We left Andrew Butler castigating antislavery Kansans for coming with the Bible in one hand and a rifle in the other. Speaking on March 5, 1856, he then turned his attention to the ominous date that had just passed: the free state legislature met for the first time on the fourth. News had yet to come in from Kansas on what befell, but Butler saw it as profoundly significant.
God knows what may be the tragedy growing out of the 4th of March, 1856. Sir, the news of what occurred in Kansas […] may bring us the intelligence which will be the knell of the institutions-I will not say of the Union-of this country; for I hope there is wisdom enough left to preserve republican institutions in durable form, should the present Union be no more.
Butler spoke like a man expecting revolution and hoping for better on the other side, not in the usual refrain that abjures the end of the Union as a calamity one must avert. At least for rhetorical purposes, the future of slavery in Kansas dictated the course of the Union. If enslavers could institute bondage by force and fraud, and subdue armed opposition, then they could feel safe. If not, they had best find a new government. With the exception of a few Garrisonian abolitionists, antislavery northerners did not go so far as that. They looked forward to a Union where slavery would have a slowly reduced role until it somehow withered away.
All of that raised an obvious question to Butler: What should Franklin Pierce do? Both men claimed, with some justice, that antislavery Kansans had taken the law into their own hands. They had raised, if not an outright rebellion, at least a kind of armed opposition to the established government of their territory. When that went poorly for them, Butler’s old friend David Rice Atchison helped save their lives and their town.
Here I will do him the justice to say that he has not heretofore passed the Rubicon with the spirit of an ambitious ruler; but if hereafter he ever passes that Rubicon, all his benevolence-and it is very large-will not enable him to overlook the taunts and insults which have been heaped upon him. If David R. Atchison shall ever pass the line again, and say as Caesar did, “I have passed the Rubicon, and now I draw the sword,” I should dread the contest, for the very reason that he who goes into matters of this kind with reluctance is most to be feared.
Atchison’s benevolence extended to leading armed men into Kansas twice, at the time of Butler’s speech. He led a few hundred with cannons in to fix the March, 1855 elections and then came back in December hoping to destroy Lawrence. He would come again in May of 1856. If Butler counts that as keeping a sword sheathed, one has to wonder just what he would consider drawn steel. Bourbon Dave might well have a terrible wrath all the same, but he showed his reluctance to battle by forming and leading military companies.
Butler turned from his remarkable account of Atchison to further castigate John P. Hale of New Hampshire. Hale painted the South as aggressors in the matter of Kansas. South Carolina’s senator would have none of that, but he had a few things to say about Yankee aggression. According to him, perfidious Yankees bamboozled poor old Virginia into ceding the Northwest Territory and then planted free states there. Then the South capitulated again, ceding most of the Louisiana Purchase on the same terms. In all that, white Southerners
played the part of a generous parent who has only met with the scorn and contempt which want of wisdom justly deserves. It was putting a rod in the hands of others, without knowing who they were, under the hope that it would be used as a weapon of common defense, but which has been used against the donor
The white South gave and gave, from the Ohio to the Pacific, and damned Yankees used those many gifts to beat the slave states over the head. Yet now Hale cast the aggrieved section as aggressors? The section had played doddering King Lear -Butler quotes the play- long enough.