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The language of President Buchanan's annual message, the summary dismissal of Acting Governor Stanton, and the resignation of Governor Walker abruptly transferred the whole Lecompton question from Kansas to Washington; and even before the people of the Territory had practically decided it by the respective popular votes of December 21, 1857, and January 4, 1858, it had become the dominant political issue in the Thirty-fifth Congress, which convened on December 7, 1857.

The attitude of Senator Douglas on the new question claimed universal attention. The Dred Scott decision, affirming constitutional sanction and inviolability for slave property in Territories, had rudely damaged his theory. But we have seen how in his Springfield speech he ingeniously sought to repair and rehabilitate "popular sovereignty" by the sophism that a master's abstract constitutional right to slave property in a Territory was a "barren and a worthless right unless sustained, protected, and enforced by appropriate police regulations," which could only be supplied by the local Territorial Legislatures; and that the people of Kansas thus still possessed the power of indirect prohibition.


To invent and utter this sophism for home consumption among his distant constituents on the 12th of June (a few days before the Lecompton delegates were elected), and in so unobtrusive a manner as scarcely to attract a ripple of public notice, was a light task compared with that which confronted him as Senator, at the meeting of Congress in December, in the light of John Calhoun's doings and powers, of the scandal of the Oxford fraud, and of the indignation of Northern Democrats against the betrayal of Walker and Stanton.

One of his first experiences was a personal quarrel with Buchanan. When he reached Washington, three days before the session, he went to the President to protest against his adopting the Lecompton Constitution and sending it to Congress for acceptance. Buchanan insisted that he must recommend it in his annual message. Douglas replied that he would denounce it as soon as it was read. The President, excited, told him "to remember that no Democrat ever yet differed from an administration of his own choice without being crushed. Beware of the fate of Tallmadge and Rives."


"Mr. President," retorted Douglas, "I wish you to remember that General Jackson is dead."

In the election of Mr. Buchanan as President, the South had secured a most important ally for the work of pro-slavery reaction. Trained in the belief that the South had hitherto been wronged, he was ready on every occasion to appear as her champion for redress; and Southern politicians were now eager to use his leadership to make their views of public policy and constitutional duty acceptable to the North. Respectable in capacity but feeble in will, he easily submitted to control and guidance from a few Southern leaders of superior intellectual force. In his inaugural, he sought to prepare public opinion for obedience to the Dred Scott decision, and since its publication, he had undertaken to interpret its scope and effect. Replying to a memorial from certain citizens of New England, he declared in a public letter, "Slavery existed at that period, and still exists in Kansas, under the Constitution of the United States. This point has at last been finally decided by the highest tribunal known to our laws. How it could ever have been seriously doubted is a mystery."[1] In the same letter, he affirmed the legality of the Lecompton Convention, though he yet clearly expressed his expectation that the constitution to be framed by it would be submitted to the popular vote for "approbation or rejection."


But when that convention adjourned and made known its cunningly devised work, the whole South instantly became clamorous to secure the sectional advantages which lay in its technical regularity, its strong affirmance of the "property" theory, and the extraordinary power it gave to John Calhoun to control the election and decide the returns. This powerful reactionary movement was not lost upon Mr. Buchanan. He reflected it as unerringly as the vane moves to the change of the wind. Long before the meeting of Congress, the Administration organ, the "Washington Union," heralded and strongly supported the new departure. When, on the 8th of December, the President's annual message was transmitted and read, the Lecompton Constitution, as framed and submitted, was therein warmly indorsed and its acceptance indicated as the future Administration policy.

Buchanan, Annual Message, December 8, 1857.

The language of this message discloses with what subtle ingenuity words, phrases, definitions, ideas, and theories were being invented and plied to broaden and secure every conquest of the pro-slavery reaction. An elaborate argument was made to defend the enormities of the Lecompton Constitution. The doctrine of the Silliman letter, that "slavery exists in Kansas under the Constitution of the United States," was assumed as a conceded theory. "In emerging from the condition of territorial dependence into that of a sovereign State," the people might vote "whether this important domestic institution should or should not continue to exist." "Domestic institutions" was defined to mean slavery. "Free to form and regulate their domestic institutions"--the phrase employed in the Kansas-Nebraska act--was construed to mean a vote to continue or discontinue slavery. And "if any portion of the inhabitants shall refuse to vote, a fair opportunity to do so having been presented, ... they alone will be responsible for the consequences." "Should the constitution without slavery be adopted by the votes of the majority, the rights of property in slaves now in the Territory are reserved... These slaves were brought into the Territory under the Constitution of the United States and are now the property of their masters. This point has at length been finally decided by the highest judicial tribunal of the country."

However blind Buchanan might be to the fact that this extreme interpretation shocked and alarmed the sentiment of the North; that if made before the late Presidential campaign it would have defeated his own election; and that if rudely persisted in, it might destroy the Democratic ascendency in the future, the danger was obvious and immediately vital to Douglas. His senatorial term was about to expire. To secure a reelection he must carry the State of Illinois in 1858, which had on an issue less pronounced than this defeated his colleague Shields in 1854, and his lieutenant Richardson in 1856. But more than this, his own personal honor was as much involved in his pledges to the voters of Illinois as had been that of Governor Walker to the voters of Kansas. His double-dealing caucus bargain had thus placed him between two fires--party disgrace at Washington and popular disgrace in Illinois. In such a dilemma his choice could not be doubtful. At all risk, he must endeavor to sustain himself at home.

Douglas, Senate Speech, December 9, 1857. "Globe," p. 18.

He met the encounter with his usual adroitness and boldness. Assuming that the President had made no express recommendation, he devoted his speech mainly to a strong argument of party expediency, repelling without reserve and denouncing without stint the work of the Lecompton Convention. "Stand by the doctrine," said he, "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. Abandon that great principle and the party is not worth saving, and cannot be saved after it shall be violated. I trust we are not to be rushed upon this question. Why shall it be done? Who is to be benefited? Is the South to be the gainer? Is the North to be the gainer? Neither the North nor the South has the right to gain a sectional advantage by trickery or fraud... But I am told on all sides, 'Oh! just wait; the pro-slavery clause will be voted down.' That does not obviate any of my objections; it does not diminish any of them. You have no more right to force a free-State constitution on Kansas than a slave-State constitution. 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 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."

President Buchanan and the strong pro-slavery faction which was directing his course paid no attention whatever to this proposal of a compromise. Shylock had come into court to demand his bond and would heed no pleas of equity or appeals to grace. The elections of December 21 and January 4 were held in due time, and with what result we have already seen. John Calhoun counted the votes on January 13 and declared the "Lecompton Constitution with slavery" adopted, prudently reserving, however, any announcement concerning the State officers or Legislature under it. This much accomplished, he hurried away to Washington, where he was received with open arms by the President and his advisers, who at once proceeded with a united and formidable effort to legalize the transparent farce by Congressional sanction.

On the second day of February 1858, President Buchanan transmitted to Congress the Lecompton Constitution, "received from J. Calhoun, Esq.," and "duly certified by himself." The President's accompanying special message argues that the organic law of the Territory conferred the essential rights of an enabling act; that the free-State party stood in the attitude of willful and chronic revolution; that their various refusals to vote were a sufficient bar to complaint and objection; that the several steps in the creation and work of the Lecompton Convention were regular and legal. "The people of Kansas have, then, 'in their own way,' and in strict accordance with the organic act, framed a constitution and State government, have submitted the all-important question of slavery to the people, and have elected a governor, a member to represent them in Congress, members of the State Legislature, and other State officers. They now ask admission into the Union under this constitution, which is Republican in form. It is for Congress to decide whether they will admit or reject the State which has thus been created. For my own part I am decidedly in favor of its admission and thus terminating the Kansas question."


The vote of January 4 against the constitution he declared to be illegal because it was "held after the Territory had been prepared for admission into the Union as a sovereign State, and when no authority existed in the Territorial Legislature which could possibly destroy its existence or change its character." His own inconsistency was lightly glossed over. "For my own part, when I instructed Governor Walker in general terms, in favor of submitting the constitution to the people, I had no object in view except the all-absorbing question of slavery.... I then believed, and still believe, that under the organic act, the Kansas Convention were bound to submit this all-important question of slavery to the people. It was never, however, my opinion that independently of this act they would have been bound to submit any portion of the constitution to a popular vote, in order to give it validity."

To the public at large, the central point of interest in this special message, however, was the following dogmatic announcement by the President: "It has been solemnly adjudged by the highest judicial tribunal known to our laws that slavery exists in Kansas by virtue of the Constitution of the United States. Kansas is, therefore, at this moment as much a slave-State as Georgia or South Carolina. Without this, the equality of the sovereign States composing the Union would be violated, and the use and enjoyment of a territory acquired by the common treasure of all the States would be closed against the people and the property of nearly half the members of the Confederacy. Slavery can, therefore, never be prohibited in Kansas except by means of a constitutional provision, and in no other manner can this be obtained so promptly, if a majority of the people desire it, as by admitting it into the Union under its present constitution."

In the light of subsequent history, this extreme pro-slavery program was not only wrong in morals and statesmanship, but short-sighted and foolhardy as a party policy. But to the eyes of President Buchanan, this latter view was not so plain. The country was apparently in the full tide of a pro-slavery reaction. He had not only been elected President, but the Democratic party had also recovered its control of Congress. The presiding officer of each branch was a Southerner. Out of 64 members of the Senate, 39 were Democrats, 20 Republicans, and five Americans or Know-Nothings. Of the 237 members of the House, 131 were Democrats, 92 Republicans, and 14 Americans. Here was a clear majority of fourteen in the upper and twenty-five in the lower House. This was indeed no longer the formidable legislative power which repealed the Missouri Compromise, but it seemed perhaps a sufficient force to carry out the President's recommendation. His error was in forgetting that this apparent popular endorsement was secured to him and his party by means of the double construction placed upon the Nebraska bill and the Cincinnati platform, by the caucus bargain between the leaders of the South and the leaders of the North. The moment had come when this unnatural alliance needed to be exposed and in part repudiated.

The haste with which the Southern leaders advanced step by step, forced every issue, and were now pushing their allies to the wall was, to say the least, bad management, but it grew logically out of their situation. They were swimming against the stream. The leading forces of civilization, population, wealth, commerce, intelligence, were bearing them down. The balance of power was lost. Already there were sixteen free-States to fifteen slave-States. Minnesota and Oregon, inevitably destined also to become free, were applying for admission to the Union.

Still, the case of the South was not hopeless. Kansas was apparently within their grasp. Existing law provided for the formation and admission of four additional states to be carved out of Texas, which would certainly become slave-States. Then there remained the possible division of California and a race for the possession of New Mexico and Arizona. Behind all, or, more likely, before all except Kansas, in the order of desired events, was the darling ambition of President Buchanan, the annexation of Cuba. As United States Minister to England he had publicly declared that if Spain refused to sell us that coveted island we should be justified in wresting it from her by force; as Presidential candidate, he had confidentially avowed, amid the first blushes of his new honor, "If I can be instrumental in settling the slavery question upon the terms I have mentioned, and then add Cuba to the Union, I shall, if President, be willing to give up the ghost, and let Breckinridge take the government." Thus, even excluding the more problematical chances which lay hidden in filibustering enterprises, there was a possibility, easily demonstrable to the sanguine, that a decade or two might change mere numerical preponderance from the free to the slave-States. Nor could this possibility be waved aside by any affectation of incredulity. Not alone Mr. Buchanan but the whole Democratic party was publicly pledged to annexation. "Resolved," said the Cincinnati platform, "that the Democratic party will expect of the next Administration that every proper effort be made to insure our ascendency in the Gulf of Mexico"; while another resolution declaring sympathy with efforts to "regenerate" Central America was no less significant.

 John Calhoun image source: Wikimedia Commons
John Calhoun image source: Wikimedia Commons

 

But to accomplish such marvels, they must not sit with folded hands. The price of slavery was fearless aggression. They must build on a deeper foundation than Presidential elections, party majorities, or even than votes in the Senate. The theory of the government must be reversed, the philosophy of the republic interpreted anew. In this subtler effort, they had made notable progress. By the Kansas-Nebraska act, they had paralyzed the legislation of half a century. By the Dred Scott decision, they had changed the Constitution and blighted the Declaration of Independence. By the Lecompton trick, they would show that in conflict with their dogmas the public will was vicious, and in conflict with their intrigues the majority powerless. They had the President, the Cabinet, the Senate, the House, the Supreme Court, and, by no means least in the immediate problem, John Calhoun with his technical investiture of far-reaching authority. The country had recovered from the shock of the repeal of the Missouri Compromise and rewarded them with Buchanan. Would it not equally recover from the shock of the Lecompton Constitution?

It was precisely at this point that the bent bow broke. The great bulk of the Democratic party followed the President and his Southern advisers, even in this extreme step; but to a minority sufficient to turn the scale the Lecompton scandal had become too offensive for further tolerance.

In the Senate, with its heavy Democratic majority, the Administration easily secured the passage of a bill to admit Kansas with the Lecompton Constitution. Out of eleven Democratic Senators from free States, only three--Douglas of Illinois, Broderick of California, and Stuart of Michigan--took courage to speak and vote against the measure. In the House of Representatives, however, with a narrower margin of political power, the scheme, after an exciting discussion running through about two months, met a decisive defeat. A formidable popular opposition to it had developed itself in the North, in which speeches and letters from Governor Walker and Secretary Stanton in denunciation of it were a leading feature and a powerful influence. The Lower House of Congress always responds quickly to currents of public sentiment, but in this case, it caught direction all the more promptly because its members were to be chosen anew in the ensuing autumn. However much they might have party subordination and success at heart, some of them felt that they could not defend before their anti-slavery constituencies the Oxford frauds, the Calhoun dictatorship, the theory that slave property is above constitutional sanction, and the dogma that "Kansas is therefore at this moment as much a slave-State as Georgia or South Carolina." When the test vote was taken on April 1, out of the 53 Democratic representatives from the free-States 31 voted for Lecompton; but the remaining 22,[2] joining their strength to the opposition, passed a substitute, originating with Mr. Crittenden of the Senate, which in substance directed a resubmission of the Lecompton Constitution to the people of Kansas;--if adopted, the President to admit the new State by a simple proclamation; if rejected, the people to call a convention and frame a new instrument.

As the October vote had been the turning point in the local popular struggle in the Territory, this adoption of the Crittenden-Montgomery substitute, by a total vote of 120 to 112 in the House of Representatives, was the culmination of the National intrigue to secure Kansas for the South. It was a narrow victory for freedom; a change of 5 votes would have passed the Lecompton bill and admitted the State with slavery, and a constitutional prohibition against any change for seven years to come. With his authority to control election returns, there is every reason to suppose that Calhoun would have set up a pro-slavery State Legislature, to choose two pro-slavery senators, whom in its turn the strong Lecompton majority in the United States Senate would have admitted to seats; and thus the whole chain of fraud and usurpation back to the first Border-Ruffian invasion of Kansas would have become complete, legal, and irrevocable, on plea of mere formal and technical regularity.

Foiled in its main object, the Administration made another effort which served to break somewhat the force and humiliation of its first and signal defeat. The two Houses of Congress having disagreed as stated, and each having once more voted to adhere to its own action, the President managed to make enough converts among the anti-Lecompton Democrats of the House to secure the appointment of a committee of conference. This committee devised what became popularly known as the "English bill," a measure which tendered a land grant to the new State, and provided that on the following August 3d the people of Kansas might vote "proposition accepted" or "proposition rejected." Acceptance should work the admission of the State with the Lecompton Constitution, while rejection should postpone any admission until her population reached the ratio of representation required for a member of the House. "Hence it will be argued," exclaimed Douglas, "in one portion of the Union that this is a submission of the constitution, and in another portion that it is not." The English bill became a law, but the people of Kansas once more voted to reject the "proposition" by nearly ten thousand majority.

Douglas, Senate Speech, March 22, 1858. App. "Globe," pp. 199, 200.

Douglas opposed the English bill as he had done the Lecompton bill, thus maintaining his attitude as the chief leader of the anti-Lecompton opposition. In proportion as he received encouragement and commendation from Republican and American newspapers, he fell under the ban of the Administration journals. The "Washington Union" especially pursued him with denunciation. "It has read me out of the Democratic party every other day, at least, for two or three months," said he, "and keeps reading me out; and, as if it had not succeeded, still continues to read me out, using such terms as 'traitor,' 'renegade,' 'deserter,' and other kind and polite epithets of that nature." He explained that this arose from his having voted in the Senate against its editor for the office of public printer; but he also pointed out that he did so because that journal had become pro-slavery to the point of declaring "that the emancipation acts of New York, of New England, of Pennsylvania, and of New Jersey were unconstitutional, were outrages upon the right of property, were violations of the Constitution of the United States." "The proposition is advanced," continued he, "that a Southern man has a right to move from South Carolina with his negroes into Illinois, to settle there and hold them there as slaves, anything in the constitution and laws of Illinois to the contrary notwithstanding." Douglas further intimated broadly that the President and Cabinet were inspiring these editorials of the Administration organ, as part and parcel of the same system and object with which they were pushing the Lecompton Constitution with its odious "property" doctrine; and declared, "if my protest against this interpolation into the policy of this country or the creed of the Democratic party is to bring me under the ban, I am ready to meet the issue."

He had not long to wait for the issue. The party rupture was radical, not superficial. It was, as he had himself pointed out, part of the contest for national supremacy between slavery and freedom. From time to time he still held out the olive branch and pointed wistfully to the path of reconciliation. But the reactionary faction which ruled Mr. Buchanan never forgave Douglas for his part in defeating Lecompton, and more especially for what they alleged to be his treachery to his caucus bargain, in refusing to accept and defend all the logical consequences of the Dred Scott decision.

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[1] Buchanan to Silliman and others, Aug. 15, 1857. Senate Ex. Doc. No. 8, 1st Sess. 35th Cong. Vol. I., p. 74.

[2] From California, 1; Illinois, 5; Indiana, 3; New Jersey, 1; New York, 2; Ohio, 6; Pennsylvania, 4. For Lecompton: California, 1; Connecticut, 2; Indiana, 3; New Jersey, 2; New York, 10; Ohio, 2; Pennsylvania, 11.