UNITED STATES HISTORY
*In Kansas, popular sovereignty did not work
out as Stephen Douglas had intended. Southerners had
supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act through the unspoken assumption
that Kansas, bordering Missouri, would become a slave state, and
Nebraska would become a free state. However, many of the
immigrants to Kansas were small farmers with no interest in
slavery, and several thousand were abolitionist activists,
deliberately settled there by the New England Emigrant Aid
Society, a combination of abolitionist activists and land
speculators, out to do the right thing at a profit.
*Southern fire-eaters felt this was cheating, and rushed their own
colonists into the territory, mostly from Missouri, making sure
they were also well armed. These men were known as 'Border
Ruffians' and later (during the Civil War) as ‘Bushwhackers.’
*In 1855, the time came to elect members of the territorial
legislature, and to ensure a pro-slavery victory, voters came over
the border from Missouri and managed to fraudulently elect a
pro-slavery legislature, which met in the town of Lecompton where
they composed the Lecompton Constitution, which would have allowed
slavery in the new state.
*Abolitionists and free-soilers were livid, and created their own
extra-legal government in Topeka. Kansas thus had two
illegitimate governments—one elected fraudulently, and one created
illegally. President Pierce recognised the Lecompton
government, and ignored the Free-soil government in Topeka until
it became too strident, when he denounced them as rebels. A
Congressional committee visiting Kansas to study the issue,
however, said that the free-soil government truly represented the
will of the people.
*Both groups organised militias to defend themselves and harass
their opponents. At religious meetings in New England, the
Presbyterian minister and temperance advocate Henry Ward Beecher
raised money to buy Sharps breech-loading rifles, among the best
firearms in the world. When the anti-slavery militias in
Kansas received these, they called them ‘Beecher’s Bibles.’
These anti-slavery militias and guerrilla forces came to be known
as Jayhawkers (a term that originally meant ‘thief’ or ‘bandit’).
*Violence broke out in Kansas as people fought over slavery and
the opposing governments. They also fought over land claims,
which had often been poorly regulated and registered since there
was no universally recognised government. This long and
unpleasant period was known as ‘Bleeding Kansas.’
*In 1856, the pro-slavery Sheriff Samuel Jones, visiting the
free-soil town of Lawrence, was shot in the back in retaliation
for his arrest of a man who had made threats against another
pro-slavery Kansan (who had, himself, killed a free-soil man).
*Although the people of Lawrence offered a reward for the
discovery of the assailant, pro-slavery forces used this as an
excuse to attack the town. Although no-one was killed, an
anti-slavery printing press was destroyed and many buildings were
burned and looted.
*In response to this attack, a fanatical abolitionist named John
Brown led a group of men, including four of his sons, to the
pro-slavery settlements in the Pottawatomie Creek Valley where
they surprised five pro-slavery men and hacked them to pieces with
broadswords. It was not known for certain who committed this
crime until many years later when one of the men involved
confessed, but even in 1856 Brown was suspected, arrest warrants
were published for him and his sons, and their houses were burnt
*Violence intensified across the territory after the Pottawotamie
Massacre, with 29 more deaths in the three months that
followed. Violence was even spreading back East.
*Shortly after the Raid on Lawrence, but before the Pottawatomie
Massacre, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, one of the few
prominent abolitionists then in Congress, gave a speech entitled
‘The Crime Against Kansas,’ in which he attacked pro-slavery men
as ‘hirelings picked from the drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy
civilization.’ He also insulted South Carolina, and Senator
Andrew P. Butler, who had read John C. Calhoun’s last address to
Congress in 1850. He called him, among other things, a new
Don Quixote off on a misguided quest on behalf of the harlot
Slavery, and compared his championing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act
to a British officer trying to ram the Stamp Act down the throats
of Americans with his sword. This did not go over as well as
Sumner may have wished, as Butler was dignified and well-liked by
most of his peers, and was not even present to defend himself from
the attacks when Sumner made his speech.
*Butler also had a nephew, Preston Brooks, Congressman from South
Carolina. Brooks was infuriated by the attack on his state
and the insult to his uncle. A proper Southern gentleman,
Brooks would have challenged an equal to a duel. Sumner,
however, he did not see as an equal, for he had lowered himself to
the rank of common trash by speaking so foully. Although a
gentleman may not duel with an inferior, he may physically
chastise him. So, on 22 May, 1856, Brooks strode into the
Senate chamber, found Sumner at his desk, and beat him to within
an inch of his life with his gold-tipped gutta-percha cane.
*Sumner suffered extensive damage to the head and nervous system
and had to leave the Senate for three and half years of treatment
in Europe, but Massachusetts re-elected him anyway.
*Congress considered expelling ‘Bully’ Brooks, but did not have
the 2/3 majority required. Brooks resigned anyway, but was
so popular in the South that not only was he re-elected, he was
sent numerous canes by his admirers and the town of Brooksville,
Florida, to-day a town of about 7,500 people 40 miles west of
Orlando, was named after him.
*It was seen throughout the nation as a sign of bad times that a
cultured man like Sumner would speak so vulgarly and that a
gentleman like Brooks would respond like a street thug. In
many ways, the fighting in Congress and in Kansas was the start of
the War between the States.
*Fighting would continue in Kansas off and on for the next nine
years or more, but by 1857, Kansas had enough inhabitants to apply
for statehood. The new president, James Buchanan, another
northerner willing to appease the South, accepted the pro-slavery
Lecompton Constitution. Many members of Congress opposed the
Lecompton Constitution, including Stephen Douglas, who had created
the issue of popular sovereignty in Kansas in the first
place. He did not feel that this constitution really
represented the popular will, and he convinced Congress to hold a
referendum in Kansas on the entire constitution, pro-slavery parts
and all. It was resoundingly defeated. This debate
prevented Kansas joining the Union as a state until 1861.
*For all the struggle over the principle of slavery in Kansas and
Nebraska, not many slaves actually were actually brought to the
territories. The 1860 census revealed that there were only 2
slaves in Kansas and 15 in Nebraska.
*Pierce, though well-intentioned, had not had a successful
presidency, and failed to get the Democratic nomination in
1856. There is some debate if he even wanted it, although
after losing the nomination he supposedly said ‘there’s nothing
left to do but get drunk.’ He returned to New Hampshire and
did just that.
*The Democrats also avoided Stephen Douglas, who, although a
powerful speaker and a well-known figure, was controversial for
his involvement in the debacle of Bleeding Kansas.
*The Democrats chose James Buchanan, a wealthy lawyer, a veteran
of 1812 (who had helped defend Baltimore), Representative and
Senator from Pennsylvania, Secretary of State under Polk, and
Ambassador to the Court of Saint James under Pierce. He had
been overseas during much of the Kansas-Nebraska controversy, and
so had a clean reputation in that area. He had several
distinguishing physical features: his height (six feet),
different coloured eyes (the left was green and the right was
blue), and because he was near-sighted in his left eye and
far-sighted in his right eye, he kept his head almost constantly
cocked to the left, which he thought helped him see better.
He also supposedly drank heavily, but unlike Pierce, could hold
his liquor. Sadly, Buchanan had few distinguishing political
features. He opposed slavery personally, but liked
Southerners and the South, and did not want to offend them by
acting against slavery politically, making him another Doughface.
*The Whigs, the party created to oppose the Democrats, were gone,
but a new party had arisen in their place. The Republicans
arose almost spontaneously in the Midwest and Northeast, and were
composed of Free-Soilers, abolitionists, Conscience Whigs,
Know-Nothings, and even disaffected Democrats. They
officially opposed slavery in the territories, and were suspected
of wanting to end it everywhere. The most prominent
Republican was William Henry Seward, follower of a Higher Law, but
he did not think the Republicans had a good chance in their first
major election year, and declined the nomination, which went
instead to John C. Frémont, the Pathfinder of the West.
*The Know-Nothings, more formally known as the American Party,
also nominated a candidate, Millard Fillmore. The
Know-Nothings demanded that ‘Americans must rule America.’
*During the campaign Buchanan was ridiculed for never having
married, and Frémont was accused (falsely) of being a Catholic and
(accurately) of being a half-French bastard born in Georgia.
People also doubted his honesty, ability, and judgement.
Furthermore, Southern fire-eaters threatened to leave the Union if
a Black Republican was elected.
*In 1856, no-one won a majority of the popular vote, but Buchanan
did win the majority of the electoral votes. He won 174
electoral votes (1,832,955 popular votes) compared to Frémont’s
114 electoral votes (1,339,932 popular votes) and Fillmore’s 8
electoral votes from Maryland (871,731 popular votes nationwide).
*Although the Republicans lost, they could claim a noble
defeat. They had put up a good showing against the Democrats
even while running a man some saw as a weak candidate. Some
historians suggest it is just as well Buchanan won because,
despite his flaws, he kept the Union together until Lincoln could
become President. Frémont’s election would have probably
precipitated a civil war, and he would probably not have been up
to the task of stopping it.
*One thing that made slavery such a powerful topic, aside from the
Compromise of 1850 or the Fugitive Slave Law, was the best-selling
book of the period, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin,
published in 1852 in response to the Fugitive Slave Act. The
book offered a dramatic and emotional account of slave families
destroyed by the South's peculiar institution, of daring escapes
and heroic sacrifice, and of the cruelty of plantation owners in
the Deep South. Stowe, of course, had never been Deeper in
the South than Kentucky, and that only briefly, but she had known
runaway slaves on the Underground Railroad. A best-seller at
home and abroad (especially in Britain, which relied on King
Cotton but had had a strong abolitionist movement for decades and
had outlawed slavery in 1833), Uncle Tom’s Cabin
introduced Northerners and foreigners who had never seen a
Southern plantation to the horror and brutality of slave life in a
sensational manner. More than most other issues, this drama
inspired Northerners to oppose slavery, and would even prevent
foreign powers from intervening in the War for Southern
Independence a decade later.
*In 1857, an apparently simple court case shattered decades of
compromises. This was the case of Dred Scott v. John
Sandford [a mis-spelling of Sanford that has
remained in the Court's records]. Etheldred Scott had been
born in Virginia around 1799, but in 1830 his master’s family
moved to Missouri. When his master died in 1832, Scott was
sold to an Army surgeon named Emerson, who subsequently was posted
to several places in free states and territories. In 1843
Emerson died, and his wife began to hire Scott out. In 1846,
he sued for his freedom on the grounds that he had lived for many
years in free states and territories, but the Missouri courts
found against him.
*Scott tried to take it the Supreme Court, and in 1857, he
presented his case against John Sanford, brother of the widow
Emerson and executor of her husband’s estate to whom she said she
had already sold Scott).
*The Supreme Court ruled that Scott was not a citizen and
therefore could not sue in a court, and that could have ended
it. However, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, a Jackson
appointee, wanted to prove a point and hopefully settle the
question of the expansion or limitation of slavery once and for
all. In his majority opinion, Blacks--slave or free--were
not citizens at all, and ‘the black man has no rights which the
white man is bound to respect.’
*Furthermore, even if Scott could have legally sued, he still
would have lost, because the federal government, thanks to the V
Amendment, cannot deprive citizens of their property without due
process of law. That meant that simply living in or
travelling through a free state did not automatically free
someone's slave. Finally, the Court ruled that Article 6 of
the Northwest Ordinance as well as the Missouri Compromise
(already effectively repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act) were
unconstitutional because Congress had no power to ban slavery
anywhere, even if the new territories wanted it banned.
*Southerners were pleased. Popular sovereignty men were
irritated as this would be one more point of contention between
the already fractious fire-eaters and abolitionists whom they had
hoped to appease through their compromises. Free-Soilers and
abolitionists were outraged. They claimed that the Court had
not issued a decision, only an opinion, and dismissed the Court as
a ‘Southern debating society.’ Republicans accused the Court
of putting sectional politics above legality. Southerners,
in turn, were offended by these further attacks against the South
and even, it seemed, against the Constitution which guaranteed the
rights of the states.
*Scott’s mistress had married an anti-slavery man, Calvin Chafee,
in 1850, and they arranged for Scott to be freed shortly after the
case ended, and he died of tuberculosis as a free man 18 months
later in 1858.
*In addition to this episode of national bitterness, the country
suffered from economic problems. So much gold had been found in
California that it created inflation. The Crimean War had
created a worldwide demand for grain, and westerners had increased
crop production. When the war ended, the market for grain
*Early in 1857, before the Crash, Congress had a large surplus in
the treasury. Southerners said this proved the government
did not need to raise as much money as it had been, and passed the
Tariff of 1857, lowering the tariff to 20%, the lowest since the
War of 1812. This made things harder for Northern
manufacturers, who resented the Tariff and the South.
*The drop in wheat prices, combined with inflation, bad
speculation in railroads, and other problems led to a major
economic crash, the Panic of 1857.
*The North, closely tied to the grain-growing West, was badly
hurt. The South, ruled by King Cotton, which was still very
profitable, did just fine.
*People starved in Northern cities, and industrialists went
bankrupt. The Republicans chose to blame the South and the
new Tariff for many of their problems.
*The demand in the North and West for free homesteads in the
territories grew. These would be quarter-section farms of
160 acres each. This plan was opposed by Northern
industrialists, who did not want their workers moving west for
free land, and by Southerners, because 160 acres was not enough
land for a full-scale plantation, so the scheme seemed tailor-made
to deter the western expansion of slavery. A homestead act
selling land at only 25 cents an acre (a fairly nominal fee even
then) was passed in 1860 but vetoed by President Buchanan.
*In 1858 a senatorial race in Illinois captured the nation’s
attention. The Little Giant, Stephen Douglas, was due for
re-election, and the Republicans had chosen Abraham Lincoln to
*Lincoln was tall and scrawny, but tough—reputed to be one of the
best, possibly the very best, athlete in the country, being
particularly skilled at boxing, wrestling, and the long
jump. Born in a log cabin and mostly self-educated, Lincoln
always spoke with a backwoods accent and was treated with scorn by
those who met him for most of his life. Although he made his
career as a lawyer, and supposedly refused to take cases he could
not in good conscience defend (so that he became known as ‘Honest
Abe’), he had also worked at more menial tasks, including
rail-splitting, a career for which he was remembered by both those
who wanted to call him uncultured and those who wanted to present
him as a common man. Perceived as simple, he was actually
very intelligent and tricky. A former Whig, he had served
one term in the US Congress (1847-1849) where he opposed the
Mexican War, but after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he
became a prominent Republican speaker in the mid-west.
*In 1858, as the state legislature decided whom to appoint
senator, Lincoln challenged Douglas to a series of debates, a very
risky move, as Douglas was famous as a public speaker.
Lincoln did not have a great delivery in most cases, but he argued
with great logic. At a debate in Freeport, after the Dred
Scott case, Lincoln trapped Douglas by asking what would happen if
a territory voted against slavery. Would the will of the
people, expressed through popular sovereignty prevail, or would
the position of the Supreme Court that the government could not
interfere with slavery anywhere force that peculiar institution on
the new territory against the will of its inhabitants?
*Douglas and the popular sovereignty men had an answer for this
already, and Douglas presented what came to be known as the
Freeport Doctrine: no matter what the Supreme Court ruled,
slavery would stay down if the people wanted it down. If the
majority of the people in a territory or state did not want
slavery, they would simply not import slaves, and would not make
laws conducive to a slave society. There were legal and
peaceful means to exclude slavery from any place it was not
*Douglas won the senate seat, as popular sovereignty was still
popular in the democratical west, and Douglas had friends in the
state legislature. Furthermore, these legislators were
elected by the people, and people in the majority of the state’s
voting districts chose pro-Douglas men, although some historians
have suggested the a counting of the overall popular vote would
have put pro-Lincoln men ahead. Certainly many observers
felt that Lincoln, by attacking slavery and the convoluted and
contorted logic of its latest generation of supporters, had won a
moral victory. This also thrust him onto the national stage
at a time when the Republican Party was seeking leadership.
Douglas, on the other hand, won no more friends and may have even
lost some by supporting slavery’s right to exist while suggesting
legal ways to end it, annoying both North and South in the
*In October 1859 John Brown, appeared in Harper’s Ferry, Virginia
with twenty-one other men including three of his many sons (he had
twenty children of his own, as well as an adopted Black child).
Sixteen of his followers were White and five were Black. His
plan was to seize the Federal arsenal in the town, and take the
weapons to create an army of freed Blacks. Initially they
would form a nation in the mountains of Western Virginia from
which they would raid the enslaved areas around them, freeing
slaves and attracting runaways as they did so. Eventually
this would develop into a full-scale slave insurrection in the
South, ending the peculiar institution forever.
*Brown and his men quickly seized the arsenal and took control of
the town, killing seven civilians in the process, including one
free Black, and injuring ten more innocent bystanders.
Despite Brown’s hopes, Southern Blacks did not rise to support
him, largely because most did not know about it, although
doubtless they remembered other attempts to start servile
insurrections, and the failure of those revolts.
*A company of local militia tried to take the arsenal, and killed
or mortally wounded eight of Brown’s followers, separated five
more from the main group, and caused two more to give up and
flee. Brown, however, although he still had the power to
escape, chose to remain.
*The next day, a detachment of US Marines arrived under the
command of Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee, who happened to be at his home
near Washington on leave from his post as commandant of West
Point. They surrounded the arsenal and offered Brown the
chance to surrender. He refused and the Marines stormed the
building. One tried to stab Brown with his bayonet, but hit
him in the belt buckle, which deflected the blade. Brown was
beaten unconscious and arrested.
*Brown was tried for treason against the Commonwealth of Virginia
for trying to lead a revolution within the borders of the
state. Some of Brown’s friends tried to have him declared
insane (and at least thirteen of his close relatives, including
his mother, were known to be insane), but Brown would have none of
that, and the governor of Virginia was not sympathetic. The
trial was legal, but very fast, and Brown was found guilty and
sentenced to death. He was hanged on 2 December 1859.
*Some opponents of slavery, notably Harriet Tubman, considered him
a hero for what he had done. Others, such as Frederick
Douglas (who knew of Brown’s plan before he tried it and advised
him against it) considered Brown’s motives and dedication
admirable, but his actions unwise and illegal (although he later
praised Brown as being far more zealous against slavery than he
was himself). William Lloyd Garrison published a column in The
Liberator, calling Brown's raid 'well-intended but sadly
misguided.' Abraham Lincoln felt Brown was a lunatic who had
done the cause of ending slavery far more harm than good by giving
it a bad name through his violence.
*A large number of Americans agreed with his execution—whatever
his ends, leading a rebellion and provoking the South were not
admirable methods for achieving them.
*Nonetheless, many in the North saw his execution as barely better
than murder. To them, John Brown became a martyr, and in the
coming years his soul would go marching on.
This page last updated 15 July, 2020.