The Crime Against Kansas

Having lost the battle in Congress for a free Kansas, antislavery men determined to wage the war on the prairie itself. "Since there is no escaping your challenge," William H. Seward told southern senators on May 25, 1854, "I accept it in behalf of the cause of freedom. We will engage in competition for the virgin soil of Kansas, and God give the victory to the side which is stronger in numbers as it is in right."1 In Massachusetts the erstwhile conservative Amos Lawrence was chief financial backer of the New England Emigrant Aid Company, formed in the summer of 1854 to promote free-soil settlement of Kansas. Few New Englanders actually went there, but the company did provide aid to farmers from midwestern states who began to trickle into Kansas. Lawrence's role was reflected in the name of the town that became headquarters of the free-state forces in the territory.

At the outset, however, Missourians from just across the border were stronger in numbers than the free soilers and at least equal in determination. "We are playing for a mighty stake," Senator David Atchison of Missouri assured Virginia's Robert M. T. Hunter. "The game must be played boldly. . . . If we win we carry slavery to the Pacific Ocean, if we fail we lose Missouri Arkansas Texas and all the territories." Fifteen years earlier Missourians had harried and burned the Mormons out of

the state; Atchison was confident of their ability to give free soilers the same treatment in Kansas. "We are organizing," he told Jefferson Davis. "We will be compelled to shoot, burn & hang, but the thing will soon be over. We intend to 'Mormonize' the Abolitionists."2

Atchison did his best to fulfill this promise. When Andrew Reeder, a Pennsylvania Democrat, arrived in Kansas as territorial governor in the fall of 1854 he called an election for a delegate to Congress. This became the first of many Kansas elections in which the normal rowdiness of frontier politics was magnified a hundredfold by the contest over slavery. In November 1854, Atchison and other prominent Missourians led an invasion of "border ruffians" into Kansas to swell the vote for the proslavery candidate. Derided as "Pukes" by northern-born settlers, many of these lank, unshaven, unwashed, hard-drinking Missourians had little material interest in slavery but even less love for "those long-faced, sanctimonious Yankees" devoted to "sickly sycophantic love for the nigger."3 The border ruffians won the first round. Casting more than 1,700 ballots that a subsequent congressional committee found to be fraudulent, they elected a proslavery delegate to Congress.

They probably could have won in a fair election. Governor Reeder took a census in preparation for the next election (of a territorial legislature) in March 1855. Of 8,501 bona fide residents (including 242 slaves), 2,905 were legal voters, of whom three-fifths had come from Missouri and other slave states. Nevertheless Atchison wanted to make sure of victory. "Mark every scoundrel among you that is the least tainted with free-soilism, or abolitionism, and exterminate him," the senator's lieutenant in Missouri exhorted a crowd at St. Joseph. "To those having qualms of conscience ... the time has come when such impositions must be disregarded, as your lives and property are in danger. . . . Enter every election district in Kansas . . . and vote at the point of a

2. Atchison to Hunter, quoted in James A. Rawley, Race and Politics: "Bleeding Kansas" and the Coming of the Civil War (Philadelphia, 1969), 81; Atchison to Davis, Sept. 24, 1854, quoted in William E. Gienapp, "The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856," Ph.D. dissertation, University of California at Berkeley, 1980, pp. 570-71.

3. The stereotypes of each other held by Yankees and Pukes are analyzed in Michael Fellman, "Rehearsal for the Civil War: Antislavery and Proslavery at the Fighting Point in Kansas, 1854-1856," in Lewis Perry and Michael Fellman, eds., Antislavery Reconsidered: New Perspectives on the Abolitionists (Baton Rouge, 1979), 287307; quotation from p. 300. The phrase "border ruffians" was coined by Horace Greeley but proudly adopted by the Missourians.

Bowie knife or revolver!" Taking a leave from the Senate, Atchison again led a band of border ruffians into Kansas. "There are eleven hundred men coming over from Platte County to vote," he told his followers, "and if that ain't enough we can send five thousand—enough to kill every God-damned abolitionist in the Territory."4 Five thousand was about the number that came—4,908 according to a congressional investigation—and cast illegal ballots to elect a territorial legislature composed of thirty-six proslavery men and three free soilers. "Missourians have nobly defended our rights," stated an Alabama newspaper. "All hail!" declared the proslavery Leavenworth Herald. "Come on, Southern men! Bring your slaves and fill up the Territory. Kansas is saved."5 Governor Reeder was appalled by these proceedings. He had come to Kansas sympathetic toward slavery, but the Missourians' threats against his life if he interfered with their activities converted him to the other side. He ordered new elections in one-third of the districts. Free-soil candidates won most of them, but when the legislature met in July 1855 it contemptuously seated the original proslavery victors. Reeder had meanwhile gone to Washington, where he pleaded with Pierce to repudiate this burlesque. But the president was swayed by arguments of Atchison, Douglas, and other Democrats that the Emigrant Aid Company had provoked the problem and Republican newspapers had blown it out of proportion. Atchison also persuaded Pierce to replace Reeder with someone more pliable, who turned out to be Wilson Shannon from Ohio. One of Shannon's first responsibilities was to enforce a slave code enacted by the legislature that imposed a fine and imprisonment for expressing opinions against slavery, authorized the death penalty for encouraging slave revolts or helping slaves to escape, required all voters to take an oath to uphold these laws, and retroactively legalized the border ruffian ballots by requiring no prior residence in Kansas in order to vote.6

Free-soil Kansans—who by the fall of 1855 outnumbered bona fide

4. John Stringfellow quoted by Alice Nichols, Bleeding Kansas (New York, 1954), 26, from a report of his speech in the proslavery Leavenworth Herald; Atchison's words reported in testimony before a congressional committee by Dr. G. A. Butler, a settler from Tennessee, quoted in Nevins, Ordeal, II, 385.

5. Jacksonville (Ala.) Republican, quoted in Rawley, Race and Politics, 89; Leavenworth Herald, quoted in Nichols, Bleeding Kansas, 29.

6. Nevins, Ordeal, II, 384-90; Jay Monaghan, Civil War on the Western Border, 18541865 (New York, 1955), 17-30; Roy F. Nichols, Franklin Pierce (2nd ed., Philadelphia, 1958), 407-18.

proslavery settlers—had no intention of obeying these laws or of recognizing the "bogus legislature" that had passed them. Northern settlers armed themselves with new Sharps breechloading rifles sent from New England. Free soilers organized politically and called a convention to meet at Topeka in October. They drew up a free-state constitution and called elections for a new legislature and governor. Proslavery voters of course boycotted these elections. By January 1856 Kansas had two territorial governments: the official one at Lecompton and an unofficial one at Topeka representing a majority of actual residents.

Partisans of both sides in the territory were walking arsenals; it was only a matter of time until a shooting war broke out. The murder of a free-soil settler by a proslavery man in November 1855 set off a series of incidents that seemed likely to start the war. Some 1,500 Missourians crossed the border to march on the free-soil stronghold of Lawrence, where 1,000 men waited to receive them with Sharps rifles and a howitzer. Federal troops stood by idly because they had received no orders from the inert Pierce administration. Governor Shannon went to Lawrence and persuaded both sides to disband their forces. With Atchison's help he managed to prod the reluctant Missourians homeward. "If you attack Lawrence now," Atchison told them, "you attack as a mob, and what would be the result? You could cause the election of an abolition President, and the ruin of the Democratic party. Wait a little. You cannot now destroy these people without losing more than you would gain."7

This reasoning hardly encouraged prospects for a permanent peace. A severe winter did more than anything else to keep things quiet for the next few months. But violence sprouted with the dandelions in the spring of 1856. The annual migration of settlers promised to increase the freestate majority. The proslavery response called for bravado. "Blood for Blood!" blazoned the Atchison Squatter Sovereign. "Let us purge ourselves of all abolition emissaries . . . and give distinct notice that all who do not leave immediately for the East, will leave for eternity!"8 Proslavery Judge Samuel Lecompte instructed a grand jury to indict members of the free-state government for treason. Since many of these men lived in Lawrence, the attempt to arrest them provided another opportunity for Missourians, now deputized as a posse, to attack this bastion of Yankee abolitionists. Dragging along five cannon, they laid

siege to the town on May 21. Not wishing to place themselves in further contempt of law, free-state leaders decided against resistance. The "posse" of some 800 men thereupon poured into Lawrence, demolished its two newspaper offices, burned the hotel and the home of the elected free-soil governor, and plundered shops and houses.

All of this occurred against the backdrop of a national debate about Kansas. Both Republicans and Democrats in Congress introduced bills for the admission of Kansas as a state—the former under the Topeka free-state constitution, the latter after an election of a new constitutional convention to be administered by the Lecompton territorial government. Southerners viewed this matter as crucial to their future. "The admission of Kansas into the Union as a slave state is now a point of honor," wrote Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina in March 1856. "The fate of the South is to be decided with the Kansas issue. If Kansas becomes a hireling [i.e. free] State, slave property will decline to half its present value in Missouri . . . [and] abolitionism will become the prevailing sentiment. So with Arkansas; so with upper Texas."9

Since Republicans controlled the House, and Democrats the Senate, neither party's Kansas bill could become law. Both parties focused on the propaganda value of the issue looking toward the presidential election. Republicans gained more from this strategy because Democratic support of proslavery excesses in Kansas offered a ready-made opportunity to dramatize yet another slave-power attack on northern rights. Blessed with an able corps of young antislavery reporters on the scene in Kansas, whose zeal sometimes exceeded their accuracy, the burgeoning galaxy of Republican newspapers exploited Bleeding Kansas for all it was worth.

Southerners continued to give them plenty to exploit. Hard on the heels of the "Sack of Lawrence" came shocking news from the U. S. Capitol itself. All spring Charles Sumner had been storing up wrath toward what he considered "The Crime Against Kansas"—the title of a two-day address he delivered to crowded Senate galleries May 19-20. "I shall make the most thorough and complete speech of my life," Sumner informed Salmon P. Chase a few days before the address. "My soul is wrung by this outrage, & I shall pour it forth." So he did, with more passion than good taste. "Murderous robbers from Missouri," Sumner declared, "hirelings picked from the drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization" had committed a "rape of a virgin territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery." Sumner singled out members of the F Street Mess for specific attack, including South Carolina's Andrew P. Butler, who had "discharged the loose expectoration of his speech" in demanding the disarming of free-state men in Kansas. Butler's home state with "its shameful imbecility from Slavery" had sent to the Senate in his person a "Don Quixote who had chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who . . . though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean the harlot, Slavery."10

Sumner's speech produced an uproar—in the Senate, where several Democrats rebuked him, and in the press, where even Republican praise was tempered by reservations about the rhetoric. The only thing that prevented some southerner from challenging Sumner to a duel was the knowledge that he would refuse. Besides, dueling was for social equals; someone as low as this Yankee blackguard deserved a horsewhipping— or a caning. So felt Congressman Preston Brooks, a cousin of Andrew Butler. Two days after the speech Brooks walked into the nearly empty Senate chamber after adjournment and approached the desk where Sumner was writing letters. Your speech, he told the senator, "is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine." As Sumner started to rise, the frenzied Brooks beat him over the head thirty times or more with a gold-headed cane as Sumner, his legs trapped under the bolted-down desk, finally wrenched it loose from the floor and collapsed with his head covered by blood.11

This incident incensed even those Yankees who had little use for Sumner. "Bleeding Sumner" joined Bleeding Kansas as a symbol of the slave power's iniquities. The South, declared one newspaper, "cannot tolerate free speech anywhere, and would stifle it in Washington with the bludgeon and the bowie-knife, as they are now trying to stifle it in Kansas by massacre, rapine, and murder." "Has it come to this," asked William Cullen Bryant of the New York Evening Post, "that we must speak with bated breath in the presence of our Southern masters? . . . Are we to be chastised as they chastise their slaves? Are we too, slaves, slaves for life, a target for their brutal blows, when we do not comport ourselves to please them?"12

10. Sumner to Chase, May 25, 1856, Chase Papers, Library of Congress; The Works of Charles Sumner, 12 vols. (Boston, 1873), IV, 125-48.

11. David Donald, Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War (New York, i960), 289-97.

12. Cincinnati Gazette, May 24, 1856; New York Evening Post, May 23, 1856, quoted

Adding insult to injury, the South lionized Brooks as a hero. Although some southerners regretted the affair for its galvanizing effect on the North, public approval of Brooks's act far outweighed qualms. Newspapers in his own state expressed pride that Brooks had "stood forth so nobly in defense of. . . the honor of South Carolinians." The Richmond Enquirer pronounced "the act good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequence. The vulgar Abolitionists in the Senate are getting above themselves. . . . They have grown saucy, and dare to be impudent to gentlemen! . . . The truth is, they have been suffered to run too long without collars. They must be lashed into submission."13 A Louisiana planter and former army officer, Braxton Bragg, wrote that the House should pass a vote of thanks to Brooks. "You can reach the sensibilities of such dogs" as Sumner, wrote Bragg, "only through their heads and a big stick." Brooks himself boasted that "every Southern man sustains me. The fragments of the stick are begged for as sacred relicts." When the House voted 121 to 95 to expel him, southern opposition prevented the necessary two-thirds majority. Brooks resigned anyway and returned home to seek vindication by reelection. South Carolinians feted him and sent him back to Washington with triumphant unanimity. From all over the South, Brooks received dozens of new canes, some inscribed with such mottoes as "Hit Him Again" and "Use Knock-Down Arguments."14

This southern response outraged northern moderates even more than the caning had done. "It was not the attack itself (horrible as that was) that excited me," wrote an old-line Whig who thereafter voted Republican, "but the tone of the Southern Press, & the approbation, apparently, of the whole Southern People." A Boston conservative who had previously defended the South now "must in sorrow concede a lower civilization than I would ever before believe, tho' [Theodore] Parker, & those called extreme, have often & calmly insisted upon this very fact, while I have warmly denied it." Republican organizers reported that in William E. Gienapp, "The Crime Against Sumner: The Caning of Charles Sumner and the Rise of the Republican Party," CWH, 25 (1979), 230, 232.

13. Charleston Courier, Aug. 29, 1856, quoted in Avery O. Craven, The Growth of Southern Nationalism 1848-1861 (Baton Rouge, 1953), 233; Richmond Enquirer, June 9, 1856, quoted in Gienapp, "The Crime Against Sumner," 222.

14. Bragg quoted in Donald, Sumner, 305; Brooks quoted in Gienapp, "The Crime Against Sumner," 221; the mottoes on the canes quoted in John Hope Franklin, The Militant South 1800-1861 (Cambridge, Mass., 1956), 54-55.

they had "never before seen anything at all like the present state of deep, determined, & desperate feelings of hatred, & hostility to the further extension of slavery, & its political power."15

Brooks's only punishment was a $300 fine levied by a district court. Sumner's injuries, complicated by a post-traumatic syndrome that turned psychogenic neurosis into physical debility, kept him away from the Senate most of the time for the next four years.16 During that time the Massachusetts legislature reelected him as a symbolic rebuke to the "barbarism of slavery." A good many Yankees wanted to go beyond such passive protest. "If the South appeal to the rod of the slave for argument with the North," wrote a New York clergyman in his diary, "no way is left for the North, but to strike back, or be slaves."17 Out in Kansas lived a fifty-six-year-old abolitionist who also believed in this Old Testament injunction of an eye for an eye. Indeed, John Brown looked much like the Biblical warrior who slew his enemies with the jawbone of an ass—though Brown favored more up-to-date weapons like rifles, and, on one infamous occasion, broadswords.

The father of twenty children, Brown had enjoyed little success over the years in his various business and farming enterprises. In 1855 he joined six of his sons and a son-in-law who had taken up claims in Kansas. A zealot on the subject of slavery with an almost mesmeric influence over many of his associates, Brown enlisted in a free-state military company (which included his sons) for service in the guerrilla conflict that was spreading during the spring of 1856. On their way to help defend Lawrence against the Missourians in May, this company learned that the unresisting town had been pillaged. The news threw Brown into a rage at the proslavery forces and contempt for the failure of Lawrence men to fight. That was no way to make Kansas free, he told his men. We must "fight fire with fire," must "strike terror in the hearts of the proslavery people." When further word reached Brown's party of the caning of Sumner in Washington, Brown "went crazy— crazy," according to witnesses. "Something must be done to show these barbarians that we, too, have rights," Brown declared. He reckoned that proslavery men had murdered at least five free-soilers in Kansas since the troubles began. Brown conceived of a "radical, retaliatory measure" against "the slave hounds" of his own neighborhood near Pottawatomie

15. All quotations from Gienapp, "The Crime Against Sumner," 231, 234, 235.

16. See the thorough and persuasive analysis in Donald, Sumner, 312-47.

17. Henry Dana Ward quoted in Gienapp, "The Crime Against Sumner," 232.

Creek—none of whom had anything to do with those murders. With four of his sons and three other men, Brown abducted five proslavery settlers from their cabins on the night of May 24-25 and coolly split open their skulls with broadswords. An eye for an eye.18

This shocking massacre went unpunished by legal process. Federal officials did manage to arrest two of Brown's sons who had not taken part in the affair, while proslavery bands burned the Brown homesteads. The twin traumas of Lawrence and Pottawatomie escalated the bushwhacking war in Kansas. One of Brown's sons was among some two hundred men killed in this conflict. Considering themselves soldiers in a holy war, Brown and his other sons somehow evaded capture and were never indicted for the Pottawatomie killings. And despite strenuous efforts by the U.S. army to contain this violence, the troops were too few to keep up with the hit and run raids that characterized the fighting.

As news of the Pottawatomie massacre traveled eastward, a legend grew among antislavery people that Brown was not involved or that if he was he had acted in self-defense.19 Not surprisingly, Republican newspapers preferred to dwell on the "barbarism" of border ruffians and Preston Brooks rather than on the barbarism of a free-state fighter. In any event, the Pottawatomie massacre was soon eclipsed by stories of other "battles" under headlines in many newspapers featuring "The Civil War in Kansas." More than anything else, that civil war shaped the context for the presidential election of 1856.

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