Dynamics of the Party System: Alignment and Realignment of Political Parties in the United States

By James L. Sundquist | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FIVE
The Realignment of the 1850s

"I FERVENTLY HOPE that the question is at rest," Franklin Pierce said in his inaugural address. But the rest was broken within a year, and by the very man who had been the floor leader in Senate passage of the Compromise of 1850, Stephen A. Douglas.

In January 1854, Senator Douglas reported from his Committee on Territories a bill to organize the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, and in so doing to abrogate the provisions of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that had excluded slavery from those territories. The Illinois Democrat proposed to apply instead the doctrine of popular sovereignty that had been adopted in 1850 for New Mexico and Utah.

Allan Nevins has called Douglas's course "one of the most arresting enigmas in all American history,"1 because it was likely that a Kansas- Nebraska bill, based on the Missouri Compromise, that had come close to enactment in 1853 could have passed. But southern senators had become adamant against any organization of the territories that forbade southerners to migrate there with their human property; and Douglas could contend that the territories would be free in any case, for even if popular sovereignty were approved the South could not people Kansas and Nebraska with slaveholders. If the Democratic party were to be preserved from the same kind of schism that had by then all but destroyed the Whigs, compromise was once more necessary--and what principle of compromise could be more appealing than the one so strenuously hammered out in 1850 and since then so widely accepted? Douglas's own presidential ambitions depended on a unified Democratic party dedicated to the spirit of compromise with which he had become identified.

Political opponents seized at once on the last of these concerns: the proposal was a crass bargain to make Douglas president with southern votes. "Will the people permit their dearest interests to be thus made the mere hazards of a presidential game?" cried Salmon P. Chase, Charles Sumner, and four House Free-Soilers in an "Appeal to the People" issued

____________________
1
Ordeal of the Union, vol. 2: A House Dividing, 1852- 1857 ( Scribner, 1947), p. 91.

-74-

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