The Story of Anthony Burns, Part Six

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

(Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Charles Suttle tried to get a few hundred extra dollars out of various Bostonians while Anthony Burns rotted in a slave jail. But eventually Burns got out. Suttle wanted done with him and Richmond had a fair on, so Anthony Burns went up at auction. The crowd knew him for a runaway and heaped abuse on Burns. For some time, the auctioneer could get no bids. Finally David McDaniel, a North Carolinian, bought him for $905. Suttle refused a sure $1,200 in Boston, demanded $1,500 later, and bemoaned his expenses. He gave up the use of Burns’ labor for four months. Suttle told Boston correspondents that, as a man of no great wealth, he had to look out for his financial interests. Apparently that entailed giving up $295 for principle.

McDaniel went up and had a talk with Burns. He knew that Burns fancied himself a preacher and would have none of that. Preachers could give slaves ideas and an illicit meeting of slaves, ostensibly for religion, usually put visions of a conspiracy to run away or cut owners’ throats into the minds of slaveholders. When you outnumber a group of people you treat very badly, paranoia naturally follows. Burns refused to submit to that, but promised that if treated well he would serve well. Otherwise, Burns told his new owner, he fully intended to leg it again.

McDaniel, surprisingly, had a sense of humor about that. His business in North Carolina involved growing cotton, but mainly he traded slaves and horses. Charles Emery Stevens reports that McDaniel freely partook of the wares of his female property, happily selling off his children. One would not expect it of such a person, but McDaniel did treat Burns relatively well. Anthony had charge of his stables, slept in an office there, and did not have to answer to any overseer but McDaniel himself. Slaves regularly went in and out of McDaniel’s plantation, but Burns’ place there seems rather stable. Maybe McDaniel took a shine to him. Burns did not feel compelled to run, even if he’d rather be free.

Leonard A. Grimes

Leonard A. Grimes

By this time, his Boston supporters had lost all contact with Burns. He tried to write them from the slave jail, but the letters never arrived. In all likelihood, they never got past the local postmaster. But for a happy accident, Burns might have still been in North Carolina when the war broke out:

At length, an accident revealed the place of his abode. He had one day driven his mistress in her carriage to the house of a neighbor, and, while sitting on the box, was pointed out to the family as the slave whose case had excited such commotion throughout the country. It chanced that a young lady residing in the family heard the statement, and by her it was repeated in a letter to her sister in Massachusetts. By the latter the story was related in a social circle where the Rev. G. S. Stockwell, one of the clergymen of the place, happened to be present. This person immediately addressed a letter to Anthony’s owner, inquiring if the slave could be purchased. An answer was promptly returned that he might be purchased for thirteen hundred dollars.

Leonard A. Grimes, a black man born free in Virginia and now a minister in Boston, took up the challenge. Grimes had worked smuggling fugitive slaves through Washington. He had even done two years hard labor in a Virginia jail for helping fugitives make their way north. There, Grimes found religion. He also found Washington less than thrilled to see him again and so decamped to Massachusetts, founding a church in Boston where Shadrach Minkins had worshiped. Forty of his flock fled to Canada after the fugitive slave law passed.

With some trouble, Grimes raised the cash and made arrangements to buy Burns in Baltimore for $1,300. Then free at last, Burns met a hero’s welcome in Massachusetts and landed at Oberlin to study theology. He toured parts of the North with an exhibit on the evils of slavery and sold copies of Charles Emery Sevens’ story of his struggles to fund more studies, but Burns’ health never recovered. After a brief stay in Indianapolis in 1860, he made his way to Canada and died there, off the radar of American antislavery men, in 1862.


The Story of Anthony Burns, Part Five

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

(Parts 1, 2, 3, 4)

Commissioner Edward J. Loring ruled that Anthony Burns belonged to Charles Suttle and sent him back to Virginia. Burns went through rows of soldiers to a revenue cutter that spirited him back to slavery, courtesy of Franklin Pierce and at the cost of great agitation in both sections and thousands of dollars from the federal treasury. All those soldiers drew pay, after all.

The story could end there, at least until the war. Boston’s abolitionists tried to raise money to buy Burns from Suttle. At first, the Virginian seemed open to the idea. Suttle asked $1,200 and Boston’s abolitionists went to work gathering it. All of this transpired before the rescue attempt, over the weekend before the trial. After the rescue attempt and Batchelder’s death, Suttle insisted that Burns’ trial go forward before any sale. Subsequently, some major contributors to the fund pulled their money out. They wanted to prevent a fugitive slave trial in Boston out of civic pride. Freeing Burns only served as a means to that end and with a man dead already they couldn’t see a way to avoid some kind of trial. Attempts to buy Burns’ freedom during and after the trial, even to the point of doing it on board the revenue cutter, failed. Now Suttle would only sell Burns in Virginia.

Once Suttle had Burns back in Virginia, he received letters from Boston offering to make the purchase as promised. Suttle had Burns back in a slave state now. Surely he would sell? Unfortunately for Burns, Suttle also had Virginian friends bending his ear. He wrote back:

“I have had much difficulty in my own mind,” he writes, “as to the course I ought to pursue about the sale of my man, Anthony Burns, to the North. Such a sale is objected to strongly by my friends, and by the people of Virginia generally, upon the ground of its pernicious character, inviting our negroes to attempt their escape under the assurance that, if arrested and remanded, still the money would be raised to purchase their freedom. As a southern man and a slave-owner, I feel the force of this objection and clearly see the mischief that may result from disregarding it.

But, Suttle allowed, he had a soft side too. However much he feared the precedent he could set, the Virginian would part with Burns if the Bostonians agreed to cover his legal expenses too. Suttle would have taken $1200 in Boston, if they had the money. My source, Charles Emery Stevens, insists they had the money. But Suttle agreed to $1200 in Boston and for a limited time. Afterward he incurred the legal bills from the trial to the tune of $400 and Suttle wanted that money back too. But Suttle’s soft side struck again and he knocked two hundred off and called his price $1500. If Boston would deliver, Suttle would write up Burns’ freedom papers and deposit him in Washington or on a ship to New York.

Back in Boston, the original $1,200 promptly reappeared. The extra cash Suttle now demanded did not. By this point, the whole business has the air of a shakedown. Suttle’s Boston lawyers wrote telling him that he had an obligation to accept $1,200. Suttle never wrote back and the matter died there. Suttle finally sold him to a slave trader for $910. Whatever promises Bostonians made to Suttle, he no longer had burns to sell.

While Suttle and the Bostonians exchanged letters, Anthony Burns sat in Lumpkin’s Jail in Richmond. There Burns enjoyed every amenity a slave could expect:

Here he was destined to suffer, for four months, such revolting treatment as the vilest felons never undergo, and such as only revengeful slaveholders can inflict. The place of his confinement was a room only six or eight feet square, in the upper story of the jail, which was accessible only through a trap-door. He was allowed neither bed nor air; a rude bench fastened against the wall and a single, coarse blanket were the only means of repose. After entering his cell, the handcuffs were not removed, but, in addition, fetters were placed upon his feet. In this manacled condition he was kept during the greater part of his confinement. The torture which he suffered, in consequence, was excruciating. The gripe of the irons impeded the circulation of his blood, made hot and rapid by the stifling atmosphere, and caused his feet to swell enormously. The flesh was worn from his wrists, and when the wounds had healed, there remained broad scars as perpetual witnesses against his owner. The fetters also prevented him from removing his clothing by day or night, and no one came to help him; the indecency resulting from such a condition is too revolting for description, or even thought. His room became more foul and noisome than the hovel of a brute; loathsome creeping things multiplied and rioted in the filth. His food consisted of a piece of coarse corn-bread and the parings of bacon or putrid meat. This fare, supplied to him once a day, he was compelled to devour without Plate, knife, or fork. Immured, as he was, in a narrow, unventilated room, beneath the heated roof of the jail, a constant supply of fresh water would have been a heavenly boon; but the only means of quenching his thirst was the nauseating contents of a pail that was replenished only once or twice a week. Living under such an accumulation of atrocities, he at length fell seriously ill. This brought about some mitigation of his treatment; his fetters were removed for a time, and he was supplied with broth, which, compared with his previous food, was luxury itself.

The Story of Anthony Burns, Part Four

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

(Parts 1, 2, 3)

Like Millard Fillmore before him, Franklin Pierce took fugitive slave rescues very seriously. They amounted to open conspiracy to violate federal law. More than that, the federal law they violated held the Union together. If not a part of the Constitution exactly, it had a kind of de facto para-constitutional status in their minds. The South had informed the North, in the wake of the secession conspiracy back in 1850, that the Union rested on the fugitive slave act. Even if the North hated that law, northerners must live with it. After the first wave of fugitive rescues, the North had done so. Defiant Boston abolitionists, who succeeded for Shadrach Minkins and then failed for Thomas Sims, had new friends thanks to the Kansas-Nebraska act but the large mob that gathered outside the Boston courthouse failed to free Anthony Burns.

That left Burns, despite some long-shot legal maneuvers, to wait on the verdict of his trial before Commissioner Edward G. Loring. The prosecution called up William Brent, who managed Burns for his owner in Richmond. Brent described Burns in detail to confirm his identity and testified to the arrangement they had back in Virginia. He then reported hearsay, despite the objection from Burns’ defense. Shortly after Burns’ capture he exchanged words with his owner, Charles Suttle. Both men spoke frankly about their former circumstances. On Burns’ part, that amounted to a confession that Suttle owned him. The prosecution brought out another witness to confirm the story.

The attack on the courthouse to free Burns

The attack on the courthouse to free Burns

Richard H. Dana, Jr. had a formidable challenge in defending Burns. The commissioner had it practically from Burn’s own lips that he belonged to Suttle. He had Brent’s description to match to Burns. The facts all aligned against Dana’s defense. Dana did assert that Brent and Suttle had the wrong man, calling witnesses who claimed to see Burns in Boston before the date of his escape, but spent more of his efforts attacking the law. The fugitive slave act, Dana argued, improperly gave the powers of judges to those unqualified for the bench. It therefore flew in the face of the Constitution, which reserved the judicial power of the United States to the Supreme Court and such inferior courts as Congress may create. More than that, it denied the accused any right to trial by jury. It required search and seizure of Burns’ person without a proper warrant or probable cause and denied him due process. Furthermore, the whole matter amounted to a personal crusade by Brent on behalf of Southern rights. His sectional zeal led him to seek the kidnapping of an innocent man.

Testimony in the Burns trial concluded on Wednesday, May 30. The same day, Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law. Loring delivered his judgment on June 1, brushing aside Dana’s constitutional arguments as issues that the Massachusetts courts had heard and dismissed before. Loring thus needed rule only on whether or not William Brent and Charles Suttle had the right man. Based on Brent’s testimony, Loring ruled that they did.

The next day, Suttle took possession of Burns. The abolitionists had not gone away. The night before they held a candlelight vigil. They draped the streets in black crepe. Abolitionists from all over Massachusetts came to see Anthony Burns marched back, through a cordon of 1,500 federal troops that Franklin Pierce sent to see it done, from the courthouse to the revenue cutter that Pierce dispatched to take him back to Virginia. For that afternoon, they locked Boston down under effective martial law.

The Story of Anthony Burns, Part Three

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

Parts one and two.

The abolitionists, black and white, stormed the courthouse to free Anthony Burns on the night of Friday, May 26, 1854. They got inside and nine got arrested, but Burns remained in custody. They shot James Batchelder, a temporary deputy federal marshal, dead in the fray. Then as now, the murder of an officer of the law provoked strong reactions. The abolitionist press defended the pure motives of the mob while Boston’s more conservative papers demanded that the killers face the full wrath of the law.

My sources disagree on how Batchelder died, exactly. Allan Nevins has him “shot dead.” I previously took the inference that someone in the mob got him. But today I found Batchelder insisting that someone stabbed him. Charles Emery Stevens, writing about the affair in 1856, tells it this way:

On the first alarm, the specials were hastily armed with these weapons and set to defend the assaulted door. As often as the pressure from without forced it partially open, it was closed again and braced by the persons of those inside. While thus engaged, one of the Marshal’s men, a truck-man named Batchelder, suddenly drew back from the door, exclaiming that he was stabbed. He was carried into the Marshal’s office and laid upon the floor, where he almost immediately expired. It was discovered that a wound, several inches in length, had been inflicted by some sharp instrument in the lower part of his abdomen, whereby an artery had been severed, causing him to bleed to death. A conflict of opinion afterward arose respecting the source from whence the blow proceeded. Some affirmed that it was an accident caused by one of his own party. It was said that Batchelder was engaged at the moment in bracing one part of the door with his shoulders; that while he was in that half-stooping posture, another of the specials, seeing through the opening the hands of one of the assailants, aimed at them a blow with a watchman’s club, which, missing its mark, fell upon the head of Batchelder and drove him down upon the blade of his own cutlass. Another, and perhaps more probable account was, that while Batchelder stood bracing the door behind the broken panel, the wound was inflicted by an arm thrust through from the outside, not with any murderous intent, but to compel him to relax his hold.

Stevens witnessed some of the events himself and wrote much closer in time to them, so I suspect that Nevins made a mistake which, given how often other works cite him, then got repeated by others.

Regardless of how exactly Batchelder died, his death and the angry abolitionist mob prompted stronger security measures. Two companies of artillery from the Massachusetts militia, a company of the US Army, and a company of US Marines descended on Boston. Every day of Burns’ trial, his defenders and any would-be rescuers had to pass through four or five checkpoints just to get into the building. Then they faced down 120 guards packed into the courtroom itself.

But thick crowds gathered beyond the rings of security. Even if Commissioner Edward J. Loring found that Charles Suttle owned Anthony Burns, they would have to get him through the waiting mob.

The Story of Anthony Burns, Part Two

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

Part One.

Anthony Burns, born a Virginia slave, stole himself away to freedom in Boston in 1854. His owner found out where he had gone when Burns wrote his still enslaved family with the news. Under the auspices of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, that owner, Charles Suttle, went up to Boston to reclaim him. Happening the very same month as the Kansas-Nebraska Act narrowly passed the House and landed on Franklin Pierce’s desk, and in the very heart of abolitionism. The Burns case struck at the heart of the white North’s grievances with the South. Already incensed and building a popular movement against Kansas-Nebraska, it now brought back to mind the last great legislative affront to the section.

As the law provided, Burns’ owner had a federal marshal arrest him on his way home from work. The marshal did not declare to any passers-by that he had Burns as a fugitive slave, but maintained the fiction that he wanted Burns for robbery. They took other precautions too, knowing that abolitionists had a way of relieving courthouses of fugitive slave prisoners. The crowd that gathered around the courthouse found it chained shut and guarded against them.

Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

Boston’s antislavery organizations had been through this before. They spirited away William & Ellen Craft to the United Kingdom. They took Shadrach Minkins from the courthouse. The Fugitive Slave Act provided for a commissioner to verify that the slave catchers had a right to seize the accused, or acted on behalf of those that did. Suttle had papers from a Virginia court testifying to his ownership. He had the law and the facts on his side. But Richard H. Dana, one of the founders of the Free Soil party and one of many who volunteered his services to help Shadrach Minkins back in 1851, took the case regardless. Dana, who worked with his black associate Robert Morris, convinced Loring to delay the hearing for a few days.

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Thomas Wentworth Higginson

Dana got his delay on May 25, 1854. Boston’s abolitionists aimed to take advantage of it. They differed on how. The abolitionist movement had a strong pacifist streak, even in Boston. Should they use all the means available to them under the law to free Burns, or should they take him from the courthouse by force? The larger group preferred keeping within the law and met in Fanueil Hall on the night of May 27th. A group of thirty radicals met separately, electing Thomas Wentworth Higginson their leader. Higginson would go on to serve as a colonel in the first federally authorized black regiment, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers. He had spent the previous few days distributing broadsides to rally public opposition to Burns’ arrest and stockpiling axes and other weaponry. A Higginson plant interrupted the Fanueil Hall meeting with the claim that a band of blacks intended to break Burns out that very night, and the peaceful abolitionists quickly adjourned. Two hundred of them joined the growing mob outside the courthouse, which swelled to two thousand.

Some of that mob got together a large beam to use as a battering ram and charged the courthouse doors. They burst in and a melee ensued between them and the federal marshals. The battle resulted in the death of James Batchelder, a twenty-four year old teamster serving as a temporary deputy. This technically made him the second federal marshal killed in the line of duty. Higginson received a saber cut to the chin. Ultimately the marshal and his men prevailed, driving the abolitionists out of the courthouse and arresting nine of them.

The Story of Anthony Burns, Part One

Anthony Burns

Anthony Burns

The general furor in the North over the Fugitive Slave Act had cooled by 1854. They had lived with it for three years, four come September. It might please very few white northerners to do so, even if they loathed black people, but the sky had not fallen. After the initial round of high-profile rescues, life largely went back to normal. Compromise and Union men prevailed. Abolitionists might have gained a higher profile and more recruits from the controversy, but the Union still had more friends and the Union hung on the Compromise of 1850. That compromise, Georgia informed the North, rested on the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.

But if the Union hung on the Compromise, then what had the South done with Kansas-Nebraska but destroy it? With the help of the man who masterminded the compromise, no less! The North voted for Franklin Pierce and the Democracy as the Compromise party. They put through the final settlement on slavery in the territories. The North considered the matter entirely closed. Northern men no more voted for reopening the slavery issue than they voted for lawless, anarchic abolitionist mobs storming courthouses or shooting slave catchers.

The year of 1854 has a considerably more going on simultaneously than suits the convenience of writer or reader. Filibustering, the Gadsden Purchase, and Kansas-Nebraska all overlap. To make a coherent narrative the writer must take one at a time, but the people living the year experienced it all together. Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska act on May 30, 1854. By then, another story had joined the year’s busy calendar.

Anthony Burns, born in Virginia in 1834, turned twenty the day after Pierce signed the great plains over to slavery. He lived on the other side of the country as a slave, property of Charles F. Suttle. Suttle hired Burns and his other human property out. Working as a merchant, he didn’t need all the manpower he owned for his personal use. In 1852, Suttle had Burns hired out in Richmond. Burns convinced his overseer (Suttle himself lived in Alexandria.) to let him hire himself out. That let Burns keep some of the money and gave him a small measure of additional control over his life. Burns made friends with some Northern sailors who came to Richmond by way of the James River. With the friends and cash necessary, Burns slipped on a ship to Boston in February or March of 1854, as the Senate considered Kansas-Nebraska. He got a job working in a clothing store for abolitionist Lewis Hayden.

Burns came from a family of thirteen. As he essentially fell off the face of the Earth from their perspective, he wrote to let them know that he made it to the North, alive and well. That meant, of course, putting his location in writing and passing it through the mail. Burns sent the letter through Canada, hoping that would misdirect any pursuers. That proved insufficient, because custom dictated that slaves receiving letters had those letters delivered to their owners. The envelope might have fooled Suttle and his agent, William Brent, but they opened it and read the contents.

Armed with the knowledge that Burns had decamped to Boston, Suttle and Brent followed. On May 24, they had a federal marshal arrest Burns on his way home from work. Two days before, Alexander Stephens rammed the Kansas-Nebraska Act through the House with those crucial thirteen votes. The North raged against Stephen Douglas, his act, and southern oathbreaking. To its outrages, it could add another, soon very public, fugitive slave capture in capital of abolitionism. Events in Boston naturally drew all eyes.

Losing the Immigrant Vote

Martin Van Buren, Free Soil presidential candidate

Martin Van Buren

In an era where raising the most money best ensures winning the most votes and election and corruption thus often merge into the same process we can easily forget just how parties worked just a few decades ago, let alone in the nineteenth century. Martin Van Buren created the first real party machine in New York for the Democracy. The machine ran on loyalty to the party and to its leaders, rewarding that loyalty with patronage. Every civil service office went up for grabs every four years and lucrative government contracts went to supporters as a matter of course. Contributing to campaigns, then and now, involved personal investment with an expected return. The president could appoint every single postmaster in the country but picking so many people for such a minor post generally took too much time and effort. Instead the president would farm the selection out to party machines at the state level. Those state level machines had their own subordinate, usually, machines at the local level in major cities or centered around powerful constituencies.

To some degree this went on before Van Buren, but he perfected the system and made it national when he and Andrew Jackson went to Washington in 1831. Before then, changes in power usually meant little turnover. Jackson dismissed nearly ten percent of the federal government’s employees. The raucous celebration that accompanied his swearing in, where an unruly and drunken mob stormed the White House party and the president had to leave through a window, neglects that many of those men came looking for offices. They made investments in the Democracy, after all. Time for the Democracy to pay up.

One can’t help but be struck by the corruption inherent in all of this. The United States did not stand out from other governments of the time. You could literally buy offices in the British civil service, and commissions in the Royal Navy and British Army, in the same era. But with all the corruption going in one can miss what rarely came out: ideology. You bought into the Democracy for your own interests and advancement, not out of abstract idealism. Joining did not mean you favored particular policies. It meant that you voted the right way, sometimes early and often. It definitely meant you did that if you won elected office, unless you had a very good excuse, many friends, or a powerful patron to support and defend you. If you ran a newspaper, buying into the Democracy meant that you hewed to its editorial line and produced its propaganda. The notion that a newspaper man should aspire to objectivity and fairness hails from a later era indeed, after most places had turned into one paper towns.

A political cartoon lampooning Jackson's spoils system

A political cartoon lampooning Jackson’s spoils system

The lack of an official ideology, beyond “vote our way”, made the Democracy into a cosmopolitan party very adept at handling internal disagreement, which thus weathered the division over slavery better than the Whigs had, until now. That cosmopolitan approach gave the Democracy a great advantage in the North: new immigrants.

Fresh off the boat, these Americans on the make had no jobs. They often had no friends and nobody local they could prevail on to help them get started. They naturally inclined toward others who came from the same places in Europe and shared a language, religion, and common culture to help them out. The Democracy patronized the natural associations that resulted, helping immigrants find jobs, housing, and helped them on their way to citizenship and voting. When they voted, the immigrants in turn had every reason to favor the Democracy.

Those immigrants did not come from slave societies. Many saw free blacks in the North as competition that helped keep labor prices down and thus keep them poor. Opening the northern half of the Louisiana Purchase to slavery, essentially all of the nation left for those immigrants or their children to occupy, meant to them flooding it with black competitors. There the story of the northern cities would surely replay itself. Enraged by the prospect of losing their American dreams, the German migration that began after the revolutions of 1848 failed began to break away from the Democracy. Thousands flocked to anti-Nebraska meetings. The German language newspapers could only manage cool indifference to the act at their most generous. One of the nation’s most numerous and growing immigrant groups, a key to the Democracy’s future in a more diverse United States, prepared to desert.

The Senate’s Democrats knew all of that. They knew that Germans did not much like slavery or black people anywhere near them or where they aimed to go in the future. If popular sovereignty played out, Germans would vote against slavery. So would the British immigrants. In response they floated an amendment to exclude non-citizens from the territories. These new and future Democrats, who the party so courted and who had in turn faithfully supported it, found themselves rewarded as well as the old Northern Democrats: with a direct repudiation of the social contract that the party relied upon.

The Antislavery Mass Movement

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

While the Democracy split in three parts when the Kansas-Nebraska Act, with its repeal of the Missouri Compromise, came up for a vote, two of those three parts voted for the bill in the end. We should not discount the difference between Northwestern democrats who voted for the bill in the name of popular sovereignty even if they hated the repeal and those Southern democrats who voted for the opposite reasons. That said, the third part of the Democracy deserves some attention too.

As one would imagine, antislavery men lined up to denounce Kansas-Nebraska. The usual suspects from 1850 could do no less. However much we might admire them for their consistent antislavery politics, no one expected Salmon Chase or Charles Sumner to change their minds and vote for the bill. But in the North, Kansas-Nebraska changed the minds of conservative businessmen who had always before deplored antislavery agitation. Horace Greeley reported that in New York, the businessmen rose against the bill, then the tradesmen, and they drew the clergy along.

Many of these anti-Nebraska men had stood for compromise and Union in 1850. They voted for Franklin Pierce and his finality platform. They, with their commercial ties to the South, had before found ample cause to give the section concession after concession. Their banks held Southern mortgages. They accepted slaves as collateral for Southern loans. They built and owned the ships that carried Southern cotton to Europe and returned full of European luxuries. They damned abolitionists as fanatical troublemakers. But they did not vote for this. They voted for the status quo that the Democracy promised. It suited them commercially, personally, and probably in large part ideologically.  If the Democracy of 1854 proposed to undo the good work of the Democracy of 1850, they would not stand idly by.

Allen Nevins gives pages of examples, beginning on page 125 of volume two of Ordeal of the Union:

  • In Boston, Faneuil Hall held three thousand solid Compromise of 1850 Democrats, convened to denounce and oppose the bill.
  • In New York, the head of the Mechanics’ Bank and a collection of respectable, conservative Democrats rallied against Kansas-Nebraska. So did a young Samuel J. Tilden, sacrificing many friendships in the party to do so.
  • Cleveland’s citizens resolved that the Nebraska bill horrified all Ohio and wrote to the Greeley’s paper that any Congressman who cared vote for Douglas’ bill would be run out of the state. In Cincinnati, on the other end of the state and within sight of the South, a thousand “unquestioned and adamantine” Democrats agreed.
  • Four hundred Chicagoans, led by a former mayor who led rallies for Douglas in 1850 denounced the bill. One of Douglas’ friends addressed their meeting, calling himself an Old Hunker Democrat as he did. When loyal Douglas men tried to organize a counter meeting, the drew a crowd that declared their support for the Little Giant in all things but Nebraska. In Quincy, foes of the bill took over a pro-Douglas meeting and passed resolutions damning him.

These men once fell over themselves to declare how much they hated abolitionists and supported the rights of the South. But the South had its rights and now demanded more, at the expense of the North’s rights. The partition of the West back in 1820 saved the Union and promised both sections a future beyond the Mississippi. This could not stand and they resolved to fight and went beyond public meetings and resolutions to do it. From late January of 1854, these men assembled fundraising apparatuses, circulated petitions, and reached out to other groups of like mind in different places.  This went beyond protest; they consciously constructed a political movement and self-consciously cast themselves as latter-day committees of correspondence. They would rouse the North against Stephen Douglas and his monstrous bill literally selling their future and their rights as white men to slavery. The future of their Republic hung in the balance.

For maybe the first time, a large portion of the white North agreed with free soilers and abolitionists that the slave power, working behind closed doors, schemed nefariously to subvert the nation. The Accomplished Architect, it appeared, had devised his own ruin.

Kansas-Nebraska: Shattering the Democracy

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

The dream that Kansas-Nebraska would give the Union some tough love that restored its strength rested on the proposition that northern voters, most especially northern Democrats, cared very little about slavery. If the North, most especially the Northwest, had decent portions of men like Stephen Douglas, they could combine with men like Jesse D. Bright, Indiana’s slaveholding senator, to revitalize the Democracy and restore its position as a true bisectional party and thus, they hoped, confirm its position as the natural party of American governance. The new final settlement on slavery and the territories, unlike the old final settlement, would retire slavery from the national consciousness. Abolitionist and fire-eater alike could go fume in the corner while sensible, moderate, compromise-minded adults ran the nation.

This meant a very small word, if, had to carry a very large burden. If Stephen Douglas had taken the North’s temperature correctly, if slavery really did not pan out in Kansas, if no new provocation for either section arose, if proslavery men could take yes for an answer, then they could have the sectional comity of the 1840s back again. It worked once before. Henry Clay got the northern votes he needed for the Missouri Compromise in part from enslaved Illinois.

If only the men of 1854 lived in the same world as the men of 1820. The world had changed. Railroads realigned Northwestern commerce toward Chicago and away from New Orleans. Texas, then Mexico and Wilmot, CalhounNashville, the Fugitive Slave Act, the secession conspiracy, the Georgia Platform, fugitive slave rescues, and all the rest shined a spotlight on slavery. Neither section consented to playing by the old rules.  Old times would not come again.

The Democrats held the majority in both chambers of Congress in 1854. The fact that a majority of the House voted to bury Kansas-Nebraska speaks volumes. Douglas’ own party would not unite behind him. Instead the Democracy split at least three ways. Some Democrats, more than Douglas or anybody else supporting the bill counted on, increasingly disliked slavery and especially loathed its expansion.  Still others, in the South, supported Kansas-Nebraska for the Missouri Compromise repeal but fiercely loathed popular sovereignty. If the people could decide, they could after all decide against slavery. Douglas himself said so often. The Northwestern Democrats who did accept Kansas-Nebraska often loved popular sovereignty but loathed the Missouri Compromise repeal.  Thus even the coalition in support of the bill split diametrically: the repeal that made the bill so appealing to Southern men made it a bitter pill to swallow for Northern men who supported it on grounds that Southern men could barely tolerate.

Those divisions existed already, but Kansas-Nebraska threw them in sharp relief. Whatever hopes Douglas and other Democrats had for revitalizing their party came up hard against deep divisions that their strategy could only deepen further. Stephen Douglas might passionately believe in popular sovereignty and not mind slavery either way, but he may have been the only man in the party who did.

Kansas-Nebraska: Saving the Union

Phillip Phillips (D-AL)

Phillip Phillips (D-AL)

We look at the past with hindsight goggles. We know how things played out, so often historical figures can look like reckless fools that set themselves up for calamity after calamity and then refuse to change course. Didn’t Douglas know what F Street forced him into when it made him change his bill to suit Phillip Phillips and Archibald Dixon? Didn’t Phillips and Dixon know that they demanded measures that would help ruin the institution they meant to protect? Couldn’t they see disaster coming?

In the strictest sense, they could not. Nobody had a crystal ball. Could they have foreseen how repealing the Missouri Compromise would go over in the North? Perhaps, but it’s only with our hindsight goggles that we know so surely that the dispute over slavery animated passions like no other. People at the time could genuinely believe they provoked a brief, transient firestorm. If it helped the South save face, and helped southern Democrats keep their seats, why not concede a Kansas over to a phantom slavery that would never really develop? If saving a few southern Democratic seats against the threat of resurgent Whigs, however distant, cost a few northern Democratic seats then so be it. In the Democracy, the southern caucus had long held the lion’s share of the power. With the party’s strong hold over the South, it need not command equal favor in the North to maintain its accustomed control of the nation.

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

But what if the naysayers had it entirely wrong? The potential of KansasNebraska to swing the southwest to slavery obviously appealed to Southern men, but opening the great plains to white settlement appealed greatly to land-hungry whites. They might not desperately need it, as Bell and Houston noted, but more land to settle meant a bigger, broader future. If the advance of white settlement also meant a few tokens to slavery, that need not bother some Northern men. Most cared little about the institution in itself and less about the plight of those suffering under it. In the westernmost line of states and territories, on the banks of the Mississippi, land meant a great deal. Westerners moved out to get land and many of them could see a future for their sons and daughters one more state over. Westward expansion had the potential to become a Western issue and the core of a new Western identity, indifferent to slavery but very keen on settling the frontier.

Thomas Hart Benton, though he opposed the bill when it came to the House, had long thought that his Missouri had a more western character than southern. William Seward argued a few years before that the nation had not two sections, but three: North, South, and West. Real cultural and economic divides separated the frontier West from the settled East. The West had a rough, homespun character against the East’s settled gentility. Only recently had rail linked it to the great cities of the East. Before that, the West sold its crops down the Mississippi through New Orleans. Furthermore, much of the border Northwest had Southern people to go with its Southern geography. They almost made Illinois a slave state. In Indiana they elected a senator, Jesse D. Bright, who owned slaves in Kentucky and proved so studiously loyal to the Southern cause that the Senate expelled him in 1862. Men like him demonstrated that the Northwest had friends to slavery. An emerging western identity could dilute any opposition to proslavery politics, with the draw of white expansion distracting from any qualms about slavery expansion.

Jesse Bright

Jesse D. Bright (D-IN)

That new identity required people and states where those people could elect politicians to Congress, but here Kansas-Nebraska served admirably by throwing open the whole of the public domain. Furthermore, new western states would sprout farther from Chicago’s railroads, which had drawn Northwestern commerce eastward, and back down the Mississippi by way of the Missouri. The new West would so naturally share economic interests with the South, even if it lacked slavery. If it cared little about slavery, that difference would consequently matter little.

An alliance between new wheat and corn states west and north of Missouri and Iowa and the Cotton Kingdom could bring back the old days, with slavery’s security in the Union taking it out of the political limelight. The abolitionists couldn’t threaten it and the slaveholders would see that. Passions would cool and the nation could go back to living as thought the Mexican War never reopened the issue. This one Union-threatening, radical strike for slavery could paradoxically save the Union. It would surely revitalize the Democratic party by giving it eager supporters in the Northwest. Already the Democracy had high hopes for Iowa and Minnesota. Throw in Kansas and Nebraska and it would turn the Whigs into a tiny sectional party in the Northeast. Those extra seats could even dilute the proslavery bloc’s power to the point where it could no longer be forced into radicalism by renegade members, further safeguarding the Union by making proslavery men the happy victims of their own success.