Senator Sumner Goes to Washington

Charles Sumner (Free Soil-MA)

Henry Adams, the fourth generation of his family to appear in this blog, brought the good news to Charles Sumner twice: Massachusetts chose him as its new senator. Sumner, with no previous experience in office and a stormy career as a spokesman and activist for prison reform and against war and slavery, had reason to doubt his abilities. Winning appeared relatively easy. Governing, if Sumner had any opportunity to at all, would prove harder. Washington and its politicians had displeased a much less radical Sumner on his one prior visit and he had come to public life only with some reluctance and the encouragement of John Quincy Adams.

Barely elected at all, after great struggle, and by a coalition damned by members of both national parties, Sumner lacked the wind at his back that a newly-elected man might hope for. Nor could he dream of putting his stamp on the nation while he remained a member of a tiny minority. His rhetoric, the one area where he might reasonably expect to excel, would now face opposition from skilled proslavery debaters. To employ it to any use, Sumner would have to master the Senate’s arcane rules and traditions or risk making a fool of himself.

Sumner’s embarrassments began as soon as he presented his credentials. By Senate tradition, the senior senator for one’s state presented a newcomer to the chamber. Sumner’s Massachusetts peer chose to oversleep rather than risk the wrath of Daniel Webster, leaving him to hunt down Lewis Cass and beg an introduction. Instead of the customary phrasing where a Senator begged leave to present a colleague, Cass informed the others only that

I have been requested to present the credentials of Charles Sumner, a Senator elect from the State of Massachusetts.

John Hale

Thomas Hart Benton, just defeated for re-election courtesy of David Rice Atchison, had a more sympathetic but just as disheartening welcome for Sumner. He told the new senator that all the great men had gone and taken the great issues of the day with them. Settling down into the desk previously occupied by Jefferson Davis, Sumner could look across a chamber with few allies. New Hampshire’s John Hale seemed like a shady character despite their shared party. He got on better with Salmon P. Chase. Sumner feared William Seward, who he otherwise liked, would always put Whiggery above antislavery. Hamilton Fish, Seward’s New York colleague, lamented Winthrop’s lost seat but went out of his way to make Sumner welcome.

Sumner found unlikely friends among the chamber’s Southern contingent. They knew many Yankees made antislavery speeches back home, but what went on back home didn’t necessarily translate to personal relationships in Washington. Soon Massachusetts antislavery extremist claimed Pierre Soulé as his best friend. He likewise befriended Andrew Pickens Butler, who sat next to him. Seeing in Sumner a man who knew his classics, Butler relied on him to check the quotations he planned to use in speeches. In these situations, and otherwise socially, Sumner declined to raise his antislavery opinions and instead talked or history and far-off happenings.

Soon Sumner settled, if not entirely comfortably, into the regular spin of Washington society. With everyone far from home, the political class formed their own small world with an unending cycle of dinners and other social occasions where they entertained each other in small groups for a large portion of the week. A single week of his first month saw Sumner hosted by Millard Fillmore, the French Minister, and Francis Blair. His party might earn him political isolation, and a few men rubbed Sumner wrong or took a dislike to him, but he didn’t suffer much from personal ostracism.

The Friends of Law and Order, Part Two

Senator William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

William H. Seward

We left the Friends of Law and Order addressing the “Law-Abiding Citizens of Kansas” on the crisis that now faced Kansas. The abolitionists had come into their midst and threatened, with their fanatical hostility to the institution of the South, to bring the entire territory to ruin. Fair Kansas, blessed with natural resources and a glorious destiny, might fall into anarchy. The free state men had, after all, declared themselves in defiance of the law, set up their own government with its own elections and soon its own constitution. They fomented rebellion, which no state could tolerate.

These concerns obviously came from the proslavery party, but the men who wrote the address in the October 23, 1855 edition of the Squatter Sovereign did appeal to universal concerns:

It is not our intention at present to discuss the relative merits of the various political sentiments entertained by those whose doctrines are now linked together, for weal or woe, in the future fate of Kansas, the home of their adoption. The mass of our people have but one common interest, the general good and welfare of the people.

Forget the politics; we simply can’t have a two governments vying for the same territory. That augured civil war. Thus regardless of opinions on slavery or on the legitimacy of the legislature, good Kansans had to come together to fight the treason growing in their midst. Whatever they thought about it

The Legislature, which framed our code of laws, was according to the admission of the Governor of the Territory, a legally constituted body.

Although that Legislative Assembly may have erred and transcended its legitimate powers, yet we hold that their enactments are binding upon every citizen until they are by the proper tribunals decided to be invalid or unconstitutional.

Andrew Reeder, the same man who had just won election as the free state party’s delegate to Congress, had signed off on the legislature. He only changed his mind when it removed from his real estate investments in Pawnee. If he thought it illegitimate simply for its membership or its irregular elections, then he would not have so easily convened, praised, and tried to work with the body.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

The friends of law and order further argued that this technical, legal legitimacy entirely sufficed. If the legislature got a bit carried away, then the American system had remedies. New elections, court rulings, or even acts of Congress might correct it. But private sentiment could not:

If a different rule is to govern, why not let every man create within his own bosom a superior court to pass upon the validity and binding force of any law? Why have courts at all if they are not the proper tribunals to decide upon these questions?

So much for Higher Law doctrinesWilliam Seward could cry himself to sleep every night for all they cared. The anarchy that threatened seemed to come on a straight line from the New York Senator, through the antislavery movement, freight paid by the New England Emigrant Aid Company. Seward’s bellicose language on Kansas invited the connection. Thus

We have witnessed the declaration of open and avowed resistance, and we see in it a manifestation of a lawless and reckless spirit which will soon subvert the foundations of all law, and reduce us to the wildest state of anarchy and confusion, unless it is speedily arrested in its mad career. It counsels a dissolution of all social and political ties. It constitutes every man as the sold judge of the validity of all law […] open defiance to “the powers that be” is already proclaimed. It is needless to argue against the folly and wickedness of such conduct;- It is higher-lawism-it is Treason.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

This has a whiff of desperate exaggeration to it, but I don’t think we should underestimate their sincerity. Bonds of law included not just slavery, but marriage, property, and many other things that they understood as essential. These ties, legal and simultaneously social and political, held society back from the precipice. An attack on one thus seemed like an attack on all. Freeing the slaves would deprive white men of their property, bring about the specter of black men raping their wives and so violating the social bond of their marriages, and the slavery question threatened to sunder their political bonds as well. Free state and proslavery assemblies alike found it necessary to abjure the formation of parties affiliated with the national organizations in favor of bipartisan alignments for or against property in people.

If they really did believe slavery fundamental to society, and it seems clear that the proslavery men did, then all of this logically follows. They had built and aimed to continue building a civilization on the backs of black Americans. Tear away that foundation and what could stand?

Placing myself in the historiography

W.E.B. Du Bois

W.E.B. Du Bois

Gentle Readers, I planned for today’s post to include some insights from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book. I ordered it last week and expected to be through by now. When the book hadn’t arrived by late last week, I went to inquire. Then I learned that their supplier has only 1,400 copies to spread across the state, or a good portion of it, and so my order had turned into a back order with no estimated date of arrival. The good news a high demand means to Ta-Nehisi’s bank account comes joined with my small misfortune. Few have suffered so keenly as I have, of course. Future generations will remember my inconvenience in tastelessly baroque arrangements of concrete. Generations further removed still will wonder at the overweight, balding fellow on horseback with a laptop and too many books precariously balanced on his knees. I rode a horse once, if one counts a plow horse in its traces. By this same standard, I have ridden an elephant. We history bloggers lead glamorous lives, you know.

My tragedy for the ages aside, that leaves me with a Modern Monday to write. I cast about for a while before realizing that I read Coates to understand. He writes well and powerfully from a perspective that I think most white Americans have little to no experience with. We have, for the most part, very segregated lives and the culture which produced us works very hard, by design, to keep things that way. By reading him I get a bracing corrective to that which then informs my further reading of history. He helps me understand not just black Americans, but all Americans.

To the same end, I sometimes read historiography. I must distinguish this from history as one usually knows it. Historiography often, and ought, to come in history books but the two do differ. I understand historiography as the history of historical interpretation, which lately I have approached through Kenneth Stampp’s The Causes of the Civil WarThere he collects signature writings in the historiography of the war, from period documents to postwar polemics and historians all the way up to the last printing in 1991. This matters because, whatever appearances to the contrary, every historian comes from somewhere. The historian’s personal values and the culture of his or her time inform every step of the historical endeavor from what questions one cares to ask to where one looks for material to how one weighs particular evidence. In this, historians do not differ so much from everyone else.

Much of what I have read in Stampp covers ground I’ve crossed before, occasionally to the point of frustration. But reading his collection gave me cause to reflect upon my own historiographical positions. Readers may disagree, but I would place myself as a member of what I’ve lately seen called the Fundamentalist school of Civil War causation. This term, I think, postdates Stampp’s work. In his work, and past decades, people of a similar position claimed to subscribe to the Irrepressible Conflict school, after a speech of William Seward’s. Elizabeth Varon describes Fundamentalists in her Disunion! The Coming of the Civil War as following W.E.B. Du Bois:

For Du Bois, the Civil War was not only a clash of economic systems but also a war of ideas and ideologies (systems of thought). With careful attention to both the economies and the ideologies of North and South, modern “fundamentalists” such as James M. McPherson, Eric Foner, Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Bruce Levine, John Ashworth, Brian Holden Reid, and Sean Wilentz have described the two sections as different and deeply antagonistic societies; all agree that slavery was the root cause of that antagonism. The North’s commitment to capitalism and modernization, these scholars explain, was the context for abolitionism and for the free labor ideology of Abraham Lincoln’s Republican Party. The South’s commitment to staple production and slave labor was reflected in the region’s distinctive cult of honor, its preoccupation with localism and states’ rights, and its defense of social inequality.

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

Henry Clay, founder of the Whigs

Full disclosure: I have read McPherson, some (and not nearly enough) Foner, and Ashworth, but not the others. They remain on my ever-growing list of scholars to read.

It follows from these premises that at the very least, one would expect intense and regular conflict between the North and South. This conflict could very probably have come to the point of war at some point, regardless of the outcomes of individual crises. We can’t rerun time and see how things might have gone in other circumstances, but viewed in light of this each crisis comes to us less as a unique thing in itself and more as part of an ongoing and never entirely subdued dispute. Contingency might have shaped how each conflict arose and what resolution came, but a resolution that brought satisfaction to one section would naturally have come at the perceived expense of the other. This would in turn lead to less tolerance for future compromises on behalf of the aggrieved, which would further alienate and undermine the position of moderates in the other section. Cycles of polarization feed upon themselves and ratchet up the tension, making alternatives once the province of a few seem increasingly like sensible options. Perhaps those drastic steps would become then the only options, leading to a rupture which no mystic chords of memory could bind back together again.

Against this school, one could array the neo-revisionists. The original revisionists, much-beloved of latter-day Confederates, blamed the war not on profound sectional differences but instead on manufactured controversy. To their eyes, irresponsible agitators of a blundering generation (for this one should generally read “abolitionists,” the fire-eaters usually got a free pass or only pro forma denunciation) invented the dispute over slavery for some other reason. It could come down to one’s personal ambitions, desire to build a political party, or esoteric and often unrelated issues like the tariff. To them, slavery played a role more as the incident of the sectional breach rather than its main cause. The neo-revisionists do not go nearly so far as this. Reviews I have read cast some doubt on Varon’s assigning David Potter and Stampp himself to this school. Having read Potter’s The Impending Crisis, I really don’t myself know where got that one from. But William Freehling, author of my much-loved Road to Disunion volumes accepts the label. In any event, this newer wave of scholars all emphasize the centrality of slavery in their own ways. They put more weight in contingency more and give more credit to individual actors, blundering and otherwise, but little dispute remains over the subject of the controversy.

This leaves us not with a question of what caused the war, but rather whether or not the people of the time could have avoided it. I don’t think so. At the very least, doing so would have taken an especially monumental change of heart on behalf of multiple deeply committed and influential actors who all stood to lose a great deal for reversing themselves. People don’t normally turn on a dime like that even without the future of the nation, as they understand it, at stake.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

I don’t know when exactly the ship sailed and the increasing forces of antagonism became an irreversible trend; none of us can know that with any certainty. One can point to the election itself. If Stephen Douglas won, would the Southern Democrats really bolt the Union? They had refused him, but by cooperating they could win concessions as they so often had. Then again, Douglas ultimately came out against them over the future of Kansas and Kansas matters kept the sectional fires burning for most of the decade before the war.

Could John Brown have saved the Union by staying home? Maybe so, as his raid on Harper’s Ferry prompted fresh panic across the South. But white southerners saw in John Brown nothing more than the culmination of all they had already observed among the Republicans.

Taking things further back, if we could remove Kansas from the equation things become less clear. Many historians, including Freehling, have taken the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act with its repeal of the Missouri Compromise as the point of no return. It broke the Whigs, ravaged the Northern Democracy, and ultimately created the Republicans. If the northern Whigs had little reason to curry favor with their southern wing, then they had at least some. The Republicans had no southern wing to appease and the thought of them creating one in the Border South helped drive the Lower South out of the Union.

But then the Whigs did not look so well before 1854. The Compromise of 1850 demonstrated that the Democracy could deliver for slavery where Whiggery could not and at least somewhat harmed the Whigs in doing so. Dispute over the enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act had not gone away and proved a source of tension fruitful enough that South Carolina damned northerners as nullifiers over it in 1860. If this did not amount to a Kansas-sized breach, then the fact that it did not work as advertised agitated the South as much as its existence and operation did the North.

John Brown

John Brown

I don’t know that calling anything inevitable makes for best historical practice, as it seems to both deny agency to people in the past and to render the historian’s task moot, but at the very least I think an eventual war over slavery’s future became far more likely when David Wilmot rose and proposed that slavery should not extend to any land taken from Mexico. One can, however, step back from that and say that Wilmot had no reason to do any such thing had no Mexican War ensued. The Mexican War arose inherently, even as understood by the men who voted for it, from the annexation of Texas. That takes us back to the middle of the 1840s for the act of annexation itself, or the decade prior for when it first became a national issue.

It would not do to draw a straight line from each of these points to Sumter. Nor should we neglect the serious friction over the Missouri Compromise itself back in 1820. But I take each of these points as increasing the probability of civil war. I think that we often overstate the fractured nature of the early Republic, reading too much of the 1850s and 1860s backward and too much of colonial disunion forward. Much of this comes from reading invocations of states rights as arising from disposition and principle rather than partisanship and circumstance. I also think that a degree of paradoxical nationalism plays into things. By emphasizing the frailty of the Union, we can make the fabled experiment in self-government seem all the more remarkable for its endurance.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Considering all of this, I take the Missouri Compromise as a prototype for sectional crises, if not one immediately followed. Sectional tension over slavery then, I would argue, increasingly characterized national politics. This trend did not come without partial reverses and progressed somewhat modestly in its early years, but each controversy thereafter sharpened the lines further and so made the next both more likely and more perilous to the peace of white Americans.

The neo-revisionists might ask why compromise and pacification failed in 1860, when the Union had endured decades before then. Latter day blundering generation historians could point to turnover of politicians in both sections. Men who came of age in the Era of Good Feelings remembered something like an America without parties, dominated by statesmen they imagined disinterested. Those men retired, often to the grave, during the early 1850s. They could have done better. But then Calhoun himself, as much a product of that time as Henry Clay, rejected compromise. Nor did those men, some of whom got the idea going in their retirement, have to deal with the tensions that at least a decade of fairly steady conflict had brought to a head. Clay’s final compromise got only qualified approval, so even had his generation lived longer I don’t know that they truly could have found space to satisfy everyone on the increasingly small middle ground. Nor do I know that they should have.

The questions of the war’s inevitability and the nature of the sectional conflict do not come to us detached from other concerns but rather deeply connected. The original revisionists disclaimed slavery as a cause because they considered the institution doomed anyway or because they understood black Americans as natural slaves who required it. Both interpretations made the war fundamentally needless, hundreds of thousands dead and billions of dollars of property wasted. Neo-revisionists don’t usually go that far, though they are right to note that we make the judgment more easily in hindsight, and our modern values about racial egalitarianism, than anybody could have at the time. With respect, I argue that this holds equally true for every historical judgment. We all came from somewhere. I suspect that graduate schools now, after a decade and a half of dubious wars, have more than a few neo-revisionists attending classes just as past generations imbibing the Civil Rights Movement and fresh off victory in the “good” war filled those same classes with neo-abolitionists.

I don’t want to go into the connected questions at the same length; perhaps I will some other day. But it would do to touch on them. I do not believe, as the original revisionists did, that slavery had reached its natural limits. Nor do I think that in the long term its natural limits would have held. Without the Civil War, and without a war that lasted at least a few years, I suspect slavery would have thrived at least until the First World War. It may, in fact, have managed quite well into the second. Then the demand for labor might have strained it to the breaking point, but I don’t know that it necessarily would have. A slave can do factory labor as well as farm labor, as the Nazis well knew and as the operators of Virginia’s Tredegar Iron Works discovered. Slaves could have mined in the American West. Caribbean and Mexican conquests could have come to further expand the horizons of traditional plantation agriculture. Absent the Civil War, we might still be trading slaves today. It would take only twelve states committed to its perpetuation to quash any constitutional amendment to abolish and absent the Reconstruction Amendments and a century of jurisprudence that leans heavily upon them, I don’t see a clear road to its end in the United States.

Further, while as power-hungry as anybody else and as racist as their time dictated, I don’t understand white antislavery Americans and abolitionists as little more than hypocrites who found a convenient cause and rode it to power. The more I read of their writing and study their deeds, the more convinced I become of their sincerity. They had cynical opportunists among them, but so does every movement. I am equally persuaded that white proslavery Americans wrote, said, and did as they would in earnest. I don’t think as highly of them for it, but I don’t consider their movement any less genuine than that of their opponents.

Why does all of this matter? Perhaps it sounds like a great deal of naval-gazing. We shall go back to Kansas on the morrow, but I don’t think that one needs to pursue a doctorate in history to get something out of these considerations or pretend that we do well enough to appease advisers. These convictions do arise from studying the material. They also come informed by present circumstances. But the connections run both ways. Recognizing where a historian sits on the questions gives context to the work and so helps me process it. Knowing where I sit both guides me to subjects and sources of interest and, if probably to a far lesser degree, alerts me to places where my biases may blind me. Knowing the premises of past arguments, especially where the facts did not agree with them, helps me develop a more informed understanding than past generations could enjoy. I don’t know if it converges on truth. I don’t know if we should even consider truth the correct metric in the absence of time machines. But I feel improved for doing it.

The Squatter Sovereign on Butler, Part Two

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley’s Squatter Sovereign would not tell its readers that the editor served as ringleader for the mobbing of Pardee Butler, but took great pride in the act all the same. More such treatment awaited any antislavery man who showed his face and spoke up in Atchison and, if they had their way, everywhere in Kansas and Missouri. Missouri would supply rope and Kansas the manpower to go further than Butler got, decorating every tree if the need arose.

But it takes a village to sustain a reign of terror. If the paper’s readers beyond the Atchison area took only a smile away from the story of Butler’s ordeal, then Kelley had not done his job. Thus he reached out to remind them of their duty as white, southern men:

With confidence we appeal to the Squatter Sovereigns of Kansas, to know if our slaves shall be tampered with? Will they allow the Greelys and Sewards of the Northern States, to inundate our broad territory with the scurf and scum, collected from their prisons, brothels, and sink-holes of iniquity? Is society, composed of such ingredients as these, a proper school for the morals of your children? Are such men fit companions for your daughters? Such women fit wives for your sons?

Sarah Grimké

Sarah Grimké

Do you want a man like William Lloyd Garrison to marry your daughter? Do you want your son saddled with a wife like one of the Grimké sisters? Why, those two turned against their own father’s politics! If you didn’t want your daughters at risk or your sons emasculated, Robert Kelley knew what you needed to do. With the world watching

Your brethren of the slave holding states, have placed their case in your hands. they have declared Kansas the Thermopylae of the South, and YOU the Spartan band, that must defend it from the foul invasion of Northern fanatics. They have crossed the Rubicon, broken through all restraint, and forced us to the final issue.

Having given his readers the nickel tour of classical history, before the United States stamped its first nickel coin, Kelley proceeded to familiar themes: Proslavery men fought for nothing less than survival itself. They could claim no shelter from the Constitution. The North had broken every sectional accord. Now they must choose between compromise with the faithless Yankees and their vast majority

or we must rise, unanimously, and drive the foe from our midst. In order to accomplish this end, no mercy can be shewn, and none is needed.

Pardee Butler

Pardee Butler

This all endorses Butler’s treatment, and that of others like him, but the appeal to unanimity speaks volumes. No matter what they had to do, they must rid themselves of dissenters. Kelley told his readers that they must not hesitate, possibly mindful of how the attack on Butler lost steam at the river’s edge and certainly well aware that not every Southern man stood firm on his side:

If your self esteem is insufficient, your interests are enough to decide you. If you hesitate now, you are lost. Your brethren of Atchison have taken a bold, manly and decided stand. Unassisted they pledge themselves to purge their town, and its vicinity, from the polluted presence of Abolitionism. — Without your aid, more they cannot do. Give it us, and Kansas shall soon claim her proper place among her sister States, in a Southern Republic.

If the Abolitionists seek war, it shall come, and sooner than they wish; and if you are good men, and true, it shall be “war to the knife, and knife to the hilt.”

Back to Kansas

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Some time has passed since I plunged down into the horrors of Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow’s Negro-Slavery, No Evil. It would do to revisit the field on which he and his compatriots, and their antislavery opposites coming with Emigrant Aid Society funding, intended to wage some sort of war for the future of Kansas. William H. Seward and Stephen Douglas said as much. Out on the frontier, local white Missourians had ample reason to side with their slaveholding neighbors. They also had every advantage geography offered and only a line on the map separating them from Kansas. Why not filibuster it?

The Kansas-Nebraska Act got Franklin Pierce’s signature in the last days of May, 1854. From that point on, white men could rush in and stake their claims. They entered a land that had government only on paper. Pierce did not choose the first governor for the Kansas Territory until the end of June. That governor, Andrew Horatio Reeder of Easton, Pennsylvania, would not arrive in Kansas to exercise the duties of his first ever federal office until October 7. Until then, the law in Kansas could very well depend entirely on how straight and eagerly one shot. 

David Rice Atchison, who had done so much to ensure that he and others like him could take slavery into Kansas, came out and said as much, telling his audiences

you know how to protect your own interests; your rifles will free you from such neighbors. … You will go there, if necessary with the bayonet and with blood.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Stringfellow’s law partner pledged to personally hang any antislavery settler he could lay hands on. The rhetorical fireworks in Washington had their equivalents on the frontier in the person of men on hand and willing to make the war of words a war of bullets.

Why not? Law might restrain them, but Stringfellow deprecated it:

Though we fully recognise the duty of all good citizens to obey the law, to rely upon the law, where there is no law, the right of self-defence requires that we should resort to the strong hand for self-protection. We have no law by which the expression of abolition sentiments is made a penal offence, and yet it is a crime of the highest grade. It is not within even the much abused liberty of speech; but in a slaveholding community, the expression, of such sentiments is a positive act, more criminal, more dangerous, than kindling the torch of the incendiary, mixing the poison of the assassin. The necessity for a law punishing such a crime, has not, until now, been felt in Missouri. Until such a law is enacted, self-protection demands that we should guard against such crimes.

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

He did not do so alone. Missouri men had gone over the border and staked their claims to the best land well before any law authorized them to do so. They had no one on the ground in Kansas ready to stop them. Nineteenth century Americans understood only the third of Kansas nearest Missouri as worth much to settle, and that even there the worth of the land depended very highly on a few convenient rivers to push back the great American desert. They had every reason to think they could steal the good land out from under any abolitionists and other outside interlopers before they arrived.

Then when Anthony Reeder appeared, the proslavery settlers could hand him a Kansas with its future already decided. Given his stated impartiality leaned far to the South, Reeder would only have to use his broad powers to consolidate the fait accompli. Eli Thayer’s aided emigrants could take their aid and go home or, failing that, accept that they’d come to a slave territory and change their tune appropriately.

Frontier Folklore and Colonial Continuity

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

The proslavery and antislavery movements to take Kansas naturally invite comparison. They contended for the future of the same land. Their struggles look to us like foreshadowing of the war that broke out less than a decade later. They too considered themselves engaged in a critical struggle for the nation’s future. It conjured powerful emotions and occasioned extreme rhetoric. But if we can set aside for the moment our natural desire to cast ourselves as latter-day antislavery partisans and try to view the issue from a more thoroughgoing popular sovereignty position, the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society and its clones and successors look a bit like cheating.

Settling the frontier, one would imagine, should go along a fairly orderly process where thousands of small farmers get in their wagons, hitch up their team, and take all their worldly possessions out on the gamble of their lives. We imagine them as disinterested in great political causes. They move for their own advancement, which comes at great peril and through arduous labor. They somehow wrestle from the land their new fortunes. Who would begrudge them? We call them settlers and pioneers, not businessmen taking on risky ventures. We certainly don’t call them agents of a political movement, except in the broadest patriotic American sense.

The Emigrant Aid Societies going around raising money to send people with the explicit goal of making Kansas free, who will come in groups together for that end don’t have a comfortable place in that story. The expectation of the investors to make a profit off this for themselves fits still worse. This frontier looks nothing like the frontier we remember. Nor might it look much like the one that nineteenth century Americans imagined.

However much we dislike their cause, maybe those Missouri filibusters and border ruffians had a point. The New Englanders did come from afar. They did it not with the sweat of their own brows, but with the subsidy of a wealthy corporation. They came bent on tipping the scales in Kansas to exclude from the territory and future state men like them: decent, hardworking sorts who had every reasonable expectation that when they could legally come to Kansas, they would have it to themselves. The men from Missouri, after all, needed no corporation to fund their trip.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

But our folk memory lets us down here. The Emigrant Aid Societies imagined a colonization scheme and we’ve fallen out of talking about colonization too much as in recent decades it draws uncomfortable attention to the people who got to the hemisphere before our national ancestors and deprived them of it by force. It makes us uncomfortable like slavery does. Corporations made Jamestown, Plymouth, and most of the other colonies we recognize. They began with royal land grants, which the companies used as license to go out and claim the land to develop and sell at a profit. Often that profit did not come but from the very first generation of Englishmen on the East Coast, colonization had taken place under corporate auspices and with an eye toward profit for the company as much and sometimes more than profit for the stockholders.

The Virginia Company and the Emigrant Aid Societies had centuries of time between them, but not much daylight. Nor had company-subsidized colonization fallen off with independence. The utopian communities that flourished briefly and then generally collapsed in the early part of the nineteenth century had a bit of the same vision about them, if usually on a smaller scale. James Gadsden tried to organize a slaveholding colony in southern California as late as 1851. William Walker and other filibusters used colonization schemes as cover for their activities. However much Americans of the time told themselves the story of the individual pioneer, they still lived in a world where said individuals often came to their new lands with plenty of outside help on top of the aid that the United States provided in clearing the land of Indian inhabitants.

If all of this made the antislavery men coming to Kansas into Hessians reborn, then they had plenty of company. Political and religious dissenters founded corporate colonies with an eye to making a buck. Dissenters from the Kansas-Nebraska Act carried on just the latest act of that tradition. They had as much right to the land as anybody from Missouri.

Creating a Kansas

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

If one hopes to seize Kansas for slavery or for freedom, or just one’s personal profit, one must first create a Kansas. The land already existed, of course, and some whites had settled there illegally back in 1853, shamelessly electing a delegate to go off and lobby Congress for statehood from land that the Non-Intercourse Act explicitly forbade them to dwell upon. In this, they scrupulously observed white America’s traditional means of respecting the rights of Indians to land reserved to them. Still more had come across from Missouri in more recent months, whether the KansasNebraska Act bore Franklin Pierce’s signature to authorize them or not. But making a state meant making a government and for that, they really did have to wait on the infamous law.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act may have driven a truck through thirty years of tradition in tearing down the Missouri Compromise, but otherwise it ran in fairly conventional ways. As no government yet existed, it had to frame a means to set one up piece by piece. That all began with the governor and a few other officers appointed by the national government and sent out to get the ball rolling. Knowing the potentially explosive situation, one which he had tried to avoid and been forced into, one would expect Franklin Pierce to appoint some kind of experienced hand. Perhaps he could dig out a superannuated elder statesman or someone helpfully out of the country for the past few years who could appear an honest broker to both sides.

Pierce naturally treated the governorship as a patronage position and gave it to Andrew Horatio Reeder of Easton, Pennsylvania. Reeder had never held office before, but the Postmaster-General thought that appointing a favorite son would help the Democracy in that quarter of the Keystone State. The Kansas-Nebraska Act passed into law at the end of May, 1854. Pierce announced his decision for Reeder on June 29. Reeder took his oath on July 7, but did not arrive in Kansas until October 7. That left a great deal of time for things to go wrong in Kansas, but Reeder traveled by the same means as everyone else.

Once Reeder arrived, the Kansas-Nebraska Act gave him broad powers to use in building Kansas’ government. In his inexperienced hands lay the power to conduct a census, establish a capital, set up electoral districts, and call for the initial elections to the territorial legislature. These powers would expire once that legislature first sat, but with them Reeder had the power to decide the time and manner in which that would happen. He could delay elections long enough for free soil settlers funded by the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society and other such groups to arrive. He could hurry them up and hand the territory over to the Missouri slaveholders and their allies who had the geographic advantage. To establish his impartiality to concerned Southerners, Reeder told the Washington Union that he would buy a slave as easily as a horse. It transpired, however, that he lacked the cash to buy that slave and take it with him to Kansas.

That might have reassured some of the David Rice Atchisons of the world, but did little to calm the nerves of the Horace Greeleys, William Sewards, and Eli Thayers.

Two Ways to Destroy Popular Sovereignty

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

If yesterday’s post about how things in Kansas might all work out happily in the end left anybody nodding, rest assured that things did not work out anything like that. Kansas did not end up bleeding because it tripped and scraped a knee on the pavement. By turning popular sovereignty into an obvious vehicle for the expansion of slavery, Stephen Douglas did much to discredit the notion.

In The Impending Crisis, David Potter argues that the doctrine had the potential to replace geographic partitions as the standard, peaceable way to resolve sectional disputes. This might sound like a pipe dream from a dead historian, but popular sovereignty did amount to an invocation of American democracy. If white men decided by fair votes, then white men could live with the verdict. They might also make black men and women live with that verdict, but those people did not count at all to all save a few antislavery sorts.

The notion of kicking the can down the road, or over to a territorial legislature, has a certain appeal. One can wash one’s hands with it and proclaim slavery someone else’s problem. Maybe in time the climate and geography would resolve the issue to everyone’s satisfaction. But all of that required a studied disinterest in the outcome. If one truly didn’t care whether or not slavery expanded west of Missouri, then that attitude made perfect sense. The Stephen Douglases of the world cared, at most, about the method by which slavery expanded or did not. Whether up in New England or down in the Missouri valley, many Americans did not share such disinterest. Rather they saw a combination of great personal opportunity for themselves and at least the future of Kansas and possibly the nation as at stake. They thus resolved to influence the outcome to suit their preferences, just as Seward and Douglas both came to expect.

In later years, Douglas accused antislavery northerners of plotting to subvert popular sovereignty and so provoking equivalent retaliation by southerners. He damned both parties, but the North more so for starting the business. The South more or less accepted Douglas’ version of events. Antislavery northerners had other ideas, of course. They could always point their fingers at Stephen Douglas, Accomplished Architect of Ruin, and the Slave Power cabal that secretly ruled him. But they could also point to past efforts, real or imagined, by southerners to seize the territory.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Who had the right of it? Both. None other than Missouri’s Senator, David Rice Atchison, started in with the threats of violence a year prior. I’ve not found the speech anywhere online, but Allen Nevins quotes Bourbon Dave’s Westport Address:

you know how to protect your own interests; your rifles will free you from such neighbors. … You will go there, if necessary, with the bayonet and with blood.

The unwelcome neighbors would naturally hail from the North and come with dreams of slave-stealing, servile insurrection, and other monstrosities against which the inhabitants of western Missouri would rightly take up arms. The law partner of Atchison’s lieutenant, Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, went one better, again as quoted by Nevins:

I am ready to go, the first hour it shall be announced that the emigrants have come, and with my own hands, will help to hang every one of them on the first tree.

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

The first effort to move antislavery settlers into Kansas came from the North. On April 26, 1854, before the Kansas-Nebraska Act even hit Franklin Pierce’s desk, the Massachusetts legislature unanimously approved a corporate charter for Eli Thayer’s Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society. The Society aimed to raise money and spend that money to promote Kansas settlement, recruit those settlers, and ship them off to the tune of five million dollars. Along the way, Thayer expected to make a profit and pay off his shareholders. He set off to tour the nation, traveling more than 60,000 miles and delivering hundreds of speeches.

When Thayer’s efforts hit the northern papers, who promoted him and called for sister societies in other northern states, word swiftly reached western Missouri. From there it appeared that Thayer already had the five million on hand and a small army ready to come in and take from Missouri men what they considered rightly theirs. If Yankee interlopers, later-day Hessians to a man, proposed to take what Missourians knew as their birthright, then they would fight for it.

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.