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Chapter 38: repeal of the Missouri Compromise.—reply to Butler and Mason.—the Republican Party.—address on Granville Sharp.—friendly correspondence.—1853-1854.

Chase and Sumner were the only two Free Soil senators in the Thirty-third Congress, the first in the Administration of Franklin Pierce, which began its session Dec. 5, 1853. They missed the readiness and wit of Hale of New Hampshire, who had been succeeded by a Democrat. The Democrats being in a majority in the Senate, designated in caucus from their number a majority of each committee, assigning places to Chase, and leaving the vacancies to be filled by the Whigs, with the expectation that they would assign places to Sumner. Seward's motion in the Whig caucus to put him on certain committees was withdrawn in consequence of the opposition of Everett, who after stating his friendly relations with his colleague, which he wished to have continued, was averse to any action which would ‘recognize him as a Whig,.’1 The proposed assignment would have carried with it under the custom no such implication, the Democrats finding no difficulty in giving places to Chase; and if it were to be opposed, it would have been more seemly that the opposition should come from another quarter. It is another instance of the intolerance then controlling the dominant party in Massachusetts. The Whigs, however, left intentionally two vacancies at the foot of the committees on pensions and enrolled bills, which the Democrats filled with Sumner's name. The exclusion of members of ‘an unhealthy organization’ was given up, but the responsibility of placing them was still a perplexity. None then foresaw that [346] the two senators whom their associates were then careful to avoid were within a few weeks to become the political leaders of a new North.

This session proved to be the most remarkable in our history. It promised, as it began, to be like the last,—prosaic and uneventful. Nothing presaged the great struggle at hand, with its immediate upheaval of parties and its remoter consequences. The Whigs and Democrats, rivals for power and antagonists in domestic policy, had pledged themselves in synonymous terms to maintain the Compromise of 1850; and masses as well as leaders cordially accepted, or weakly acquiesced in, the policy of silence and submission. The President in his first message assured the country that the prevailing repose should suffer no shock during his official term if he had the power to avert it. The only political force against slavery, the Free Soilers, were helpless as an opposition, receiving no recruits and diminishing in numbers. The Administration, in Cushing's letter, threatened proscription to all who allowed any political fellowship with them. Hale, without hope of being called again into public life, had opened a law office in the city of New York.2 Chase was to be succeeded at the close of this Congress by a Democratic supporter of the Compromise. Three years and a half of Sumner's term remained; but the Whigs, rampant in their restoration to power in Massachusetts, were clamoring for his resignation as a senator without a constituency; and it appeared inevitable that his successor would be a supporter of the Compromise of Everett's type. Seward, whatever might be the impulses of his better nature, had descended to the level of his party. He openly declined to discuss further the Fugitive Slave law in popular assemblies, and withheld his vote when its repeal was moved in the Senate.3 Chance or exceptionally favorable conditions might now and then put an antislavery member into the House of Representatives;4 but his individual remonstrance against overwhelming numbers pledged to the suppression of agitation would be of little avail. To human foresight the struggle with American slavery was to be one of generations, with only [347] a single hope in the future,—that the Providence which had watched over the new birth of Liberty on this continent might yet overrule the madness of men for its preservation; and the fruition of that hope was at hand!

The slave-power was not content with its recent victory. It knew the temper of its adversaries, timid and submissive before threats of disunion, and it saw another and greater conquest before it. Legislation in the nature of a compact stood indeed in the way of the next step; but the equality of slavery with freedom in the occupation of the national domain had been admitted by an obsequious North, and this principle was as applicable to territory acquired from France as to territory acquired from Mexico. If wise and just to leave one territory to the chances of ‘squatter’ dominion, it was equally wise and just to leave the others to the same fate. The repeal of the prohibition of 1820 was the natural sequence of the Compromise of 1850.

The session was not a month old when a conspiracy was revealed for the extension of slavery into the vast territory now comprising the great States of Kansas and Nebraska, and rival. ling in extent Spain, France, and Italy combined. The country, North as well as South, had for a third of a century rested under the conviction that this territory was to remain free, and in due time be divided into free States under the compromise and compact by which in 1820 Missouri was, after prolonged resistance from the free States, admitted as a slave State upon the condition that slavery should be forever prohibited in the rest of the territory acquired from France under the name of Louisiana, so far as it lay north of thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes. No partisan of slavery-neither Calhoun, who guarded the institution with a comprehensive and far-reaching vision, nor Atchison,5 who overlooked the territory from the border State of Missouri—had ever been audacious enough, even when the slave-power was putting forth its utmost pretensions, to propose in Congress the abrogation of the compact known as the Missouri Compromise. With the extinction of Indian titles, the progress of national surveys, and the pressure of emigration, the time had come for the organization of a civil government.6 [348] The condition of the territory, as free or slave, was now to be unalterably fixed, and the slaveholding politicians were alive to their last opportunity. They saw clearly that a free territory which in due season would become a free State must affect injuriously the value and security of slave property in Missouri, and generally imperil the institution as a national power. They counted surely, after their experience in 1850, on the cooperation of the Democratic aspirants for the Presidency from the North; and through the influence of these leaders they were assured of the general adhesion of the Democratic party. They obtained without difficulty the hearty support of the President and his Cabinet;7 and they found in Senator Douglas of Illinois, then seeking Southern votes for the Presidency, an adroit, unscrupulous, and aggressive leader.

Douglas, chairman of the committee on territories, made a report January 4, and submitted a bill for organizing the Territory of Nebraska. The report, after discussing the opposite views of the validity of the prohibition, declined to interfere with it; and the bill as first printed in a city journal on the 7th corresponded with the report; but when it appeared again in print, three days later, it was found to contain a section conflicting with the report, which in subtle phrases affirming the sovereignty of the people of the Territory, and pledging its admission ‘with or without slavery’ at their option, was intended to annul the prohibition without expressly repealing it.8 Every day and at every step the conspirators grew in audacity. Dixon of Kentucky, a Whig, gave notice on the 16th of an [349] amendment which without disguise repudiated the prohibition and legalized slavery in the Territory. Sumner met this proposition the next day by giving notice of another amendment which in positive terms excluded any abrogation of the prohibition. Douglas, finding it necessary to go further in order to satisfy the South, and emboldened by the apparent indifference of the North, a week later reported a new bill, which created the two territories of Kansas and Nebraska, and declared the prohibition ‘inoperative,’ for the reason that it had been ‘superseded by the principles of the legislation of 1850.’9

The antislavery newspapers gave the alarm even before the bill was printed by the Senate.10 The other Northern journals, however, were slow to recognize its import, and they delayed for several weeks—some for a month or more—to take definite ground against it.11 Those who had insisted on submission to the Compromise of 1850 as essential to the national peace, who had denounced Free Soilers as fanatics and traitors, and made light of all apprehensions of the progress of the slave-power, did not find it easy to change front at once. Some [350] sincerely thought that the bill was a mere personal scheme of Douglas to win the favor of the South, with no possibility of success.12 It is fair to say also that few at the time, even among well-informed persons, realized the geographical relations and vast capabilities of the Territory in question. The conspirators, when they saw that the Northern protest came chiefly from those who had persevered in opposing the Compromise of 1850, advanced with more confident steps; and Dixon's amendment and Douglas's second bill were the result of the apathy of the free States.

Douglas, January 24, the day after the introduction of his second bill, pressed its consideration; but opposition being made, it was postponed to the 30th, and made the special order from day to day till disposed of. The Northern Whig and Democratic members, who were from their own convictions or the convictions of their constituents opposed to the extension of slavery, were from one cause or another averse to any bold and prompt demonstration; and the few Free Soilers were obliged without other support to take the lead in the interval of six days.13

Chase and Sumner and four representatives, the Free Soil or Independent Democratic members, issued an Appeal to the country. It was drawn by Chase, and was well adapted in substance and style to its purpose. It explained clearly the purport and effect of the measure, its reversal of the settled policy of the nation, and its design to establish slavery in an immense territory guaranteed to liberty by solemn compact. It arraigned the 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.’ It implored the interposition of Christians and Christian ministers, and closed thus—

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.


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