ADVANCED PLACEMENT UNITED STATES HISTORY
Bleeding Kansas

*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 down. 

*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 collapsed.

*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 oppose him. 

*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 welcome.

*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 process.

*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.
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