Tuesday, May 26, 2009

This Day in Congressional History (Kansas-Nebraska Act Passed in Haste)

May 26, 1854—His legislation had already passed one key hurdle at an hour even more unearthly, so Stephen A. Douglas didn’t mind the lengths he had to go to this time.

At 1:15 in the morning, after an extension of a session from the prior day, the Illinois Senator and Presidential hopeful watched as a Joint Committee of Congress voted to approve his Kansas-Nebraska Act.

A word of advice to politicians: never decide anything important in the wee hours of the morning, when you’re exhausted, hungry and maybe even a bit liquored-up. George McGovern settled on Thomas Eagleton as his running mate at a similar hour, and we know how that turned out.

(Or maybe some of us don’t or have forgotten, given the disasters involving more recent Veep candidates—so, a fast recap: After fighting tooth and nail all the way to the floor of the convention for the nomination—and after having had, oh, at least a half dozen other people turn him down—McGovern offered the running-mate spot to Eagleton. When asked by a McGovern aide if he had any “skeletons in the closet,” the Missouri senator—a fine man, by most accounts—intrepreted the question a bit narrowly as referring solely to political corruption, and said no. He did not mention his past hospitalizations because of depression, and the McGovern campaign had no time to check even if it wanted to. The result: hysteria over a medical condition that undoubtedly afflicted more politicians than anyone realized at the time, then McGovern reversing his statement that he was “1,000 percent” behind his running mate and asking Eagleton to resign from the ticket. In other words, the most disastrous Veep choice until George W. Bush’s Veep-vetter, Dick Cheney, managed to turn up "skeletons in the closet" on all Bush’s other choices until, magically, there was nobody left but himself.)

Now, if you had told those assembled, on that day in the antebellum republic, that dire consequences would follow an affirmative vote, they might or might not go along with you. So, I think you’d have to spell it out for them:

* a region that rivaled 20th-century Beirut and Baghdad in violent mayhem;
* a Union torn asunder by the legislation;
* millions dead in the resulting Civil War; and
* lingering sectional discord and racism that would linger for generations afterward.
And, for those of a particular partisan stamp: anger over the measure led to the rise of the Republican Party.
Douglas must have thought his Presidential stock has soared after approval of the measure, which, before final passage, had already passed a key 5 am affirmative vote by the Senate. The act put into law the doctrine of popular sovereignty originally proposed by General Lewis Cass in the 1848 Presidential election, then championed by Douglas himself. The doctrine stipulated that the issue of slavery would be decided by territorial voters themselves.
Agitation over slavery was exactly what Douglas did not want. As an early proponent of manifest destiny, he envisioned an America stretching from sea to sea, bound together by all kinds of internal improvements—roads, canals, and railroads. He was particularly passionate on the last subject, and his desire to have a railroad built might have led him to change the bill in committee enough to bring matters to a boil about it in the North.

He could not help but notice that support for his idea of a transcontinental railroad with its eastern hub in Chicago--the major city in his home state--was thin in the South. If he could give the South something it really wanted on something else, he might be able to move this issue forward.

After a meeting with President Franklin Pierce—a Northern sympathetic to the South—and his Secretary of War, the southerner Jefferson Davis, Douglas redrafted his bill, stating explicitly what he had hoped to fudge: that the Missouri Compromise that had governed territorial admittance to the Union for the last 30 years was superseded by the bill. This meant that, if the voters decided it, slavery could be permitted north of the latitude that had prevailed before this.

Another key change occurred in the revised bill: the territory, once simply known as Nebraska, would now be split into two: Nebraska, the northern half, and Kansas, the southern part.

Reaction in the North was furious. The Missouri Compromise had meant that slavery could be confined. Now that was no longer the case. Moreover, the proximity of Kansas to Missouri, a slave state, meant that slaveowners could far more easily populate it than anti-slavery forces could.
At one point in the debate on Capitol Hill, Salmon P. Chase--himself a future Presidential aspirant--accused Douglas of pushing the bill to further his hopes for the White House. In the course of the angry exchange between the two, the phrase "corrupt bargain" was used.
Virtually nothing could cause greater anger to Douglas. As a strong partisan of Andrew Jackson, he knew that this term had been used to describe how John Quincy Adams had snatched the Presidency from Old Hickory: by appointing Henry Clay as his Secretary of State, thereby swinging the latter's key votes when the election was thrown into the House of Representatives. The "corrupt bargain" charge had bedeviled Adams throughout his single term and had helped elect Jackson President.

Two little men were responsible for passage of the bill that caused such big problems for America.
One was Douglas himself, nicknamed “the Little Giant” to emphasize his outsized impact on the republic in the 1850s. He was at once the best-known and most controversial politician in America at this time. The “great triumvirate” of Clay, Webster and Calhoun had grabbed the headlines, as they always did, in the debate over the Compromise of 1850, but it was Douglas who was the legislative mechanic behind that omnibus bill. He was short—only five feet four inches—but on the stump, shouting, gesticulating, working his stocky frame into a sweat, he looked like a prize fighter.
Douglas boasted about his own critical role in the legislation: "I passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act myself. I had the authority and power of a dictator throughout the controversy in both houses. The speeches were nothing. It was the marshaling and directing of men, and guarding from attacks, and with a ceaseless vigilance preventing surprise."
The second little man was Alexander H. Stephens, a sickly congressman who weighed no more than one hundred pounds. He resembled a 20th-century Georgian, Senator Richard Russell, in being a lonely lifelong bachelor who spent much of his time out of the office mastering congressional rules and regulations.

On May 22, just when it appeared the legislation was on the ropes, Stephens, a supporter of the bill, invoked Clause 119 of the House Rules—a clause that hardly anybody ever bothered with—to keep it alive after an unfavorable committee vote. After the Joint Committee of Congress pulled its midnight-oil act, the bill went to Pierce, who signed it four days later.

A big mistake all around. Racist Northerners who once denounced abolitionist agitation now found that slavery might not be excluded in any territory to which they might journey—and that, at a stroke, this undercut the value of their own labor.

In his Life and Times (1881), Frederick Douglass recalled how the measure “made abolitionists of people before they became aware of it, and…rekindled the zeal, stimulated the activity, and strengthened the faith of our old anti-slavery forces.” In his newspaper, Douglas himself called for “companies of emigrants from the free States” to be “collected together—funds provided” and to be “sent out to possess the goodly land, to which, by a law of Heaven and a law of man, they are justly entitled.”

The act also brought back onto the political scene a lanky lawyer, well-known to both Douglas and Stephens, who’d been in a five-year funk after he’d left the House of Representatives: Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln had been on friendly terms with fellow Whig Congressman Stephens and he knew Douglas well from Springfield (Douglas’ friendliness toward Mary Todd led some to surmise that he was a beau of Lincoln’s future wife, though no real evidence has ever substantiated this).

Lincoln was catalyzed by his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals, a fellow lawyer, T. Lyle Dickey, later remembered that Lincoln, upon hearing news of the passage of the bill, had “discussed the political situation far into the night” with him. That fall, upon hearing a three-hour defense of the act by Douglas at the State Fair, Lincoln leaped to his feet at its conclusion to announce to the crowd that he would deliver a rebuttal the next day.

A speech two weeks later at Peoria was even more powerful, laying out how the Founding Fathers had tried to inhibit the spread of slavery—and how the act now threatened to upset this careful moral and political balance. It served notice that Douglas would have a powerful rival on the local and national scene.

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