Popular Sovereignty: Definition & Examples

Instructor: David Lobb
As the U.S. expanded and acquired new territories, Congress was forced to carry out the delicate balancing act of adding free and slave states. Various proposals were made in an attempt to keep the balance sturdy, including popular sovereignty. Learn about its place in the debate over the expansion of slavery.

New Lands, New Conflicts

Fiery states' rights activist John C. Calhoun and Unitarian Minister and author Ralph Waldo Emerson had little in common, but both men sensed danger in the acquisition of new territory after the Mexican-American War. Calhoun argued that the expansion of the U.S. brought on by the war would strain American politics to the breaking point. Emerson likened the taking of the territories to ingesting poison.

America's winning of the Southwest gave rise to new conflicts over new lands. These quarrels set in motion a series of events that would create a crisis of union. They also inspired politicians to come up with various plans to handle the conflict, and one of these was popular sovereignty.


Two Philosophies

The Mexican-American War was less than three months old when the seeds of conflict began to grow. A young Democrat from Pennsylvania named David Wilmot stood up in the House of Representatives and argued that slavery should not be permitted to expand into the newly acquired territories. His 'Wilmot Proviso', although never a law, politicized slavery once and for all. For a generation, since the Missouri controversy of 1819-1821, the issue had been lurking in the wings, kept there by politicians who feared its destructive force.

David Wilmot

The House immediately adopted the Wilmot Proviso, but the Senate refused to concur. Wilmot agreed to pull back on his push for the Proviso, but a fire had been ignited. Anti-slavery forces of the North began formulating a philosophy to prevent slavery from expanding. On the other side, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina devised a thesis to combat the Proviso.

John C. Calhoun

In February of 1847, he put his philosophy before the Senate in the form of four resolutions. The 'Calhoun Resolutions', which never came up for a vote, argued that since the territories were the common possession of the states, Congress had no right to prevent any citizen from taking slaves into the new territories. To do so, he argued, would violate the Fifth Amendment, which forbade Congress to deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, and slaves were considered property. Calhoun had devised a clever stroke of logic linking slavery to the basic guarantee of liberty and the Bill of Rights.

Politicians feared the outcome of these two divisive philosophies. Thomas Hart Benton, Senator from Missouri and slaveholder, compared the ideas of Wilmot and Calhoun to blades on a pair of scissors. Alone the blades do not cut well, combined they could sever the ties of union.

Popular Sovereignty

Many others like Benton refused to let the battling ideas polarize them, seeking to bypass the brewing conflict. President James Polk was the first to suggest that the Missouri Compromise, dividing free and slave territory at latitude 36 30', be extended all the way to the Pacific.

36 30

Senator Lewis Cass of Michigan suggested that the citizens of a territory should regulate their own internal concerns their own way, like the citizens of a state. By doing this, Cass was attempting to take the issue out of the national arena and place it in the hands of those directly affected.

This popular sovereignty, or 'squatter sovereignty' as the idea was also called, had much to commend it. Without directly challenging the slaveholders' access to new lands, it promised to open them quickly to non-slaveholding farmers who would most likely dominate the new territories. The idea prospered in states like Cass' Michigan and in other parts of the Northwest. Stephen Douglass of Illinois and other prominent Democrats soon endorsed it. Popular sovereignty, they hoped, might check the opposite polls represented by Wilmot and Calhoun and preserve the Union.

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