Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859

By Elizabeth R. Varon | Go to book overview

6
That Is Revolution!:
THE CRISIS OF 1850

Garrisonian hope that the debates over the Mexican Cession would expose the futility of a national electoral system easily dominated by the South had to be deferred. With the House and Senate in turmoil over Wilmot's proposal, the fate of slavery in the territories “passed to the people, in a national presidential referendum.” The Democratic nomination in 1848 went to Michigan senator Lewis Cass, who ran on a “popular sovereignty” platform. The genius of the doctrine was that it was so malleable. Northern Democrats who supported slavery restriction held that the people in a given territory could decide to ban slavery early in the territorial stage of government—as soon as there were five thousand residents—and therefore well before either slaveholders or slaves had a chance to ensconce themselves there. Proslavery Southern Democrats insisted that a territorial legislature could rule on slavery only after sixty thousand residents, enough for the territory to apply for statehood, had settled there. Under such an interpretation, slavery would have ample time to establish itself before popular sovereignty kicked in. Cass and his allies unabashedly claimed to support the former interpretation before Northern audiences and the latter when they addressed Southerners. The Whigs, as we have seen, coalesced briefly around the “No Territory” policy and its standard-bearer Henry Clay, restoring the alliance between the

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