote them to the exclusive use of Negroes who are fast returning to a condition of barbarism, and making that fruitful country a wilderness. Suppose they succeed in expelling the white race, and Africanizing that country. How long will it be permitted to remain in that condition? Only, sir, until some new swarm from the great Caucasian hive of North America is ready to settle upon that land of flowers. And when they go, with what purpose will they settle? Will they go to exterminate, as they have done here,[5] or to rule, as they do the Negroes? Surely, humanity cannot be long in finding an answer to that question.

I think, sir, it must be obvious, that in the course of the expansion of the great wave of the Anglo-American population, we shall have to establish some law which will respect the true relations of the races. It is plain that, in the course of this progress, ours must rule all inferior races, who may be considered as occupying adjacent lands as stakeholders until our people are ready to occupy them. What relations are to be preserved with the parent race in the course of this settlement and expansion I know not. Whether our population is to spread like the expanding circle of one great subsiding wave, or whether it is to be dispersed into fragments by external or internal forces, I cannot undertake to predict. But that our race will expand beyond its present limits would seem to be a fact fixed as fate itself, and if there be any law which can make that expansion consistent with the happiness of the inferior races with which ours may mingle, it will be founded upon a just respect to the natural relations between those races. But how are we to regulate that law of expansion, if we deal with it in the spirit in which we are now dealing with it at home? In order that the white race of the nonslaveholding states may exclusively occupy the territory of the United States, the dogma is set up that slavery is wrong, and that, therefore, it must be shut out. How will it be when the expansion of that very race will require you to tolerate slavery? . . .

  1. 1. The presiding officer of the Senate—constitutionally, the vice president, but if he is not present, typically the senior senator of the majority party.
  2. 2. Hunter is referring to ongoing tensions in the Crimea between Britain, France, Russia, and Ottoman Turkey, which led to the Crimean War (1853–1856).
  3. 3. The Slave Emancipation Act (1831) gave slaves in most of the British Empire their freedom, albeit after a set period of years. Plantation owners received compensation for the loss of their slaves as a share of a government grant set at £20 million, approximately three billion today
  4. 4. The British West Indies, the colonies established by Britain in the islands of the Caribbean, including the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, Barbados, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago.
  5. 5. Perhaps a reference to Native Americans.
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