Secession Era Editorials Project

The Missouri Compromise -- How the Question Stands.

Detroit, Michigan, Free Press [Democratic]

(2 February 1854)

Nothing can be clearer than that the national democratic party, at the close of the slavery excitement in 1850, settled down upon the doctrines of Gen. Cass' Nicholson letter. The prominent and essential doctrine of that letter was, that Congress possesses no power over the subject of slavery in the States or Territories, and that any legislation in that behalf is unconstitutional and void.

The compromise measures adopted in 1850 were based upon this doctrine. One of the component parts of those measures organized two territories in strict accordance with the principles of the Nicholson letter. Governments were constituted for Utah and New Mexico, and the subject of slavery, and all other matters affecting domestic interests, were left to the care of the inhabitants of such territories.

The compromise measures have been generally concurred in as a final settlement of the slavery question, so far as the action of the General Government is concerned. The legislation in organizing Utah and New Mexico has been regarded as a precedent that should govern all ensuing territorial legislation. The principle involved did not affect Utah and New Mexico merely, but covered the whole future policy of the Government.

If such was not the scope of the compromise measures, then we have never understood them; and they were only a temporary expedient, of but local significance. If the principle involved only extended to Utah and New Mexico, then have their consequence been immensely overrated, and they were no settlement of the slavery question.

But such was their scope -- such their intent -- and such their consequence. As Utah and New Mexico were organized, in the same manner, did those measures unmistakably determine, shall all future territories be organized.

But in respect to the present question at issue, as raised by Mr. Douglass' bill, we go back of and above the compromise measures for reasons to determine the duty of Congress. We stand, where we have always stood, upon the platform of the Nicholson Letter. We deny to Congress the power to either establish slavery or to prohibit it, in a Territory or a State. If Congress can do the one, under the constitution, it can do the other, -- and who is ready to concede that it can establish slavery anywhere?

It arises, then, if the correctness of Gen. Cass' doctrine is conceded, that the Missouri compromise has no binding force whatever -- that it is in contravention of the constitution, and void. That Gen. Cass' doctrine is correct, let us illustrate. -- The Missouri compromise is in the following words:

"That, in all that territory ceded by France to the United States, under the name of Louisiana, which lies north of 36 deg. 30 min. north latitude, not included within the limits of the State contemplated by this act, slavery and involuntary servitude, otherwise than in the punishment of crimes whereof the parties have been duly convicted, shall be, and hereby is, prohibited forever.

In the territory here described, "slavery and involuntary servitude is prohibited forever." Now, the word "forever" means, according to Webster, "to eternity - through endless ages." In the face of this prohibition -- notwithstanding that Congress has presumed to say that "slavery is prohibited forever" in this territory -- who doubts that the moment each territory is erected into States slavery may be established, and that the Missouri Compromise is inoperative to prevent it? Such States will come into the Union on an equality with the original States, and will be entirely sovereign: -- all power will reside in the people thereof, except that which is ceded to the General in the constitution of the United States. Congress derives all its power from the constitution, and where is there any authority in the constitution for Congress to either establish or abolish slavery in a State?

To the extent, then, that the Congress of 1820 attempted to prohibit slavery forever in the territory covered by the Missouri compromise, it is obvious that the act is of no more force than an act would have been to abolish slavery in South Carolina.

Now all that Mr. Douglass' bill does is to declare, -- and the declaration is in accordance with common reason and common sense, -- that, by the principles of the compromise of 1850, the Missouri compromise was superseded, and, therefore, that the re-enactment of these principles in the Nebraska bill renders the Missouri act inoperative; and it further declares that when Nebraska applies for admission as a State, she shall be admitted, with or without slavery, as her constitution shall determine.

The unconstitutionality of Congressional intervention in the domestic affairs of the territories has been argued by vastly abler pens than ours, and the rightfulness of the doctrine has, as we believe, been established to the satisfaction of a very large majority of the American people. If the Missouri act is in conflict with that doctrine, and if it was virtually superseded by the compromise of 1850, what earthly objection is there to the incorporation of the fact in Mr. Douglass' bill?

We have no more respect for the Missouri compromise than we have for any other unconstitutional act. And we are opposed to it not merely because we think it unconstitutional, but for the reason that it is morally wrong for Congress to draw a line through the country, and say that slavery may exist on one side of it, and shall not exist on the other side - for it to sanction slavery in one case, and forbid it in the other. We propose that Congress shall wash its hands of this whole slavery question -- that the great principle of non intervention shall be finally and forever settled -- that the subject shall be so far removed from the national legislature that agitators will not again have it in their power to involve the Union in difficulty or danger.

It need not be disguised that Mr. Douglass' bill will encounter strong opposition in and out of Congress. The same elements are combining against it, -- though with vastly less strength, -- that were combined against the compromise measures -- when they were originally passed. The same elements if discord are at work, now as then, using super-human exertions to renew slavery agitation, and light the flame of civil commotion from one end of the country to the other. The Sewards, the Giddingses, the Hales and the Sumners, like so many demons of wickedness, have raised the incendiary torch, and appealed to the motley crew of uneasy spirits which make up the opposition to the Administration in the north to agitate! Agitate!

But, thank God, we have reason to trust that the great prevailing public sentiment of the country is sound on this question; and that the democratic members of Congress from all sections of the Union, responding to that sentiment, will unite in sustaining a measure which looks to future peace and quiet, and to the downfall of sectional ism in the halls of the national capitol.

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