Chapter 14: the Nebraska Bill.—1854.The abrogation of the Missouri Compromise produces a powerful reaction at the North, by which the abolitionists profit in respect of greater freedom of speech. Garrison emphasizes his doctrine of disunion by publicly burning the Constitution on the Fourth of July.
The Civil War began in 1854 with the passage of the1 Nebraska Bill. By this measure a tract embracing upwards of 400,000 square miles, bounded on the north by the British dominions, and on the south by the Indian Territory, and lying between the Missouri River and the Rocky Mountains,—larger than the original thirteen2 States, comparable in size to the then existing free States, or to Italy, Spain, and France,—was thrown open to slavery, though expressly dedicated to freedom by the Missouri Compromise, as lying wholly north of 36° 30′. This revolutionary proceeding threatened to divide by a3 great wedge the free States of the Pacific Coast from those of the interior and the East, and to give to the Slave Power the exclusive control of the Mississippi Valley. The Compromise of 1850 had left the Missouri Compromise untouched and unquestioned. Calhoun—grant him Southern California and New Mexico for slavery—was ready, if reluctant, to protract the dividing parallel to the4 Pacific. Lewis Cass, in his famous letter to A. O. P.5 Nicholson, December 24, 1847, laid down a principle of ‘squatter sovereignty’ broad enough, indeed, for all the Territories of the United States, yet intended for immediate application only to the imminent acquisitions from Mexico. Stephen A. Douglas, speaking at New Orleans6 in the summer of 1848, had also the Wilmot Proviso expressly in view when echoing Cass's doctrine, viz., that it was for ‘the people inhabiting them [the Territories] to regulate their internal concerns in their own way [i. e.,  to establish slavery],’ and that Federal interposition on behalf of freedom was a usurpation. It was Douglas who now gave the widest effect to this view by pretending that it was contained in the Compromise of 1850, and that the Missouri Compromise had been, effectively if not deliberately, superseded and abrogated. The report of the “Committee on Territories to whom was referred a bill for an act to establish the Territory of Nebraska,” Lib. 24.6, 9; Greeley's Struggle for Slavery Extension, p. 73. was made in the Senate by Douglas on January 4, 1854. On February 15, he procured the passage of an amendment to his bill, excepting from the general applicability of the Federal Constitution and laws to the Territory in question the eighth section of the Missouri Compromise Act—
which, being inconsistent with the principle of noninterven-tion by Congress with slavery in the States and Territories, as recognized by the legislation of 1850 (commonly called the Compromise Measures), is hereby declared inoperative and void; it being the true intent and meaning of this act not to legislate slavery into any Territory or State, nor to exclude it therefrom, but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to the Constitution of the United States. Ibid., pp. 75, 88.This was both an historic and an instant falsehood. Neither the earlier nor the later compromise established general principles, but in each case a specific bargain was struck, which, nominally, was binding for all time, but legally was exposed to repudiation by Congress at any time, so far as promises or prohibitions were concerned. Nor was it the intent of the Slave Power to allow the people to establish free institutions, as the whole framing of the act showed, and as followed from the mere fact of tolerating slave property, like any other, pending organization as a State. As Benton well said in the debates in7 the House, the squatter ‘sovereignty’ provided for in the bill “only extends to the subject of slavery, and only to one side of that—the admitting side.” Lib. 24.70. All laws to prevent the bringing in of slaves were forbidden, and the  ‘sovereigns’ could not pass upon and settle the question of slave or free society till a State government was formed. Meanwhile, the ‘institution’ would have taken possession, and could only have been expelled by force. In 1847, a public meeting at Richmond, Va., affirmed the right to8 take slave property into the Territories north of 36° 30′, and proposed to assert it ‘by arms.’ With the right sanctioned by Congress, and settlement actually made, the whole South could be counted on to maintain the advantage by arms. It only remained to secure Federal protection for slave property in transit in the free States to complete the pro-slavery mastery of the entire Union. The reaction at the North in face of this prospect— the free belt of the continent cut in halves, a barrier raised to the westward movement of population and the incoming of emigrants from abroad, and an indefinite number of slave States creatable to maintain the Senate as the impregnable bulwark of the Slave Power—the reaction, we say, was immediate and tremendous, but as futile after as before the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It was all very well to hang Douglas in effigy—for9 legislatures to protest, and eleven hundred women led by Mrs. Stowe to remonstrate, and the New England clergy to10 come out in a petition more than three thousand strong, embracing the chiefs of all the denominations and the most conspicuous censors of the abolitionists, like Lyman11 Beecher, Francis Wayland, and Leonard Bacon.12 The Slave Power had taken its stride. Even the Boston ‘respectability,’ the Hunkers, stood aghast at the breach  of national faith, and mouthed feebly. When it came to measures of solid resistance, men of this class instinctively felt released from the obligation to return fugitive slaves, and legislatures began to throw fresh obstacles in the13 way of kidnappers. More practical was the incorporation, first in Massachusetts, of ‘Emigrant Aid’14 associations to pour free-State settlers into Kansas and Nebraska, slavery having the shortest cut to the scene of competition. Yet, as the Rev. T. W. Higginson asked, in a sermon to15 his Worcester flock announcing a Revolution begun, of what use was it to make of Nebraska a transplanted Massachusetts, when Massachusetts herself had been miserably wanting to the cause of freedom? In comparing the Nebraska with the Texas excitement, one feels that the Fugitive Slave Law was a weakener of resistance in 1854, since it afforded a satisfying scapegoat to outraged Northern feeling. ‘Add an unlimited number of slave States to the Union, and we will not return your runaways (or at least such is our intention)!’ In 1845, it ran: ‘Admit another slave State, and the Union is ipso facto dissolved!’ The best of the Free Soil leaders16 in Congress were still denying all thought of interfering with slavery in the States; Giddings and Sumner were17 dodging the plain inquiry whether they admitted any Constitutional obligation with respect to fugitive slaves. Seward, discounting the present triumph of slavery in the case of Kansas and Nebraska, and anticipating yet greater,—“slavery not only luxuriating in all new Territories, but stealthily creeping into the free States themselves,” Greeley's Struggle for Slavery Extension, p. 81. and the country ‘no longer a land of freedom and constitutional liberty,’—could still proclaim his acquiescence in the Compromise of 1850 (of which he had never ‘spoken irreverently’), and could declare: ‘I have always heard, with equal pity and disgust, threats of disunion in the free States and similar threats in the slaveholding States.’ Well did Gerrit Smith write to18 Mr. Garrison: ‘I have acquired no new hope of the peaceful termination of slavery by coming to Washington.  I go home more discouraged than ever.19 Giddings, Chase,20 etc. are full of hope, but I am yet to see that there is a North.’ Well did Lysander Spooner write to the editor21 of the Commonwealth, refusing to be a delegate to an Anti-Nebraska Bill Convention in Faneuil Hall:
I trust you will allow me space to say, that I decline the22 appointment; that I have never been a member of the “Free Soil Party” ; that I have never adopted its absurd and contradictory motto, “Freedom National, Slavery Sectional” ; that I have no sympathy with the pusillanimous and criminal sentiment, “If slavery will let us alone, we will let it alone” ; that I am in favor of neither making nor keeping any compacts with slavery in regard to boundaries; that I am glad to see that slavery intends neither to make nor keep any such compacts with freedom; that I do not believe the Constitution authorizes any such compromises; that I am glad that all excuses for the discussion of such compacts are likely soon to be swept away; that I hope the Nebraska bill will pass; and that I hope then to see freedom and slavery meet face to face, with no question between them except which shall conquer and which shall die.While the newest and most formidable encroachment on the rights and liberties of the North found the people too demoralized by the Compromise of 1850 to rally to the one effectual checkmate—disunion—it secured a greater toleration in that section for the abolitionists, shielding them for the moment with a wounded and passionate sentiment, which demanded that at least speech be free. This was signalized in the case of Mr. Garrison when, on the invitation of the New York City A. S. Society, he went on to deliver a lecture in the Tabernacle, on February 14, 1854.
W. L. Garrison to his Wife.The Tabernacle lecture was an excellent exposition of the30 sanity, logic, and moderation of the anti-slavery position. There was no attempt to add fuel to the prevailing excitement over the Nebraska Bill, still before the Senate; only a calm appeal to reason and conscience, leading up to the inquiry: ‘If it would be a damning sin for us to admit another slave State into the Union, why is it not a damning sin to permit a slave State to remain in the Union?’— and to an explicit reaffirmation of the irrepressible conflict between freedom and slavery. At the anniversary of the American Anti-Slavery Society held in Dr. E. H. Chapin's church in New York on May 10, 11, Mr. Garrison offered two resolutions appropriate to the crisis, which were unanimously adopted, and made the Society's sole deliverance on the Nebraska Bill then pending in the House: 
Resolved, That the one grand vital issue to be made with31 the Slave Power is, the dissolution of the existing Ameri-can Union. Resolved, That an Anti-Slavery conscience which is bounded by 36 degrees 30 minutes north latitude, instead of presenting any barrier to the aggressions of the Slave Power, may be safely disregarded and scoffed at by the South, as hypocritical in its pretended opposition to slavery, cowardly in its spirit, and spasmodic in its action. John Randolph's phrase; Lib. 25.109.On May 22, “against the strongest popular remonstrances—against an unprecedented demonstration of religious sentiment—against the laws of God and the rights of universal man—in subversion of plighted faith, in utter disregard of the scorn of the world, and for purposes as diabolical as can be conceived of or consummated here on earth” Lib. 24.82. (to use Mr. Garrison's language), the final passage of the Nebraska Bill took place in the House. Two days later in Boston, while the city was32 still profoundly moved by the five months struggle to avert this calamity, Anthony Burns was arrested as a33 fugitive from Virginia, and the popular excitement at once rose to fever heat, during a week without a parallel since the days of the Revolution. Various anniversary conventions—of the abolitionists and the woman-suffragists among others—brought great numbers of people to the capital of the State while the case was on trial; but also from the suburbs men poured in expressly to defeat the slave-hunter—in one case, that of Worcester, as a34 town delegation. Other pens must fill in the picture which we can only outline here—how Burns, like Sims, was kept a prisoner in the Court-house; how a mass meeting in Faneuil Hall, on the evening of May 26, was35 addressed with impassioned eloquence by Wendell Phillips and Theodore Parker, urging everything short of violent resistance to the rendition of Burns; how a magnanimous attack was simultaneously36 made upon the 37 Court  house, ending in repulse and in the death of one of the deputy marshals; how President Pierce and the Mayor38 of Boston concentrated all the military within reach to prevent a second attempt and enforce the decision of the court; how Commissioner Loring yielded up the victim39 to his master; and how, amid every emblem and manifestation of popular indignation and mourning, Burns40 was carried down State Street between armed files to the place of embarkation. To point the contrast that nullification of the Compromise of 1850 meant treason, while nullification of the Missouri Compromise by Congress at Washington meant simply a return to the Constitution, Judge Benjamin R. Curtis charged the Grand Jury to 41 inParker and Phillips for their Faneuil Hall harangues, as ‘obstructing the process of the United States.’42 412] It was Mr. Garrison's prerogative to emphasize this truth at all times. On July 4th, at the open-air celebration of the day at Framingham, Mass., by the abolitionists, Mr. Garrison ushered in the proceedings with Scripture46 readings; and then, having contrasted the Declaration of Independence with the actual state of the Republic and the grasping designs of its slavemasters, said—
He should now proceed to perform an action which would47 be the testimony of his own soul, to all present, of the estimation in which he held the pro-slavery laws and deeds of the nation. Producing a copy of the Fugitive Slave Law, he set fire to it, and it burnt to ashes. Using an old and well-known phrase, he said, “And let all the people say, Amen” ; and a unanimous cheer and shout of “Amen” burst from the vast audience. In like manner Mr. Garrison burned the decision of Edward G. Loring in the case of Anthony Burns, and the48 late charge of Judge Benjamin R. Curtis to the United States49 Grand Jury in reference to the “ treasonable” assault upon the Court House for the rescue of the fugitive—the multitude ratifying the fiery immolation with shouts of applause. Then, holding up the U. S. Constitution, he branded it as the source and parent of all the other atrocities,— “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell,” —and consumed it to ashes on the spot, exclaiming, “ So perish all compromises with tyranny! And let all the people say, Amen!” A tremendous shout of “Amen!” went up to heaven in ratification of the deed, mingled with a few hisses and wrathful exclamations from some who were evidently in a rowdyish state of mind, but who were at once cowed by the popular feeling.The press outcry at this Lutheran incendiarism was50 what might have been expected; but the oddest repudiation of it came from the Commonwealth, which saw in it a51 gross discourtesy to the Free Soil portion of the audience —both as wounding their feelings of reverence for the Constitution, and as calculated to increase the odium under which their party labored. ‘The Commonwealth kindly informs us,’ wrote Mr. Garrison,52
that it knows of no one who objects to my burning the Constitution, provided I get up a private bonfire on my own  account; but the offence was, in doing the deed “before all Israel and the sun.” It was “insulting (!) the convictions of others, whose views of the Constitution are as honest, and perhaps as sensible,” as my own. I “ should have retired to some corner, and burned it on my own private and particular hook, without outraging the feelings of my audience” !!!. . . Let me tell the Commonwealth that slavery is a public, not a private concern—a national, not a local system; that it is silly and impertinent to suggest privacy of action against it; that, in the struggle for its overthrow, I neither seek nor take advantage of any man unfairly; that my testimonies, in whatever form given, are for the nation, not for the chimney corner. . . . If, for almost a score of years, on all occasions, I have branded the U. S. Constitution as a blood-stained instrument— and if, during all that time, I have disfranchised myself, for consciencea and the slave's sake, under it—was it to “insult” any one for me to reduce my verbal impeachment to a positive act, in order to make my position palpable to the dullest vision —viz., by burning a few leaves on which that Constitution was printed, as a token of my utter abhorrence of it? The objection is too absurd to require a serious refutation. . . . Ah! but there were anti-slavery men at Framingham “who hold that the Constitution of the United States furnishes no aid whatever to slavery.” Do they indeed? Well, what then? Am I to substitute their convictions for my own? If they have discovered an anti-slavery Constitution, they know I did not burn that (why should I?) on the occasion referred to. How many such were present, I do not know—probably not a “baker's dozen” in that assembly of three thousand. I burnt a pro-slavery Constitution, in my judgment, in the judgment of the nation ever since its adoption, and therefore was faithful to the slave in so doing; and not one of his “sincere and true friends ” will ever reproach me for the deed—the light of which shall be seen long after “this mortal shall have put on immortality.”From this date the Free Soilers exhibited great sensitiveness to any confounding of themselves with the abolitionists. Their revival, by the folly of those who raised again the issue of slavery extension, had now come with a strength hitherto unknown. From the Ohio wing the53 Massachusetts Free Soilers adopted the name of the Republican  Party, affirming it to be preeminently the party of the Union and the Constitution, of law and order, and the true National and Democratic Party, “because it is opposed, in its principles, sentiments, and aims, to Sectionalism, Secession, and Disunion.” Lib. 24.146. ‘No matter for the rest [of the resolutions], however worded,’ said Mr. Garrison; “they are nothing but idle breath and impracticable issues, as time will demonstrate. . . . There is but one honest, straightforward course to pursue if we would see the Slave Power overthrown—the Union must be Dis-Solved!” Lib. 24.146. For the moment, in Massachusetts, in New Hampshire, and elsewhere, the course pursued by the Free Soilers was, while maintaining a separate organization, to coquet with54 the mushroom National, Native-American, or Know-Nothing Party, pro-slavery as its professions were. The55 nominal defeat which this party inflicted on them at the fall elections of 1854 really inured to their great and sudden56 advantage in the Federal as well as in the State arena,57 and gave the coup de grace to the remnant of the Whig58 organization. This fact, with the general rout of the Democratic Party at the same elections in the North, caused59 genuine alarm to the Slave Power, and confirmed it in its efforts to colonize Kansas. Fraud and violence—without actual bloodshed—were freely practised in the new Territory. Armed ‘border ruffians’ from Missouri crossed60 the line to elect a pro-slavery Delegate to Congress. Civilization and barbarism confronted each other with weapons drawn, and the year closed with all eyes turned on the scene of impending warfare.