Negro and the Nation - G. S. Merriam

The Struggle for Kansas

The foremost politician of the Northwest, in the early '50s, was Stephen A. Douglas, United States senator from Illinois. He was a native of Vermont, and had early gone West and pushed his fortunes with energy, audacity, and shrewdness. He was an effective, popular speaker; and his short and stout frame and large head had won for him the nickname of "The Little Giant." He was a leader in the Democratic party, and a prominent Presidential candidate, but never identified with any great political principle or broad policy. He was chairman of the Senate committee on Territories, and early in the session of 1853-4 he introduced a bill for the organization of a vast section hitherto known as "the Platte country," a part of the Louisiana purchase, lying next to the western tier of States, and stretching from Indian Territory to Canada; all of which was now to constitute the Territory of Nebraska, or, as it was soon divided, the two Territories of Nebraska and Kansas. This region had as yet been scarcely touched by permanent settlers, but it was the next step in the great onward march toward the Pacific. It lay north of the line of 36 degrees 30 minutes, above which it had been declared by the compromise act of 1820 slavery should never be extended. Douglas incorporated in his "Kansas-Nebraska" bill, a clause declaring that the prohibition of slavery north of 36 degrees 30 minutes, by the act of 1820, had been "superseded by the principles of the legislation of 1850," and was "inoperative and void." Later he added the explanatory clause: "It being the true intent and meaning of this act, not 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." On its face, this was a proposal to withdraw the congressional prohibition of slavery in the Northwestern territory, and remand the question to the territorial population. But the latent purpose to distinctly favor slavery was proved when Senator Chase moved an additional clause: "Under which (the Constitution) the people of the Territory, through their appropriate representatives, may, if they see fit, prohibit the existence of slavery therein"; and Douglas and his followers, in defiance of consistency, instantly threw this out. The meaning of the whole business was unmistakable; under the pretext of "popular sovereignty,"—Douglas's favorite watchword—the bars were thrown down and slavery was invited to enter.

The proposal took the country completely by surprise. The South was not asking for any such advantage as was offered, but was prompt to accept it. This of course Douglas had expected, and in this lay his personal gain as a Presidential candidate. But he had utterly misjudged the temper of the North. The general acquiescence in the compromise of 1850 might seem to indicate a weariness or indifference as to the slavery question. But just as in 1820 and in 1850, again there sprung up a wide and deep hostility to any extension of slavery, and now the old restraints on that hostility were gone, and its sources were newly filled. For now Clay and Webster were dead, and the case itself offered no room for compromise; no offset was possible. And the anti-slavery feeling had strengthened immensely throughout the North. Under the stimulus of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the inhumanity of the system had made the deepest impression on the popular imagination and conscience. To this system it was now proposed to throw open all the fair and fertile Northwest, in effect from the Mississippi to the Pacific. The North awoke like a giant from sleep. The old party organizations went down in the shock; a new party came instantly to birth; and the last triumph of slavery in Congress gave the signal for a six-years' campaign, ending in the triumph of the Republicans and the appeal of the South to revolution.

The debate in Congress was hot through the winter and spring of 1854. In the Senate, Seward and Sumner and Chase had been reinforced by such allies as Benjamin Wade of Ohio, Hamilton Fish of New York, Solomon Foot of Vermont, and William P. Fessenden of Maine. The supporters of the bill, with such leaders as Douglas and Cass from the North and Mason and Benjamin from the South, proved finally to number three-fourths of the Senate. In the House, party lines were completely broken, and the division was almost equal,—the bill passed by 113 to 110. Its supporters included all the Southern and just half of the Northern Democrats, and two-thirds of the few Southern Whigs. Its opponents were all the Northern and a third of the Southern Whigs, with half of the Northern Democrats and the four Free-Soilers in the House.

The bill finally passed on the 25th of May, 1854, and there instantly began a hot battle for the congressional election. On the very next morning,—so Henry Wilson relates,—a meeting of about twenty members of the House was held; among their leaders were Israel Washburn, Jr., of Maine, and Edward Dickinson and Thomas D. Eliot of Massachusetts; and it was agreed that the best hope lay not in the Whig organization, but in a new party, for which the name "Republican" was chosen; and of which this occasion might now be considered the birth and christening. It came to its earliest maturity in Michigan, where the Whigs and Free Soilers united in the new party and carried the autumn election. But in most Northern States there was political confusion, heightened by the sudden appearance of the "American" party. This was the political development of the "Know-nothing" secret society, which came into existence the year before, on the basis of the exclusion of recent immigrants from political power. Its special animus was hostility to the Irish Catholics, and in various parts of the country it had for a year or two a mushroom growth. In Massachusetts, where the Whigs clung obstinately to their tradition and their social prestige, and the Republican party was at first only a continuance of the Free Soil, the Know-nothings won in 1854 a sweeping victory, carrying the State by almost two to one and electing all the members of Congress. That shrewd politician, Henry Wilson, contributed to the result; was elected to the United States Senate; and led the anti-slavery element which controlled the American party in Massachusetts and a year or two later divided its national organization. In other States, the term "anti-Nebraska" was the basis of a temporary union, such as in Ohio had a majority of 70,000. In New York the influence of Greeley, Seward, and Weed prolonged the Whig organization as an anti-Nebraska party. The roster of the new Congress was a jumble of Democrats, Whigs, Republicans, Americans, and anti-Nebraskans. But the general result was clear; Douglas's bill had turned an overwhelming administration majority into a minority of the popular vote; and the political revolution had carried the House in the first engagement. The result crystallized a year later, when an obstinate battle of many weeks for the House speakership ended in the election of Nathaniel P. Banks of Massachusetts.

The immediate practical effect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was to throw the political destiny of those Territories into the hands of the future settlers. There were men at the North who were prompt to see and seize the opportunity. In February, 1854, three months before the bill became law, the New England Emigrant Aid Society was incorporated in Massachusetts. Its originator was Eli Thayer of Worcester, and among its active promoters was Edward Everett Hale. In the following July it sent to Kansas a colony of twenty-four, speedily followed by another of seventy, which founded the town of Lawrence. Other colonies followed from various Northern States, and other settlements were made. The natural westward movement of an active population seeking new homes and personal betterment was augmented and stimulated by a propaganda of freedom. Whittier gave the colonists a marching song:

We cross the prairies as of old

Our fathers crossed the sea,

To make the West as they the East

The home of liberty.

A counter movement was started from the South. Missouri was its natural base. But Missouri furnished the material and leadership for another kind of crusade. The rough and lawless element of a border community was brought out in its worst character by the appeal to champion the cause of slavery. Men high in political life were ready to utilize such forces. The first settlers of Lawrence, before they had time to raise their houses, were visited by a ruffianly mob from Missouri, who tried by threats and show of force to drive them from the Territory, but failed. When in November the first election was held for Territorial delegate to Congress, there was a systematic invasion by bands of Missourians, who captured the polling-places and elected their candidate by 3000 votes; though it was afterward proved that there were only half that number of voters resident in Kansas.

In 1855 the first Territorial Legislature was elected by a similar invasion of armed men, which chose the entire body. A foremost leader in these operations was United States Senator Atchison of Missouri. President Pierce's administration recognized the usurping faction. It sent a succession of governors—Reeder, Shannon, Geary, Walker (the last was sent by President Buchanan)—who, with the exception of the incompetent and worthless Shannon, were by the inexorable facts of the situation won to the side of the Free-State men, and accordingly lost favor and their office. Meantime the usurping Legislature had enacted an extraordinary code of laws. By these statutes, decoying a slave from his master was punishable by death or hard labor for ten years; the circulation of writings inciting to revolt was made a capital offense; and the assertion by speech, writing, or the circulation of any book or paper, that slavery was not lawful in the Territory, was punishable by two years' hard labor.

It was not in the blood of free men to submit to such usurpation and tyranny. In the autumn of 1855 the Free State party held a convention, adopted a State constitution, and petitioned for admission to the Union. They elected State officers with Charles S. Robinson as Governor. This organization had really no legal standing; in form it was revolutionary. But the Free State party were not only resolute, but adroit. They had no mind to actively rebel against the United States Government, or come into collision with its forces. Governor Robinson, their foremost leader, was a man of New England birth, who had served a profitable apprenticeship in the settlement of California, and learned a lesson amid the complications of Federal authority and pioneer exigencies. Counseled by him and men of like mind, the Free State party, while maintaining the form of a State government, and disavowing the Territorial Legislature as fraudulent, always deferred to any express mandate of Federal authority. The Federal troops in the Territory were commanded by Colonel Sumner, afterward a distinguished commander in the Union army, and Governor Robinson (The Kansas Conflict), credits him with a loyal and generally successful purpose to preserve order and peace. In the mixed population there was much bad blood, many threats, and occasional violence, but no general conflict. The "border ruffians" were often insulting, and some murders were committed, but the Free State men kept steadily on the defensive, though there was among them a faction which favored more aggressive measures.

At last, a Free-State man was wantonly murdered; then an eye-witness of the murder was got away on an apparently trumped-up charge; this was followed by a bloodless rescue and the witness was carried off to Lawrence. Then a sheriff with his posse went to Lawrence to arrest one of the rescuers. In the night the sheriff was fired at and wounded. He retreated; and immediately afterward a formidable demonstration was made against the town of Lawrence. The situation was peculiar. Many of the Free-State men were armed; contributions had been openly taken in the North for this purpose, and "Sharpe's rifles" was one of the familiar words of the day. But this policy was fixed—to disown and disobey the authority of the Territorial Legislature, but never to oppose or resist a United States official. In this way, says Robinson, the entire odium of all oppressive proceedings was fixed on the Federal administration; "the more outrages the people could get the government to perpetrate upon them the more victories they would gain, and this simply because the field of battle embraced the entire country, and the chief victories at this stage were to be moral, political, and national."

The Territorial authorities were bent on breaking down, if possible, the passive resistance of the Free-State men. Indictments were found, by a Federal grand jury, against a number of members of the Free-State government for "constructive treason," and they were put under arrest. Indictments were also found against two printing offices in Lawrence, and the principal hotel in the town. A large force of Missourians, led by a United States marshal, advanced on the town. The inhabitants protested, but agreed to respect the United States authority. The hotel and the two printing offices were accordingly destroyed. A considerable amount of lawless pillaging was done, and Governor Robinson's house was burned. Then the force was withdrawn.

The Free-State leaders, as Robinson states, were in no wise cast down by the course of events. Their actual losses had not been great; the temporary confinement of a few of their men did not seriously disturb them; and they considered that by their self-restraint and non-resistance they had put their enemies thoroughly in the wrong, and gained a most valuable vantage-ground for the ensuing Presidential and congressional elections—an estimate which the result fully justified.

But in their party were some spirits to whom these peaceful tactics were distasteful. Chief in this number was John Brown—little known to the world at large till a later time. He and his family of sons had made their homes in Kansas, impelled partly by the hostility to slavery which in him was a master passion. He was a man personally upright and kindly, of only moderate interest and capacity for the ordinary practical affairs of life, given to brooding on public events and ideal causes, and viewing them with a fanatic's narrowness and a fanatic's absorption. He was a belated Puritan, and his natural place would have been with Cromwell's Ironsides. His ideas were largely influenced by his reading of the Bible, especially of the Old Testament. Of the modern State and the duties of the modern citizen he had no rational idea. Following the Old Testament analogy, he conceived of the slaveholders as the enemies of God—like the Canaanites; and he came to imagine for himself a mission like one of the Hebrew leaders. His favorite hero seems to have been Gideon, and to assail and overcome the Midianites, a handful against a host, became his dream.

How the peaceful tactics of the Free-State party suited his temper may be easily guessed, and four days after the attack on Lawrence (which was May 20, 1856), he acted on a plan of his own. At the head of a small group of men, including two of his sons and a son-in-law, he went at night down Pottawatomie creek, stopping at three houses. The men who lived in them were well-known pro-slavery men; they seem to have been rough characters; their most specific offense (according to Mr. Sanborn, Brown's biographer and eulogist), was the driving from his home by violent threats an inoffensive old man. John Brown and his party went down the creek, called at one after the other of three houses; took five men away from their wives and children; and deliberately shot one and hacked the others to death with swords.

Mr. Sanborn's defense of this act is: "Brown long foresaw the deadly conflict with the slave power which culminated in the Civil War, and was eager to begin it, that it might be the sooner over." He begins his chapter on "The Pottawatomie Executions": "The story of John Brown will mean little to those who do not believe that God governs the world, and that he makes his will known in advance to certain chosen men and women, who perform it consciously or unconsciously. Of such prophetic heaven-appointed men, John Brown was the most conspicuous in our time, and his life must be construed in the light of that fact." He also declares that the "execution" of these five men was an offset to the killing of five Free-State men by various persons during the preceding twelve-month, and that it was calculated to strike wholesome terror into evil-doers. The ethics, theology, and statesmanship of this defense are possible only to one bent on making Brown a hero at any cost.

The natural result of the Pottawatomie "executions,"—in which John Brown's complicity was for a time concealed—was a series of retaliations on both sides, and a state of affairs far more anarchic than Kansas had known before. This lasted through the summer of 1856. The general impression on the country was to strengthen the opposition to the usurpation of the Territorial Legislature, and to the administration which sustained it. In September there came a crisis. Another and graver attack on Lawrence was threatened, and this time a vigorous resistance was probable. But a new and able governor, John W. Geary of Pennsylvania, had been dispatched by President Pierce, with imperative instructions to pacify the Territory, as a pressing political necessity. Geary met Robinson—the treason prisoners had already been released—and as the two men had been near each other in the California troubles and thus had the advantage of a mutual acquaintance, an understanding was soon reached; Geary called off the dogs of war, and a time of quiet followed.