The Bible, Torch, and Sharpe’s Rifle: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Four

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3

We left Andrew Butler inveighing against the Emigrant Aid Societies for foiling David Rice Atchison’s surefire plan to win Kansas for slavery. From there, he took the requisite swipe at Andrew Reeder before moving into a full airing of grievances from the Missouri Compromise onward. Just like Atchison’s border ruffians, antislavery Yankees had driven the sober, sensible white men of the South into a fury. Every time the South gave something to get something, the North broke faith. That the South had a proven record of getting almost everything it wanted in every sectional clash didn’t enter into it. Following that, Butler accidentally told the truth:

Now, I am willing to propose a game of fair playLet the opinion of the people, as it may be formed in the process of territorial existence, determine the character of the State, and whether the State presenting herself for admission shall admit or exclude slavery be no bar to her admission.

Sir, that compromise, as it has been called, has never been observed.

Nor, Butler might have added, did anybody care if it had. Compromise-minded politicians advanced popular sovereignty with a wink, well aware that in the absence of laws to the contrary slavery would expand at least at the margins of the already enslaved states. At best, one could say they didn’t care either way. Southern politicians certainly didn’t vote for the policy on the grounds that it would create more free states. Those who opposed instituting a vote on the issue, including John Calhoun, did so on the grounds that popular sovereignty might inadvertently create free jurisdictions.

Still, Butler maintained the fiction. If anyone actually tried popular sovereignty, ignoring contradictions within it like just when a territory could choose to institute or ban slavery and what status the institution had on the ground before any laws on the question passed, then

In regard to the Territory of Kansas, I think it might well have been left a debatable ground-neither to call it a slaveholding nor a non-slaveholding State. It was an occasion when we might have cemented, in some measure, the bonds of the ancient brotherhood; but no, sir, we find that gentlemen come in with the Bible in one hand to preach against slavery and the torch in the other. That is the attitude in which they present themselves in the temple of our common deliberations-the torch in one hand and the Bible in the other-the pulpit and Sharpe’s rifle. Under the banner of theology, incendiaries march, with torches in their hands, proclaiming God’s will but doing their own.

Butler may have told a little more truth then he knew here. Most references I have seen to violence by antislavery men involve burning the homes of proslavery colonists. Literal torches did their work in Kansas, though they appear to have done it to cabins with no one inside or where the occupants had due notice and could flee. At least to date, no one appears to have burned alive. The violent clashes that end in death usually originate with proslavery actors. Some of those involve personal disputes that turn deadly, but when a proslavery militia kills an antislavery man absent such a dispute we can’t fairly pass it off as a consequence of rough frontier living. The same would hold true in reverse, which will come soon enough.

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