Also on this day in 1854, United States president Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law. The whole point of the law was to let the states decide for themselves the question of slavery. With no “evil” federal government telling them what to do, then the whole ugly problem might disappear once and for all. As Ron Paul famously suggested a couple of years ago, no war was necessary, right?
That was Stephen A. Douglas‘s reasoning. He was the pint-sized Illinois senator who coined the phrase “popular sovereignty,” and he figured that while planters might drag their chattel north to test out the midwestern soil, they’d find it ill-suited to their purposes. Like gentlemen, they would then retreat south and let the Jayhawks and Cornhuskers count their labor free.
Except that they didn’t. And the whole issue only underscores the problems with states’ rights as understood by Candidate Paul. The Democrats and Whigs in Congress were so divided on the issue that, according to one historian, the South’s “margin of victory was accounted for by the provision in the Constitution [that] gave additional representation to slaveholding states by allowing them to count each slave as three-fifths of a person.”*
In other words, the “evil” federal government acted only with the power it won on the backs of slaves. And maintaining that power required maintaining, even expanding, slavery—the poor quality of Jayhawk soil be damned. Perhaps this is why Henry A. Edmundson, a Democrat from Blacksburg, pulled two pistols from his jacket and aimed them at the head of Lewis D. Campbell of Ohio. This was on the floor of Congress during debate over Kansas-Nebraska.
RON PAUL: Every other major country of the world was able to get rid of slavery without a civil war. So the Civil War wasn’t fought over slavery …
The United States, however, has always been exceptional. After all, not every other country in the world boasted the likes of Henry Alonzo Edmundson.
* This does not make the three-fifths clause “anti-slavery” as Bishop E. W. Jackson, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, has suggested. To the contrary, it was designed to empower southerners in Congress beyond what their actual population warranted. It was the definition of un-democratic, and it was designed to guarantee the livelihoods of slaveholders.
A version of this post was originally published on May 30, 2011.