Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States
POPULAR SOVEREIGNTY (IN
—The second proposition above referred to is primarily untraceable, but its rounded and ultimate completion is certainly due to Calhoun. The argument for it took two directions, which may be briefly stated as follows: 1. The power given to congress by the constitution (article IV., section 3), to "dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory" of the United States, referred only to the territory then held by the United States, in which slavery had already been prohibited. (See
—The first enunciation of the fourth proposition is generally found in the Nicholson letter of Cass, Dec. 24, 1847. In this Cass asserts that the principle of the Wilmot proviso "should be kept out of the national legislature, and left to the people of the confederacy in their respective local governments"; and that, as to the territories themselves, the people inhabiting them should be left "to regulate their internal concerns in their own way." This idea was the essence of "popular sovereignty." Its advocates generally accepted the territorial section of the constitution, above referred to, as applicable, not only to the territory possessed by the United States in 1788, but prospectively to any which might be acquired thereafter. They therefore held that congress might make any "rules and regulations" it might deem proper for the territories, including the Mexican acquisitions; but that, in making these rules and regulations, it was wiser and better for congress to allow the "inchoate state" to shape its own destiny at its own will. Properly, it will be seen, there was nothing in the dogma which could constitutionally prohibit congress from making rules for or against slavery in the territories, if it should so determine, though gradually Douglas and some of its more enthusiastic advocates grew into the belief that popular sovereignty was the constitutional right of the people of the territories, which congress could not abridge. Still, it should have been plain that, if a democratic congress might make a "regulation" empowering the people of the territories to control slavery therein, a congress of opposite views might with equal justice make a "regulation" of its own, abolishing slavery therein. This point, however, never became plain to the south until the new republican party secured control of the house of representatives in 1855-7. After that time the whole south came to repudiate popular sovereignty and the territorial section of the constitution, and rested on the Calhoun doctrine that congress and the immigrant both entered the territory with all the limitations of the constitution upon them, including its provisions for the protection of slave property as well as property of other kinds.
—At its first declaration, however, the idea proved to be a very taking one, south and north, for it promised to relieve the states from any responsibility for or consideration of the question of slavery in the territories. This was to be decided by the territorial legislature, as representing the people, and by the popular convention, upon the final formation of a state constitution. The democratic platform of 1848 did not directly refer to or indorse it, but its highly colored reference to the French revolution of that year, and to "the recent development of this grand political truth of the sovereignty of the people and their capacity and power for self-government, was at least suggestive of the Cass doctrine of popular sovereignty in the territories. The suggestion was made still plainer by the convention's action in rejecting, by a vote of 216 to 86, a resolution offered by Yancey, of Alabama, recognizing "the doctrine of non-interference with the rights of property of any portion of the people of this confederacy, be it in the states or territories, by any other than the parties interested in them [i.e., in such rights]"; the democratic convention was not willing, therefore, to sustain the right of any slaveholder to transfer his slave property into a territory against the will of its people.
—The sudden growth of population in California in 1848-50 gave Calhoun an opportunity of fastening a nickname upon the doctrine which he opposed. No territorial government had been formed in California when it applied for admission as a state. Its inhabitants, said Calhoun, were therefore trespassers on the public domain, mere squatters, who surely had no right on any theory to regulate their own government. His ridicule only made the terms "squatter sovereignty" and "popular sovereignty" interchangeable, though the former properly applied to an unorganized, and the latter to an organized, territory.
—The original discoverer of the doctrine of popular sovereignty in the territories did not perfect his claim by occupation, and Douglas almost immediately became its strongest and most persistent champion, so that his name is most entirely identified with it. Henceforward the Douglas doctrine became the shibboleth of most of the northern democrats, as a medium between the Wilmot proviso and the demand of many of the southern democrats for active congressional protection of slavery in the territories. It is significant, however, of the timorous and evasive statesmanship of 1850, that it is exceedingly difficult to say whether popular sovereignty was a feature in the compromise of that year. (See
—In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska bill (see that title) again purported to enforce the popular sovereignty idea in the new territories, although slavery had been prohibited in both of them by the Missouri compromise of 1820. The fourteenth and thirty-second sections of the act put the laws of the United States in force in the two territories, "except the eighth section of the act preparatory to the admission of Missouri into the Union, approved March 6, 1820, which, being inconsistent with the principle of non-intervention by congress with slavery in the states and territories, as recognized by the legislation of 1850, commonly called the compromise measures, is hereby declared inoperative and void; it being the true intent and meaning of this act, not to legislate slavery into any territory or state, nor to exclude it there from, but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to the constitution of the United States." It will be noticed that the language is simple and direct until the point is reached where "popular sovereignty" was to be defined; then it becomes circumlocutory. The people were to "form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way"; did that mean that they were at liberty either to allow or to prohibit slavery? "Popular sovereignty" and common sense said, Yes; the very senate that passed the bill said, No; Chase's amendment, "under which the people of the territory, through their appropriate representatives, may, if they see fit, prohibit the existence of slavery therein," was rejected, March 2, by a vote of 36 to 10. What other meaning than that of the Chase amendment could be given to the bill, it is impossible to see, and, unless the vote above mentioned was only significant of a general dislike of Chase, the popular sovereignty part of the Kansas-Nebraska bill must be set down as another verbal juggle, intended to be read in different ways north and south—In the meantime Calhoun's original theory had been growing in favor at the south. There the leaders were rapidly growing more dissatisfied with "non-intervention by congress," with the idea that congress was of itself to do nothing for or against slavery in the territories; but was to delegate to the people of the territories the powers which it would not or could not exercise itself. A convention of delegates from nine southern states at Nashville, June 2, 1850, had declared that the federal government had no right to decide what should be held as property in the territories; that the slaveholding states would not submit to any restraints upon the removal of their citizens with their property to the territories; but that, for the sake of peace, they would consent to the equitable division of the territories by the line of 36° 30' to the Pacific. Four years afterward they assisted in carrying through the extension of popular sovereignty to all the territories, by the Kansas-Nebraska bill, partly from the desire to gratify the northern democracy, but much more from the delusive hope that all the territories would thus be opened to slavery. Within two years this hope had vanished forever. (See
—Throughout all this twelve years struggle. "non-intervention by congress" meant, in the north, that congress was to do nothing for or against slavery in the territories, but was to allow the people of the territories to do as they pleased; and, in the south, that congress was to do nothing against slavery in the territories, either of itself or through the territorial legislatures. By dexterous manipulation of phrases the northern and southern democracy had united to pass the territorial bills of 1850 and 1854, neither insisting on the full expression of its demands in words. But in 1857 the supreme court, in the Dred Scott case (see that title), decided against Douglas and popular sovereignty, and for the full vigor of the Calhoun theory. Thereafter the southern leaders, as law-abiding citizens, could of course do nothing else than amplify their previous demands into consistence with the supreme court's doctrine, and, further, insist upon their expression in plain terms. In the democratic national convention of 1856 both sections had been content with a bald approval of "non-interference by congress with slavery in the territories," leaving the interpretation of this phrase undecided. In the convention of 1860 the two sections formulated their respective demands in plain terms. No manipulation of phrases could reconcile them, and the convention and the party at last divided. (See
—The best exposition of the doctrine of "popular sovereignty" is that published by Douglas in September, 1859, as cited below. In it he insists desperately that the Dred Scott decision had not condemned his doctrine, though he admits that, if it had so condemned it, the Seward dogma would be correct, that "there is an irrepressible conflict between opposing and enduring forces, which means that the United States must and will, sooner or later, become either entirely a slave-holding nation or entirely a free labor nation." This belief of Douglas will account for the offer of his followers at Charleston "to abide by the decisions of the supreme court on questions of constitutional law." But his belief, honest as it undoubtedly was, was evidently unfounded. How can "the opinion of the court, that the act of congress which prohibited a citizen from holding and owning property of this kind [slave property] in the territory of the United States, is not warranted by the constitution, and is therefore void," be reconciled with a power in congress to authorize the people of the territories to impose the same prohibition? The court could hardly have decided against Douglas more plainly, except by naming him and his doctrine. Nevertheless, the doctrine of Douglas, that the territories are held only for the purpose of becoming states, that they are therefore really "inchoate states," that it is wise and just to allow their inhabitants the powers of self-government and "the regulation of their domestic institutions to suit themselves," is well founded, and has been the foundation of the American territorial system since 1787. (See
—The historical authorities for the rise and fall of the idea of "popular sovereignty" in the territories will be found under DEMOCRATIC-REPUBLICAN PARTY, V.; REPUBLICAN PARTY, I. The Calhoun doctrine will be found in 4 Calhoun's Works, 339 (resolutions of Feb. 19, 1847), 535; see also Taney's opinion in DRED SCOTT CASE; 2 Stephens' War Between the States, 202; and Jefferson Davis' senate resolutions of May 24, 1860, in Greeley's Political Text Book of 1860, 194. Cass' Nicholson letter in full is in Cluskey's Political Text Book of 1860, 462. The Douglas doctrine is in Harper's Magazine, September, 1859, and in Cutts' Treatise on Party Questions, 123. The former article was answered by attorney general J. S. Black in pamphlet Observations on it; and the medium between the two is taken in Reverdy Johnson's Remarks on Popular Sovereignty. H. A. Wise's Territorial Government, 47, 148, accomplishes the difficult feat of reaching Calhoun's conclusions from Douglas' premises.
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