*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, most 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 said this was cheating, and rushed their own colonists into the territory, making sure they were also well armed.

*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 Shawnee Mission, and alter moved to Lecompton.  Abolitionists and free-soilers were livid, and created their own, extra-legal, government in Topeka.  Kansas thus had two shady 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, Lyman Beecher raised money to buy Sharps breech-loading rifles, among the best in the world.  When the anti-slavery militias in Kansas received these, they called them ‘Beecher’s Bibles.’

*Fights broke out in Kansas as people fought over slavery and the opposing governments.  This long and unpleasant period was known as ‘Bleeding Kansas.’

*The settlers in Kansas also fought over land claims, which had often been poorly regulated and registered.  In 1856, the pro-slavery Sheriff 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, in turn, killed a free-soil man).
*Although the people of Lawrence did not condone this attack, and offered a reward for the discovery of the assailant, pro-slavery forces used it as an excuse to attack the town.  Although no-one was killed, many buildings were burned and looted.

*In response to this attack, a shady abolitionist named John Brown led a group of men, including four of his sons, to the pro-slavery settlements in the Pottawatomie 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.

*Shortly after the Raid on Lawrence, but before the Pottawatomie Massacre, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, one of the few prominent abolitionists 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 that state’s 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 a misguided quest on behalf of the harlot Slavery and compared his championing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act 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 and 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 of Butler.  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.

*Intestine warfare 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 pro-slavery forces in Lecompton composed a constitution, and submitted it for Federal approval.  The new president, James Buchanan, another northerner willing to appease the South, accepted the 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 would prevent 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 went 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—and 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,’ although that may have been standard procedure for him.  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 defended the Star-Spangled Banner at Baltimore), Representative and Senator from Pennsylvania, Secretary of State under Polk, and Ambassador to the Court of St 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 short-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.  Like Pierce, he was not a Mason.  Sadly, Buchanan had few distinguishing political features.  He opposed slavery, but liked Southerners and the South, and did not want to offend them by acting against slavery legislatively.

*The Whigs, the party created to oppose the Democrats, were gone, but a new party arose in their place.  The Republicans arose almost spontaneously in the mid-west, and were composed of free-soilers, abolitionists, Conscience Whigs, Know-Nothings, and even disaffected Democrats.  They opposed slavery in the territories, and were suspected of wanting to end it everywhere.  The most prominent Republican was William 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, who had once been an anti-Mason.  The Know-Nothings had an unclear platform in many ways and, if asked about it, would claim to know nothing about it, but they were certainly opposed to immigrants.  These nativists had been frightened by the influx of German and Irish immigrants in the 1840s and afterwards, and were afraid that their cheap labour would undermine American workers and that their Catholicism would undermine American democracy.  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 (1,832,955) compared to Frémont’s 114 (1,339,932) and Fillmore’s 8 from Maryland (871,731).

*Although the Republicans lost, they could claim a victorious 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 popular 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 gives a sentimental and emotional account of slave families destroyed by the 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, 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 compelled Northerners to oppose slavery, and would even prevent foreign powers from intervening in the War for Southern Independence a decade later.


This page last updated 11 November, 2003.