David Rice Atchison

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David Rice Atchison

David Rice Atchison (1807-1886), American lawyer and politician, was a leading Democratic senator during the 1850s. He advocated many unpopular causes, and his career reflected the rough and tumble of frontier politics.

David Atchison was born in Frogtown, near Lexington, Ky., on Aug. 11, 1807. After graduating from Transylvania College in 1825, he studied law and was admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1829. In 1830 he was admitted to the Missouri bar and established a successful law practice in the western part of the state. Between 1833 and 1838 Atchison rose from the rank of captain to major general in the Missouri militia.

During 1833 and 1834 Atchison acted as legal defense for the persecuted Mormons in Missouri and with their support was elected as a Democrat to the state legislature. Although he opposed anti-Mormon Democratic policies, his vigorous support of Andrew Jackson and his opposition to the Bank of the United States made him a leader of the state Democratic party. During the Mormon War of 1838 Atchison did much to mitigate the attacks on this religious group. He was defeated for reelection to the state legislature in 1836, won back his seat in 1838, but was defeated again in 1840.

Atchison served as judge for the Twelfth Judicial Circuit from 1841 to 1843. During this period he stood between two factions of the Missouri Democratic party, which had split over questions of representation and monetary policies. Thus when Missouri's senator died in office in 1843, Atchison was appointed to fill the vacancy and was elected for a full term in 1849.

In the Senate, Atchison served as chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs, sponsored land grants for Missouri railroads, and served as president pro tem of the Senate some 16 times. He also supported bills to promote immigration into Oregon and advanced extensive American claims for the Oregon territory. In advocating the annexation of Texas he broke with Missouri's senior senator, the powerful Thomas Hart Benton, whose rival he became. During the debates on the Oregon and Texas questions, Atchison gradually allied himself with the Southern faction of the Democratic party; by 1850 he was an active supporter of John C. Calhoun and leader of the proslavery Democrats of Missouri, and that year he contributed importantly to Benton's defeat for reelection. Atchison supported the Southern position on the organization of the Nebraska territory and the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Failing of reelection in 1854, he left the Senate.

After the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, Atchison became one of the leaders of the movement aimed at preventing Kansas from becoming a free state. He encouraged slaveholders to settle in Kansas, crossed into Kansas with large groups to vote in the state elections, and led raids by "Border Ruffians" during the Kansas civil war.

When the Civil War began, Atchison worked to bring about the secession of Missouri; he later organized a Missouri unit for Confederate military service. His lack of success caused him to leave Missouri for Texas. There he lived until 1867, when he returned to Missouri and settled permanently as a farmer, in political retirement. He died on Jan. 6, 1886.

Further Reading

The only biography of Atchison is William E. Parrish, David Rice Atchison of Missouri, Border Politician (1961), a judicious but highly sympathetic study of a man almost invariably maligned by scholars. Atchison's role in passing the Kansas-Nebraska Act and his senatorial race against Benton are studied in P. Orman Ray, The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise: Its Origin and Authorship (1909). There is a discussion of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in Allan Nevins, Ordeal of the Union, vol. 2: A House Dividing, 1852-1857 (1947). □