Secession Era Editorials Project

What is the Nebraska Bill?

Charleston, South Carolina, Mercury [Democratic]

(23 March 1854)

The vote in the House of Representatives on Monday, reported by the telegraph as the defeat of the Nebraska bill, was simply a vote to refer it to the Committee of the Whole, and does not necessarily decide the fate of the measure, though it diminishes very much the chances of its success, and on this account was opposed probably by all who had definitely made up their minds to support it in its present shape. In this sense it was a test vote. Whether time and consultation, and the various influences that work on the minds of Members of Congress, will increase the number of supporters of the bill, remains to be seen. Some think it will yet pass. We have no great confidence in such a result. Still, the measure has by no means lost its practical interest, and even if it fails, there yet remain questions by no means trifling, connected with the position of the Southern men who have given it their support.

A correspondent from the Southern part of the State, who opinions are entitled to all respect, writes us as follows:

"I am one of those who think it is time the Nebraska bill should be published in your paper, in order to your readers knowing where they are on this question. A mist seems to be getting over the subject, and I was about to address you some sentences by way of dissent from the views of the Mercury, when I found I had no text to speak from. Will you oblige me by publishing the bill as it passed the Senate. For I think that, while in the form reported by the Committee on Territories it looked harmless, it yet underwent before the Senate some amendments that changed its character very much for the worse. I refer, in particular, to the amendment repealing the French law which tolerated slavery in the Northwestern Territory, and to the amendment restraining Congress from repealing legislation of the Territorial Legislature. You can best inform us whether such amendments did pass the Senate, by publishing the bill as it was originally reported, and also in the form it took under the final action of the body. If my memory is not at fault on these points, I think it will not be difficult to show your reading of the bill is erroneous?"

We cannot comply with the request of our correspondent, because the bill has never been published in the amended form. But the amendments have all been published in the Mercury, as part of the Senate proceedings, and if there is any "mist" over the subject, it is not of our raising. Whether we can dissipate it, remains to be seen.

The first important amendment of the bill, was the inserting of a clause distinctly annulling the provision of the Missouri Compromise, which prohibited slavery in the whole region forever. This amendment was introduced as a substitute for one of the same purport moved by Mr. DIXON, of Kentucky, and was accepted by him. It is presumed that our correspondent will not consider this among the changes for the worse in the bill. Coincident with this, or possibly just before it, Mr. DOUGLAS himself modified the bill, by providing for the division of the region into two Territories, the Northern to be called Nebraska, and the Southern, Kansas. The latter lies directly West of Missouri and Arkansas. This change, also, we think our correspondent will admit, was not for the worse. The bill afterwards underwent no important change till very near the time of its passage.

We believe it was the day before that result, that the two amendments particularized by our correspondent, were proposed and adopted. The first, by Mr. BADGER, of North Carolina, provided that the bill should not be construed as reviving any pre-existing law either for or against slavery. This leaves the Territories free from all legislation on the subject. We shall not quarrel with our correspondent in thinking this is a change for the worse. But it is defended, as meaning to make complete the declaration of the Bill against Congressional intervention on the subject of Slavery; and it is urged that in the case of Utah and New Mexico, what the South demanded, was this very setting aside of pre-existing laws on the subject of slavery, and the putting these acquisitions under the sole rule of the Constitution; and it is further urged that if the GADSDEN Treaty is ratified, the South will again have to depend for her rights, upon a provision essentially the same as this amendment of Senator BADGER. Finally, we get the Constitution of the United States in these Territories, instead of the Wilmot Proviso, which has reigned over them for thirty years, and this change our correspondent will not consider for the worse.

The second amendment was introduced by Mr. DOUGLAS, and provides that the acts of the Territorial Legislature shall not be subjected to the revision of Congress. We were ourselves at first startled by this change; but on consideration, it appears simply a regulation of Congress for convenience. It is not the parting with any power by the Federal Government, but only the giving, during its pleasure, of a privilege to the Territories, which may be withdrawn if the superior power sees fit. It is no more conferring of sovereign rights of legislation, than the appointment of officers of the Mint is conferring of the sovereign right of coining money on individuals. This much as to the principle involved.

As to the practical value of Congressional supervision, it is to be remembered that since the foundation of the Government, Congress never has restrained the legislation of Territories, except in the rare cases of their attempting to tax the public lands, &c. We ask our correspondent to consider the chances of the South to gain anything by the supervision of Congress in case a Territorial Government should make any enactments adverse to slavery? We put it to him, whether the only contingency in which it is possible that Congress should reverse Territorial legislation, is not the contingency of legislation in favor of slavery? We do not, therefore, perceive that either in the theoretical or practical aspect of this amendment, the South has sacrificed any principle, or yielded any advantage in acceding to it.

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