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Development of the free soil idea in the United States.

An address delivered before the members of the Nebraska State Historical Society on the evening of January 14, 1890.

by Hon. W. H. Eller.
The causes leading to the organization of Nebraska territory, date back of the adoption of the American constitution, and forms a part of the history of that freedom which now distinguishes the people of the United States from all other governments. The Federal Union is, within itself, a compact of free and independent States, formed from those physical parts, and bounded by those natural and artificial lines which peculiarly fit each separate dominion to become a part of the whole, all within the belt of the temperate zone of the western hemisphere.

The development of the free soil doctrine, which made it Nebraska, really began before it had a settler and before the American Revolution had accomplished its great results, to understand which it is necessary to state a few facts in the history of African slavery. The African slave trade first introduced slavery in the province of Virginia in the year 1619, and by the year 1670 it is estimated that there were at least 2,000 slaves in that dominion. The first English slave ship fitted out in the colonies, sailed from Boston in 1646. The French admitted slavery to be established in their colonies in 1624. The whole ‘civilized’ world engaged in the traffic for profit for more than a century afterward, and it became common in all the American colonies.

About the year 1775, with the development of the doctrines of popular liberty, the evil began gradually to contract in the Dominion of Canada and the Northern American colonies, owing to the unprofitable conditions of slave labor upon the one hand, and the development and the assertion of equal and universal rights upon the other, so that in 1784, Rhode Island had led the way in the interdiction of importing slaves into her territory, and in the year following enacted a law for their gradual emancipation. When the census of 1840 was taken, she had but five slaves left within her borders. Massachusetts, by her bill of rights, abolished slavery in 1780, and the act went into full effect by the decision of her courts in 1783, and no slaves are shown by the census of 1790. In the same year Pennsylvania barred the further introduction of slaves, and also enacted a [430] law for their gradual emancipation, and the census taken in 1840 found but sixty-four in servitude within her boundaries. In 1784 Connecticut followed her example, and in 1840 she had only seventeen persons in voluntary servitude. Virginia prohibited the introduction of slaves from abroad in 1776, and North Carolina in 1786, Maryland in 1783, New Hampshire abolished slavery in 1793, and but few remained in the year 1800. In 1799 New York adopted gradual emancipation, and had but few slaves left in the year 1840. New Jersey followed in the year 1820, but did not fairly rid herself of the evil prior to the first election of Abraham Lincoln. She had twenty slaves in the summer of 1860.

Our country was therefore called upon to wrestle with popular slavery as a domestic institution during those years, and under those limitations and obstructions in her way when asserting her own independence, and legislating for the establishment of her own popular liberty. The importation of slaves into her borders was not, therefore, forbidden by the general government until the year 1808.

The census of 1790 kindly gives us 59,456 free colored persons in the United States, the great majority of whom were of pure African descent. The second census gives us 108,395, the third makes the figures 186,466, the fourth raises the figures to 233,524, the fifth increases them to 319,599. In 1840 the whole number was 386,303, and in 1850 the census brought in 434,495, which was increased to about 500,000 in the year 1860. The slave population in 1790 was about 700,000, which increased to nearly 4,000,000 by the year 1860. The States were at this time half slave and half free, and slavery had so far receded, that the territories north of 36° 30′ were free soil, and but five slave States remained north of that line, which were afterwards designated border States. The growth and development of the free soil doctrine, therefore, had for its counterpart the history of that legislation, those common debates and discussions which had restricted and confined the American system of African slavery to the southern part and parts of our common country. The history of this legislation begins with the year 1783.

In 1790 two distinct and separate doctrines of civil government prevailed among the statesmen of our country, the one the Federal idea, which comprised the doctrines of a strong and centralized system, dominant over all local colonies, and into which the original thirteen States with ceded territory in their separate capacities should become merged in one common whole, constituting one strong and centralized power; and the other, the democratic theory, [431] following strictly in its construction the preamble to that great charter known as the Constitution of the States, and which gave all power of the governed to the people themselves. All discussions of importance on the bill of rights, the purchase of lands, their division into territories and their organization and government as such, their internal improvement, consequent development, and final admission into the union as States, have arisen from the public consideration of these political dogmas, as enunciated and applied by successive administrations. Each Territory and State has partaken of these doctrines as successively brought forth and constituted, with the single exception of Kentucky, which was ceded by Virginia and directly admitted upon her acceptance of the Constitution, without becoming a ward of the general government under that political tutelage known as a territory, taking effect June 1st, 1792.

The Federal idea had for its home the New England colonies, bound together by the ties of religion, kindred community of interests in Indian wars, and early confederation in opposition to the mandates of the mother country. It also extended gradually westward with emigration. The remaining colonies were embraced in separate and distinct grants from the British Government to the original proprietors and patentees, and were subdivided at the first patentees' day into great and broad baronies, vestiges of which still remained. The immunity shared by them from invasions, insurrections, and the general pacific relations with Indian tribes, had rendered a compact unnecessary.

Other reasons for the view may be had by considering the religion and character of the settlers of the southern colonies. Maryland was peculiarly Catholic, Virginia Episcopal, South Carolina Huguenot, and North Carolina was a refuge for all the distressed classes of Britain. Nothing had occurred up to the year 1775 to create a community interest in these southern colonies.

At this time the colonies were possessed in their original grants by the general treaty with Great Britain, and owned vast tracts of territory over which they held jurisdiction and control. The boundaries were not always well defined, but the titles were unquestioned. In adjusting the indebtedness of the several States and of the general government these vast tracts were ceded to the latter and control assumed by the United States. These grants included all the unsettled country north of Florida and west of Pennsylvania, Virginia, and the Carolinas. The organization of the territory northwest of the Ohio immediately followed, and a restriction imposed that there [432] ‘should be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the parties shall be first duly convicted.’ The substance of this condition had been proposed the Continental Congress in the year 1784, and did not finally pass until about July 11, 1787.

Vermont was disputed territory and domestic slavery never found a foothold. She was always free soil. Kentucky inherited the institution from Virginia, and never had a voice either for or against its introduction. No one of the colonies had a voice, and the colonies were none of them responsible for its existence within their borders; so that negro slavery is to be wholly referred to the policy of another government, and the same that maintained control of our colonial affairs.

North Carolina made a contribution of her Tennessee country on the 22d day of December, 1789, and conditioned her grant so that ‘no regulation made or to be made by Congress shall tend to emancipate slaves.’ The financial condition of the general government was very poor at that time, and standing in urgent need of the gift she accepted it with the condition.

Georgia at first resented the introduction of slavery, but its encroachments were so urgent that she first yielded, and afterwards repealed her anti-slavery statute. Her grants of Alabama and Mississippi were made to the general government, with all the restrictions, conditions, and privileges made in favor of the northwest territory, save and except that article which forbids slavery. This gift was likewise accepted with the condition.

About the year 1800 an attempt was made to extend the limitation of the act as to Ohio Territory, but Ohio was admitted a free State in the year 1802.

Indiana Territory also wrestled with the same question, then under the leadership of its governor, afterward President W. H. Harrison, and a petition from its legislature was presented in Congress for the suspension of the sixth article for the period of ten years, so that slaves born within the United States, or from any one of the States, might be admitted. This necessarily resulted in the appointment of committees, the discussion of the subject-matter and reports to the houses involving these discussions. The extension was not considered expedient, and was hence the subject of refusal. Following slowly afterward came into the Union the free States of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The latter was formed from the cession made by Great Britain to our government in 1796, and with like restriction. [433]

On the 20th of December, 1803, the government of the United States took possession of that extensive country lying north of Florida, and from the mouth of the Mississippi river to the British possessions, and from thence across the Rocky mountains. This purchase had been at a venture of 60,000,000 francs from the First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte, of France, without reference to the extension of human slavery, and that portion constituting the present State of Louisiana was admitted into the Union in 1812 under its proslavery State Constitution.

Upon the treaty of 1767, whereby France had ceded the northwest territory to the British government, the French trappers and traders who resided in the Illinois country crossed over into Missouri, taking their slaves with them, and human slavery existed there at the time of purchase in 1833.

In December, 1817, a delegate from Missouri appeared in Congress and was admitted to a seat. It was proposed during the following February that Missouri be admitted into the Union, but a clause was desired by Northern congressmen prohibiting the extension of slavery. This was the great entering wedge, and resulted finally in the Missouri compromise of 1820. It was in this discussion that Mr. Cobb, of Georgia, declared that if the North persisted the Union would be dissolved, and remarked with warmth, addressing a congressman from New York, ‘You have kindled a fire which all the water of the ocean cannot put out, which seas of blood only can extinguish.’ This first struggle resulted in the organization of the territory south of 36° 30′ and north of Louisiana into the Territory of Arkansas, with slavery unrestricted; but the admission of Missouri into the Union of States on either basis—slave or free—was defeated.

The second Missouri struggle commenced in December of the next session, and much new blood having been infused into the House by reason of previous elections, the debates were long and the question was again fully discussed. Memorials were presented from the legislatures of several States, including New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware, favoring the restriction of slavery. An elaborate memorial, prepared by Daniel Webster and signed by himself, George Blake, Josiah Quincy, and many others, desiring that measures be taken ‘to restrain the increase of slavery in new States to be admitted into the Union,’ was presented December 3d, 1819. This sentiment prevailed strongly in Boston and throughout the New England States. The Legislature of Kentucky passed a memorial [434] by a unanimous vote against the desired restriction, and it was also presented to Congress in January following. Upon the final vote the restriction was lost, and Missouri was admitted into the Union with slavery on February 28th, 1821. Maine was received as a free State on the next day. This was according to an agreement, and all the territory north and west of the line of 36° 30′, which was the south line of the State of Missouri, was declared by act of Congress at the same time to be free territory, and that slavery should be forever excluded. It was at that time occupied only by Indians and a few trappers.

The Missouri State line on the west ran due north and south, crossing the river at Kansas City, at the mouth of the Kaw river. The territory comprising the six counties in the northwest part of the State was then an Indian reservation, and contains its most fertile soil. Senators Benton and Linn succeeded in securing an extension of this State line to the river, and this extension included these fine lands, the bill being approved by President Jackson on the 7th day of June, 1836. This extension of slave territory was so quietly done, notwithstanding the anti-slavery agitation of the times, and the great debate pending in Congress on the right of petition, led by John Quincy Adams, that it hardly attracted attention, and was the first encroachment upon the terms of the Missouri compromise by any direct measure. This section of the State furnished the most aggressive emigration into the western territory in later years.

In the year 1819 negotiations were opened with Spain for the purchase of Florida, and the treaty was ratified by both governments in July, 1821, and that sovereignty was formally transferred to the United States. The north boundary line of Florida followed the St. Mary's river from its mouth to its source, thence west to the Chattahoochee, thence along that stream to the 31st parallel, thence west to the Mississippi river, including the present State of Florida, parts of Alabama and Mississippi, and some parts of the present Louisiana. It also included all that territory west of the Rockies and north of the 42d parallel to the British possessions, and from the Rocky mountains to the Pacific, including Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and part of Wyoming, thereby extinguishing the Spanish claims to this vast area. Florida proper was acquired with the institution of slavery existing, and was not subject to the restriction of the Missouri compromise, as claimed by one school of politicians and subject to the restriction as claimed by the other. Slavery was neither prohibited nor sanctioned by the terms of this grant. About the [435] same time this government ceded to Spain that country between Louisiana and the Rio Grande, and in less than twenty-five years afterward was very desirous of getting it back again.

Prior to December 27th, 1845, Texas had twice sought to be annexed to the United States, and was finally received by Congress on that day, and ratified by that people on the 19th of February, 1846. Prior to that time it had proclaimed its independence, and had obtained some recognition. It was not subject to the restrictions contained in the compromise of 36° 30′. At this time General Taylor was at Corpus Christi, near the mouth of the Rio Grande, with a large part of the United States army for the protection of the Texas frontier, and annexation was immediately followed by the Mexican war, at the termination of which, and by the terms of the treaty of Guadalupe Hildalgo, 1848, a vast area of territory both north and south of the line of 36° 30′ was acquired.

The annexation of Texas, and the beginning of hostilities between the United States and Mexico, was followed by a message from President Polk to Congress, asking that a sum of money be placed at his disposal for immediate use in effecting a treaty with the Mexican government, and a bill was soon introduced for that purpose, appropriating $30,000 for immediate use, and placing $2,000,000 more at his disposal for the purchase of peace and the settlement of boundary lines. David Wilmot proposed a proviso to that section of the bill referring to the acquisition of territory, against slavery and involuntary servitude in any of its parts, ‘except for crime, whereof the party shall first be duly convicted.’ This proviso was substantially guarded in the terms of the ordinance of 1797 in the erection of the Northwest Territory, and is known in history as the Wilmot proviso. This proviso provoked an extended discussion both North and South, its advocates being called free-soilers and the opponents pro-slavery men. It was proposed by a Democrat and was supported by Democrats in the North. The bill and proviso both passed the House, and was sent to the Senate on the day provided by law for its adjournment, August 10th, 1846. The question was again raised in the bills introduced in 1848, providing for the organization of territorial governments for Oregon, California, and New Mexico, in which the principles of the Wilmot proviso figured largely. The bill for the organization of Oregon passed, and was approved by the President. The battle ground was transferred to the remaining bills, and finally to New Mexico. All public men took part in these discussions, pro and con, both within Congress and out of it, and the people became [436] well versed in the issues involved. Many also committed themselves by informal expressions in ordinary conversation, and by neatly written political letters, as the records of the times now appear. Among the number who are said to have approved the Wilmot proviso in ordinary conversation was General Lewis Cass, at that time in public life, and journeying in a railroad car from Washington to his Michigan home. He was among the number, however, who wrote upon that subject, and in his letter dated December 24th, 1847, and addresssed to General A. O. P. Nicholson, took that middle ground afterwards espoused by Senator Douglas, and known in history as the doctrine of ‘popular sovereignty.’ In the course of this letter he says:

The theory of our government presupposes that its various members have reserved to themselves the regulation of all subjects relating to what may be termed their internal police. They are sovereign within their boundaries, except in those cases where they have surrendered to the general government a portion of their rights in order to give effect to the objects of the Union, whether these concern foreign nations, if I may so speak, whether they have reference to slavery or to any other relations, domestic or public, are left to local authority, either original or derivative. Congress has no right to say that there shall be slavery in New York, or there shall be no slavery in Georgia; nor is there any other human power but the people of those States, respectively, which can change the relations existing therein, and they can say, if they will, “we will have slavery in the former and we will abolish it in the latter.”

In various respects the Territories differ from the States. Some of their rights are inchoate, and they do not possess the attributes of sovereignty. Their relation to the general government is very imperfectly defined by the Constitution, and it will be found upon examination that that instrument, the only grant of power concerning them, is conveyed in the phrase, “Congress shall have the power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations, respecting the territory and other property belonging to the United States.”

The question as will, therefore, be seen on examination, does not regard the exclusion of slavery free from a region where it now exists, but a prohibition against its introduction where it does not exist, and where, from the feelings of the inhabitants and the laws of nature it is morally impossible, * * * that it can ever reestablish itself.


The third step in the restriction of slavery was, therefore, fully taken in the political campaign of 1848. The first had been the restriction of the slave trade, the second restriction of slave territory, and now the third was the doctrine of free soil in all the territories. The advocates of the Wilmot proviso were, therefore, called free soilers and nominated a candidate for president, thus taking a prominent place in the public gaze. It happened in this wise. The State of New York were represented in the Democratic national convention at Baltimore, May 22d of that year, by two delegations, that of the free soilers or barn burners, composed of Wilmot proviso men and the Hunkers under the leadership of General Daniel S. Dickinson. The convention undertook to conciliate both delegations by admitting both to a seat and a half vote, upon which the free soilers withdrew and nominated Martin Van Buren for president, and Charles Francis Adams for vice-president. The Democrats nominated General Cass for president and William O. Butler, of Kentucky, for vice-president. At that election Van Buren received a popular vote of nearly 300,000, which defeated General Cass.

Public feeling had been greatly intensified at the effort of the Wilmot proviso men to secure the restriction of slavery in the organic acts of the new territories, to allay which the Whig party, under the leadership of General Taylor, undertook to establish a more pacific course. This doctrine is comprised in the message sent the house in response to a resolution of inquiry on the 21st day of January, 1850, and in which he recognizes the right of California and New Mexico to perfect, form and adopt such constitutions as their people may choose, subject only to the Constitution of the United States.

On the 13th of February afterward, he communicated to Congress the free constitution of California. There then remained only Utah, New Mexico, the District of Columbia and the unorganized territories. Propositions for their adjustment were submited by Henry Clay and John Bell, provoking extended discussion in both houses.

These propositions were referred to a committee of thirteen, of which Mr. Clay was chairman, on the 28th of February, and their terms were held under consideration to May the 8th, when an extended report covering the many branches of the subject was made by Mr. Clay, the chairman. This report contained the celebrated Omnibus bill, which was afterwards rejected, and the compromise was finally effected on the original proposition of the great Kentuckian. These included the admission of California on her constitution, an adjustment of the boundary of Texas, the organization of [438] the territories of Utah and New Mexico. The organization of New Mexico had been the battle field, and among other things it was finally provided ‘that when admitted as a State, the said territory or any portion of the same, shall be received into the union, with or without slavery, as their constitution may prescribe at the time of their admission.’ This is known as the compromise of 1850, and was generally understood by one school of politicians to repeal the compromise of 1820. This compromise had long been construed as impairing the rights of the slave-holder.

The consideration of the restriction of slavery from newly acquired territories was raised on different occasions after the introduction of the Wilmot proviso, but the fear that the prosecution of the Mexican war might be impeded, restrained many from voting in its favor until after the treaty of peace had made secure the coveted areas of New Mexico and California and other lands which were included in its terms. Slavery was at this time considered by many to be upon an equal footing with freedom, and the questions between the two were considered to be at rest. The free democratic vote of John P. Hale, in 1852, was consequently about 100,000 less than that of Van Buren four years before. The general disposition was more pacific and quiet, and by the year 1854 it was supposed to have subsided altogether.

In the formation of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the people were left free to choose for themselves upon this question, and the free soil doctrine prevailed.

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