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Popular Sovereignty

POPULAR SOVEREIGNTY

POPULAR SOVEREIGNTY. A broad political principle originally advanced by members of the English Parliament in the 1640s as they sought to limit the divine right of kings and asserted the right of self-government, popular sovereignty acquired a new, albeit ambiguous, meaning between 1847 and 1860. In August 1846, Pennsylvania Democratic Congressman David Wilmot argued that language forever banning slavery in any territory acquired from Mexico should be added to a Mexican-American War appropriations bill. His Wilmot Proviso raised the complex question of whether or not Congress possessed the power to prohibit slavery in the western territories. The United States soon acquired some 500,000 square miles of land from Mexico, and leading Democrats, including presidential contender Lewis Cass of Michigan, felt compelled to respond to Wilmot.

In a December 1847 letter to his Tennessee political supporter, A. O. P. Nicholson, Senator Cass argued that the Wilmot Proviso was unconstitutional because the federal government lacked authority to interfere with slavery in states or territories. Cass declared that the actual settlers of a new territory should decide whether or not to permit slavery. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, Illinois Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas defended this view of popular sovereignty for the next decade. Like Cass, Douglas believed that slavery was a local matter. By embracing popular sovereignty, these prominent western Democrats and their supporters hoped to advance their own political interests, preserve the national Democratic Party, and alleviate sectional tensions.

Seeking to placate both pro-and antislavery men within their party, Cass and Douglas never specified precisely when the residents of a new territory would decide whether or not to permit slavery. Thus popular sovereignty as loosely defined in the published Nicholson letter and in later pronouncements by Cass and Douglas initially reassured Southern Democrats who assumed that slavery would be permitted at least until a territory drafted a constitution and pursued statehood. Northern Democrats, in contrast, could assure their constituents that a territorial legislature might prohibit slavery at any time prior to statehood.

Cass, Douglas, and other moderate Democrats enjoyed some political successes. In 1848 Cass won the Democratic presidential nomination, but the votes cast for the new Free Soil Party cost him the White House.

Douglas engineered the Compromise of 1850, including federal nonintervention on the question of slavery for the new Utah and New Mexico territories.

In 1854, however, when Douglas backed a bill to organize the Kansas and Nebraska territories on the principle of popular sovereignty, he was stunned by the storm of protest from Northern voters. Antislavery Northerners formed the new Republican Party to prevent the extension of slavery. Douglas denied that the Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision negated popular sovereignty. When Douglas articulated his Freeport Doctrine in 1858 in debates with Abraham Lincoln, he fanned Southern fears that territorial legislatures would fail to pass the local laws necessary to support slavery. By 1860 many Southerners became convinced that popular or "squatter" sovereignty would not meet their needs. In that year's presidential election, a sectionally divided Democratic Party enabled Lincoln to defeat Douglas. Support for popular sovereignty tarnished the reputations of Lewis Cass and Stephen A. Douglas during and after their lifetimes because these pragmatic politicians did not treat slavery as a moral issue.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Johannsen, Robert W. Stephen A. Douglas. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Klunder, Willard Carl. Lewis Cass and the Politics of Moderation. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1996.

Julienne L.Wood

See alsoDred Scott Case ; Freeport Doctrine ; Territorial Governments ; Wilmot Proviso .

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"Popular Sovereignty." Dictionary of American History. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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popular sovereignty

popular sovereignty, in U.S. history, doctrine under which the status of slavery in the territories was to be determined by the settlers themselves. Although the doctrine won wide support as a means of avoiding sectional conflict over the slavery issue, its meaning remained ambiguous, since proponents disagreed as to the stage of territorial development at which the decision should be made. Stephen A. Douglas, principal promoter of the doctrine, wanted the choice made at an early stage of settlement; others felt that it should be made just before each territory achieved statehood. First proposed in 1847 by Vice President George Dallas and popularized by Lewis Cass in his 1848 presidential campaign, the doctrine was incorporated in the Compromise of 1850 and four years later was an important feature of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Douglas called it "popular sovereignty," but proslavery Southerners, who wanted slavery extended into the territories, contemptuously called it "squatter sovereignty."

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"popular sovereignty." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"popular sovereignty." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved October 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/reference/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/popular-sovereignty

Popular Sovereignty

POPULAR SOVEREIGNTY


In the mid-1800s the U.S. Congress struggled with how to organize western territoriesin terms of whether they would be free or slave regionswithout upsetting the tenuous political balance between North and South. Congress settled on the idea of popular sovereignty, relying on the vote of the people in the territory to decide the question for themselves.

The biggest proponent of popular sovereignty (and the person who coined the term) was Senator Stephen A. Douglas (18131861) of Illinois. An ardent expansionist, Douglas viewed popular sovereignty as a way for the nation to get on with the business of organizing new territories. But policy of popular sovereignty had ramifications that even its strongest supporters did not foresee.

Under the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854), two new territories were established, and the voters in each territory were charged with deciding the question of slavery for themselves. Many lawmakers assumed Nebraska residents would vote in favor of a free territory and Kansas residents would vote in favor of slavery. Instead, advocates from both sides sent people to settle Kansas, which became the backdrop for violent conflicts between anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces, earning it the nickname "Bleeding Kansas."

The practice of sending people into a territory, sometimes only temporarily, to swing the vote prompted critics of popular sovereignty to dub it "squatter sovereignty." The tragic conflict in Kansas was evidence that the policy had failed. With the failure of popular sovereignty, federal lawmakers had exhausted their abilities to address the nation's political and ideological problems, which would only be resolved by the outcome of the American Civil War (18611865).

See also: Bleeding Kansas, Kansas-Nebraska Act

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"Popular Sovereignty." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Oct. 2017 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

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"Popular Sovereignty." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. . Retrieved October 21, 2017 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/popular-sovereignty