The Rise and Fall of Business Antislavery: The New England Emigrant Aid Company, Part One

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

Between the Howard Committee and the Buford Expedition, plenty of people have lately come to Kansas Territory. Before them, Missourians went across the border. Many meant to stay, but many also meant to control Kansas’ elections or murder abolitionists and make it home for breakfast. In all this, I have largely left out the people who offered the proslavery forces their casus belli: the Emigrant Aid Company. To a great degree that comes down to the historians I have relied upon. Concerned with matters largely internal to the Kansas-Missouri border, it matters less to their narratives how antislavery Americans arrived in the territory than what they did once present. A few paragraphs suffice. But a kind friend has supplied me with Horace Andrews’ Kansas Crusade: Eli Thayer and the New England Emigrant Aid Company, the hot release of December, 1962.

Andrews points out that as the Kansas-Nebraska Act worked its way through Congress, a sense of inevitability set over certain quarters of the North. Slavery got what slavery wanted and they appeared impotent against the new advance. The Democracy had its house in order, a few dissidents aside, and would continue to do as it liked as the nation’s dominant party. Who could stop it? Eli Thayer of Worchester, Massachusetts though himself the man for the job. He ran a school for women, the Oread Collegiate Institute, for the four years prior to considerable success. In that time he supported the Free Soil party to the end and took a term in the Massachusetts legislature. All this made him prominent enough that the state legislature would grant Thayer his corporate charter, creating the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company.

Thayer advocated what he called “Business antislavery,” to separate it from the tried-and-failed methods of ordinary politics and moral suasion. If Stephen Douglas insisted that popular sovereignty would settle Kansas’ future, then Eli Thayer would take him up on that. Thayer’s business antislavery gained a significant convert in the person of Edward Everett Hale, a Unitarian minister and advocate for settling antislavery men in Texas to turn the state around. Hale had never come up with a concrete plan for doing that, but Thayer thought he had one. Thayer expected to sell stock in his company, use the money to subsidize emigration, and make a profit in the process. Andrews doesn’t go into just how, but presumably Thayer imagined that the company would invest in or found town companies just like many similar projects.

Amos Adams Lawrence

Amos Adams Lawrence

There came the snag. Thayer and his associates could drum up plenty of interest but not much money. The organizing committee itself refused to buy the stock they proposed to sell. Nobody seems to have believed that the five million dollar capitalization authorized would appear and many looked askance at the idea Thayer had to take the crusade into the slave states after they saved Kansas for freedom. At the instigation of Amos Lawrence, from whom Lawrence, Kansas, got its name, plans changed. Lawrence preferred a charitable operation with no expectation of future profit. If the stock wouldn’t generate dividends anyway, why pretend otherwise? And what if it did? Didn’t that suggest a mercenary outlook on the part of good-hearted antislavery men bent on saving the Union?

The Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company thus gave way to the New England Emigrant Aid Company on July 24, 1855, complete with a well-off board of Massachusetts luminaries for directors. Thayer got the news on his way home from a tour in New York where he raised $100,000. NEEAC, now institutionally controlled by conservative Whigs rather than New England radicals, had the form of a corporation but functioned like a charity. It took in gifts, rather than investments. Thayer himself took a demotion from leading light to a promotional speaker.

Revolutionaries and the Do-Nothing President

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce


Gentle Readers, it seems I’ve forgotten to link to Pierce’s special message in the previous posts quoting from and discussing it. I give you now the belated link and my apologies.

Franklin Pierce’s special message of January 24, 1856, moved on from pinning Kansas problems on Andrew Reeder. The governor, one presumes, lacked the experience to shoulder the entire burden by himself and Pierce realized his inadequacy to the task on further examination. The free state movement had to have its fair share. Pierce denounced them as a faction, a fraction of true Kansans entirely unrepresentative of the territory’s general tenor and now embarked on a project “of revolutionary character” to set up their own state government and dare Congress to refuse them admission to the Union.

To back up his conservative wrath at antislavery Kansans, Pierce laid out just how they made themselves into revolutionaries. Their movement rejected the local laws, which made them dangerous. They might soon turn outright traitor, and Pierce drew a line in the sand for them and reminded Kansas’ revolutionaries of the consequences, should they dare it:

It will become treasonable insurrection if it reach the length of organized resistance by force to the fundamental or any other Federal law and to the authority of the General Government. In such an event the path of duty for the Executive is plain. The Constitution requiring him to take care that the laws of the United States be faithfully executed, if they be opposed in the territory of Kansas he may, and should, place at the disposal of the marshal any public force of the United States which appears to be within the jurisdiction, to be used as a portion of the posse comitatus; and if that do not suffice to maintain order, then he may call forth the militia or one or more States for that object, or employ for the same object any part of the land or naval force of the United states.

But what about the Kansas-Nebraska Act? It specified that Kansans should decide for or against slavery in Kansas, not Missourians. Hadn’t their defiance of a federal law reached the point of organized resistance by force? Pierce referenced it in passing, allowing that

if the Territory be invaded by the citizens of other States, whether for the purpose of deciding elections or for any other, and the local authorities find themselves unable to repel or withstand it, they will be entitled to, and upon the fact being fully ascertained they shall most certainly receive, the aid of the General Government.

The President insisted that one must ask. He could not take it on himself

to preserve the purity of elections either in a State or Territory. To do so would be subversive of public freedom.

He has a point, if a narrow one. Should the President take it entirely on himself to police elections with military force, then he draws very near indeed to dictating their outcome. However, he undermines his own argument by saying that he would gladly do so if only the governor -whom he appointed- asked him to. He consciously wrote a blank check to the territory authorities. If they called it an insurrection, he would put the Army in their hands to put it down. In the case of a state with elections so stolen as Kansas’, Pierce essentially promised that he would put down any dissenting voices.

Maybe Andrew Reeder didn’t know enough to ask Pierce, assuming that he made the argument in good faith to begin with. Wilson Shannon knew to ask and sent for the 1st Cavalry repeatedly. It never appeared. Given recent history, one can’t read Pierce pronouncements as disinterested or nearly so neutral as they pretend. The President could grant all the antislavery facts, and came near to doing it. He as much as named their chief grievance. But against it, he declared himself perfectly impotent. Against them, would-be revolutionaries bordering on insurrection, Pierce promised to act far more decisively.

Blame the Free State Men

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce kept up his indictment of Andrew Reeder, delving into the legal technicalities related to the location of the capital of Kansas. I will spare you a repeated account of that tedious dispute. Suffice it to say that Pierce did not think Reeder acted properly in the slightest. The President’s wrath fully vented on the governor he shoes for Kansas, Pierce found another guilty party on whom to lay Kansas’ troubles: the free state movement.

Claiming the legal government of Kansas’ illegitimacy arose from its relocation away from Pawnee, a position actually held by precious few Kansans save Andrew Reeder, Pierce told the Congress that Kansans elected a legal delegate to Congress, John Whitfield on his second term, then other Kansans illegally elected another, Andrew Reeder. Pierce considered that “the first great movement in disregard of law within the Territory.” Given that the free state movement hadn’t run any elections of their own before Reeder’s, he might have a point. To grant it would only require us to ignore the repeated invasions from Missouri. Pierce knew about them well enough, but as usual dismissed proslavery extremism as either unimportant or justified.

To follow up that bit of lawlessness, Pierce named

another and more important one of the same general character. Persons confessedly not constituting the body politic or all the inhabitants, but merely a party of the inhabitants, and without law, have undertaken to summon a convention for the purpose of transforming the Territory into a State, and have framed a constitution, adopted it, and under it elected a governor and other officers and a Representative to Congress.

In their defense, the free state movement cited California, Michigan, and other states formed without the permission of Congress. Pierce granted the facts. The usual procedure that the Congress passed a territorial organic act, like the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and then would some time later pass an enabling act authorizing a state constitutional convention preparatory to admission to the Union, amounted to a custom rather than a strict requirement. However, it remained with Congress to approve or deny admission “in its discretion.” Furthermore:

in no instance has a State been admitted upon the application of persons acting against authorities duly constituted by act of Congress. In every case it is the people of the Territory, not a party among them, who have the power to form a constitution and ask for admission as a state. No principle of public law, nor practice or precedent under the Constitution of the United States, no rule of reason, right, or common sense, confers any such power as that now claimed by a mere party in the Territory. In fact what has been done is of revolutionary character.

John Wilkins Whitfield

John Wilkins Whitfield

Pierce might have technical points here, but plenty of people in Kansas would disagree with him about just how many of them the free state movement represented. It didn’t cover everybody, but then neither would any ordinary constitutional convention have done so. Someone loses every election and people of all stripes will naturally write constitutions suited to their particular values which, as a necessary consequence, prove hostile to the contrary values of others.

That said, boycotting elections, or holding illegal ones, did change the equation somewhat from the usual. If the losing party in elections for a state convention opted to throw its own, one might understandably look askance at them. In democracies, the people rule and express their wishes through elections. To disregard them on the simple grounds that one lost demonstrates that one doesn’t believe in democracy at all, but rather something more on the lines of “I win, you lose”-ocracy. Things in Kansas, however, had gone so out of the ordinary that it turned things on their head. The people of Kansas had precious little chance to have their voices heard, thanks to Missouri’s repeated interventions in slavery’s defense. Rather in their case, the presumptive, and eventually actual, losers of the elections had their way instead.

Blame Andrew Reeder, Part One

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

John Hale and Franklin Pierce did not get on. That Pierce had drummed him out of the New Hampshire Democracy can’t have brought the two men together, but come 1856 they had more bad blood between them. In his annual message, Pierce laid into antislavery politicians. Those enemies of the Constitution had done all in their power to wreck the Union, bedeviling a prostrate South that gave up concession after concession incompatible with its honor or status as an equal partner in the American nation. Nothing would please antislavery fanatics, the president said. Hale, an antislavery politician, understood that this all meant him and his. He shot back with an impressive tirade in the Senate, which concluded with his foreboding that in short order a rupture may come. Hale hoped that it could wait until Pierce left office, as a master of the art of capitulation ought not helm the ship of state in such a time. The Senator’s kind words so moved Pierce that, according to James Rawley, turned his back on Hale at a White House reception. Clearly, Pierce had declared for slavery in Kansas.

Things didn’t necessarily look quite so dire in Kansas. From the beginning, free soil Kansans thought they might have a friend in Franklin Pierce. Well-connected men like James Lane told them so. The president hailed from New Hampshire, hardly a hotbed of proslavery sentiment. If he rose up through the Democracy, then that didn’t necessarily bother a majority of antislavery Kansans. Many of them, though certainly not all, leaned democratic. The charitable among them might even dismiss Pierce’s annual message for 1855, delivered on the last day of the year, as directed more at outside politicians than themselves. Yes, Pierce dismissed their concerns as the ordinary imperfections of government and, anyway, not something he could help. Yes, Pierce refused to send the army to protect them from Missouri’s invasions. But if you really wanted to, you could read all of that as indifference or poor information. Nothing the president said, contra Hale, necessitated that he had it in for free state Kansans.

On January 24, nine days after the free state pools opened everywhere save Leavenworth, and exactly a week after Leavenworth’s election belatedly took place in Easton and occasioned the murder of Reese Brown, the president sent a special message to the Congress. The House still didn’t have a Speaker, but Pierce had given up waiting on that fiasco back at the end of December. Why it took him so long to chime in again has puzzled historians. With the exception of the free state elections, nothing all that noteworthy had happened in Kansas since the annual message. Proslavery men killed Reese Brown, but all of a month before that Pierce had stood idly by while actual, if small and makeshift, armies had gathered in the territory and came near to blows. What changed?

In the second volume of his Ordeal of the Union, Allan Nevins suggests that Pierce had a divided Cabinet. The Interior Department leaned as far antislavery as the War Department, under Jefferson Davis, did proslavery. At State, William Marcy refused to give any opinion at all. Bereft of a clear consensus, in an era when presidents often shared more decision-making power with the Cabinet than we might expect, Pierce might have floundered about. Nichole Etcheson speculates that Pierce meant the message to undermine Andrew Reeder. In the endnotes, she also points to Pierce’s biographer, Roy Nichols. Nichols thought that the entire message aimed at swinging southern Know-Nothings into voting for the administration’s man as Speaker of the House. I doubt we’ll ever know.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

But when Pierce did set pen to paper, he displayed made himself very clear: Andrew Reeder, who the free state Kansans had named their delegate to Congress, screwed it all up. He dragged his feet getting to the territory, delaying from the end of June until the beginning of October before setting foot within his new domain. Then he declined to conduct the census that he ought to have begun immediately, delaying the first legislative elections until the end of March as a consequence. Then Reeder took until the start of July to summon the legislature.

So that for a year after the Territory was constituted by the act of Congress and the officers to be appointed by the Federal Executive had been commissioned it was without a complete government, without any legislative authority, without local law, and, of course, without the ordinary guarantees of peace and public order.

I have yet to find a historian who will defend Andrew Reeder’s performance as governor. He appears genuinely unfit for the task, an inexperienced lawyer jumped up to head a territory for the convenience of the Democracy in his part of Pennsylvania. He might have done his very best, but Kansas needed more. And who had put such an incompetent novice in charge of the nation’s newest, and surely most fraught, territory? What kind of fool would look at the obvious challenges facing Kansas and decide to seat an undistinguished lawyer into the governor’s chair?

Franklin Pierce.

Hale vs. Pierce: Scheduling the Civil War

John Hale

John Hale

John Hale, New Hampshire’s free soil senator, castigated Franklin Pierce. That Scourge of God and vulgar demagogue, he told the Senate, impugned the good character of men of such exalted station that the President proved unworthy to tie their shoes. They had stood for a free Kansas, with fair elections. They had avowed the president’s supposed convictions and declared for the Kansans to set the territory’s course. Franklin Pierce had done all in his power to ensure every decision about Kansas’ future fell to armed mobs from Missouri.

Hale made no apology for the harsh words. He would

be restrained by no consideration from speaking what I believe to be the truth.

Lest anybody thought Hale had something nastier to say. The Senator took being called an enemy of the Constitution seriously indeed. Hale also thought the charge absurd, but an absurd charge can still offend. If Pierce wanted to pick a fight over Kansas, then Hale stood ready. He could not imagine a better cause, at least in early 1856. 

In declaring that the battle might begin then and there, on the floor of the Senate, Hale needed only look forward to the most likely of events. Nineteenth century Americans organized territories with the expectation that they would soon seek admission to the Union as states. The free state movement already had a plan to try it. The proslavery side soon would do the same. Thus:

If, by the illegal violence of the men who have gone over into Kansas, and undertaken to establish slavery there, they shall come here and ask for admission into the Union with a slave constitution, and Kansas will be rejected, the President tells us that is the most favorable aspect in which the question can be presented. That will be the issue, and, if it be decided against slavery, we are threatened with civil war.

Hale might sound overheated to us, but the admission of a new state had brought the nation into crisis twice in living memory. His formula of a slave state rejected by Congress recalls the Missouri Controversy, but we could just as easily point to California seeking admission as a free state. The two greatest sectional clashes of the antebellum era to date both began on the same road.

All this bellicosity required disclaimers. Hale didn’t want people to think him a fanatic. He didn’t welcome a civil war, though he confessed that at times he wished one would come to get it all over with. Should the war finally erupt, Hale anticipated it would have one good effect:

it would learn those men who are constantly talking about the dissolution of the Union a lesson which neither they, nor their children’s children, would ever forget.

They learned two lessons, in fact. The nation would not stand for rebellion and would put one down with great force. It would also let them have nearly everything short of slavery if they continued the war by other means for long enough.

Zachary Taylor

Zachary Taylor

Of course, Franklin Pierce would not make the best wartime president; he made for a nearly catastrophic peacetime president. Better, Hale thought, to wait:

If the attempt at disunion were made wish such a man as General Jackson, or General Taylor in the Presidential chair, and it were repressed promptly, as it would be, people would say “Oh, it was his great military power, his reputation, his popularity which did it.” God knows they could not say it of this President.

The gallery rang with laughter.


Hale vs. Pierce: Rebuking Franklin Pierce

John Hale

John Hale

In his third annual message, Franklin Pierce castigated antislavery Americans as enemies of the Constitution. Those traitors had brought the Union nigh unto ruin. The sorest of sore winners, they took every concession that the slave states generously gave and called it a proslavery imposition. The fiends had ranted, raved, and aroused the innocent South to the point where, prostrate, she had finally demanded and got well-deserved redress in the repeal of federal restrictions on slavery in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. New Hampshire’s free soil senator, John P. Hale, would have none of that. He tore into Pierce for neglecting Kansas in most of his message, for doing -and when necessary refraining from doing- all he could to ensure slavery spread to Kansas. If any of that made him an enemy of the Constitution, then Hale would take it.

But Hale wouldn’t take it laying down. He would “not have him hurl such an imputation as that unchallenged or unrebuked.” Pierce, Hale declared,

has no right to designate any men who are here under the same oath to support the Constitution which he has taken, as enemies of the Constitution; and when he does it he comes down from the high place which God, in his wrath for the punishment of our national sins, and for the humiliation of our national pride, has permitted him to occupy.

John P. Hale literally called Franklin Pierce the Scourge of God. He described precisely the function of that concept in medieval theology, lacking only to name it. In its day, Christians attached the title to Genghis Khan, the Black Death, and Atilla the Hun. In our more secular time that draws a smile, at least from me, but strip away the theology and Hale anticipated generations of future historians. Pierce occupies a singularly exalted place very near the bottom whenever they sit down to rank presidents. Even given the difficult time, Pierce made a bad show of it. He might have qualified for the worst president ever, but James Buchanan exceeded him and came into office immediately after. Then Andrew Johnson blew all the competition out of the water.

Hale had more than theology to sling at Pierce:

I say he comes down from that high place into the arena of a vulgar demagogue, and strips himself of everything which should clothe with dignity the office of President of the United States. I deny the issue; I hurl it in his face; I tell him, when he undertakes to designate these [antislavery] men as enemies of the Constitution, he bauses and defames men whose shoe-latchets he is unworthy to tie.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Today we would call such behavior un-presidential.  In Hale’s time the standards of decorum ran somewhat more aristocratic. Nineteenth century Americans saw it as vulgar for presidents to campaign on their own behalf. The model candidate ought to stay home, entertain people who called, and refer them to his past record if they wanted to know his position on anything. He had surrogates who would speak and write on his behalf. Now we have presidents who very much do campaign, but by custom the vice-presidential candidate and others still handle the harder partisan attacks most of the time.

Hale vs. Pierce: Enemies of the Constitution

John Hale

John P. Hale

We left John P. Hale taking his own swipes at Franklin Pierce’s theory of presidential impotence. The president could do nothing, Hale, affirmed, except when doing something would serve to expand slavery. Andrew Jackson, the hero of all good Democrats and a fair number of former Democrats of Hale’s stripe, would never have stood by and proclaimed his hands tied or let proslavery radicals contravene the rights of white men. That Jackson did precisely that in letting southern postmasters censor the mail did not detract from his image as a president of vigorous, decisive action.

Hale then expressed his low estimation of Wilson Shannon’s political future. Though Shannon “went shouting over the plains as he went, that he was for slavery in Kansas” he found himself caught between North and South. Hale expected Shannon to find no one in the Senate who would come to his aid when his administration collapsed.

That brought Hale, with some parting disdain at the way Pierce reduced Kansas to a footnote in his annual message, to the president’s “long lecture upon slavery.” There,

The President of the United States in the paper which he sent here a few days ago, takes the ground that the gentlemen who do not agree with him in his peculiar notions are the enemies of the Constitution. He so puts it, for he says:

“If the friends of the Constitution are to have another struggle, its enemies could not present a more acceptable issue than that of a State, whose Constitution clearly embraces ‘a republican form of government,’ being excluded from the Union because its domestic institutions may not in all respects comport with the ideas of what is wise and expedient entertained in some other State.”

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Hale read Pierce fairly. The President attacked the very idea of the Missouri Compromise, or any other restriction on slavery imposed from Washington. He staked out the position that slavery could have no limits. The people of a territory must accept its import from elsewhere. They could not ban it until, after enslavers had time to dominated the territorial government and thoroughly ensconce human bondage in the area, the territory became a state. When had such a situation ever led to a free state? In an earlier time, states with marginal slavery systems had emancipated after often considerable struggle and through an often decades-long process, but the club of territories left open to slavery by Congress which then abolished it had, then and now, no members. Pierce didn’t quite say slavery everywhere, slavery forever, but he came close. Then he proclaimed it the single orthodox reading of the American Constitution, from which one could not dissent.

Hale would have none of that. He called it “an insult to the majority of this nation.” Pierce had to know as much, “if he reads anything beyond the most servile sheets that his creatures send to him.” Hale might have added that Pierce could know it through the majority in New Hampshire that put John Hale into the Senate. Yet Pierce added “one half of the popular branch of Congress, and quite a number of the members of the Senate” to the nation’s enemies list.

Though insulted, Hale refused to take the hint and quiet himself. If Pierce declared him a foe of the Constitution, alias a traitor, then

I say the President can do me no sort of harm by such denunciations as this. I am perfectly willing to take it

Hale could afford to take it; he had plenty of company.

Hale vs. Pierce: Proslavery Interpositions

John Hale

John Hale

Senator John Hale of New Hampshire would have none of Franklin Pierce’s gab about Central America. Americans, he told the Senate, could not work up much interest for the dispute between the United Kingdom and the United States over the region’s agreed-upon neutrality and a possible future canal. Whether the Clayton-Bulwer Treaty referred to prospective renunciations of interest in the event of a canal’s construction or immediate surrenders meant little to them. They spent 1855 occupied with Kansas, not filibuster-bedeviled lands to the south.

On that matter, Hale quoted Pierce’s annual message:

In the Territory of Kansas, there have been acts prejudicial to good order, but as yet none have occurred to justify the interposition of the Federal Executive.

Franklin Pierce must not have read the papers, or dispatches from the governor he appointed. But his enemy from their days in the New Hampshire democracy did not settle for a pretense of ignorance. Per Hale,

the interposition of the Federal Executive has been there, and it has been on the side of those very acts of violence. Sir, the people of Kansas have had to protect themselves against mob law, instigated by the President and sustained by his officials there. When he says there has been nothing to “justify” official interposition, I admit it is true that there was nothing to justify it; but the interposition was there, whether justified or not.

From our remove, we can say that Jefferson Davis, the F Street Mess, and Stephen Douglas pressured Franklin Pierce into signing off on repealing the Missouri Compromise. They gained his support by promising they would also get that of Secretary of State Marcy before going public, then broke their word by calling on the Secretary, finding him absent, and considered that as good as approval. Pierce didn’t choose any of this on his own, but choose it he did.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Given the chance to do right by Kansas and popular sovereignty, the President gave the territory a largely proslavery government through his appointments, led by a political novice dispatched for patronage purposes. When that governor, Andrew Reeder, exhibited even minimal deference to the idea that Kansans ought to decide for Kansas, rather than invading Missourian hooligans, Pierce found an excuse to fire him. His replacement introduced himself to the territory, from Missouri, with a full-bore endorsement of the border ruffians’ gains.

He [Pierce] goes on to say that the people of Kansas must be protected. Well, Sir, they will be protected; but they have not had protection from the President of the United States. Do you not know, Sir, does the Senate know, and does the country not know, that Governor Reeder came home and proclaimed in the ears of the President that Kansas was a conquered country? And what did he do? The Governor told him that Kansas was conquered. What do you suppose Gen. Jackson would have done, if one of his Governors had come to Washington and said, “General, that Territory which you sent me to govern has been conquered.”

The invocation of Jackson must have had special salience, given Jackson’s party had expelled Hale from its ranks. Andrew Jackson, of course, would have made a fight of it. He probably would have tried for genocide against any Indians he found, fought some duels, and executed some British subjects as well. Old Hickory rolled that way. The Young Hickory of the Granite Hills? Not so much. Only furthering the expansion of slavery could stir him to decisive action.

Possibilities for Peace

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward in 1851

What if William Seward and Stephen Douglas threw a war and no one came? The Fugitive Slave Act outraged the North and prompted incidences of popular resistance even to the point of violence, but by 1854 the outrage had largely settled into the status quo. Anthony Burns (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) might have fanned the old flames, but he did so in Boston. Few places in the North had Boston’s passion for antislavery politics. He also did so amid the anti-Nebraska furor. The twin outrages reinforced one another, with the latter probably doing a great deal more to popularize the cause of the former.

But settlement of the American West, wherever the frontier ran at a given moment, usually involved relatively scrupulous respect for lines of latitude. Most emigrants expected to farm and so sought a climate and soil similar to that at home for economic as well as sentimental reasons. Those rails of latitude would take people from enslaved Missouri into Kansas, but also take people from free Iowa into the Nebraska Territory all the way up to the Canadian border. No one seems to have said that the Kansas-Nebraska Act meant Kansas for slavery and Iowa for freedom, but one could easily read that settlement in.

Nineteenth century Americans lived in a nation half slave and half free. However much they grumbled, held protest meetings, and said nasty things about the other half, they proved for decades entirely capable of living with the partition. In time, the North’s loss of Kansas to slavery might have taken on the appearance of a fair trade for the South’s loss of California to freedom. If the Nebraska territory all went free, then the vast majority of the Missouri Compromise remained in place in fact if not in law. In due course Minnesota and Nebraska would come in as free states. Maybe that would also mean that New Mexico and Utah turned slave, but the old two by two program of admitting states would proceed at least until then. The nation might get a decade or more of the old days come again. The South could not claim any kind of mistreatment over that and the North’s outrage might fade in the face of its practical triumph.

The South’s gain might have proved equally transitory. Slaveholders rightly viewed their human property as a fragile institution because that property could decide to take off on its own and display all the ingenuity that actual people, with their white skin, enjoyed. As such, they shrank from taking slaves anywhere that antislavery feeling might prevail in the foreseeable future. That kept Missouri from swelling with slaves. The same concerns helped sell slaves out of the Upper South and into the Lower South. Furthermore, slaveholders looking to improve their fortunes through expansion had far safer avenues than chilly Kansas. The Missourians might see in Kansas hemp and tobacco land, but Texas and Arkansas offered virgin soil ripe for cotton. Even arid New Mexico, far from the grasping hands of slave-stealing abolitionists could present a more appealing face than a Kansas where antislavery men openly conspired to make the land free. Even as the future of Kansas hung in the balance, New Mexico and Utah sent out calls for southern settlers.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Where did that leave an enslaved Kansas? The South might claim a symbolic victory and hold back the tide of free states in the Senate for a few more years, but for how long? And how long would barely enslaved Kansas prove reliable? Southerners fretted already over Missouri, Kentucky, Maryland, and Delaware. Another unsteady ally in future controversies could provide another swing vote to force on the South some new detestable compromise.

But what if it worked? A well-enslaved Kansas had to get its slaves from somewhere. They would surely come mostly from adjacent Missouri, where the tide of white immigration had already turned the state’s demographics worryingly Northern. Its black belts would count as white belts down in the Cotton Kingdom. If Kansas drained the slaves from Missouri and turned it into a free state, would Kansan slavery long remain a slavery island in the free wilderness? Missouri had just that problem already. Down the road, the South’s win of one state for slavery could mean the loss of two.

Maybe Douglas had it right the first time, by passing the buck to the territory and its legislature things could just fall out as they may. Either section could glean a win out of that, either right then or a few years later. If no one came and made a war of it, then sudden outrage could settle into the new way of things. Those exercised over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, on either side, would mostly feel their passions cool and decide that however painful their ordeal, the Union survived and life went on.

Stephen Douglas Declares War

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

If Stephen Douglas threw the future of Kansas as free soil into doubt with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he left open the possibility that freedom would prevail. At various points, he said that he expected it to do so and thus the tremendous strife in Washington, in the newspapers, and out in the nation at large over the fact amounted to much ado about nothing. If slavery would not flourish in Kansas anyway, why worry about the fact that Kansans could legally introduce it? They’d just waste their time.

Neither the Missouri slaveholders doing just fine a few miles away from Kansas, drained by the same river, and outraged by its potential as an abolitionist base for slave stealing nor the antislavery North though slavery in Kansas a bloodless abstraction. For both parties, to varying degrees, slavery in Kansas meant the possibility of slavery in Utah and New Mexico to say the least, and perhaps slavery all the way up to Canada. It could mean on one hand the regaining of lost parity for slavery in the Senate and on the other a wall of future slave states that would help turn the Union entire into an empire for slavery.

With its future, and by proxy the Union’s future, in doubt and subject to the verdict of elections in Kansas, antislavery men resolved to make a fight of it. Their threats, both political and otherwise, incensed Douglas greatly. They foretold an era of sectional parties that would pit North against South to the ruin of the Union. He rose to answer the fireworks in the Senate with dire warnings of his own:

No sane man can close his eyes to the fact that this great northern party, which is being organized on sectional issues, contemplates servile insurrection, civil war, and disunion! Sir, every man who joins this new organization with the black flag of Abolition floating over it; every man who prostitutes the pulpit to the advancement of demagogues and the encouragement of violence; every man who goes into this unholy, treasonable alliance, will be marked by the people for his treason.

Douglas would spend some of the summer and fall hearing plenty of accusations of treason tossed his way, but he could give as good as he got:

By your speeches you encourage mobs, you instigate rebellion, you stimulate violence, and then shuffle off the responsibility upon others, and leave your simple, unfortunate instruments and tools to bear the odium, and in some cases suffer the penalty of the law for crimes which you caused to be committed.


Every murder that shall be committed, every drop of blood that shall be shed, every crime that shall be perpetrated must rest, with all its guilt, upon your souls; and I only regret that the penalty of the law cannot fall upon the heads of the instigators instead of the instruments who suffer themselves to be acting under their advice.

Antislavery rhetoric could get pretty wild, sometimes to the point where even sympathetic modern readers find their eyes rolling. I know mine have. But their standards of political speech differed from ours and we must allow that they did grapple with what they saw as existential concerns. Within a decade, they proved themselves right to think that the future of slavery and the future of the nation formed one and the same issue.

Senator William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

Senator William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

If antislavery men like Seward considered the gauntlet thrown down, in the manner of a romantic medieval duel, then so did Douglas. He picked it up on behalf of the Union, just his opposites believed they had:

I accept your challenge; raise your black flag; call up your forces; preach your war on the Constitution, as you have threatened it here. We will be ready to meet all your allied forces. The people will prove true to the Constitution, and true to their allegiance to the Union. You cannot carry out the programme threatened without an attempt to overthrow the Government. You cannot carry it out without destroying all fidelity to the Constitution. Now we are ready for the issue. “Self-government and the Constitution” is our motto, and under that banner we will fight the battle and achieve victory.

That all speaks for itself, but one bit warrants calling out. The black flag, in the parlance of the time, meant not just the flag of a hateful cause. Rather one figuratively raised the black flag at war to announce that one would give no quarter and expect none in return. It meant no mercy and no surrenders. The fight would go on until one side or the other ran out of people to kill.