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Ominous Events Leading to Civil War

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Ominous Events Leading to Civil War


Barry MacDonald

My source for this essay is a biography from the American Statesmen series: American Statesmen: Charles Sumner, by Moorfield Storey. Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1900.

In 1853 the political landscape was discouraging for opponents of slavery. Both parties, Democrats and Whigs, decided that slavery could not even be discussed in Congress. The Democrats were pro-slavery, and they controlled both houses of Congress, the presidency, and the judiciary — they were thus able to make, execute, and interpret the law.

In 1854 the Kansas-Nebraska Bill replaced the Missouri Compromise. For three decades the Missouri Compromise had restricted slavery south and west of 36°30, but no longer. Previously Congress regulated the territories, and Congress prescribed the conditions under which a territory might become a state. But thereafter the settlers themselves were given the power to determine their destiny, including whether to institute slavery in the territory or not.

Under the Missouri Compromise, slavery could not have entered Nebraska or Kansas, but now the settlers of the territories would take matters into their own hands. Under the Kansas-Nebraska bill, slavery could be established anywhere but in the existing free states.

Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, one of the few anti-slavery senators, said in the Senate:

“. . . Slavery, which at the beginning was a sectional institution, with no foothold anywhere on the national territory, is now exalted as national, and all our broad domain is threatened by its blighting shadow. . . .”

After the Kansas-Nebraska bill passed the Senate on the way to becoming law, Sumner said:

“Ah, Sir, senators vainly expect peace. Not in this way can peace come. In passing such a bill as is now threatened, you scatter from this dark midnight hour no seeds of harmony and good will, but broadcast through the land dragon’s teeth, which . . . may not spring up in a direful crop of armed men, yet I am assured, sir, will fructify in civil strife and feud. . . .

“Sir, it is the best bill on which Congress ever acted, for it annuls all past compromises with slavery and makes any future compromises impossible. Thus it puts Freedom and Slavery face to face, and bids them grapple. Who can doubt the result? It opens wide the door of the future, when at last there will really be a North and the slave power will be broken. . . . Everywhere within the sphere of Congress the great Northern Hammer will descend to smite the wrong, and the irresistible cry will break forth, ‘No more Slave States!’”

According to the Indian commissioner in an official report, in November 1853, there were only three white men in the Nebraska territory. According to General Houston, by treaty with the Indians, whites were then excluded from the Kansas territory, and there was not a white person in the territory.

On May 24th, 1854, an event occurred that created new tension. Anthony Burns was seized as a fugitive slave in Boston and taken to the courthouse. Abolitionists gathered and attacked the courthouse, killing a guard but failing to free Burns. It was thought that Charles Sumner’s speech, quoted above, had inspired the abolitionists, and Sumner was warned to be watchful of his safety.

Between files of soldiers and a silent crowd, Anthony Burns was taken through the streets of Boston, and back to slavery. It was believed the spectacle made many new abolitionists.

The Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 was much resented in the North because it imposed the responsibility on local law enforcement officers everywhere to assist slave hunters in the task of capturing and returning escaped slaves. People who detested slavery were forced either to defy a federal law or to ignore their conscience.

A petition was introduced in the Senate for the repeal of Fugitive Slave Law in June 1854, and a debate was joined. Charles Sumner was asked by Senator Butler of South Carolina, in light of the law: “Will this honorable senator tell me that he will do it?”

Sumner replied, “Is thy servant a dog, that he should do this thing? . . . The senator asked me if I would help to reduce a fellow man to bondage. I answered him.”

Butler replied:

“Then you would not obey the Constitution. Sir, standing here before this tribunal, where you swore to support it, you rise and tell me that you regard it the office of a dog to enforce it. You stand in my presence as a coequal senator, and tell me that it is a dog’s office to execute the Constitution of the United States.”

Because of his willingness to stand against the slave partisans Senator Sumner was seen as a leader in the anti-slavery movement and he received much abuse. Senator Clay of Alabama had this to say of Sumner:

“. . . a sneaking, sinuous, snake-like poltroon. . . . If we cannot restrain or prevent this eternal warfare upon the feelings and rights of Southern gentlemen, we may rob the serpent of his fangs, we can paralyze his influence, by placing him in that nadir of social degradation which he merits.”

In the North, Senator Sumner was respected as a man “that ain’t a-feared.”

The efforts to repeal the Fugitive Slave Law failed in the Congress, but there were changes in the offing. The Northern states acted. The Wisconsin Supreme Court declared the law unconstitutional. Vermont and Massachusetts required a writ of habeas corpus, and trial by jury before a slave could be returned. Similar actions undertaken by the Northern states were intended to nullify the Fugitive Slave Law and were called “personal liberty bills.”

In 1854 the Whig party collapsed and was replaced with the Republican Party founded in opposition to slaveholders. The emergence of the Republican Party is a worthy story in itself, but it is enough now to note that from the beginning Republicans valued freedom.

In passing the Kansas-Nebraska bill the pro-slavery party counted on emigration from Missouri to populate the territory with pro-slavery voters, but they had aroused a spirit of resistance. Emigration Aid Societies were begun in Northern states and Northern immigrants came in greater numbers than expected. All the efforts of the slavery interest were put in jeopardy by a legal and energetic movement of settlers into Kansas.

In response, associations were formed in Missouri and other slave states to expel the Northerners. They asserted the right to bring slaves with them into Kansas. They would use force to make Kansas a slave state.

Andrew H. Reeder became the first governor of Kansas in October 1854. He was a pro-slavery Democrat from Pennsylvania. In November a delegate was elected to Congress; in March 1855, a territorial legislature was elected — in both elections — for the governor and legislature — armed residents from Missouri drove Kansas settlers away from the polls, and more than half the votes cast were illegal.

These facts were known and admitted by Governor Reeder himself, but nevertheless he certified the legality of the proceedings. Because Governor Reeder had certified the results, the president of the United States had an excuse for not acting.

The fraudulent legislature met in July 1855, to adopt for Kansas the complete body of laws then existing in Missouri — including the laws favoring slavery.

The “Free-Soilers” of Kansas met at Lawrence and resolved to send delegates to a convention for Kansas. The convention met in October at Topeka, prohibited slavery, and forbade the settlement of free colored people. The “Topeka constitution” was to be ratified by a vote of Kansans in December. A petition was sent to Congress for the admission of Kansas as a state — with the Topeka constitution.

Thus Congress was presented with the choice of accepting a state government for Kansas created either by Missourians or Kansans.

Events intervened before the ratification of the Topeka constitution. The rescue of a prisoner from a pro-slavery sheriff induced Governor Shannon, who had replaced Governor Reeder, to call for troops. A force of Missourians crossed the border and assumed the posture of Kansas militia. They encamped near Lawrence. War was imminent when Governor Shannon backed down, made a treaty with the Kansans, and ordered the Missourians to withdraw.

The Topeka constitution was then ratified, and the pro-slavery men did not vote. On the same day, U.S. Senator Atchison from Missouri, who was a leader of the pro-slavers, appealed to the South to send men and money to Kansas. He said:

“Twelve months will not elapse before war — civil war of the fiercest kind — will be upon us. We are arming and preparing for it.”

State elections were held in January 1856, under the Topeka constitution, and there was strife and bloodshed. Another invasion from Missouri was anticipated and the free state leaders telegraphed President Pierce for protection. The president sent a message to Congress in January, in which he blamed the Northern Emigrant Aid Societies for the struggle. While acknowledging that the behavior of the Missourians was “illegal and reprehensible,” he wrote that Governor Reeder’s certification of the first election (though half the votes were illegal) was binding, and he was therefore left powerless to interfere. He wrote that he would employ all the force at his disposal to put down any resistance to federal or territorial laws, and protect the people of Kansas; but he would do so only if the territorial authorities — those elected by fraud and violence, not those elected under the Topeka constitution — requested such assistance. He would respond to requests only from the slaveholders.

In March 1856, debate began in the U.S. Senate on what to do with Kansas. The majority reported a bill, read by Democrat Stephen A. Douglas that recognized the slave-holding government as legitimate. Senator Douglas followed the president in blaming the Emigrant Aid Societies. Senator Charles Sumner presented a rival bill that admitted Kansas under the Topeka constitution.

Senator Douglas engaged in bitter rhetoric calling Senator Trumbull a “traitor,” and stating that “black Republicans” wanted an amalgamation of the white and colored races.

In Kansas armed incursions from Missouri continued. An officer made a report that:

“There are probably five to seven hundred armed men on the pro-slavery side organized into companies. . . . For the last two or three days these men have been stationed between Lawrence and Lecompton, stopping and disarming all free state men, making some prisoners, and in many cases pressing the horses of free state settlers into service.

“On May 21, Lawrence was attacked, the presses and machinery of two newspapers were destroyed; the Free State Hotel and other dwellings burned; the stores looted.”

On May 19 Senator Sumner made a speech entitled “The Crime Against Kansas” in the Senate. He addressed Senator Butler, comparing him to Don Quixote:

“The senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight: I mean the harlot Slavery. . . . The frenzy of Don Quixote in behalf of his wench Dulcinea del Toboso is all surpassed. . . . If the slave states cannot enjoy what, in mockery of the great fathers of the Republic, he misnames Equality under the Constitution — in other words, the full power in the national territories to compel fellow men to unpaid toil, to separate husband and wife, and to sell little children at the auction block — then, sir, the chivalric senator will conduct the State of South Carolina out of the Union! Heroic knight! Exalted senator! A second Moses come for a second exodus! . . .”

Senator Sumner addressed Senator Douglas:

“The senator dreams that he can subdue the North. He disclaims the open threat, but his conduct implies it. How little that senator knows himself of the strength of the cause which he persecutes! He is but mortal man; against him is immortal principle. With finite power he wrestles with the infinite, and he must fall. Against him are stronger battalions than any marshaled by mortal arm — the inborn, ineradicable, invincible sentiments of the human heart; against him is Nature with all her subtle forces; against him is God. Let him try to subdue these. . . .”

He returned to Senator Butler:

“Were the whole history of South Carolina blotted out of existence, from its very beginning down to the day of the last election of the Senator to his present seat on this floor, civilization might lose — I do not say how little, but surely less than it has already gained by the example of Kansas, in that valiant struggle against oppression, and in the development of a new science of emigration. . . . Ah, sir, I tell the senator that Kansas, welcomed as a free State, ‘a ministering angel shall be’ to the Republic when South Carolina, in the cloak of darkness which she hugs, ‘lies howling.’”

Many Senators condemned the Senator’s comments. Mason of Virginia said:

“I am constrained to hear here depravity, vice in its most odious form uncoiled in this presence, exhibiting its loathsome deformities in accusation and vilification against the quarter of the country from which I come; and I must listen to it because it is a necessity of my position, under a common government, to recognize as an equal politically one whom to see elsewhere is to shun and despise.”

To the vituperation of Senator Douglas, Sumner replied:

“. . . no person with the upright form of a man can be allowed, without violation of all decency, to switch out from his tongue the perpetual stench of offensive personality. Sir, that is not a proper weapon of debate, at least on this floor. The noisome, squat, and nameless animal to which I now refer is not the proper model for an American senator. Will the senator from Illinois take notice?”

On May 22 the Senate adjourned early. Sumner remained at his desk writing letters. Preston S. Brooks, a representative of South Carolina and the son of Senator Butler’s cousin approached Sumner and said:

“I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina and on Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine.”

Then he struck Sumner with repeated blows on the head using a heavy gutta-percha cane. Sumner struggled to his feet, wrenching from the floor the desk that was bolted down. He stood briefly but fell unconscious under the continuing strokes until Brooks’ cane broke.

Senator Toombs of Georgia witnessed and approved the assault:

“They were very rapid, and as hard as he could hit. They were hard licks, and very effective.”

Brooks said of his actions in the House of Representatives:

“I went to work very deliberately, as I am charged — and this is admitted — and speculated somewhat as to whether I should employ a horsewhip or a cowhide; but knowing that the senator was my superior in strength, it occurred to me that he might wrest it from my hand, and then — for I never attempt anything I do not perform — I might have been compelled to do that which I would have regretted the balance of my natural life.”

Senator Sumner’s head was bruised and gashed. He lost a lot of blood. His thick hair may have saved his skull from fracturing. He regained consciousness and his head was sewed up. He was taken to his lodgings and expressed a desire to rejoin the debate as soon as he was able. Though the attack did not kill him, it left him debilitated for many years.

A committee was formed in the Senate to decide what to do about the assault. The committee was made up entirely of Sumner’s opponents. The conclusion was that the Senate could not arrest a member of the House, and could not try and punish him — the House would have to deal with the matter.

In the House a committee was appointed, made up of three Northern Republicans and two Southern Democrats. The majority recommended the expulsion of Brooks, and the minority claimed that the House had no jurisdiction over the assault “alleged to have been committed.”

Brooks was tried in the Circuit Court of the District and was fined three hundred dollars.

The resolution to expel Brooks did not gain the two-thirds votes necessary, but a resolution censuring him did pass. Brooks resigned from the House and returned to South Carolina on July 14. A vote was held and he was reelected to the House, receiving all but six votes cast from his fellow South Carolinians. On August 1 he again took the oath to uphold the Constitution as a member of the House.

In October his constituents gave him a public dinner, “in testimony of their complete endorsement of his congressional course.” Jefferson Davis, the secretary of war, wrote of his “high regard and esteem” for Brooks, and of his:

“. . . sympathy with the feeling which prompted the sons of Carolina to welcome the return of a brother who has been the subject of vilification, misrepresentation, and persecution because he resented a libelous assault upon the reputation of their mother.”

Students at the University of Virginia voted to send Brooks a cane with “a heavy gold head, which will be suitably inscribed, and also bear upon it a device of the human head badly cracked and broken.” The Richmond Enquirer wrote:

“In the main, the press of the South applauds the conduct of Mr. Brooks without condition or limitation. Our approbation, at least, is entire and unreserved; we consider the act good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in the consequence. . . . It was a proper act, done at the proper time and in the proper place.”

In the North the resolve to oppose slavery hardened. The brutal nature of the assault brought home the dehumanizing effects of slavery on both master and slave. The essential barbarism of slavery was made clear in an instant, and the nature of “Southern chivalry” exposed.

The retelling of American history is intended to show that partisan divisions have been worse than they are today. The legacy of slavery, including the Jim Crow laws, has been terrible. But the old south is gone, and resolute Americans played their parts in seeing it off.    

“We cannot afford to differ on the question of honesty if we expect our republic permanently to endure. Honesty is not so much a credit as an absolute prerequisite to efficient service to the public. Unless a man is honest, we have no right to keep him in public life; it matters not how brilliant his capacity.” — Theodore Roosevelt     *

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Barry MacDonald

Editor & Publisher of the St. Croix Review.
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