Thursday, January 27, 2005

Bleeding Kansas -- Part 4

Northern Democrats who opposed President Buchanan’s Kansas policy discovered that they and all of their friends lost their patronage, their influence and their jobs. Northern Democrats who had supported the Southern position on Kansas were losing elections in 1854 and 1856, and virtually everyone else who remained would lose the election in 1858.

Senator Stephen A. Douglas, who had been the Northerner that Southerners loved, had banked his career and his popularity on the notion of letting the voters decide the issue of slavery. He had no political integrity without his expansive reading of “popular sovereignty.” Douglas believed that “popular sovereignty” meant that even if there was a federal law favoring slavery, even if there was a Dred Scott decision, the people of a given locality could simply choose not to enforce the law. Douglas leaned hard on the theory that people in a locality were better equipped to make laws than people in Washington.

Southerners completely rejected this theory. The point of the Federal government was to protect the South’s “domestic institutions.” If the Federal government could not do job one, then it was unclear what the benefit of the United States was to the South. “States Rights” did not mean that the people of each State were entitled to make their own laws. States Rights, to the South, on the eve of the Civil War, meant that the United States was comprised of States, not people, and that the purpose of the United States was to help the States first.

Douglas could not understand how anyone could be confused about the meaning of “popular sovereignty.” although that seems a bit disingenuous for the man who built his career on the “double construction”. It was clear to Douglas, at least, that decisions made by the territory concerning its admission to statehood should be made at the end of the process, at the point where the territory was to be admitted, where all the new citizens had a chance to settle in. What was actually happening in Kansas, however, was that all the important choices were made at the beginning of the process, when there was practically no one in the room to vote.

While the debate over the Lecompton Constitution raged on in Washington, the voters of Kansas made more trips to the polls. On December 21, 1857, the voters ratified the Lecompton Constitution. 6,000 voters voted for the Constitution, either “with” or “without” slavery. Since voting “against” slavery merely meant voting against importation of more slaves, since voting “against” slavery would not have ended slavery in Kansas anyway, anti-slavery forces had no method of voting. It appears that the 6,000 voters in December were the same as the 2,200 voters who voted for the convention delegates in June. It is impossible that the pro-slavery population of Kansas almost tripled in three months. Massive fraud was attributed, again, to Calhoun.

Meanwhile, the free-soil “legal” legislature that was voted for in October came to power, and called yet another election for state officers and the state legislature for January. Both sides agreed that this was a “valid election. Therefore, the “legal” apparatus remained in John Calhoun’s hands.

Both free-soilers and pro-slavery persons voted in the January 1858 elections. Calhoun presided over the election, tabulated the results, but did not announce them. Instead, Calhoun went to Washington. He was trying to see which way the wind was blowing, and what was in it for him. A more sympathetic reading is that Calhoun had no good choices, and was hoping for some high-level advice from Douglas or someone close to Buchanan on how to play a bad hand. Meanwhile, affidavits of Kansans reporting voting irregularities were coming in to the Kansas legislature.

In order to reduce the number of free-soil votes in one district, Calhoun hid a box of ballots in a candle box that was then stashed it under a woodpile near Calhoun’s house in Lecompton. The sheriff uncovered them, and I bet modern-day television cameras could have made a lot out of that incident. There was reportedly a rather ugly scene between Calhoun and Douglas in Douglas’s D.C. townhouse in which Douglas confronted Calhoun with affidavits, and a distressed Calhoun made a sudden (tearful?) exit. From Douglas’s viewpoint, Calhoun’s fatal mistake came at the Lecompton Convention when he brokered the constitution “with slavery”/ “without slavery” provisions. Douglas would have preferred a Constitution with no submission to the voters at all.

Under an enormous amount of pressure, Calhoun finally admitted that the free-soilers had won the January elections. Southerners howled, and Calhoun’s career was effectively over. He died less than two years later, age 53.

The Lecompton Constitution, with no real provision for the people to vote against slavery, passed the United States Senate but not the House. However, the Kansas election of January 1858, when finally ratified by Calhoun, left Buchanan and the Southerners with a ridiculous conundrum. If Buchanan prevailed, Kansas would be admitted as a slave state that was run by an anti-slavery state legislature that would elect anti-slavery Senators to Washington. This was not a result the Administration wanted, but Buchanan was now committed to the Lecompton Constitution. Moreover, it was clear that no amount of arm-twisting was going to get the House of Representatives to vote for the Lecompton Constitution. With the Administration looking for a way down from the limb, William English, a young Indiana congressman, found an unusual solution.

The Lecompton Constitution provided for an unusually large allotment of Federal land to be turned over to the state of Kansas, which would have provided the state with a large number of financial benefits. In the English Compromise, instead of voting on the issue of “slavery,” the voters were given the choice of “Constitution with land” or “Constitution with no land.” If the voters voted for “Constitution with no land” they would not be admitted to statehood until they had the 90,000 people needed at that time for a seat in the House of Representatives. More new-speak, since voting for a Constitution with no land was the same as voting for no Constitution at all.

Buchanan, who had previously said that all non-slavery provisions of a state Constitution were mere “boilerplate,” signed on. However, Douglas held to his guns on “popular sovereignty.” He still believed that the voters still did not have a chance to vote up or down on the full Constitution. The English Compromise passed.

The voters of Kansas were thrilled to have the opportunity to vote the Constitution down in an election sanctioned by Congress. Kansas was not admitted into the Union until after the Civil War began in 1861.

Once again, the Buchanan Administration was exposed as a total vassal to the Slave Power. The Democratic Party had been split into Northern and Southern branches, the last national institution to be so broken. The Democratic Party remained united longer than the major denomination Protestant churches did.

It was never the intention of the Kansas-Nebraska Act to make Kansas a slave state. As Lincoln pointed out, the taking of slavery off the path to extinction, and giving it room to grow through popular sovereignty and Dred Scott was a tremendous victory for the South in and of itself. In trying to steal a victory in Kansas they had not really earned, the Democratic Party and the Slave Power hastened their own roads to ruin.

[References available on request.]