Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2006 Issue

<i>The Fate of Their Country</i>. A Look Forward and Back

Wilmot

David Wilmot's "Proviso" caused deep resentment in the South. From the Library of Congress.


Fast forward to 1854. Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas pushes through the Kansas-Nebraska Act, allowing for popular sovereignty in territory previously barred from having slavery by the Missouri Compromise. There have long been questions why Douglas pushed for this controversial change, though it aligned with his political calling card, "popular sovereignty." Perhaps it was part of Douglas' desire to expand the railroads west, which would bring new settlers, and with new settlers, the desire to form new states, in turn reopening the slavery question. Whatever his intentions, this political move led to enormous discontent in the North, and the bloodshed of bleeding Kansas. Yet even in Kansas, neighbor to slave state Missouri, and the territory with the greatest likelihood of adopting the "peculiar institution," slavery was voted down, despite pro-slavery advocates' attempts to fix the vote. Once again, Holt's thesis that the popular sovereignty issue was much ado about nothing is upheld.

Holt even goes to the point of tearing down the holiest of holies in his attempt to blame political machinations for the Civil War. In his "House Divided" speech, Lincoln raises the specter that advocates of slavery may succeed in spreading it to all of the states, even the old northern ones. Holt sees this as a bit of hyperbole intended to gain northern votes by generating fears of a spread of slavery that he knew would never really happen. Perhaps, but the Dred Scott Decision, fully implemented, would effectively have done just that.

While politicians clearly made the situation worse (don't they always?), I still question whether their acting like statesmen instead would have been sufficient to stop this speeding train. Some differences are too intractable, too divisive, too irresolvable to lend themselves to normal solutions. Lincoln's claim that "a house divided against itself cannot stand" may not have been political rhetoric, but an essential truth. Slavery is too significant an issue, too much of a moral claim upon the consciences of too many people to lend itself to compromise. For too many Northerners, it was morally intolerable. To the Southern economic leadership, it was too much a way of life to give up.

The nation finessed being "half slave, half free" for seven decades, but this was never a permanent solution. Four of America's first five presidents were southerners, and even Washington was a slaveholder. However, the southern founding fathers did not look on slavery as a good thing. The nation was able to compromise on the issue as even in the South it was regarded as no better than a "necessary evil," something economically necessary at the time, but an evil to be eliminated in time by future generations. Washington himself set the tone by freeing his slaves when he died (technically, when Martha died). In the North, states where slavery existed adopted plans for its gradual elimination.

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