Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Six

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 4, 5Text of the speech (page 140)

Charles Sumner delivered a strong moral argument against slavery at Faneuil Hall. Especially in Boston, that kind of thing had to raise questions. The threat to white freedom embedded in the institution could get a pass, but when Sumner evinced powerful sympathy for the enslaved his audience may have heard a whiff of Garrisonian purity about him. The Garrison wing of abolitionism preached non-involvement with politics, that sordid mire of compromise that had done so much to defend and expand slavery. Garrison’s moral purity might make him an appealing figure today, but it also makes him a curious one for a political aspirant to invoke at a party meeting. One does not, at least in rhetoric, compromise on morals. By freighting antislavery with such potent religious language, Sumner put himself in a potentially difficult spot.

Naturally, he had an out:

The testimony which we bear against Slavery, as against all other wring, is, in different ways, according to our position. The Slavery which exists under other governments, as in Russia or Turkey, or in other States of our Union, as in Virginia and Carolina, we can oppose only through the influence of morals and religion, without in any way invoking the Political Power. Nor do we propose to act otherwise.

By making slavery foreign, Sumner once more indicted it. To hold slaves put a polity in the company of autocratic Russia or the Sultan’s Turkey: states his audience would understand as deeply backward and alien. Making it foreign also made it to a substantial degree someone else’s problem. Here Massachusetts’ future senator repeated far more conventional antislavery attitudes. The good people of Massachusetts did not practice slavery, so their moral responsibility lay in exhortation. However:

Slavery, where we are parties to it, whenever we are responsible for it, everywhere within our jurisdiction, must be opposed not only by all the influences of literature, morals, and religion, but directly by every instrument of Political Power.

Massachusetts lacked the power to end slavery in the South by legal means. Such a scruple extended to the use of federal power just the same. What happened in South Carolina stayed in, or should stay in, that state. But free jurisdictions had used that power for themselves since the 1780s, with the Bay State leading the way. Thus, to Sumner, they had proven themselves competent and trustworthy. Therefore

I am sorry to confess that this can be done only through the machinery of politics. The politician, then, must be summoned. The moralist and philanthropist must become for this purpose politicians, -not forgetting morals of philanthropy, but seeking to apply them practically in the laws of the land.

And should your legislature like to summon Charles Sumner, he didn’t have to say, he would not misplace his morals on the train to Washington. The implication held double meaning: Sumner would not turn traitor to his principles, but would also not fly off into some Union-imperiling radicalism by attacking slavery in the slave states.

Advertisements

Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Five

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 4Text of the speech (page 140)

From reminding the men of Massachusetts of their “immediate antislavery duties”, Charles Sumner proceeded to attack the Compromise of 1850 in general. The Fugitive Slave Act deserved an execration all its own, but the Congress had also just committed “enormities of legislation” that condemned vast swaths of land to slavery, both in yielding to much of Texas’ literally Texas-sized territorial claims and in organizing Utah and New Mexico territories without a slavery prohibition. Furthermore, slavery remained legal in the District of Columbia, the interstate slave trade remained untouched, and “the Slave Power still dominant over the National Government.” He would have none of the finality that the shaky compromise coalition pronounced the balm for the nation’s wounds.

Nothing can be settled which is not right. [Sensation.] Nothing can be settled which is against Freedom. Nothing can be settled which is contrary to the Divine Law. God, Nature, and all the holy sentiments of the heart repudiate any such false seeming settlement.

Parties might come and go, as Sumner well knew whilst addressing a group that had defected from the national parties. Right and wrong, decreed in Heaven, did not. No man could compromise away divine edicts or release a god-fearing people from their duty to obey. No peace could come which did not comport with the “everlasting principles” that the free soilers knew. Promising brevity, about twenty pages in, Sumner laid out one of those principles:

Slavery is wrong. It is the source of unnumbered woes, -not the least of which is its influence on the Slaveholder himself, rendering him insensible to its outrage. It overflows with injustice and inhumanity. Language toils in vain to picture the wretchedness and wickedness which it sanctions and perpetuates. Reason revolts at the impious assumption that man can hold property in man. As it is our perpetual duty to oppose wrong, so we must oppose Slavery; nor can we ever relax in this opposition, so long as the giant evil continues anywhere within the sphere of our influence. Especially must we oppose it, whenever we are responsible for its existence, or in any way parties to it.

Sumner repeated the standard line that slavery damaged white virtue, which must sound as callous to us as it did important to them. Talking about slavery shouldn’t mean a speech all about white Americans suffering abstract, moral injury when black Americans suffer grievous bodily harm. But previous parts of this series have addressed Sumner’s view of slavery’s inhumanity to the slave and teased something at least tending toward racial egalitarianism. He went there first.

He also has a point. We accept or reject certain exercises of power out of habit as much as principle. Enslavers who declared that the color line immunized whites from their brutalities would soon put that principle aside in Kansas. They already did at home, ruthlessly policing dissenters into silence or driving them from slave states. They had gagged the House of Representatives for eight years. They even then demanded white men of the North join their slave catching operations. Once a person becomes used to wielding power uninhibited in one way in one context, the inhibitions against doing the same in another become that much weaker. The Slave Power did not seek to enslave whites, but it had demanded and often received assurances that all white men would act as its agents. The threat to white freedom should not dominate our understanding of slavery, but nor should we entirely neglect it as a product of paranoid, racist minds.

 

“Like the flaming sword of the cherubim at the gates of Paradise” Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Four

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2, 3 Text of the speech (page 140)

Charles Sumner preached resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act. The good men of Massachusetts could do no less, lest the spirits of their Puritan and Revolutionary fathers rise up against them. To submit to such an unjust law, such an offense against Heaven, Massachusetts manhood would unman themselves and sink to the level of African potentates who sold the slaves to white men to begin with. Heroic self-stealing fugitives, black men, would rightly look down upon white Massachusetts.

Not that Sumner expected his free soil audience to betray their principles. He expected many would “never shrink, at any cost, and not withstanding all the atrocious penalties of this Bill” from doing right. When called upon, the sons and grandsons of the Revolution would shelter and hide fugitive slaves in their own houses “and, if need be,” will protect his liberty by force.”

This all took Sumner right to the brink of suggesting armed resistance. Some in the crowd might have gone for that, but northern men did not win election to the United States Senate by preaching revolution in 1850. That honor belonged, sometimes and increasingly, to southerners. Sumner abjured any violent intentions, the language of force aside. I suspect he meant to imply that one could resist a private slave-catcher by force, but ought to find other methods for an officer of the national government. One could also read his remarks as a wink and nudge for anybody who did want to rough up a US Marshal, with the understanding that Sumner himself couldn’t go on the record for that.

All that said, Sumner had “another power” in mind:

stronger than any individual arm, which I invoke: I mean that irresistible Public Opinion, inspired by love of god and man, which, without violence or noise, gently as the operations of Nature, makes and unmakes laws. Let this Public Opinion be felt in its might, and the Fugitive Slave Bill will everywhere among us become a dead letter. No lawyer will aid it by counsel, no citizen will be its agent

Violence and noise came, as Sumner may have expected. Public opinion usually requires some degree of policing to manage a successful stand against formal power. It only takes a few unmoved by sentiment to take the cases of slave-catchers and serve on commissions. Massachusetts would have both. Thus the fate of fugitives in Massachusetts well and truly fell on them as the public to make Public Opinion:

like the flaming sword of the cherubim at the gates of Paradise, turning on every side, it shall prevent any SLAVE-HUNTER from ever setting food in this Commonwealth.

The flaming sword must have reminded Sumner that he came close to the line, because he walked it back again:

I would not touch his person. Not with whips and thongs would I scourge him from the land. The contempt, the indignation, the abhorrence of the community shall be our weapons of offence.

Sumner’s Massachusetts would deny the slave-catcher “roof, fire, or water”. The communities would not accept him, but “they shall vomit him forth.” All of that went double for any low life who would volunteer to aid in slave renditions. The Daniel Websters and Millard Fillmores had best not forget it.

Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Three

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, 2 Text of the speech (page 140)

Charles Sumner, not at all a judging type, informed the free soil gathering at Faneuil Hall that he could never live with himself if he enforced the new fugitive slave act. He would resign his position first, but he didn’t hold others to his standards. If they felt the urge depart from “any true sense of justice”, ignore their “humane feelings”, and answer the blandishments of “office” and “salary” by complying the that hateful law so repugnant to the Puritan and republican faith of Massachusetts, then Sumner would not condemn them. Officers of the court had to obey the law, which Sumner non-judgmentally called “the apology also of the masters of the Inquisition, as they ply the torture amidst the shrieks of their victim.”

In a far more avowedly Protestant, anti-Catholic place that Massachusetts today, invoking the Inquisition had special resonance. Many of Sumner’s audience might even then have feared a reactionary Rome using Irish immigrants as Trojan horses to impose a dour Catholic theocracy. So American liberty would die, slain by the sinister agents of a foreign faith and suspect nationality, who came claiming privations at home to take advantage of the good nature of decent, hardworking Americans. We have put such things behind us, instead now fearing immigrants from Muslim-majority countries who we imagine will recreate the Caliphate. A future generation may learn to fear someone else in just the same way; we have a gift for it.

Surely no Bay Stater would play the part of Pilate, washing his hands as he did the same as “the naked, barbarous Pagan chiefs beyond the sea.” If a court, Sumner averred, dared surrender a slave to a slave-hunter, then they would have broken faith with their ancestors and

the very images of our fathers would frown from the walls; their voices would cry from the ground; their spirits, hovering in the air, would plead, remonstrate, protest against the cruel judgment

Images falling, the dead crying out, and veils rent made for potent images, but Sumner wouldn’t let a religious reference slip by unmarked if he could help it. He reminded Faneuil Hall of the story of St. Mark, descending from heaven to shatter the chains of a slave. His Puritan fathers might look askance at the story, coming as it did from Catholic hagiography and recorded by a painting in Venice rather than the Bible, but someone later sent Sumner a sketch of the work which the editor of his papers assures us Sumner kept as “a cherished souvenir.”

Religious scruples mattered in these things, but Sumner did not stint the fugitive slave’s own qualities and didn’t entirely reduce him to a pathetic figure waiting for a white man to save him. On the contrary,

By escape from bondage he has shown that true manhood which must grapple him to every honest heart. He may be ignorant and rude, as poor, but he is of true nobility. Fugitive Slaves are the heroes of our age. In sacrificing them to this foul enactment, we violate every sentiment of hospitality, every whispering of the heart, every commandment of religion.

Fugitive slaves, heroes, men, deserved better. By constantly linking a slave’s manhood to the manhood of the white men hearing him, Sumner evoked sympathy and outrage. Who could send a fellow man into slavery? Who would dare? To render over a fugitive would unman the fugitive, and perhaps the officers in charge of rendition as well. They would make themselves likewise pagans, naked, barbarous savages. Sumner needn’t say it outright: white men should know better.

Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part Two

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Part 1, Text of the speech (page 140)

Charles Sumner stood before the Free Soil meeting at Faneuil Hall on November 6, 1850, and gave the crowd the kind of speech they wanted. Outraged by the Fugitive Slave Act, he told them that Millard Fillmore ought never have been born rather than sign the bill into law. He invoked the American Revolution, by way of John Adams, and Massachusetts’ Puritan heritage in the person of John Winthrop to defend resistance to fugitive renditions. The passions of the past had not faded from the Bay State yet, but instead the children of the city on a hill felt “unconquerable rage”. In the old days, they “held up to detestation” men who favored the Stamp Act.

Then Sumner went for audience participation. He asked the free soilers if they should give “the Slave-Hunter” a pass.

[“No! no!”] The Stamp Act could not be executed here. Can the Fugitive Slave Bill? [‘Never!”]

That put Sumner in an awkward spot, at least for the purposes of performance. He told the free soilers that he “sustain[ed] an important relation to this Bill.” When just starting out as a lawyer, Joseph Story named him a commissioner of the court. Though he did little work in that capacity, Sumner’s name remained on the rolls.

As such, I am one of those before whom the panting fugitive may be dragged for the decision of the question, whether he is a freeman or a slave. But while it becomes me to speak with caution, I shall not hesitate to speak with plainness. I cannot forget that I am a man, although I am a Commissioner.

Daniel Webster (Whig-MA)

This all made for great theater, but Massachusetts had late experience with politicians who had preached antislavery now and then but found themselves obligated to defend the institution in the course of their duties. No less a Bay Stater than Daniel Webster had come out in favor of the Compromise of 1850, preaching Union above all. Sumner would do none of that. Nor did he think anyone else should, though he did not presume to judge officials who did. A magistrate in such a position should, Sumner averred with no judgment at all, resign his office. They would answer to their consciences, not the man on the stage.

Our non-judgmental Sumner proceeded to stress how little he would judge his fellow magistrates:

Surely no person of humane feelings and with any true sense of justice, living in a land “where bells have knolled to church,” whatever may be the apology of public station, can fail to recoil from such a service. For myself let me say, that I can imagine no office, no salary, no consideration, which I would not gladly forego, rather than become in any way the agent in enslaving my brother-man.

Such a deed would haunt Sumner -not judging anyone, mind!- all his waking and dreaming hours, alone or in company of others. If he failed, then he wold have to live with facing his victim,

From distance rice-fields and sugar-plantations of the South, his cries beneath the vindictive lash, his moans at the thought of Liberty, once his, now, alas! ravished away, repeating the tale of his fearful doom, and sounding, forever sounding, in my ears, “Thou art the man!”

But no pressure, fellow officers of the court.

Charles Sumner and the Fugitive Slave Law, Part One

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Gentle Readers, we followed David Rice Atchison out of Kansas and back in time to meet his friend and messmate, Andrew Butler. Now comes time wind the clock back a little farther and introduce another important figure in the Kansas struggle. On November 6, 1850, Charles Sumner addressed (PDF page 140) a Free Soil meeting in Faneuil Hall. Sumner began by disclaiming any interest in the Massachusetts election a few days hence, as a candidate for office should in the fashion of the time. Sumner presented himself as a man concerned with “Freedom above all else.” The various coalitions his Free Soil party had made with antislavery Democrats and Whigs warranted a favorable mention all the same. Sumner turned then to the Congress.

For things have been done, and measures passed into laws, which, to my mind, fill the day itself with blackness.

Sumner held the recent passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 as chief among those measures, “a most cruel, unchristian, devilish” thing. Sumner refused to call it a law, instead referring to it always as “The Fugitive Slave Bill.” The “Heaven-defying Bill” afflicted not only black slaves, but the liberty of white men by holding out the possibility of imprisonment and levying fines against them for aiding slaves who dared steal themselves. Sumner then proceeded through what he considered the law’s many constitutional defects. In considering the law, Sumner’s “soul sickens.”

what act of shame, what ordinance of monarch, what law, can compare in atrocity with this enactment of an American Congress? […] Into the immortal catalogue of national crimes it has now passed, drawing, by inexorable necessity, its authors also, and chiefly him who, as President of the United States, set his name to the bill, and breathed into it that final breath without which it would bear no life.

Millard Fillmore

Sumner spoke of Millard Fillmore, who he thought would live forever in infamy. Posterity has instead remembered Fillmore as the president most notable for his obscurity, but posterity only lived with the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 for a decade before the Civil War intervened. That said, one struggles to disagree with Sumner as he lays into the Whigs’ second, and last, accidental president:

Better for him had he never been born! Better for his memory, and for the good name of his children, had he never been President!

We talk about polarization and hostile rhetoric today, but our opposition party rarely declares a sitting president ought never have existed. Even hot under the collar proslavery rhetoric rarely goes that way, though veiled threats of violence make a fair equivalent.

Sumner looked to the Bay State’s past for examples of right conduct against such enormities, imposed by so vile a president and so tyrannical a Slave Power. He found them in John Adams, writing against the Stamp Act. Adams declared that any man who spoke up in favor of Parliament’s law, however rich, well-liked, and virtuous “has been seen to sink into universal contempt and ignominy.” Someone in the crowd yelled back “Ditto for the Slave-Hunter!”

If Adams didn’t get the Puritan blood flowing, then Sumner added John Winthrop on top. He quoted the first Governor of Massachusetts:

This Liberty is the proper end and object of authority, and cannot subsist without it; and it is a liberty to that only which is good, just, and honest. This liberty you are to stand for, with the hazard not only of your goods, but of  your lives, if need be. Whatsoever crosseth this is not authority, but a distemper thereof.

“Surely,” Sumner said, the passions of Massachusetts had “not so far cooled” to let the submit to the Fugitive Slave Act. That old “unconquerable rage” at the stamp enforcers had not left Massachusetts yet.

Higher Law and Disunion: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Eight

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Andrew Butler, former messmate of David Rice Atchison, told the Senate that all his hopes lay with Franklin Pierce. It fell to the President to step in with the military, disperse the free state government, and so prevent civil war. A cynical person might argue that relying on Franklin Pierce to do the right thing amounted to admission of defeat. Butler might agree. He didn’t want shots fired in Kansas because he knew “one drop of blood” would likely end the Union, but in saying so he returned to an earlier theme:

I have such confidence in the good sense of the country that I believe republican institutions might survive the present Union. Really it is broken already; for the spirit which cherished it has been extinguished, and the very altars upon which we ought to worship have been profaned by false fires.

Here Butler anticipates Lincoln’s mystic chords of memory and recalls Calhoun’s cut ties of Union. He rightly sees the nation as a thing that can only last so long as belief in it. Like many Americans in both sections, he now looked at a series of broken promises, violated understandings and rounds of mutual recrimination that pushed him toward the conclusion that the Union did not deserve saving. Back in the day, men had

a hardy morality, which dealt with events as they were. They had a wisdom which knew how to accommodate itself to circumstances, and did not lift themselves so high that they saw more than others, and sought ethereal regions because the earth was too good for them.

In other words, those Higher Law people could shove it. The framers, pragmatists to a man, saw and accepted slavery. They made no great effort to change or challenge it, but rather conformed themselves to its particular demands for security. Generations of later scholars would disagree, but the tide of research has gone against them. Butler doubtless ascribed to the framers any number of novel constitutional doctrines they wouldn’t recognize or would find dubious, but the general thrust of his argument holds. Even the most sympathetic scholars admit that the famous framers antislavery credentials rest more on intention than action.

Franklin Pierce

Of course, Franklin Pierce had delivered for slavery before, doing much to start the entire Kansas mess. He could do it again. Should the President feel so inclined, Butler had advice for him. In his place, Butler

would serve a warrant on Sharpe’s rifles, and if Sharpe’s rifles did not answer the summons, and come into court on a day certain, or if they resisted the sheriff, I would summon the posse comitatus, and I would have Colonel Sumner’s regiment to be part of that posse comitatus.

Gentle Readers, I am not a lawyer. I can’t tell you if Butler here means to use one of the odd legal fictions where the common law treats property as persons or if he just chose a clever turn of phrase. Either way, he means to send the 1st Cavalry to disarm the free state movement. This would prompt “reflection” amongst the antislavery enthusiasts. Butler didn’t say just what they would reflect on, but one imagines he meant them to consider how easily an unarmed man can get himself shot dead. That in mind, they would “give over their delusions.” If Pierce couldn’t do that, then Butler recommended his state

Go out of the Union, and make arrangements with others to form such a government as you can live in with honor and dignity.

 

Only Franklin Pierce Can Save the Union: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Seven

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Andrew Butler told the Senate, in essence, that he saw Kansas as another Texas. If the South did not have it, then it would turn into the launching point for a war against slavery. He indicted John Hale’s opposition to David Rice Atchison’s gaggle of proslavery filibusters as a continuation of Hale’s opposition to annexing Texas. Hale could hardly disagree. Butler didn’t quite leave things there, insisting that the annexation proved more a boon to the North than the South as a free trade Galveston would have fed imported goods into the South and evaded Yankee tariffs. Hale and his fellows ought to thank the slave states for bringing Texas into the Union.

And anyway, did Hale and company want to give Texas back?

They might say so, but they would be rebuked about as effectually as any public men could be rebuked whenever they appeared to that judgment. These are hard questions, I admit. I ask them, would they agree that England should take Texas and exclude slavery, or that Texas should continue to be a separate republic; or would they expel her from the Union if in their power?

Hale or some friends might remark in private about how they’d do better without Texas. I know some of my political comrades have, just as the other side would like to be rid of California or Massachusetts. But to suggest giving land annexed into the United States to Britain, the hated antithesis of all American liberty, made for a potent charge. It had extra credibility in this context because American abolitionists understood Britain as an ally in their struggle, a fact not lost on the white South.

That “gravamen” dispatched, Butler proceeded to the next:

Suppose the so-called [free state] Legislature assembled in Kansas on the 4th of March, absolutely hoisting the banner of treason, rebellion, and insurrection, what is the President to do? I tell you, sir, as much as the gentlemen to whom I allude denounce the President, if he should not interpose his peacemaking power in Kansas, that Legislature will be opposed, and opposed by men as brave as they are, with weapons in their hands, and the contest will be decided by the sword.

If Franklin Pierce didn’t step in, proslavery violence would surely ensue. That would then spread, with Butler citing efforts to organize a military expedition to Kansas in his own South Carolina. Those “young men who will fight anybody” would start a bloody contest that put the Union at risk. Only Franklin Pierce could stop it. He had to act, or

he would be guilty of a criminal dereliction of duty […] for by interposing, he can cave them from the consequences of this issue.

It fell on Pierce to save antislavery Kansans, traitors all, from the “consequences” of their actions. Proslavery militants have little agency in Butler’s account. He doesn’t quite call their reaction one they can’t resist, but comes close. They act not just as a political opposition to the antislavery party, but also something more elemental. Here Butler dips into the favorite language of the obviously culpable, somewhere between “mistakes were made” and “they made me do it.” Antislavery people, or the President, could do something to stop them but proslavery men had no power to stop themselves.

Dreams of a British Texas: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Six

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

From his discussion of David Rice Atchison’s remarkable benevolence and restraint in saving the people of Lawrence from a proslavery mob led by David Rice Atchison, Andrew Butler moved on to another matter. In considering John P. Hale’s rhetorical assault on his friend Dave, Butler came to what he called “the gravamen” of Hale’s position. That gravamen, Texas, had much to do with both Hale’s own past and present matters in Kansas. Franklin Pierce had read Hale out of the New Hampshire Democracy for opposing annexation of the Lone Star Republic on antislavery grounds. Butler struck right to the point:

I will put my questions, however, to the Senator from new Hampshire, […] Would he consent that Texas should have become a British province, with the certainty that England would place that province in the same condition as its West India islands, and with the certainty that her policy would be to make war on the institutions of Louisiana and other southern States? Would he take the part of England in such a controversy, sooner than of those who have given us our liberties and our rights? Would he consent that Great Britain should take possession of Texas, and make war, like a roaring lion seeking whom it may devour among its neighbors? Would he consent to that, on an acknowledged condition only that it should not have slaves, and should be pledged to make war on the institutions of the southern States? Would he agree to make war on his southern confederates on such conditions and through such agencies?

John Hale

After the initial attempt to secure annexation on semi-independence from Mexico failed, the Texans let the matter drop for some time. It came back in the 1840s. That time, Sam Houston played a complicated double bluff. He courted a British protectorate over his nation and offered to emancipate its slaves should that protectorate come. At the same time, he told Americans that the British had offered his fragile republic protection against Mexico on the condition of emancipation. Texas needed protection from Mexico and the financial windfall that a British subsidy for emancipation would bring. Houston himself might have accepted either outcome, but an abolitionized Texas presented an existential threat to slavery in Louisiana. The Tyler administration keenly appreciated the political usefulness of the story Houston told, whether the members believed it or not and annexation squeaked through the Senate by means of a joint resolution of Congress and amid great controversy. Butler presented Hale’s historical position and in so doing invoked his present one. John Hale would literally take the part of Britain and establish an abolitionist Kansas from which antislavery radicals could strike into Missouri, now playing the part of Louisiana.

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

Butler imagined a far more romantic, crusading antislavery effort than existed prior to 1860. Border clashes did happen, but few in the white North imagined anything like John Brown at Harper’s Ferry. On the Kansas front, only Ely Thayer in the Emigrant Aid Company took earnestly his plan to replicate the freeing of Kansas by sending Yankees to colonize Virginia. To the degree that keeping Kansas free would undermine slavery in Missouri, antislavery writers imagine a largely passive process where the enslaved and white population growth did much of the work until a political movement within the established order worked a transformation over the Show Me State as had happened in Pennsylvania, New York, and other northern jurisdictions.

 

Swords Drawn: Andrew Butler on Kansas, Part Five

Andrew Butler (D-SC)

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

 

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.

John Hale

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.