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Chapter 8.

  • Buchanan elected President
  • -- the Dred Scott decision -- Douglas's Springfield speech, 1857 -- Lincoln's answering speech -- criticism of Dred Scott decision -- Kansas Civil War -- Buchanan Appoints Walker -- Walker's letter on Kansas -- the Lecompton Constitution -- revolt of Douglas
    The election of 1856 once more restored the Democratic party to full political control in national affairs. James Buchanan was elected President to succeed Pierce; the Senate continued, as before, to have a decided Democratic majority; and a clear Democratic majority of twenty-five was chosen to the House of Representatives to succeed the heavy opposition majority of the previous Congress.

    Though the new House did not organize till a year after it was elected, the certainty of its coming action was sufficient not only to restore, but greatly to accelerate the pro-slavery reaction begun by the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. This impending drift of national policy now received a powerful impetus by an act of the third coordinate branch, the judicial department of the government.

    Very unexpectedly to the public at large, the Supreme Court of the United States, a few days after Buchanan's inauguration, announced its judgment in what quickly became famous as the Dred Scott decision. Dred Scott, a negro slave in Missouri, sued for his freedom on the ground that his master had taken [109] him to reside in the State of Illinois and the Territory of Wisconsin, where slavery was prohibited by law. The question had been twice decided by Missouri courts, once for and then against Dred Scott's claim; and now the Supreme Court of the United States, after hearing the case twice elaborately argued by eminent counsel, finally decided that Dred Scott, being a negro, could not become a citizen, and therefore was not entitled to bring suit. This branch, under ordinary precedent, simply threw the case out of court; but in addition, the decision, proceeding with what lawyers call obiter dictum, went on to declare that under the Constitution of the United States neither Congress nor a territorial legislature possessed power to prohibit slavery in Federal Territories.

    The whole country immediately flared up with the agitation of the slavery question in this new form. The South defended the decision with heat, the North protested against it with indignation, and the controversy was greatly intensified by a phrase in the opinion of Chief Justice Taney, that at the time of the Declaration of Independence negroes were considered by general public opinion to be so far inferior “that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect.”

    This decision of the Supreme Court placed Senator Douglas in a curious dilemma. While it served to indorse and fortify his course in repealing the Missouri Compromise, it, on the other hand, totally negatived his theory by which he had sought to make the repeal palatable, that the people of a Territory, by the exercise of his great principle of popular sovereignty, could decide the slavery question for themselves. But, being a subtle sophist, he sought to maintain a show of consistency by an ingenious evasion. In the month of June following the decision, he made a speech at [110] Springfield, Illinois, in which he tentatively announced what in the next year became widely celebrated as his Freeport doctrine, and was immediately denounced by his political confreres of the South as serious party heterodoxy. First lauding the Supreme Court as “the highest judicial tribunal on earth,” and declaring that violent resistance to its decrees must be put down by the strong arm of the government, he went on thus to define a master's right to his slave in Kansas:

    While the right continues in full force under the guarantees of the Constitution, and cannot be divested or alienated by an act of Congress, it necessarily remains a barren and a worthless right unless sustained, protected, and enforced by appropriate police regulations and local legislation prescribing adequate remedies for its violation. These regulations and remedies must necessarily depend entirely upon the will and wishes of the people of the Territory, as they can only be prescribed by the local legislatures. Hence, the great principle of popular sovereignty and self-government is sustained and firmly established by the authority of this decision.

    Both the legal and political aspects of the new question immediately engaged the earnest attention of Mr. Lincoln; and his splendid power of analysis set its ominous portent in a strong light. He made a speech in reply to Douglas about two weeks after, subjecting the Dred Scott decision to a searching and eloquent criticism. He said:

    That decision declares two propositions-first, that a negro cannot sue in the United States courts; and secondly, that Congress cannot prohibit slavery in the Territories. It was made by a divided court-dividing differently on the different points. Judge Douglas does not discuss the merits of the decision, [111] and in that respect I shall follow his example, believing I could no more improve on McLean and Curtis than he could on Taney. ... We think the Dred Scott decision was erroneous. We know the court that made it has often overruled its own decisions, and we shall do what we can to have it overrule this. We offer no resistance to it ... If this important decision had been made by the unanimous concurrence of the judges, and without any apparent partizan bias, and in accordance with legal public expectation and with the steady practice of the departments throughout our history, and had been in no part based on assumed historical facts which are not really true; or if, wanting in some of these, it had been before the court more than once, and had there been affirmed, and reaffirmed through a course of years, it then might be, perhaps would be, factious, nay, even revolutionary, not to acquiesce in it as a precedent. But when, as is true, we find it wanting in all these claims to the public confidence, it is not resistance, it is not factious, it is not even disrespectful, to treat it as not having yet quite established a settled doctrine for the country.

    The Chief Justice does not directly assert, but plainly assumes, as a fact, that the public estimate of the black man is more favorable now than it was in the days of the Revolution. This assumption is a mistake. In some trifling particulars the condition of that race has been ameliorated; but as a whole, in this country, the change between then and now is decidedly the other way; and their ultimate destiny has never appeared so hopeless as in the last three or four years. In two of the five States-New Jersey and North Carolina--that then gave the free negro the right of voting, the right has since been taken away; and in the third- New York--it has been greatly abridged; while it has [112] not been extended, so far as I know, to a single additional State, though the number of the States has more than doubled. In those days, as I understand, masters could, at their own pleasure, emancipate their slaves; but since then such legal restraints have been made upon emancipation as to amount almost to prohibition. In those days, legislatures held the unquestioned power to abolish slavery in their respective States, but now it is becoming quite fashionable for State constitutions to withhold that power from the legislatures. In those days, by common consent, the spread of the black man's bondage to the new countries was prohibited, but now Congress decides that it will not continue the prohibition, and the Supreme Court decides that it could not if it would. In those days, our Declaration of Independence was held sacred by all, and thought to include all; but now, to aid in making the bondage of the negro universal and eternal, it is assailed and sneered at and construed, and hawked at and torn, till, if its framers could rise from their graves, they could not at all recognize it. All the powers of earth seem rapidly combining against him. Mammon is after him, ambition follows, philosophy follows, and the theology of the day is fast joining the cry. They have him in his prison-house; they have searched his person, and left no prying instrument with him. One after another, they have closed the heavy iron doors upon him; and now they have him, as it were, bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys, which can never be unlocked without the concurrence of every key — the keys in the hands of a hundred different men, and they scattered to a hundred different and distant places; and they stand musing as to what invention, in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced to make the impossibility of his escape more complete than it is.


    There is not room to quote the many other equally forcible points in Mr. Lincoln's speech. Our narrative must proceed to other significant events in the great pro-slavery reaction. Thus far the Kansas experiment had produced nothing but agitation, strife, and bloodshed. First the storm in Congress over repeal; then a mad rush of emigration to occupy the Territory. This was followed by the Border Ruffian invasions, in which Missouri voters elected a bogus territorial legislature, and the bogus legislature enacted a code of bogus laws. In turn, the more rapid emigration from free States filled the Territory with a majority of free-State voters, who quickly organized a compact free-State party, which sent a free-State constitution, known as the Topeka Constitution, to Congress, and applied for admission. This movement proved barren, because the two houses of Congress were divided in sentiment. Meanwhile, President Pierce recognized the bogus laws, and issued proclamations declaring the free-State movement illegal and insurrectionary; and the free-State party had in its turn baffled the enforcement of the bogus laws, partly by concerted action of nonconformity and neglect, partly by open defiance. The whole finally culminated in a chronic border war between Missouri raiders on one hand, and free- State guerrillas on the other; and it became necessary to send Federal troops to check the disorder. These were instructed by Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War, that “rebellion must be crushed.” The future Confederate President little suspected the tremendous prophetic import of his order. The most significant illustration of the underlying spirit of the struggle was that President Pierce had successively appointed three Democratic governors for the Territory, who, starting with pro-slavery bias, all became free-State [114] partizans, and were successively insulted and driven from the Territory by the pro-slavery faction when in manly protest they refused to carry out the behests of the Missouri conspiracy. After a three years struggle neither faction had been successful, neither party was satisfied; and the administration of Pierce bequeathed to its successor the same old question embittered by rancor and defeat.

    President Buchanan began his administration with a boldly announced pro-slavery policy. In his inaugural address he invoked the popular acceptance of the Dred Scott decision, which he already knew was coming; and a few months later declared in a public letter that slavery “exists in Kansas under the Constitution of the United States. . . . How it ever could have been seriously doubted is a mystery.” He chose for the governorship of Kansas, Robert J. Walker, a citizen of Mississippi of national fame and of pronounced proslavery views, who accepted his dangerous mission only upon condition that a new constitution, to be formed for that State, must be honestly submitted to the real voters of Kansas for adoption or rejection. President Buchanan and his advisers, as well as Senator Douglas, accepted this condition repeatedly and emphatically. But when the new governor went to the Territory, he soon became convinced, and reported to his chief, that to make a slave State of Kansas was a delusive hope. “Indeed,” he wrote, “it is universally admitted here that the only real question is this: whether Kansas shall be a conservative, constitutional, Democratic, and ultimately free State, or whether it shall be a Republican and abolition State.”

    As a compensation for the disappointment, however, he wrote later direct to the President:

    But we must have a slave State out of the southwestern [115] Indian Territory, and then a calm will follow; Cuba be acquired with the acquiescence of the North; and your administration, having in reality settled the slavery question, be regarded in all time to come as a re-signing and re-sealing of the Constitution . . I shall be pleased soon to hear from you. Cuba! Cuba! (and Porto Rico, if possible) should be the countersign of your administration, and it will close in a blaze of glory.

    And the governor was doubtless much gratified to receive the President's unqualified indorsement in reply: “On the question of submitting the constitution to the bona fide resident settlers of Kansas, I am willing to stand or fall.”

    The sequel to this heroic posturing of the chief magistrate is one of the most humiliating chapters in American politics. Attendant circumstances leave little doubt that a portion of Mr. Buchanan's cabinet, in secret league and correspondence with the pro-slavery Missouri-Kansas cabal, aided and abetted the framing and adoption of what is known to history as the Lecompton Constitution, an organic instrument of a radical pro-slavery type; that its pretended submission to popular vote was under phraseology, and in combination with such gigantic electoral frauds and dictatorial procedure, as to render the whole transaction a mockery of popular government; still worse, that President Buchanan himself, proving too weak in insight and will to detect the intrigue or resist the influence of his malign counselors, abandoned his solemn pledges to Governor Walker, adopted the Lecompton Constitution as an administration measure, and recommended it to Congress in a special message, announcing dogmatically: “Kansas is therefore at this moment as much a slave State as Georgia or South Carolina.” [116]

    The radical pro-slavery attitude thus assumed by President Buchanan and Southern leaders threw the Democratic party of the free States into serious disarray, while upon Senator Douglas the blow fell with the force of party treachery-almost of personal indignity. The Dred Scott decision had rudely brushed aside his theory of popular sovereignty, and now the Lecompton Constitution proceedings brutally trampled it down in practice. The disaster overtook him, too, at a critical moment. His senatorial term was about to expire; the next Illinois legislature would elect his successor. The prospect was none too bright for him, for at the late presidential election Illinois had chosen Republican State officers. He was compelled either to break his pledges to the Democratic voters of Illinois, or to lead a revolt against President Buchanan and the Democratic leaders in Congress. Party disgrace at Washington, or popular disgrace in Illinois, were the alternatives before him. To lose his reelection to the Senate would almost certainly end his public career. When, therefore, Congress met in December, 1857, Douglas boldly attacked and denounced the Lecompton Constitution, even before the President had recommended it in his special message.

    “Stand by the doctrine,” he said, “that leaves the people perfectly free to form and regulate their institutions for themselves, in their own way, and your party will be united and irresistible in power .. If Kansas wants a slave-State constitution, she has a right to it; if she wants a free-State constitution, she has a right to it. It is none of my business which way the slavery clause is decided. I care not whether it is voted down or voted up. Do you suppose, after the pledges of my honor that I would go for that principle and leave the people to vote as they choose, that I [117] would now degrade myself by voting one way if the slavery clause be voted down, and another way if it be voted up? I care not how that vote may stand. . . . Ignore Lecompton; ignore Topeka; treat both those party movements as irregular and void; pass a fair bill — the one that we framed ourselves when we were acting as a unit; have a fair election-and you will have peace in the Democratic party, and peace throughout the country, in ninety days. The people want a fair vote. They will never be satisfied without it . . . But if this constitution is to be forced down our throats in violation of the fundamental principle of free government, under a mode of submission that is a mockery and insult, I will resist it to the last:”

    Walker, the fourth Democratic governor who had now been sacrificed to the interests of the Kansas proslavery cabal, also wrote a sharp letter of resignation denouncing the Lecompton fraud and policy; and such was the indignation aroused in the free States, that although the Senate passed the Lecompton Bill, twenty-two Northern Democrats joining their vote to that of the Republicans, the measure was defeated in the House of Representatives. The President and his Southern partizans bitterly resented this defeat; and the schism between them, on the one hand, and Douglas and his adherents, on the other, became permanent and irreconcilable.

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