Squatter Sovereignty
in Kansas

The doctrine of "Squatter Sovereignty" was based on the theory that the people of any state or territory should have the right to regulate their domestic institutions as they might see fit, particularly the institution of slavery.


The idea was first promulgated by Gen. Lewis Cass on Dec. 24, 1847, in a letter to a Mr. Nicholson, of Nashville, Tenn. The Wilmot Proviso, which was intended to prohibit slavery in the territory acquired as a result of the Mexican war, had been before the country for some time, and in referring to this measure in his letter Cass said: "I am strongly impressed with the opinion that a great change has been going on in the public mind upon this subject—in my own as well as others—and that doubts are resolving themselves into convictions, that the principle it involves should he kept out of the national legislature and left to the people of the Confederacy in their respective local governments. Briefly, then, I am opposed to the exercise of any jurisdiction by Congress over this matter; and am in favor of leaving the people of any territory which may be hereafter acquired the right to regulate it (slavery) themselves, under the general principles of the constitution."

Three years later, when the compromise measures known as the "Omnibus Bill" were passed by Congress, Stephen A. Douglas, one of the United States senators from Illinois, voted for the bill and was declared a traitor by the Chicago city council on the evening of Oct. 22, 1850. The next night Douglas spoke in the same hail, and in explaining his position, said: "These measures are predicated upon the great fundamental principle that every people ought to possess the right of framing and regulating their own internal concerns and domestic institutions in their own way. . . . These things are all confided by the constitution to each state to decide for itself, and I know of no reason why the same principle should not be extended to the territories."

This utterance found its way into the public press, and Douglas has been given the credit of being the originator of the dogma of "Squatter Sovereignty." He embodied the idea in the Kansas-Nebraska bill (q. v.) four years later, when "Squatter Sovereignty" became the slogan of the pro-slavery element. On June 10, 1854, a Squatters' Claim Association was organized by a number of Missourians in the Salt creek valley, 3 miles from Leavenworth. Among the principles and declarations enunciated were the following: "We recognize the institution of slavery as already existing in this territory, and recommend slaveholders to introduce their property as early as possible; we will afford no protection to abolitionists as settlers of Kansas Territory; that a vigilance committee of thirteen be appointed to settle all disputes."

Just two weeks later a similar association was formed in Doniphan county, others followed in different parts of the territory, and in Feb., 1855, a paper called the "Squatter Sovereign" was started at Atchison. In his speech submitting the Kansas-Nebraska bill to Congress, Douglas declared the great principle to be "non-intervention," but in the application of the idea the free-state advocates were given no opportunity to present their side of the case. In the settlement of a new country, it frequently happens that men will go in advance of the surveys of public lands and stake out claims.

Such men are called "Squatters." No sooner had Kansas been organized as a territory, than many of the Missourians living near the border rushed across the line and selected claims. In fact, some selections had been made before the organization of the territory. It was these men who formed themselves into the squatters' associations, and who endeavored to prevent, by force if necessary, free-state men from coming into Kansas. Such was the application of Mr. Douglas' "non-intervention" idea, which was denounced by Horace Greeley on Jan. 5, 1857, in an editorial, when he said: "We hold Kansas a part of the rightful domain of free labor, and we deny the right of any 5,000 men to vote away the patrimony of 5,000,000."

By the time this editorial was written the situation in Kansas was well known to the civilized world, but in his inaugural address on March 4, 1857, President Buchanan "still clung to the glittering platitude of 'Squatter Sovereignty.'" Said he: "Congress is neither to legislate slavery into any territory or state, nor to exclude it therefrom, 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."

While it was generally accepted as true that Congress was not to introduce or exclude slavery in any of the territories of the United States by legislation, there was nothing in the theory of "Squatter Sovereignty" to prevent the executive from appointing territorial officials who would favor the cause of slavery. This was done by Mr. Buchanan, and when a territorial officer showed a disposition to give the opponents of that institution fair play, he was either summarily removed or his position was made so unpleasant that he would be forced to resign to retain his self-respect. The situation was well summed up by Abraham Lincoln in a speech at Springfield, Ill., in June, 1857, when he said: "Look, Douglas, and see yonder people flying—see the full columns of brave men stopped—see the press and type flying into the river—and tell me what does this! It is your Squatter Sovereignty."

A noted instance of the failure of this beautiful theory of "non-intervention," when an attempt was made to apply it in opposition to slavery, was in Feb., 1860. At the preceding election the free-state men had carried the territory and selected a majority of the members of the legislature. It is fair to assume that these legislators, as the authorized law-making power of the territory, knew what the people wanted in the way of legislation, and if the people were to be "perfectly free to regulate their domestic institutions in their own way," as the dogma of "Squatter Sovereignty" taught, then the legislature certainly had the right to pass a law abolishing the institution of slavery in Kansas.

Yet such a law was vetoed by Gov. Medary, and when it was passed over his veto it was declared unconstitutional by Judge Pettit, an appointee of the pro-slavery national administration. If the constitution gave Congress no right to legislate slavery into a territory, or to exclude it therefrom, by what line of constitutional argument could Judge Pettit reach his opinion? Should the executive or judiciary department of the government have rights denied to the legislative—the department which derives its power direct from the people? Such were the practical workings of the doctrine of "Squatter Sovereignty." But a day came when the people of Kansas arose in their might and made a constitution prohibiting slavery in the state. Then came the Civil war, and the theory of "non-intervention" passed from the stage of action.

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