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Xvii. The Nebraska-Kansas struggle.


Franklin Pierce was inaugurated President on the 4th of March, 1853. Never were the visible omens more auspicious of coming years of political calm and National prosperity. Though a considerable Public Debt had been incurred for the prosecution and close of the Mexican War, yet the Finances were healthy and the Public Credit unimpaired. Industry and Trade were signally prosperous. The Tariff had ceased to be a theme of partisan or sectional strife. The immense yield of gold by California during the four preceding years had stimulated Enterprise and quickened the energies of Labor, and its volume showed as yet no signs of diminution. And, though the Fugitive Slave law was still denounced, and occasionally resisted, by Abolitionists in the Free States, while Disunionists still plotted [225] in secret, and more openly prepared in Southern Commercial Conventions (having for their ostensible object the establishment of a general exchange of the great Southern staples directly from their own harbors. with the principal European marts, instead of circuitously by way of New York and other Northern Atlantic ports), there was still a goodly majority at the South, with a still larger at the North and Northwest, in favor of maintaining the Union, and preserving the greatest practicable measure of cordiality and fraternity between the Free and the Slave States, substantially on the basis of the Compromise of 1850.

The region lying directly westward and northwestward of the State of Missouri, and stretching thence to the Rocky Mountains, was vaguely known as the “Platte country” (from the chief river intersecting it), and its eastern frontier was mainly covered by Indian reservations, on which whites were forbidden to settle, down to a period so late as 1850. Two great lines of travel and trade stretched across it--one of them tending southwestward, and crossing the Arkansas on its way to Santa Fe and other villages and settlements in New Mexico; the other leading up the Platte, North Platte, and Sweetwater, to and through the South Pass of the Rocky Mountains, where it divides--one trail leading thence northwestward to the Columbia and to Oregon; the other southwestward to Salt Lake, the Humboldt, and California. The western boundary of Missouri was originally a line drawn due north as well as south from the point where the Kansas or Kaw river enters the Missouri; but in 1836 a considerable section lying west of this line, and between it and the Missouri, was quietly detached from the unorganized territory aforesaid and added to the State of Missouri, forming in due time the fertile and populous counties of Platte, Buchanan, Andrew, Holt, Nodaway, and Atchison, which contained in 1860 70,505 inhabitants, of whom 6,699 were slaves. This conversion of Free into Slave territory, in palpable violation of the Missouri Compromise, was effected so dexterously and quietly as to attract little or no public attention.

At the first session of the XXXIId Congress (1851-2) petitions were presented for a territorial organization of the region westward of Missouri and Iowa; but no action was had thereon until the next session, when Mr. Willard P. Hall, of Missouri, submitted1 to the House a bill organizing the Territory of Platte, comprising this region. This bill being referred to the Committee on Territories, Mr. William A. Richardson, of Illinois, from said Committee, reported2 a bill organizing the Territory of Nebraska (covering the same district); which bill, being sent to the Committee of the Whole and considered therein, encountered a formidable and unexpected Southern opposition, and was reported3 from said Committee with a recommendation that it be rejected. An attempt by Mr. John Letcher, of Virginia, to lay it on the table, was defeated by a call of the Yeas and Nays; when it was engrossed, read a third time, and passed: Yeas 98; Nays 43. [226]

The bill now went to the Senate, with ample notice that a pro-Slavery cabal had been secretly formed to resist the organization of a new Territory on soil consecrated to Free Labor, as this had solemnly been, until a counterpoise could be found or devised, through the partition of Texas or otherwise. It reached the Senate on the 11th, and was sent to the Committee on Territories, from which Mr. Stephen A. Douglas reported it on the 17th without amendment. On the 2d of March (being the last day but one of the session), he moved that it be taken up; which was resisted and beaten: Yeas 20; Nays 25--the Nays nearly all from the South. He tried again next day, when Mr. Solon Borland, of Arkansas, moved that it do lie on the table, which prevailed: Yeas 23; Nays 17--as before. So the South defeated any organization at this time of a territory west of Missouri. No Senators from Slave States but those from Missouri sustained the bill; and Mr. Atchison, of that State, in supporting a motion to take up the bill, to which Mr. Rusk, of Texas, had objected, said:

I must ask the indulgence of the Senate to say one word in relation to this matter. Perhaps there is not a State in the Union more deeply interested in this question than the State of Missouri. If not the largest, I will say the best portion of that Territory — perhaps the only portion of it that in half a century will become a State--lies immediately west of the State of Missouri. It is only a question of time, whether we will organize the Territory at this session of Congress, or whether we will do it at the next session; and, for my own part, I acknowledge now that, 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 now is. The Senator from Iowa [Mr. A. C. Dodge] knows it; and it was for reasons I will not not now mention or suggest. But, Sir, I have, from reflection and investigation in my own mind, and from the opinions 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. It is the most propitious time. The treaties with the various Indian tribes, the titles to whose possessions must be extinguished, can better be made now than at any future time; for, as the question is agitated, and as it is understood, white men, speculators, will interpose and interfere, and the longer it is postponed the more we will have to fear from them, and the more difficult it will be to extinguish the Indian title in that country, and the harder the terms to be imposed. Therefore, Mr. President, for this reason, without going into detail, I am willing now that the question should be taken, whether we will proceed to the consideration of this bill or not.

Here was a distinct intimation,4 from a leading propagandist of Slavery, that he was aware of a Southern conspiracy to prevent the organization, westward of the Missouri, of a new Territory which must necessarily be Free; but he had no faith in its success, and was anxious, for urgent local reasons, to have the organization proceed. But he was overborne, and the bill defeated.

The XXXIIId Congress met December 5, 1853. There was an over-whelming Democratic majority in either branch.

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