Meanwhile, Buchanan sent to Kansas, as Governor, Robert J. Walker, one of the most astute of the Democrats of the opposite faction and a Mississippian. The tangled situation which Walker found, the details of his attempt to straighten it out, belong in another volume.* It is enough in this connection merely to mention the episode of the Lecompton convention in the election of which the Northern settlers refused to participate, though Walker had promised that they should have full protection and a fair count as well as that the work of the convention should be submitted to a popular vote. This action of Walker's was one more cause of contention between the warring factions in the South. The fact that he had met the Northerners half-way was seized upon by the Yancey men as evidence of the betrayal of the South by the Democratic moderates. On the other hand, Cobb, writing of the situation in Kansas, said that "a large majority are against slavery and...our friends regard the fate of Kansas as a free state pretty well fixed...the pro-slavery men, finding that Kansas was likely to become a Black Republican State, determined to unite with the free-state Democrats." Here is the clue to Walker's course. As a strict party man, he preferred to accept Kansas free, with Democrats in control, rather than risk losing it altogether.
* See Jesse Macy, "The Anti-Slavery Crusade". (In "The Chronicles of America".)
The next step in the affair is one of the unsolved problems in American history. Buchanan suddenly changed front, disgraced Walker, and threw himself into the arms of the Southern extremists. Though his reasons for doing so have been debated to this day, they have not yet been established beyond dispute. What seems to be the favorite explanation is that Buchanan was in a panic. What brought him to that condition may have been the following events.
The free-state men, by refusing to take part in electing the convention, had given control to the slaveholders, who proved they were not slow to seize their opportunity. They drew up a constitution favoring slavery, but this constitution, Walker had promised, was to be submitted in referendum. If the convention decided, however, not to submit the constitution, would not Congress have the right to accept it and admit Kansas as a Mate? This question was immediately raised. It now became plain that, by refusing to take part in the election, the free-state Kansans had thrown away a great tactical advantage. Of this blunder in generalship the Yancey men took instant advantage. It was known that the proportion of Free-Soilers in Kansas was very great-- perhaps a majority--and the Southerners reasoned that they should not be obliged to give up the advantage they had won merely to let their enemies retrieve their mistake. Jefferson Davis formulated this position in an address to the Mississippi Legislature in which he insisted that Congress, not the Kansas electorate, was entitled to create the Kansas constitution, that the Convention was a properly chosen body, and that its work should stand. What Davis said in a stately way, others said in a furious way. Buchanan stated afterward that he changed front because certain Southern States had threatened that, if he did not abandon Walker, they would secede.
Be that as it may, Buchanan did abandon Walker and threw all the influence of the Administration in favor of admitting Kansas with the Lecompton constitution. But would this be true to that principle of "popular sovereignty" which was the very essence of the Kansas-Nebraska Act? Would it be true to the principle that each locality should decide for itself between slavery and freedom? On this issue the Southerners were fairly generally agreed and maintained that there was no obligation to go behind the work of the convention. Not so, however, the great exponent of popular sovereignty, Douglas. Rising in his place in the Senate, he charged the President with conspiring to defeat the will of the majority in Kansas. "If Kansas wants a slave state constitution," said he, "she has a right to it; if she wants a free state constitution, she has a right to it. It is none of my business which way the slavery clause is decided. I care not whether it is voted up or down."
There followed one of those prolonged legislative battles for which the Congress of the United States is justly celebrated. Furious oratory, propositions, counter-propositions, projected compromises, other compromises, and at the end nothing positive. But Douglas had defeated the attempt to bring in Kansas with the Lecompton constitution. As to the details of the story, they include such distinguished happenings as a brawling, all-night session when "thirty men, at least, were engaged in the fisticuff," and one Representative knocked another down.
Douglas was again at the center of the stage, but his term as Senator was nearing its end. He and the President had split their party. Pursued by the vengeful malice of the Administration, Douglas went home in 1858 to Illinois to fight for his reelection. His issue, of course, was popular sovereignty. His temper was still the temper of political evasion. How to hold fast to his own doctrine, and at the same time keep to his programme of "nothing doing"; how to satisfy the negative Democrats of the North without losing his last hold on the positive men of the South--such were his problems, and they were made still more difficult by a recent decision of the Supreme Court.
The now famous case of Dred Scott had been decided in the previous year. Its bewildering legal technicalities may here be passed over; fundamentally, the real question involved was the status of a negro, Dred Scott. A slave who had been owned in Missouri, and who had been taken by his master to the State of Illinois, to the free territory of Minnesota, and then back to Missouri, now claimed to be free. The Supreme Court undertook to decide whether his residence in Minnesota rendered him free, and also whether any negro of slave descent could be a citizen of the United States. The official opinion of the Court, delivered by Chief Justice Taney, decided both questions against the suppliant. It was held that the "citizens" recognized by the Constitution did not include negroes. So, even if Scott were free, he could not be considered a citizen entitled to bring suit in the Federal Courts. Furthermore, he could not be considered free, in spite of his residence in Minnesota, because, as the Court now ruled, Congress, when it enacted the Missouri Compromise, had exceeded its authority; the enactment had never really been in force; there was no binding prohibition of slavery in the Northwestern territories.