The Law that Ripped America in Two

One hundred fifty years ago, the Kansas-Nebraska Act set the stage for America's civil war

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The territory was soon awash with secret societies and informal militias, formed ostensibly for self-defense, but capable of deadly mischief on both sides. Kansas was a powder keg awaiting a match, and it found one in the shooting of DouglasCounty sheriff Samuel Jones, an unrestrained proslavery man, by an unknown assailant, as he sat in his tent outside the Free- Soil stronghold of Lawrence. Soon afterward, the Douglas County grand jury, instructed by a judge angered by what he regarded as Free-Soilers’ treasonous resistance to the territorial government, returned sedition indictments against the Free- Soil “governor,” Charles Robinson, two Lawrence newspapers and the town’s Free State Hotel, supposedly being used as a fortress. Soon a posse descended on Lawrence, led by a federal marshal who made several arrests before dismissing the troops. It was then that Sheriff Jones, recovered from his wound (but not, in the view of historian Allan Nevins, from being “a vindictive, blundering fool”), took over the posse, which looted the town, wrecked the newspapers’ presses, set fire to Robinson’s house and burned the hotel after failing to destroy it with cannon fire.

It was a bad day for Lawrence, but a better one for the nation’s antislavery press, which made the sack of Lawrence, as it was called, sound like the reduction of Carthage. “Lawrence in Ruins,” announced Horace Greeley’s New YorkTribune. “Several Persons Slaughtered—Freedom Bloodily Subdued.” (In fact, the only fatality in Lawrence was a slave-stater struck by falling masonry.)

As exaggerated as the “sack” may have been, in the climate of the day it was bound to have consequences. John Brown quickly set them in motion. He had been on his way to help defend Lawrence with a group called the Pottawatomie Rifles when he learned he was too late and turned his attention to the unfortunate Doyles and their neighbors. (Three years later, on October 16, 1859, Brown and his followers would stage a bloody attack on a federal armory in Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Cornered by U.S. Marines under the command of Col. Robert E. Lee, a wounded Brown would be taken prisoner, convicted and hanged.)

Reaction in Kansas to Brown’s Pottawatomie killing spree was swift. Proslavery settlers were furious, fearful and primed for revenge, and many Free-Soilers were horrified— as well they might have been, since the incident was followed by an outbreak of shootings, burnings and general mayhem. Yet the larger Eastern audience hardly knew what had happened. Like the sack of Lawrence, the Pottawatomie murders were transformed in the telling. Either they hadn’t happened at all, had been committed by Indians or had occurred in the heat of battle. In the great propaganda war being waged in the Northern press, slave-state Kansans were invariably cast as the villains, and it was a role they were not to escape.

Sometimes they seemed not to be trying, as when the tainted proslavery legislature made even questioning the right to hold slaves in Kansas a felony and made aiding a fugitive slave a capital offense. Neither law was enforced, but that was probably not the point. Unable to match the flood of Free- Soil emigrants pouring in from the OhioValley and elsewhere, slave-staters seemed more determined than ever to make the territory inhospitable to those opposed to slavery.

And they did not lack for allies. “The admission of Kansas into the Union as a slave state is now a point of honor with the South,” wrote South Carolina congressman Preston Brooks in March 1856. “It is my deliberate conviction that the fate of the South is to be decided with the Kansas issue.” Thus freighted with national consequence, resolution of the Kansas question would hardly be left to Kansans alone. Under the circumstances, it seems unsurprising that presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, Northern men of pronounced Southern sympathies, both endorsed the legitimacy of the illegitimate legislature over the objections of a succession of territorial governors.

Among them was Robert J. Walker, a former Treasury secretary and a Douglas ally. Meeting with President Buchanan before leaving Washington in the spring of 1857, he spelled out his understanding, with which Buchanan agreed, that Kansas would be admitted to statehood only after residents were able to vote freely and fairly on a state constitution.

It sounded simple enough. But the difficulty of its execution was made clear when, at a welcoming banquet in Kansas, the diminutive Walker was upbraided by one of his proslavery hosts: “And do you come here to rule us? You, a miserable pigmy like you?. . . Walker, we have unmade governors before; and by God, I tell you, sir, we can unmake them again!” Certainly they were ready to try. After Free-Soilers refused to participate in what they believed, with reason, would be a rigged election for constitutional convention delegates, the proslavery convention, meeting in the town of Lecompton, made a crucial decision.

Rather than being allowed to vote up or down on a proposed constitution, Kansans would be given a choice between a constitution with slavery and a constitution without it. But the constitution without it contained a clause allowing slaveholders already in the territory to retain not only their slaves but the slaves’ offspring. Free-Soilers, naturally, saw their choice as being not between slavery and its absence, but between a little bit of slavery and a lot of it—or, as one Kansan put it, between taking arsenic with bread and butter and taking it straight. When the options were put to a vote, Free-Soilers once again declined to take part.

By this time, the battle had been joined in Washington. Over the objections of Governor Walker, Buchanan had decided to accept the verdict of the Lecompton convention and the inevitable approval of its slave-state constitution. The president’s decision led him to an angry confrontation with Douglas, who saw it as a betrayal of the very popular sovereignty on which the senator had staked his career.


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