Secession Era Editorials Project

Senator Douglas-- Squatter Sovereignty

Charleston, South Carolina, Mercury [Democratic]

(14 February 1854)

The Boston Post in commenting upon this gentleman's recent speech, takes much pleasure in finding as it asserts, its favorite doctrine of squatter sovereignty, or the right of the people of the territory to legislate absolutely upon all local subjects, and thereby to exclude slavery, fully maintained and vindicated. We cannot assent to any such construction of the speech, and of the bill which it sustains, without imputing duplicity to the former, and an unconstitutional character to the latter. For if it is intended to be argued by Senator DOUGLAS, that in creating territorial Governments invested with the usual powers, they can legislate so as to exclude and abolish slavery, when the very law which organizes them declares the territories open to the immigration and settlement of the slaveholder, we must reject such a proposition as not only unconstitutional, but as containing upon its very face the mark of treachery. It would indeed be the climax of specious justice, to proclaim non- intervention on the part of Congress as the principle of fairness and the Constitution, yet that it should pass a law conferring upon a tentful of hunters and outlaws the right to intervene in the most absolute and sovereign manner. If the Compromise of 1850 and the present bill for the admission of Nebraska really mean anything of fairness and justice to the South, if the latter be not intended as a trap to catch her support for a principle seemingly of value to her, we are not in error in saying to slaveholders, here lies this territory, go into it with your property if you will, and you shall be safe, until as a sovereign State, the people decide for or against the institution. Otherwise the Nebraska bill is a worthless and deceptive truce.

But we mistake Mr. DOUGLAS if such an inference can be properly drawn from his argument and bill. Indeed, whatever may be his own views on the subject, the bill itself provides in the first place that all laws passed by the territorial government, "shall be submitted to the Congress of the United States, and if disapproved, shall be null and of no effect." And secondly, that "all cases involving title to slaves "and questions of personal freedom," shall be subject to the ultimate decision of the Supreme Court of the United States. So far therefore from these governments being empowered to exclude slavery, any action they may take upon the subject, would be a matter for discussion and decision, both by Congress and the Supreme Court of the United States. Should the issue arise upon a law excluding or abolishing slavery, the question of the power to pass such a law would be the first enquiry; and a decision which acknowledged that power in the teeth of proclaimed non- intervention, and the rights of the slaveholder would be as iniquitous as it is absurd. It would be Congressional intervention one step removed, not so direct as the Missouri Compromise or the Wilmot Proviso, but more insidious and fatal, because while professing equality in theory, Congress and the Supreme Court would become the instruments of wrong, wielded by the hands of others.


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