In which we see the limits of democracy in a democracy without limits
Once upon a time, kids, there was a grand compromise to avoid a civil war. The man who tried to make it happen failed. And then another man swooped in and made it happen. And then the very man who made it happen destroyed that compromise. That’s the story I want to tell you today.
—OK. So who destroyed it?
—No, not Clay. He was the guy who failed. It was the other guy.
—No: I have it here in my notes: Stephen A. Douglas.
—Oh yeah. Him.
—Who was he, again?
—It says here he was “the little giant.”
I need to partially take back what I said. When I say the man made it happen—
—Which man? Is it Stephen Douglas?
Yes. You kids figured it out. Douglas did make it happen. Clay couldn’t get the Compromise of 1850 through as the Omnibus bill, and then Douglas broke it into pieces and got it passed that way. Crisis averted. But as I already explained to you, it’s not like that Compromise of 1850 made everything just fine.
—Right. That fugitive slave law and all that.
The fugitive slave law and all that. Some people are angry about the obligation to return escaped slaves, and other people angry that they’re potentially liable if they don’t say something if they see something. And of course there was all the hoopla around Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote in response to the fugitive slave provision in the Compromise of 1850. Still, the whole thing might have held if it wasn’t for Senator Stephen A. Douglas’s real estate speculation in Michigan.
—All right, Mr. K. I’ll take the bait: what’s the deal with the Michigan real estate?
Funny you should ask, Em (bless your heart). So you all know about the railroads—Internet of the 19th century, and all that.
—Yeah, we did all that.
So the big question now is where to build a transcontinental railroad. Everybody wants one—Democrat, Whig, Free Soiler, abolitionist, woman suffragist. And why not? A wonder technology that will literally stitch the nation together. Everybody understands that the government is going to have to get involved; it’s too big a project and requires too much money up front for the private sector to handle it single-handedly, even if it’s expected the private companies will do it.
—Why doesn’t the government just do it?
Well, Adam, I hear two questions there. One is, “why doesn’t the government simply commit to the project?” And the other is “Why doesn’t the government itself build the railroad?”
—Well, yeah, when you put it that way, I guess it is two questions.
I’ll address the second one first. The government itself doesn’t have the resources, the labor force, technology, or business acumen to actually launch a major capital project like that. That’s a matter of logistics. But it’s also a matter of philosophy: every since the settlement of the Ango-American colonies, English speaking peoples have favored the private over the public sector more than other people in Europe or the rest of the world. So it was that when Samuel Morse developed the new technology of the telegraph, and offered it to the U.S. government in the 1840s, Congress turned him down. Instead, it was private companies that built the telegraph business. Which, as we’re speaking, are in the process of laying a cable across the Atlantic Ocean. Soon there will be virtually instant communication across seas and continents. We live, truly, in an amazing world, don’t you agree, Chris?
—Yeah, I guess.
You guess! This is the 19th century, Chris! Has there ever been a time of greater moral and scientific progress?
—Yeah, sure. Whatever.
I can hear the awe in your voice. Anyway, to the second half of Adam’s question, or, I should say, the first half: “Why doesn’t the government simply commit to building the railroad?” And the answer is that while everybody wants a railroad, the railroad actually has to go somewhere—it actually has to occupy a stretch of territory. But which stretch? You’ll be shocked, shocked to hear that Southerners want that railroad to run something like Georgia to California, while Northerners would like it to take a route that runs from Massachusetts to California. (California? Does that mean San Francisco or somewhere else? Certainly not Los Angeles. That’s a desert.) Anywhere the railroad does run gets an economic bonanza. You can see how this whole thing turns into a political nightmare.
—Maybe they should have a lottery or something.
Maybe they should, Sadie. But Senator Douglas owns some real estate in Michigan. And he’d really, really like it if that railroad happened to run through that land he currently owns—which of course he would be delighted to sell to the government at an appropriate price, something which, as a lawmaker he is, shall we say, uniquely qualified to do.
—Is that legal?
Sure. The problems posed by these development are only being invented now, so the solutions don’t exist. Anyway, Douglas may want this. But he knows he can’t necessarily get this unless he plays ball with his friends in Congress. As we know, playing ball is something he’s very good at. And so he goes to his Southern friends, the friends he’s going to need to make this deal happen, and he says, “Boys, what will it take for me to get the votes I need?” And do you know what they say?
—“Funny you should ask.”
—It’s a line I’ve heard a few times before in this room.
That is, figuratively speaking, exactly what they say. And then they go on to note there was an interesting concept in the Compromise of 1850 involving the future states of the New Mexico and Utah territories. That concept is “popular sovereignty”: the idea that the people actually living in a territory, not the politicians back in Washington DC, should make decisions about the future of that territory. In particular, they should decide about slavery. In the case of New Mexico and Utah, this is all pretty theoretical, since it was obvious that it would be decades before those territories ever had enough people to become states. Still, the Slave Power liked the idea, because they believed slavery had to expand in order to survive, and they wanted to keep their options open, even if they were long term.
But what about the short term? This is where Senator Douglas’s request becomes interesting. New Mexico and Utah’s admission to the Union is far away, but that of the territories of Kansas and Nebraska are not. What if they were to be admitted on a basis of popular sovereignty? What do you say, Senator Douglas? Give us popular sovereignty there and you’ve got yourself a railroad where you want it.
Before I tell you how he replied, let me ask: what do you say?
—I don’t like it.
But why not, Kylie?
—Because I don’t like slavery.
Do you like democracy?
—It doesn’t seem right.
—Democracy for who is the question.
Democracy for the voters, Adam.
—But who gets to vote?
Well, that depends a little on the location, but basically, the answer is white men.
—Well, that’s not really democracy, then.
—Because a democracy means everybody gets a vote.
No, Adam. In fact, that’s not correct. No democracy has let everybody vote. In ancient Athens, usually cited as the prototype of democracy, only citizens could vote, and they were a tiny portion of the overall population. (Slavery was common in ancient Greece, by the way, as indeed it was in a great many societies, ancient and modern.) Women almost never voted in democratic societies. Children still don’t. So the fact that the franchise, as it is known, was limited doesn’t really work as an argument. So if you’re going to come up with an argument against popular sovereignty, you’re going to have to approach it from a different direction.
—What did Douglas say?
Douglas wanted that railroad. Douglas was also a Democrat, and a democrat. “I don’t care whether slavery is voted up or voted down,” he often said. What he did care about was that the people—which for him meant white people—got to choose. So he accepted the deal and shepherded it through Congress with those great legislative skills of his. The Kansas-Nebraska Act became the law of the land in 1854. Douglas is looking more and more like a future president of the United States, after James Buchanan, Democrat who gets elected in 1856.
—So did the Kanas-Nebraska thing work?
It was a disaster. Truly catastrophic. Now try to figure out why.
—They couldn’t agree.
—Duh. The question is why they couldn’t work it out.
—Slaveholders brought their slaves in whether the law allowed it or not.
That’s not quite right, Yin, but you are on to something. You’re not right because there was no law regarding slavery in the territory. That’s the problem. Slaves are flooding into Kansas before there’s a vote on statehood. The people who are bringing them are known as “bushwackers.” They’re coming from Southern states, especially Missouri. But there are also antislavery people—strong antislavery people—coming into into Kansas, too. They’re known as Jayhawkers.
—That’s the name of the University of Kansas basketball team.
Well, how about that, Jonah. The bushwackers and and jayhawkers really go at it. There’s widespread violence. In one famous case a man named John Brown—you’ll be hearing about him again—and his sons ambush a group of slaveholders when they emerge from a bar. They hack the slaveholders to death with broadswords.
Amid all this violence—the situation there in 1856-57 is known as “Bleeding Kansas”—a vote is organized on statehood and a constitution. But the antislavery forces think the election is rigged, and they boycott it. The vote and document that results are known as the Lecompton Constitution. There are widespread reports of violence and intimidation. A lot of people don’t think it should be accepted as legitimate.
—So what happens?
Well, the Buchanan administration is stacked with proslavery advocates; the Secretary of War, for instance, is a man named Jefferson Davis. They push the president to accept the Lecompton Constitution, and he does. But the decision on Kansas statehood becomes a political football in Congress, and its application stagnates. Now, here’s a question: what you do you think Senator Douglas does?
—Why do you ask?
Here’s the thing: If Douglas accepts Lecompton, he compromises his reputation as an honest broker, especially since he’s a senator from a non-slave state. But if he rejects Lecompton, he angers the people with whom he made is deal.
—Sounds like a no-win situation.
It is, Em. Turns out the Little Giant might have been too clever by half.
—So what does he do?
—What would you do?
—I’d probably reject the deal. I mean, I’m like Kylie in that I think slavery is wrong. But just on the politics, it’s a bad idea to push what you’re saying was a bad deal.
Well, that’s what Douglas said, too, Em.
—I guess that makes me a giant too, then.
Well, maybe; you’re certainly taller than he is. But both of you just got a whole lot less electable as president. Still, there’s hope—after you get re-elected to the Senate.
—Will that be hard?
Hard to say. Depends how easy it will be to minimize opposition to his candidacy. But there is a guy who wants to run who worries Douglas a little bit.
—What’s his name?
—Oh, him again.
Next: Dred’s prospects