Sunday, July 06, 2008

A Territory With a Strange Name

Some histories create the impression that it is a mystery why Stephen Douglas was so determined to make territories out Kansas and Nebraska that he was willing to sacrifice the Missouri Compromise.

It isn’t. As Robert W. Johannsen explains, Douglas had been an ardent proponent of expansion, and a violent Anglophobe, throughout his Congressional career. He vehemently championed expansion wherever the opportunity presented itself: into Texas, Oregon (to 54° 40’), California, the southwest and Cuba.

As early as January 1845, Douglas had advocated the erection of territorial government in the area west of the Missouri River in order to facilitate the settlement of Oregon. In a speech in the House of Representative on January 31, 1845, Douglas urged territorial government for Oregon, which would settle the border dispute with the conniving British once and for all. In order to make Oregon easily and safely accessible,
[a] territorial government should be erected in Nebraska, that vast empty space stretching westward from the Missouri River; military posts should be established along the trails for the protection of the emigrants; and, finally, surveys of the western country should be authorized for the construction of a Pacific railroad. The American people, Douglas admonished, must shoulder the obligations of expansion, to “make the area of liberty as broad as the continent itself.”

Douglas’s proposal went nowhere in 1845. Legislators had never heard of Nebraska (John Quincy Adams referred to a proposed territory “with a strange name”) and weren’t even sure where it was.

What is surprising is not that Douglas reintroduced legislation on the issue nine years later; it's that it took him that long to do it.

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