“Such neighborly considerations and eloquent innuendoes”

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Once again, Gentle Readers, please note that I have transcribed Parrott’s letter from his handwritten original and, despite the generous and extensive help of AskHistorians’ Caffarelli, I might have gotten some points wrong.

After informing his brother about the great affairs of Kansas, Marcus Parrott holed himself up in his law office with a gun and hoped for the best. He had some further thoughts about Kansas’ future. He relayed news of James Lane’s challenge to Stephen Douglas, which he called

a good trick of Lane’s. The Col is [one] excellent good shot & understands the duello. There will be no fight, but I think Lane will [rearrange or ravage] “Dregs” Southern swarth & mollify his rampant spirit, which is much delighted in metaphors drawn from the profession of arms.

Marc had heard that Lane had gotten back to Lawrence in time, which gladdened him. I don’t know who would have had charge of the town at just this point, with so much of the leadership fled. Either way, he though Lawrence could use someone who would answer Southerners in a language they understood and respected: honor and violence.

But our author also had personal news. His law practice had not gone well and Marc now hoped to make a fortune for himself in real estate:

If the impending troubles should blow over, I shall start on a trip to the Neosho river, 100 miles south to look at a town title in which I am offered an interest on good terms. […] I wrote to Father yesterday a proposition to let me have money enough to keep a good bargain when I get it. It would relieve me a great deal. If more happens that I struggle along with just enough to keep my head above water from one month’s end to another. Further the proposition with such [neighborly] considerations and eloquent innuendoes as the humble [theme] may inspire.

Marcus Parrott’s money troubles don’t change the course of history, but they do offer us a look into the day to day lives of people in territorial Kansas. Parrott came in as a professional, expecting to do well in law. His practice had not taken off, probably not helped by the disabilities the slave code put on white men who refused to declare for slavery. He wanted to try land, always a good bet in a new territory, but that required capital he didn’t have. His father apparently did, so would dear Edwin kindly lean on the old man a bit?

I don’t know Marc’s terms or the land in question, but he may have had a good deal. Undeveloped land, especially if bought at preemption rates, would almost surely rise in value in the short to medium term as Kansas filled up with land-hungry white colonists. Many a middle class man had staked a claim in a new territory, seen it develop for a few years, then sold it at a tidy profit and moved west to repeat the process.

 

Was Lincoln A Third Party Candidate?

LincolnGentle Readers, I don’t intend today’s post as a commentary on the election come Tuesday. Anybody who reads me for any length of time can figure out who I think you should also support. But I do hope you vote, even if you vote differently. Refraining from exercising your franchise does not make you innocent of any consequences, upon yourself or others. When one doesn’t act to stop something, one has acquiesced in its happening. That’s true no matter how you would cast your ballot.

That said, you often hear that Lincoln ran as a third party candidate or that the Republicans constitute the nation’s only successful third party. These two claims rely on largely the same facts, so I shall treat them together.

When we refer to a third party, we mean a party beyond the big two of the Democrats and Republicans. Every other party counts as a third and just which of the big two holds the top spot can vary from cycle to cycle. The same definition would hold for the nineteenth century, which had its own plethora of small political movements. Lincoln and his generation came of age during the Second Party System, which pitted the Democrats against the Whigs. Most of the time, the Democrats had the upper hand and the Whigs had a remarkably poor run of luck with their presidential candidates. They elected two presidents, both of whom died in office and thus gave way to a vice-president of rather different ideological cast.

Knowing about the Democrats and the Whigs, and knowing Lincoln and many other Republicans as former Whigs, we might assume we have found a third party movement. A closer look reveals something different. The Whig coalition collapses over the course of the early 1850s. They elected a president, Zachary Taylor, in 1848. They tried to elect another, Winfield Scott, in 1852. Come 1856, no one runs for the White House on the Whig ticket.

The end of a movement always involves endless complexities and we can find old school Whigs holding on or trying to revive conservative Whiggery (by no means the only form) in various ways up through 1860. The Republicans themselves thought they had a chance at it during Reconstruction. But as a practical matter, the national party dies at some point between 1854 and 1856. Slavery in the territories killed it. The prolonged crisis over slavery in the Mexican Cession demonstrated to the Lower South that Southern Whigs could not control or restrain their antislavery counterparts in the North, gravely wounding a party that already had a northward tilt. The Kansas-Nebraska Act extended the process to the Upper South, if not quite so completely, and produced the nation’s first lasting and avowedly antislavery party: the Republicans.

The process by which that party came together involves quite a bit more than old Whigs just changing names. Former Democrats came over into the party, as did many supporters of the much more fringe Liberty Party. Together with northern Whigs, generally but not always those more to the left than the rest, they created a party which had plenty of Whiggery in it but also important infusions of Democratic antislavery thought. In the South, most ex-Whigs either quit politics or went into the Democracy, Alexander Stephens’ path, or joined with more conservative Whigs in the Know-Nothing movement in the middle years of the decade. Northern Know-Nothings usually ended up Republicans a bit further down the line. During the transition, a confusing morass of political labels abounded and it seemed for a time that the Know-Nothings might take the Whigs’ place as the nation’s second party. In the end, antislavery proved a more potent platform than nativism.

That leaves us with the Republicans, arguably as of 1856 and definitely by 1860, at least the nation’s second party. That they formed out of fragments of prior coalitions doesn’t materially change that. The GOP contended with the Democrats for control of the nation’s course, possessing as they did sufficient influence to shoulder aside and consign other competitors to marginal status, precisely as the principals in a two-party system do.

Of course, none of those means we should overlook the complexity of the 1860 election. Four men won electoral votes in that race, or rather two each won votes in two parallel races. In the free states, Lincoln faced off against Stephen Douglas of the northern Democracy. In the slave states, where for the most part Lincoln didn’t even appear on the ballot, John C. Breckinridge competed against John Bell of the Constitutional Union party. If one wants to find third party candidates in the race, then all three of Lincoln’s opponents have a case for them.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas went to the Democratic National Convention at Charleston, South Carolina as the favorite for the nomination. However, he had turned against the proslavery government in Kansas and split from the national party over the issue. In order to prove his bona fides, southern delegates wanted Douglas to sign on to a slave code for the territories. Douglas refused and they walked out. Attempts to get the southerners back into the room failed, which eventually left a rump to nominate Douglas as arguably the regular Democratic candidate. His supporters didn’t walk out, after all. Douglas came in dead last in the electoral vote, winning only Missouri and part of New Jersey’s slate, a decidedly third party sort of performance. But Douglas did represent the ordinary Democracy and garnered second in the popular vote.

John C. Breckinridge

John C. Breckinridge

The Democrats who seceded from the party, most of them soon to secede from the Union too, nominated John C. Breckinridge. As a splinter of a still-extant party, Breckinridge’s looks like a third party movement. He came in third in the popular vote, but second in the electoral college. However, Breckinridge also represents the long-dominant constituency within the Democracy. If Douglas came to the polls at the head of the institutionally regular Democracy, then Breckinridge represented the beating heart of the coalition: Southerners committed to slavery’s perpetuation and expansion.

John Bell (Whig-TN)

John Bell

Which leaves us with John Bell. Bell, like Lincoln, hailed from the Whig Party back in the day. His Constitutional Union party aimed to revitalize conservative Whiggery and its platform as an alternative to the slavery question, containing and frustrating agitation on, and functionally against, the issue through a kind of revitalized Second Party System. Bell won his own Tennessee, as well as Virginia and Kentucky. Both of the latter had long Whiggish associations. While Bell would surely have liked to see a president in the mirror come March of 1861, the realistic hope of his movement involved denying both Lincoln and Breckinridge an electoral college majority. That would have thrown the presidency into the House, where his candidacy might seem like the best compromise to keep the Union together by the skin of its teeth rather than burst it asunder. If we consider third parties oriented around disruption of the dominant political system and aimed at reorienting it from its dominant issues, Bell makes the best third party candidate in the race.

Abraham Lincoln ran as and considered himself a Whig until the Whigs expired. He then made himself a Republican and remained with the party until Ford’s Theater. In both cases, he consciously chose a position as a regular, loyal party man for one of the two dominant parties of the era. Of all the men who sought the nation’s highest office in 1860, Lincoln deserves the third party title least of all. If a third party designation means anything useful at all and we care about understanding the past through it, then it must mean the opposite of Lincoln.

Representing Kansas and the Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

The question of what to do about Kansas continued to occupy the Congress in March of 1856. Would the nation stay the course with the bogus legislature and its laws, authorizing them to write a constitution with slavery and come into the Union down the road? Would they roll back the clock to last year or the year before, wiping aside all the territory had done and starting from scratch? Or would they admit the illegal free state government making their Kansas into the Kansas, free of slavery and blacks? Unsurprisingly, no more consensus existed on Kansas then than two years prior when Stephen Douglas, at the behest of Archibald Dixon and the F Street Mess, repealed the Missouri Compromise and started the mess.

John Sherman

John Sherman

The continuing debate over what to do with Kansas addressed the question of its future, immediate or otherwise. It also bore on Kansas’ present. John Wilkins Whitfield and Andrew Reeder had both arrived in Washington and presented their credentials to the House of Representatives. Kansas, entitled by law to one non-voting delegate, now had two. Choosing between Whitfield, the proslavery Indian agent twice elected to the post by fraud, and Reeder, the former governor elected by the free state government in an illegal election, meant choosing between the two governments. The House’s Committee on Elections asked the authority to call for papers and testimony on the question. Southerners objected. The House had a northern, anti-Nebraska majority. That majority had its cracks, but if it investigated then few could doubt the eventual verdict.

James Orr (D-SC)

James Orr (D-SC)

To forestall that risk, James Orr (D-SC) suggested that the House yield the question to a pair of southern lawyers. They would naturally judge Whitfield the more qualified man and seat him. Nobody fell for that. On March 19, over the unanimous objection of the South, the House voted to authorize an investigative committee of three men. One Democrat, Mordechai Oliver of Missouri, and two Republicans, William A. Howard of Michigan and John Sherman of Ohio would go off to Kansas and inquire into just what had really gone on in the troubled territory. Their report, published at the start of July, provides an invaluable source for Kansas’ first two years.

While the majority speaks clearly to what conclusions it would reach, the Howard Report would give Congress something firmer than newspaper reports and letters from constituents to judge matters. Everyone understood that newspapers had a firm partisan slant, one way or another. Testimony given under oath might hold more water. Even hostile witnesses before the committee surely lied, omitted, and evaded, but most I’ve read seem to have held themselves to a more stringent standard than they might in letters or editorials.

 

 

Three Choices for Kansas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Felix Zollicoffer had one solution for Kansas’ troubles: giving the territorial legislature advance permission to write a state constitution when they found that the territory’s population had grown large enough. Galusha Grow and the rest of the House’s Committee on Territories had another: admit the free state government to statehood at once. Before both of them, Franklin Pierce had directed the Congress’ attention to settling of matters in his annual message. Grow’s and Zollicoffer’s reports to the House come in that context as well as that of Kansas’ petition. The House’s long contention over who would occupy the Speaker’s chair delayed action on Kansas as much as it did the president’s message, but the Congress had a whole second chamber just across the way with its own Committee on Territories and Stephen Douglas as the chair. He fixed Kansas until it broke last time, so why not take another crack?

Douglas might have gotten right on that at the first of the year, but illness kept him away from the capital. The Senate naturally referred Pierce’s message to his committee, so once he did arrive he got right into things. On March 12, the Little Giant came out swinging. I couldn’t find the report online anywhere, but my sources agree on the essential points: The Emigrant Aid Companies took all the blame for Kansas’ troubles, which provoked Missouri to action. Douglas ignored what James Rawley calls the “bastard birth” of the territorial government and affirmed its legitimacy. The Topeka movement amounted to a revolution. Congress ought to appropriate additional money to enforce order in the territorial and give permission at once for Kansas to write a constitution, under the extant territorial government, when it reached the proper population. Douglas and Zollicoffer had two parties between them, the Little Giant a lifelong Democrat and Zollicoffer a Whig turned Know-Nothing, but they agreed on Kansas.

Jacob Collamer (R-VT)

Jacob Collamer (R-VT)

Vermont’s Jacob Collamer dissented, arguing that the free state movement acted only because driven to strike out on their own. What else could they do with no recourse to the polls or the law of the territory? They might have done worse still, but opted for a “peaceful, constitutional” remedy. If Congress really wanted to fix things, they should repeal the whole Kansas-Nebraska act. But if the Senate would not listen to good sense,

then declare all the action by this spurious foreign legislative assembly utterly inoperative and void, and direct a reorganization, providing proper safeguard for legal voting and against foreign force.

Collamer took a conservative course. He defended the free state movement, but did not endorse its application for statehood. That would sidestep all the difficulties with its irregular nature and the extant legal government of Kansas.

Thus the Congress had three solutions before it: Douglas and Zollicoffer, who hewed to the same line as the administration, proposed largely leaving Kansas in the hands of its present government. It would become a slave state in due course. Grow and the majority of the House committee advised immediate statehood under the Topeka constitution, which would ensure a free and lily white Kansas. Somewhere on the center and leaning antislavery, Collamer advised a do-over, rolling the clock back to either before the first Assembly elections in March of the previous year or all the way to May of 1854 when the Kansas-Nebraska Act became law.

“Left entirely to the discretion of Congress” The Committee on Territories Weights in, Part One

 

Galusha Grow

Galusha Grow

The Senate took a look at the memorial to Congress that James Lane brought back with him and Lewis Cass presented to the body. It took no time at all for the senators to recognize all the scratched out and rewritten bits of the memorial and the curious fact that all the signatures at the end came in the same hand. Clearly, Lane had perpetrated a fraud on the Senate of the United States. That he swore an oath to the contrary, and we know that the free state government actually did send him off with a memorial, didn’t matter. When he challenged Stephen Douglas to a duel for satisfaction, Douglas fobbed him off with senatorial privilege. Cass withdrew the petition and the Senate moved on.

It happened differently in the House, with its anti-Nebraska majority. They referred the report and its attached materials, including the Topeka Constitution, to the Committee on Territories on April 7, 1856. The Committee’s report doesn’t come dated in my version and I can’t find when they reported back, but it seems to have taken them at least into May. As usual, the Committee released a majority and minority report. They give us a useful window into what actual, if partisan, nineteenth century lawmakers thought of Kansas’ irregular situation.

Galusha Grow, a Democrat turned Republican from Pennsylvania, presented the majority’s findings. The accepted practice involved a territory organized by Congress, as Kansas and other places had been. That territorial government then received permission to write a constitution, which it did. It then forwarded the constitution to Congress, which approved or disapproved. Grow consideration of Kansas’ petition for statehood with a chronicle of past departures from that line that the Congress had seen fit to accept or overlook.

Of the eighteen states admitted to the Union, Grow’s committee reported that five skipped the territorial stage entirely. Among the thirteen others, five gained admission under constitutions they had no permission from Congress to write. Furthermore:

The power of Congress to admit States is of the most plenary character, and is conferred by the constitution (sec. 3, art. 4) in these words: “New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union.” The time, mode, and manner of admission, therefore, is left entirely to the discretion of Congress.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

The conventional way of making states amounted to only that, a convention. Congress had no obligation to treat them as binding precedent, but could do as it liked. The letter of the Constitution demanded only that states have a republican government. If someone named themselves King of Kansas and asked for admission, Congress would have to tell them no. Whatever high opinions they might hold of themselves, no one in Kansas seems to have thought themselves royalty. So did Kansas have a republican government? If so, Congress didn’t have to make it a state but might do so if that appeared the best course for Kansans and for the nation.

Grow noted that the territorial form of government denied the people the full range of self-governance that state possessed in the American system. They could not choose their governors and the Congress had a full veto over any enactments of their legislature. The plight of the initial settlers:

few in numbers, and widely separated […] contest[ing] with the savage and the wild beast, the dominion of the wilderness, and […] not of sufficient numbers, strength, or wealth to protect themselves alone against the uncivilized influences that surround them.

Hard times and meager means required federal subsidy, paying salaries, arranging the construction of public buildings, and otherwise facilitating the development of the territory justified “supervisory power.” Otherwise, Congress might end up on the hook for endless expenses and laws with which “it entirely disapproves.” One obviously couldn’t have that. The people who went to territories did not lose their capacity for self-governance or somehow diminish their moral strength, but they did put themselves in this situation willingly. They chose to leave states and hazard what the Congress might do with a territory.

But when the white settlers had the numbers and the money, and wanted it, they could upgrade to a state government. When they could, Grow’s report averred, they ought to as

there is no longer any occasion for the guardianship of Congress, and no reason why their request should be delayed or refused.

Editing, Liars, and Almost a Duel: The Free State Memorial to Congress, Part Two

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

James Lane came to Congress in April of 1856 with a memorial in hand from the Topeka legislature. It explained that repeated abuses and usurpations of the rights of white men to set their own institutions, rights promised to them by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, had driven the free state men to the extremity of setting up their own state government. The Congress ought to see foot to admit that government to the Union as the sole, legitimate government of Kansas.

Nobody could have expected this to go well, but a shift of just a few senators might have sufficed to get something done. The Congress already had Kansas settlements under discussion, a topic which I plan to return to in future posts. Michigan’s Lewis Cass, the original popular soveriegnty booster, presented Lane’s memorial to the Senate on April 7. Antislavery Kansans might have hoped for a warm reception from Stephen Douglas, who Lane knew from back in the day and on whose popular sovereignty ground the free state movement made its stand.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

The Little Giant would have none of that. He looked over the memorial and called out some curious traits. Someone had crossed out passages and written in others, hardly the mark of a fine state paper suited for a grave situation. Maybe your high school English teacher would let that slide in moderation, but the United States Senate had to wonder if the men who put their names on the memorial had seen the final version. Did someone collect the signatures and then alter the text? Had someone (read: Lane) edited things after the fact to make the memorial a better fit for the political circumstances in Washington? For that matter, why did all the signatures appear in the same handwriting? Just what was James Lane trying to pull?

Lewis Cass

Lewis Cass

Douglas laid out the faults and decided that Lane had come to the Senate with an amateurish fraud. Lane explained that the alterations happened with the approval of Governor Robinson, and the handwriting came from simple re-copying because the original signature page had gone missing. Everybody really signed it; trust him. To prove the point, Lane took an oath administered by a justice of the Supreme Court that he transmitted to the Congress a genuine memorial.

Stephen Douglas called Lane a liar. Lane demanded satisfaction on the field of honor. Douglas wrapped himself in senatorial privilege and refused Lane’s challenge. Lane accepted the refusal in ill grace, implying that Douglas really refused on grounds of cowardice. Few found Lane’s oath or his challenge persuasive. The Senate rejected the Topeka memorial on a party line vote.

Franklin Pierce’s Duty

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce decided for thoroughness when he embarked on his quest to blame everyone but himself and other men responsible for Kansas’ plight. Andrew Reeder, a Pierce appointee, did his part. The free state movement did theirs, tending toward insurrection with their wild program to set up an unauthorized state government. If they kept that up, then Pierce told the Congress that he would have to step in. The American system had means of settling disputes; none of them involved starting your own government. If you didn’t believe him, you could ask George III.

Pierce didn’t want to come off entirely as a proslavery partisan, though. He insisted on

the undoubted right of the peaceable and orderly people of the Territory of Kansas to elect their own legislative body, make their own laws, and regulate their own social institutions, without foreign or domestic molestation. Interference on the one hand to procure the abolition or prohibition of slave labor in the Territory has produced mischievous interference on the other for its maintenance or introduction. One wrong begets another.

Pierce had it technically right: antislavery and proslavery politics did feed one another, as any divide on issues does. He neglected, of course, just how Kansas came to have such contentions in the first place. You can point to news of the New England Emigrant Aid Society as fueling the resentment of border ruffians in their blue lodges, and Pierce did, but to stop there required a self-serving, selective memory indeed. Had Pierce, Jefferson Davis, the F Street Mess, Archibald Dixon, Phillip Phillips, and Stephen Douglas not come together to overthrow the Missouri Compromise, Kansas might have remained Indian country or it might, as David Rice Atchison once accepted, have come together as a free territory. The President would have none of that: antislavery Americans from outside Kansas caused all the fuss, end of story.

To whitewash his own party’s sordid recent past, Pierce appealed to the great nineteenth century orthodoxy that geography would save the Union, if only let do its job. Irresponsible agitators thwarted the silent work of climate and soil to settle the issue, taking it upon themselves and so making the future of slavery into an issue that motivated neighboring states to intervene.

All of this poses the question of just what the President intended to do. He hinted at it before, but now declared his aim openly:

it will be my imperative duty to exert the whole power of the Federal Executive to support public order in the Territory; to vindicate its laws, whether Federal or local, against all attempts of organized resistance

Pierce added further boilerplate about baleful “encroachment from without” but given his almost perfect lack of interest in border ruffians, his defense of Kansas’ laws in their unpredecented proslavery impositions, and his regular castigation of antislavery Americans, he clearly meant such encroachment from without and resistance from within as sins of the antislavery side alone.

In taking his stand, Pierce referenced the Wakarusa War. The happy news that the rivers of Kansas did not run red failed to deter him. Things worked out that time, but what about the next?

there is, I regret to say, reason to apprehend that disorders will continue to occur there, with increasing tendency to violence, until some decisive measure be taken to dispose of the question itself which constitutes the inducement or occasion of internal agitation and external interference.

Pierce stood ready to throw all his power against the free state government, but it need not come to that. Better to settle things once and for all by having Kansas speedily come into the Union through regular, lawful means. He called on Congress to pass an enabling act, which would authorize the territorial government to hold the usual convention and draw up a constitution for swift admission. Thus the slavery question would pass completely out of Washington’s hands. That it would ensure slavery remained in Kansas would, of course, delight the most powerful faction of Pierce’s Democracy and frustrate the chief aim of his political opponents.

All that would take time, so in the interim Pierce suggested that Congress vote him the necessary money

to defray any expense which may become requisite in the execution of the laws or the maintenance of public order in the Territory of Kansas.

Pierce didn’t say in as many words that he’d like for Congress to give him the funds to break up the free state movement, arrest its leaders, and decisively hand Kansas over to the South, but few could miss the obvious inference. If the proslavery government established by force and fraud couldn’t keep Kansas sound on the goose, then the United States Army could do the job.

 

 

The Disunited 34th Congress

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Dunn’s proslavery men left the Sparks home cruelly disappointed. They came to shoot a man and found him still away. That would not mark the end of Stephen Sparks’ trouble with Kansas’ slavery enthusiasts, but he managed to dodge the immediate threat. Reese Brown had less luck. The latest violence came from the free soil elections of January 15, where Kansas’ antislavery voters made Charles Robinson their governor and filled the other offices that the free state constitution had created. This development, like others in Kansas, did not go unmarked on the national stage.

As the events within Kansas have dominated our narrative for so long, we have to rewind the clock a bit to catch up with happenings elsewhere. Since the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Democracy had taken a beating. The Whig party continued its collapse. In the North, Democrats often followed suit. Those who didn’t cast themselves as foes of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the trouble it had brought. The anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party seemed, for a moment, poised to take the Whig’s place as the second party of American politics but had a serious competitor in the form of the new Republican party and its fortunes soon faded.

As 1855 wound down, the first session of the 34th Congress opened on December 3. For the first time, Republicans took seats in the Capitol. In the Senate, the Democrats outnumbered them two to one. Just across the building, one might as well have entered a new world. Franklin Pierce could count on a majority of 158 in the last House. The anti-Nebraska opposition now had a majority of 117. That might not have upset the House Democrats too much, as they knew their party’s disarray and probably didn’t have much hope of getting everyone back together and taking the customary whip. The last time that happened, they repealed the Missouri Compromise and eighty-four percent of those who voted for it found themselves in need of other employment. They might do better to find some moderate Republican who they could then blame for the House’s inevitable failure to get much done.

The Pierce administration had other ideas, and ensured that the Democratic caucus passed resolutions declaring the late elections a vindication of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, doubled down on religious freedom in terms offensive to the anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant Know-Nothings, and pledged the Democracy to a hard line on both. The Democrats hadn’t entirely lost their minds. After some early reverses, they took encouraging results in some later elections as signs that they hadn’t entirely destroyed themselves. With the same kind of excellent judgment that led them to take elections they largely lost as signs of public approval, the Democrats settled on William A. Richardson, of Illinois, as their man for the Speaker’s chair. Richardson had managed the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act last Congress, which made him exactly as popular with the anti-Nebraska majority as one would expect.

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Richardson simultaneously won and lost the vote. On the first ballot, the House gave him seventy-two votes. No other man came within twenty of that total. But the House rules required that the Speaker have a majority, not a mere plurality. The rules assumed two parties, but the 34th Congress had rather more than that. Just how much more, few could say. The Congressional Globe considered the mess beyond recovery and dispensed with the usual custom of listing men by party allegiance. In Race and Politics, “Bleeding Kansas” and the Coming of the Civil War, James Rawley reports the Tribune Alamanac’s best guess:

79 Pierce Democrats, of whom 20 were northerners, 117 anti-Nebraska man, all of whom were northerners, 37 Whigs of Americans [Know-Nothings] of proslavery tendencies, all but 3 of whom were from slave states. Of the 117 anti-Nebraska Congressmen, 75 had been elected as know-Nothings.

Allan Nevins gives a different arrangement in the second volume of his Ordeal of the Union:

The House membership was roughly classed as 108 Republican, 83 Democratic, and 43 Know-Nothing or American.

Though the numbers don’t agree, to the point of using different categories, they tell a similar story. The Democracy had lost its majority to someone, but no one quite knew who.

Know-Nothingism and anti-Nebraska sentiment often existed in the same person, part of the problem in classifying them, but they did not necessarily do so. Nor did party allegiance mean that when they did, nativism took precedence. Many Know-Nothings ended up as Republicans, some in suspiciously short order. Some probably joined specifically to subvert the organization in antislavery directions. They co-existed with men who felt otherwise and who had latched on to nativism as the issue to push slavery back out of the national discussion. As the seventeen candidates running against Richardson for the Speakership attest, the Opposition did about as well at agreeing on things as the Democracy did.

So long as the Speakership remained vacant, the House couldn’t commence its business. So long as the House couldn’t get to work, much of the national government ground to a halt. Soon much of Washington waited on the outcome.

The End of the Leavenworth Territorial Register, Part One

The Alton mob attacking Elijah Lovejoy's warehouse.

The Alton mob attacking Elijah Lovejoy’s warehouse.

I must begin with a minor correction, Gentle Readers. I previously put Mark Delahay’s nomination by the free state party for delegate to Congress at December 15, the day that the mob at Leavenworth seized the polls and menaced his newspaper. The nominating convention actually took place on December 22.

Speaking of that convention, Delahay attended it as he had previous free state conventions. That put him in Lawrence on the twenty-second. The proslavery men took notice, as George Washington Brown’s Herald of Freedom reported on December 29. Threats spared the Register once, but

the Platte County Regulators had determined that it should go the way of the Luminary ere long.

B.F. Stringfellow and company earned themselves a checkered past already by this point and they did live just across the river from Leavenworth. More likely than not, members of the organization played a part in the mob action on the fifteenth. With Delahay and other “leading Free State men of Leavenworth” away they saw their opportunity:

an armed and regularly organized company of fifty men, chiefly from Missouri, led by G.W. Perkins, Dr. Royall, Capt. Dunn and James Lyle marched down from Kickapoo, broke open the Register office, destroyed the press and threw it, with all type, into the Missouri river.

Dunn and Lyle have appeared in the narrative before. Lyle participated in the lynching of the less famous William Phillips. Dunn, of course, stormed the polls. I don’t recognize Perkins or Royall, but Brown helpfully identifies them as, like Dunn and Lyle, late of the army that besieged Lawrence. They had further distinctions as well:

Perkins was the candidate of the “National Democracy” for Congress; and the Territorial Register advocated his election. “Oh! shame! where is thy blush?” Dr. Royall was a delegate to the pro-slavery “law and order” Convention. Dunn is an Irish renegade. Sprung from a class and race who are opposed and despised at home, he was endowed with all the glorious rights of American citizenship, only to aid in undermining the principles on which our republican government is founded. Lyle was the clerk of the House of Representatives of the bogus Kansas Legislature […] Such are the leaders of the pro-slavery “law and order” party.

One just can’t imagine how the Whigs and Republicans lost the Irish vote so badly. Brown sounds at least as scandalized by Dunn’s Irish background as by his proslavery violence.

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

The Register’s endorsement of Perkins makes for rich irony. Brown must have relished the chance to strike at proslavery violence and the right wing of his own movement, which Delahay represented. His clear satisfaction shouldn’t obscure the broader picture, though. Proslavery men didn’t attack just a radical paper like the Herald of Freedom, but even a very moderate antislavery organ:

It certainly could not be charged with “Abolitionism” as attachment to Northern ideas is styled; for it advocated the principles of the Nebraska bill; it lauded the repeal of the Missouri Compromise; it was the organ and defender of Stephen A. Douglas; it advised, from first to last, the obedience to the laws of the barons of Kansas; it was in favor of the execution of the fugitive slave bill and abhorred the higher law; its editor repeatedly and publicly declared “he had as lief buy a negro as a mule;” and regarded the question of slavery or freedom merely as “a question of dollars and cents.”

All of this held true until “within the last month,” to the point that the Register had the approval of the Democracy’s national newspaper, the Washington Union.

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.