The Kansas-Nebraska Act
By Hillsdale College Online Courses July 24, 2015
Dr. Portteus joins Hugh Hewitt to discuss the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its importance in the developing sectional crisis.
HH: The last radio hour of the week is the hour we give over to the Hillsdale Dialogues. Visit www.hughforhillsdale.com for all of our Hillsdale Dialogues. And next week, we will return to the Lincoln-Douglas debates, number six in the series of Lincoln-Douglas debates that we have been discussing with Dr. Larry Arnn, who’s been away on vacation. But we thought we would step back this week and tell you a little bit about the Kansas-Nebraska Act which really precipitated the crisis which brought about the Lincoln-Douglas debates, because we’ve been assuming knowledge not in evidence, something that they tell us never to do in the courts. Dr. Kevin Portteus of Hillsdale College, member of the faculty up there in the history department, joins me. Dr. Portteus, welcome, it’s great to have you.
KP: Thanks. It’s good to be here.
HH: You know that legal term, assuming proof not in evidence. And we’ve been talking about the Kansas-Nebraska Act for the last two months with Dr. Larry Arnn, and we thought we’d better stop and tell people about it. How important is it? How much time do you spend on it in a normal class?
KP: Well, when I teach the Lincoln course, it ends up dominating a good portion of the course. Or when I teach a course to our graduate students called Nationalism and Sectionalism, it is really quite important, because it is so seminal in American political history. It’s probably the most important piece of legislation in terms of its political consequences passed in the 19th Century. It’s monumental.
HH: Let’s start right at the very basic. What year does it pass in, and who’s behind it? And let’s get the general lay of the land here.
KP: Right, so the Kansas-Nebraska Act passes in 1854, and the prime mover behind the act was the chairman of the Senate Committee on the Territories, in Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, who of course was Lincoln’s opponent in the Lincoln-Douglas debates. And Douglas had originally attempted to get a Nebraska bill passed in 1853, and it failed to pass, but it only failed to pass because frankly, the legislation session ran out of time. These were the days when Congress didn’t meet very much. And so he simply ran out of time before the new president and the new Congress took office in March of 1853, and so it died. And the basic framework of the act, and what’s really important, is it took what was left of the Louisiana Purchase, that is to say present day Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, and some points west of that, but east of the Rocky Mountains, a fairly large swathe of territory, divided it into two territories, Kansas and Nebraska, the southern half of which is basically the present day state of Kansas, and everything else was the Nebraska territory. And it said that the status of slavery in those territories would be determined according to the will of the people then residing in those territories.
HH: Now had that, was that a great departure from what had happened previously? Going back to the colonial days, not the recent history part, 1854, but back when the charters were given, or the governors appointed?
KP: Well, going back as far as the revolutionary period, in some cases, the colonial legislatures wanted to take action against slavery. The Virginia legislature, the Virginia House of Burgesses, just prior to the Revolution, passed a revolution outlawing the international slave trade, for instance. But in those days prior to independence, anything passed by a colonial legislature was subject to a veto by the ministry in London, and they vetoed it. And that’s why if you look at the original draft of the Declaration, Jefferson’s original draft, he included a condemnation of the international slave trade and blamed the ministry in Britain for it, blamed the King for it. And the reason that he could justifiably blame the King was they had prevented Virginia from outlawing the international slave trade.
HH: You know, one of the things we’ve been talking about with Dr. Arnn for the first few weeks of the Lincoln-Douglas debate series is that from the time of the Declaration right up through John Calhoun, there had been a common agreement among the intellectual elite at the time that slavery was evil and had to be done away with over time. But that changed, and it begins to manifest itself legislatively in 1854. But how long did that intellectual agreement hold, Kevin Portteus?
KP: Well, basically about as long as the founding generation, that is to say the group of statesmen behind the Declaration, the Constitution, the early Congresses and so on, remained alive. I don’t think it’s too much of a coincidence, for instance, that James Madison died in 1836, and the next year, on the floor of the Senate in a debate, you have John Calhoun, whom you mentioned, referring to slavery as a positive good and refusing to assert, as some other southerners were still doing at that point, that slavery was a necessary evil. And of course, necessary evil is the line that people like Jefferson, Madison, Washington, etc., took with regard to slavery.
HH: So it took 18 years to go from necessary evil to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. What happens in those 18 years?
KP: Well, it’s not a very long time. I think there’s a number of things happening, one of which is the simple psychology, that is to say southerners grew very tired of beating themselves up publicly all the time, and that gets old. And you can imagine if you had to go around telling everybody what a horrible person you were all the time, how that would begin to wear on you. The other thing to note is that slavery became increasingly entrenched after the Constitution was established, right? So we know about the cotton gin, and the cotton gin was invented in about 1793. But it’s also the case that cotton spread inland because of the development of, or the advent of a new strain of cotton which we would call upland or Mexican cotton, which required far less growing time and was far more tolerant of abnormal weather conditions than the cotton that they were growing in the colonies prior to independence, which was really only growable along the Carolina and Georgia coasts and sea islands. And so it became much more entrenched and profitable than it had in the past.
HH: So king cotton, that’s what they called it, right?
KP: Right, and that began to develop, but it developed as a result of a combination of factors. And I don’t think you can simply point to the cotton gin and say okay, well, that’s everything, but that was important, and there were other factors involved that are worth pointing out. The other thing to note is that the South had, for a variety of reasons, from the formation of the Constitution up until almost the outbreak of the Civil War, especially given their increasingly minority status within the country, they had a very dominant position within the federal government.
HH: Because they had two Senators per state. They also, when I looked at the majorities behind the Kansas-Nebraska Act, I was struck by how easily it passed the House.
KP: Right, and I think that what we have to remember about that is that yes, it had a pro-Southern element and southerners supported it. But this was also the era, the 19th Century, when party affiliation mattered a great deal. And this was a Democratic Party measure, and so large numbers of Northern Democrats did what you did in the party system in those days, and that is when the party leadership says this is how, this is the party’s position, that’s how you vote. And that’s, you were selected to maintain the principles of that Democratic or Whig or Republican parties, and you know, you had patronage appointments that people that depended on you to continue voting that way and so on. And so that was an incredibly powerful pull. Large numbers of Northern Democrats voted for it. And the Democrats in the northern part of the United States suffered a massive defeat in 1854 from which they never really recovered.
HH: Okay, so what was the precipitating event for actually introducing Kansas-Nebraska?
KP: Well, the country at the time was mad, at least the political leadership was in both parties, for transcontinental railroad. And despite the fact that the official position of the Democratic Party was no federal support or assistance to internal improvements, that is to say infrastructure projects, they were largely on board with the transcontinental railroad. And so Douglas, who was the chairman of the Senate Committee on the Territories at the time, as I mentioned, wanted to get a railroad through a more northerly route, and he wanted to do so both for his state, but also for himself. He’d been buying up a fairly substantial amount of land along a proposed northern route with a terminus in Chicago. So entirely, we would consider this a massive scandal today, but it was, maybe not reputable, but certainly not criminal in the 19th Century. But you couldn’t run that railroad until you organized the territory, because until you organized the territory, you didn’t have law and order. And more fundamentally, you couldn’t survey and plot the land, which means you had no clear titles to anything.
HH: So what do you mean by organize the territory, Kevin Portteus?
KP: Form a territorial government. So the federal government would appoint a governor who would call for elections for a territorial legislature, and that legislature would meet and begin to develop local laws for the governance of that territory with a view towards ultimately drafting or, drafting a constitution or creating, calling for a convention to draft a constitution that would lead to statehood.
HH: You know, everyone, not everyone, but a lot of people remember the series Deadwood, and that was about living in unorganized territory, trying to get it organized, and then eventually trying to make it into a state, right? That’s what you wanted to do. You wanted to organize a territory, then you wanted to become a state, because that brought you, what, legitimacy?
KP: Well, you were, you had representation in Congress, you had a say over the larger policies that, the larger policies that govern you over federal laws, and you were able to elect your own governor. You were able to form your own constitution. This was the time when state constitutions actually mattered, because the state government and the state constitutions were the primary vehicles for securing your natural rights. We didn’t look to the federal government for that. So you wanted a state government so that you had that measure of sovereignty.
HH: When we come back, Dr. Kevin Portteus of Hillsdale College continues to walk us through the history leading up to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and that which happened thereafter, which resulted in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, which resulted in Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, which resulted in the Union being saved.
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HH: So Dr. Portteus, let’s go back to 1854. The railroads are coming, Judge Douglas, then-Senator Douglas, is trying to get territories organized, get the railroad built, and he brings up the Kansas-Nebraska act, and it repeals the Missouri Compromise. So you’re going to have to tell people what it does, what the Missouri Compromise is.
KP: Yeah, it’s, well, the Missouri Compromise was the first major, the result of the first major slavery crisis in the United States. In 1819, Missouri petitioned for statehood. And it was the first part of the Louisiana Purchase to want to come in as a state where there wasn’t already some understanding about the status of slavery in that area. When Louisiana itself became a state, it was understood that there were slaves in the area from the previous sovereigns and so on, and so slavery would not be tampered with in that state. But Missouri was unclear. It was undecided. There were a small number of slaves, but it wasn’t, it wasn’t the same. And Missouri petitioned for admission as a slave state. And so this triggered an enormous crisis. And I think people, even people who know something about this, don’t always appreciate how close the country was to coming apart during the 1819-1820 crisis.
HH: Now in the last segment, you said through Madison and the other framers are still around and exerting a calming influence, what did they think about that, at that time?
KP: Right, Madison himself was in retirement. Jefferson has a great letter that he wrote during the Missouri crisis, and on the one hand, he says well, in the famous saying of Jefferson, we had the wolf by the ears, and we neither safely hold him nor safely let him go. On the other hand, he condemns the Americans of that time as unworthy heirs of the founding, and says look, you people are going to squander everything that we worked for, and for what? Slavery. And so he’s intensely critical of that.
HH: So they come to, they almost come to blows. The framers are old and they’re in their rocking chairs. How is disunion averted in 1819-1820?
KP: Well, the solution that eventually obtains is that Missouri will be admitted as a slave state. To compensate, the district of Maine will be broken off from Massachusetts and admitted as a free state. As for the rest of the Louisiana Purchase, there’s a line drawn – 36 degrees, 30 minutes north latitude, it basically runs due west from the southern boundary line of Missouri going across, if that makes sense, across to the western edge of the Louisiana Purchase. And so everything south of that, basically present-day Arkansas and Oklahoma, the compromise made no ruling with regard to slavery, and that was widely understood to mean that Arkansas and Oklahoma would eventually become slave states.
HH: Stop there. So no word about it, but everyone had a wink and a nod agreement?
KP: Right, and then the federal government would not interfere with slavery in Arkansas, and what were now Arkansas and Oklahoma, but everything north of that line, which was the greater part of that territory, so Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas, large parts of Montana, Colorado, that would be closed to slavery in perpetuity.
HH: You see, that’s most of the deal.
HH: That keeps the framers’ vision intact. It might grow a little bit in Oklahoma, but it will eventually run into its own natural collapse.
KP: Right, and so the idea was that the principle that obtained from the founding up until 1854, the middle of the 1850s was that we are, liberty is our basic principle, and we make exceptions out of necessity. And so what you saw in the 1850s between the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the then the Dred Scott decision three years later was that first turned into liberty and slavery are equal to one another in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and then the Dred Scott decision turns that directly on its head and says no, every, we’re a slave nation that makes exceptions to these cranks in the north that for some reason believe in universal liberty.
HH: Boy, Kevin Portteus, I have never heard it described that way before, but that perfectly sums it up. And so go back through it again. The original assumption, the change, and then the evolution from the change.
KP: Right, the original assumption was of course that what you found in the Declaration of Independence, that we are a free people. We are a nation that believes in what Lincoln calls in 1860-1861 the principle of liberty to all. That’s the basic principle. With the Kansas-Nebraska, liberty and slavery are made moral equivalents to one another. And Lincoln was, recognized this right away, or at least fairly quickly, and it becomes a centerpiece of his politics. Three years after the Kansas-Nebraska Act, when the Dred Scott decision is announced, the Court rules that Congress cannot prohibit slavery in the territories in any way, shape or form. And so what you have at that point then is a nation whose basic principle is slavery, but the nation makes some concessions to, like I said, these cranks in the North.
HH: These abolitionists.
KP: Yeah, these people in the North who for some reason believe that freedom is a universal good.
HH: So where is Abraham Lincoln at this point? What, during this debate, where is he?
KP: During the 1854 debate?
KP: He’s actually a private citizen at this point. He’d served his one term in Congress, left in 1849, and had gone into something like political retirement, at least at the federal level. He didn’t hold office, and he was practicing law privately. But he was very active in Illinois Whig politics. The Whig Party was still the second party at this point up through the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and was recognized within Illinois as a leading Whig, but was not giving speeches on a regular basis and so on. It was really…
KP: I’m sorry.
HH: And can you pause for a minute? People have heard about going the way of the Whig Party for years, decades. And I’ll bet you not one in three of my audience knows what a Whig is, and none of the Steelers fans do. So would you, you know, we had the federalists and the Hamiltonians, and they went away. They were destroyed by the Jeffersonians who became the Democrats. But who are the Whigs?
KP: Right, so the Whig Party emerges during, basically during the presidency of Andrew Jackson. And they take their name from the English Whigs who saw themselves as opponents of monarchical power. This is one of the dangers of trying to equate well. You know, today’s Democrats are the heirs of the Jacksonians or the Republicans or whatever, because the issues don’t always line up.
KP: That is to say the Whigs at that time opposed a strong presidency and favored Congressional supremacy. But they also had an economic development package that went along with that, things like a protective tariff, support for what we now today call infrastructure projects they called internal improvements, a national bank system of the kind that is similar to what Alexander Hamilton developed. They defended that and tried to perpetuate it during Jackson’s presidency. And they really, for 20 years, from the 1830s up until Kansas-Nebraska, were the second major party in the United States.
HH: And then poof, they were gone. We’ll talk about why with Kevin Portteus, member of the faculty, Dr. Portteus is, at Hillsdale College.
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HH: Dr. Portteus, do you teach any undergrads?
KP: I do, as a matter of fact. Most of them, most of my classes are undergraduates. I probably teach one graduate course a year.
HH: And so the Hillsdale freshmen and sophomores get a good skeleton of American history? So many people lack it, and that’s why we’re doing today’s hour, just to bring them up to these Lincoln-Douglas debates.
KP: Yeah, I think they do. We, the history department offers their course, American Heritage, which is of course required for everybody, and it’s based primarily on primary source documents, where you actually read texts. And then I’m in the politics department, and my department offers our course, U.S. Constitution. And most of us organize it in a somewhat chronological fashion, and deal with themes as we go, and so we try and go through these major issues. And I, for one, try really hard to connect a lot of this stuff to what’s going on today. So we actually end the class not at the present, but with the Kansas-Nebraska Act…
HH: Oh, interesting.
KP: Excuse me, I’m sorry, with the, derived from the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the House Divided speech.
HH: How interesting. Now what is the clerical error that brings about so much debate over the Kansas-Nebraska Act?
KP: Okay, so when Douglas initially brought the Kansas-Nebraska Act forward in January of 1854, and this is the second time around, no the 1853 version, but in 1854, he brings it forward, and it doesn’t say anything about repealing the Missouri Compromise. Well, that’s unsatisfactory to the Southern Senators whose support he’s going to need in order to get the bill passed, people from places like South Carolina and Virginia and so on. They want something more explicit. They want a price. Okay, fine, Senator Douglas, you want a northern railroad route, and you want to organize a territory for that purpose. We’ll help you with that, but you’re going to have to help us with something. And so you’ve opened the door for this, and now we, we’re going to try and take advantage of it.
HH: Who is president? Franklin Pierce?
HH: And tell us about Pierce.
KP: Pierce was, I was going to say, a Mexican War hero, but that’s, I think, inaccurate. Pierce gets overshadowed as far as sort of weak presidents go, I think, by the fact that his successor was James Buchanan. But, well, Pierce had a habit, the historians note, Pierce had a habit of going along with whatever he heard last. So whoever came to him last and talked to him about something, he was persuaded by that and would make it his position. So when Douglas and a group of Southern Senators went to the White House to talk to Pierce about the Kansas-Nebraska Act and to get his support for the bill, they made him put that support in writing, because they knew what he was like. And so they made sure to lock him down on what we now know as the final version of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
HH: Okay, so what happens after it gets unveiled? To both of these two parties, Whigs versus Democrats at this point, what happens or what’s the Act impact like a meteor on both parties?
KP: Right, no, and this, I think, is why in terms of political impact, this is the most significant piece of legislation of the 19th Century, and it may be the most significant piece of legislation in American history. The two parties react very differently. I mentioned that the Northern wing of the Democratic Party, at least in Congress, almost ceased to exist. And so what I mean by that is that three-quarters of Democrats from free states in the House of Representatives lost their reelection bids in the next election. They were literally wiped off the map. And so what that means was up until the war, and in many ways beyond, the Democratic Party was now in the thrall of its Southern section. The Southern section, that’s where the power was in the Democratic Party. So to a greater degree than ever before, because Southern dominance of the Democratic Party had been a fact since it was the Jeffersonian Republicans, but to an even greater degree than ever before, the Southern Democrats, the Southern interests dominated the Democratic Party.
HH: Now I’ve got to pause and ask when modern political wipeouts occur, 2006 the Democrats wipe out the Republicans because Iraq has gone badly. 2010, the Republicans wipe out the Democrats because nobody likes Obamacare. In the North, what was it about the Kansas-Nebraska Act that so deeply offended?
KP: Right, this idea of popular sovereignty or local self-control had been part of the discussion since about 1848. But before the Kansas-Nebraska Act, it was really unclear whether popular sovereignty, let the people in these territories decide for themselves, whether that was a pro-Northern or a pro-Southern position. And people who promoted popular sovereignty left it vague enough that they could play it both ways on purpose. And so they would say, they would talk out of both sides of their mouths on this issue, and Douglas was no exception. What the Kansas-Nebraska Act did was to authoritatively make it a Southern issue, or a pro-Southern position, that it’s something that benefited the South.
HH: And that killed the Democrats in the North, because they didn’t want to benefit the Southern Democrats.
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HH: Dr. Portteus, when we went to break, we explained how the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which gave the populations of sovereign states their authority to declare themselves free or slave states, destroyed the Democrats in the North. But why didn’t the Whigs benefit from it? They got wiped out, too.
KP: Right, well, the Whigs got wiped out in an entirely different way. I mean, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, in giving power to the territories, states always had the power to decide slavery for themselves, but giving power to the people in the territories to decide it for themselves, to decide the slavery issue for themselves, wrecked the Whig Party. And I think a lot of that has to do with the peculiar character of the Whig Party. The Whigs were very much concerned with improvement. And I mentioned internal improvement or infrastructure. But they were also concerned with personal improvement, moral improvement, moral reform, social reform. You were much more likely to find the social crusaders, whether it was for education or mental health or anything else, in the Whig Party. That’s where you found them. And so they tended to be more, they tended to be more moralistic. And so it was an enormous crisis of conscience for them. And they simply proved very quickly unable to handle the strain. I mean, in 1852, they were the second party. They fielded a candidate. They lost fairly badly in the Electoral College, but the popular vote wasn’t that bad. By 1856, they were a rump, and commentators at the time noted that they were notable mostly for the number of men in their convention with very white hair.
KP: …that the party had almost ceased to exist, and the only way they were able to field a national candidate was by making common cause with part of the Know-Nothing Party in 1856. In other words, the parties of the 1850s were, that went into the 1850s, the Democrats and the Whigs, were built to a large extent on playing the ostrich with regard to the slavery question, that is to say we’re going to try and suppress this question, because it’s dynamite. When the dynamite finally exploded, the Whigs simply weren’t able to deal with it. The two wings of their party, north and south, weren’t able to either come to any kind of agreement, or have one side triumph over the other.
HH: All right, so how then, okay, it destroys the Whigs, it destroys the Democrats in the North. Why does it give birth to the Republicans? And we know Fremont, etc. Where do they come from for people who are not familiar with this?
KP: Right, no, the Republican Party does not simply emerge. And there are even multiple claimants in terms of towns that assert are the birthplace of the Republican Party. Jackson, Michigan is one, Ripon, Wisconsin is another claiming to be the birthplace of the Republican Party. What you had, essentially, in the aftermath of Kansas-Nebraska, was the emergence, the kind of spontaneous emergence of what were thought of as anti-Nebraska groups. And these were very broad-based. They were anti-Nebraska Democrats. So Douglas’ co-Senator from Illinois, the other Illinois Senator after 1854 was a former Democrat who opposed the Nebraska Act named Lyman Trumbull. But it was also Northern Whigs, referred to as conscience Whigs. It was abolitionists, people like Garrett Smith and Frederick Douglass. It was Free Soilers, that is to say people who wanted to keep slavery out of the West not because they liked equality and the Declaration of Independence, but because they simply wanted to keep African-Americans out altogether. It is exclusion.
KP: Or Know-Nothings, that is to say people who are anti-slavery, but also anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic. And it’s an incredibly diverse coalition, and it reminds one in many ways, I think, of the Republican Party today, which is to say they’re anti-modern, the Republicans today are anti-modern state vaguely, but what are their principles beyond that? If you get a group of prominent Republicans together in a room, what do they really believe in, in common, other than we don’t like what the other guys are doing?
HH: Now free enterprise, now, now, come on, Kevin, we can come up with a few things, but nevertheless, this early Republican Party has quite the mix in it. But they all are agreed that Kansas must not be a slave state, right?
KP: Right, that’s correct, and large numbers of northerners began organizing themselves to go to Kansas. They had groups like the New England Immigrant Aid Society, which was kind of a philanthropic organization dedicated to funding free state migrants to go out to Kansas and turn the place into a free state.
HH: Now that, I’ve wanted people to move to Colorado, Virginia and Ohio for years who are Republicans for that very purpose. But this was really kind of sacrificial, because Kansas is not, it’s not a happy place to be now. I’m sorry, Jayhawks. But I mean, even then, it’s a tough place to be, and the Missourians are coming over and shooting you.
KP: Yeah, it’s a little nasty on both sides. I mean, we know a little about the border ruffians, that is to say the Missourians who would cross over to vote and cause trouble and head back to Missouri. Some of them who stuck around, the free staters, would rather pejoratively refer to them as pukes. The free staters, for their part, on the other hand, it was the free staters, or one free stater in particular who perpetrated the Pottawatomie Massacre, John Brown.
HH: John Brown.
KP: Henry Ward Beecher’s church in Brooklyn sent crates of what people refer to as Beecher’s Bibles to free staters. Beecher’s Bibles were rifles.
KP: …to go enforce God’s law on the plains of Kansas. And so it was, now the bloodshed was not on the scale of the Civil War, but it was enough that Bleeding Kansas is an accurate description.
HH: Well, what kind of scale are we talking about? It’s been years since I read my last, the great one volume history of the Civil War which begins with Bleeding Kansas, I can’t remember what the name of it is. But how many people are we talking about that get killed?
KP: Right, I think probably on the order of dozens. I mean, Pottawatomie was a big deal, and it was five. But even some of the other events like the sack of Lawrence, and these are not high casualty events. And there’s a significant amount of sort of cross-current in there, because there were things that free staters and slave staters had in common, that is to say they wanted to make a buck in Kansas. And one of the interesting things about this is that once the federal government is able to stabilize the situation in Kansas, that is to say get an authoritative governor in place and calm things down, the acquisitive part takes over, and for the most part, on both sides. Now there are still incidents, and there are flare ups during the war itself, but we’re not talking about, we’re not talking about anything like a Civil War battle or even a small scale version of a Civil War battle.
HH: And the book I’m thinking of is called Battle Cry of Freedom.
HH: And when we come back, we’re going to talk about the conclusion of this what happened in Kansas and what came forward. James McPherson is the man who wrote it.
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HH: I want to thank you, Dr. Portteus, for joining us and sort of laying out what precipitated the great debate. But I want you to in three minutes take us from the slaughter on a small scale in Kansas to Dred Scott, and then the great debates that followed.
KP: Right, while all of this is taking place, Kansas-Nebraska and Bleeding Kansas and everything that follows, Dred Scott’s case is working its way through the courts. And Dred Scott initially filed for his freedom, or at least his supporters filed for his freedom, in the state courts in Missouri in 1846. So it was a case that was 11 years in the making by the time it was done.
KP: He exhausted his options at the state court level where he’d had mixed results, but ultimately the highest court in Missouri sided against him. But then there was an opening when his owner moved to New York and left him in Missouri. And so he and his supporters sued for his freedom in the federal courts on the diverse citizenship clause. Here we have a citizen of New York and a citizen of Missouri, and there’s a dispute between them. And so the case makes its way up to the federal courts. The lower federal courts decide to simply uphold the Missouri court decision and say well, no, that’s their decision and we’re not going to mess with it. They make a narrow decision. Ultimately, and on fairly short notice, and it’s a very interesting but unfortunately lengthy story, the Supreme Court decides that they want to try and settle the slavery issue once and for all. And it’s a Court, by the way, with a Southern majority, five out of nine.
HH: Are they moved by the violence in Kansas? Is that one of the reasons that they’re doing this?
KP: I think in part. I think they’re moved also in part by particularly Taney, the chief justice, is moved by animosity towards abolitionists.
KP: Taney himself, in his early days, espoused the principles of the Declaration. He emancipated his own slaves, but had become a very hardened sectionalist over time, and I think he blamed the abolitionists for most of the problems in the country. And so he and the Southern majority on the Court were ultimately determined to render a pro-slavery decision that was supposedly going to be a final settlement on the slavery question. And it shows you the problem with trying to get final settlements on any issue through the judiciary.
HH: And I’ve got to ask you because we’ve got a minute left, Judge Douglas, when he introduces the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1853 and then again in 1854, does he have any idea of the match he’s striking?
KP: I don’t think so, and I think that the most generous reading of Douglas is probably the right one. Douglas wanted to preserve the Union above all else. And I think that he thought that the slavery issue was not worth blowing up the nation over, frankly. He thought that this was something that if we can find a way to preserve the peace…the other thing is that I thought ultimately, in his way, again, the most generous reading probably being the right one, in his way, he was anti-slavery. He was convinced, or at least publicly convinced, that slavery would not go into these territories in numbers sufficient to make them slave states. But of course, the basic problem there is why not? Anything that human beings can do, any labor that human beings do, they can be made to do as slaves.
HH: Yeah. Wow, Kevin Portteus, you’ve built the bridge back to debate number six next week with Dr. Larry Arnn. Thank you for doing so. www.hillsdale.edu for everything the college offers, and www.hughforhillsdale.com for all of the Hillsdale Dialogues.