Causes of War Seminar-Lesson 3
Moderated by:

James Epperson

The Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Death of the Whigs

The Compromise of 1850 kept the sectional peace, more or less, for about four years. It should be acknowledged that enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act did occasionally lead to discord and dissension -- most notably when a Maryland slaveowner and his sons were fired upon at Christiana, Pennsylvania, while trying to recover a runaway slave. (Three blacks and the slaveowner were killed, and the owner's son badly wounded.) And the appearance of Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, had begun to work a transformation of some Northern opinion. Still, on the political stage, sectional discord was somewhat subdued.

All of this came crashing to a halt in 1854, with the introduction, on January 4, by Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois, of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would open up the Kansas and Nebraska territories for settlement, with the question of slavery to be settled by the inhabitants of the territories at the time they applied for statehood. This was the birth of popular sovereignty.

The eventual effects of so innocuous a proposal were far-reaching. The resulting discord destroyed the Whig Party, with the additional consequence of fostering the creation and growth of the Republican Party. If the Compromise of 1850 had marked the first step onto the slippery slope towards civil war, the Kansas-Nebraska Act heralded the beginning of the final slide. It almost cost Douglas his Senate seat in the 1858 elections.

One has to ask: Why did Douglas offer the bill in the form that he did?

It is important to understand that there was no need to have said anything about slavery in the two territories. Both Kansas and Nebraska were part of the Louisiana Purchase, and thus the Missouri Compromise applied; since both were north of the 36-30 line, the Compromise already settled their status as to slavery -- they would be free states. Douglas was essentially tearing down the Missouri Compromise in order to offer the South the possibility of creating new slave states. Why?

The cynical answer is the correct one: Politics. Douglas had ambitions which encompassed the White House, but to secure the Democratic nomination for the Presidency, he needed Southern support. As the engineer behind the passage of the Compromise of 1850, Douglas was not viewed kindly within the Southern wing of his party. Lending support to the creation of more slave states might change this.

There were other considerations as well. The nation was beginning to debate the construction of a transcontinential railroad, and the choice of eastern terminus was a matter of some dispute. Southern interests of course wanted the railroad to start in the South, perhaps at New Orleans. Northern interests were pushing Chicago. By organizing the territories due west of Missouri, Douglas made it very easy to place the transcontinental line in the center of the nation, a natural compromise position. By lending support to the creation of a possible new slave state just to the west of Missouri, Douglas could earn the support of Missouri's powerful and outspoken Senator David Atchison. (In fact, Atchison made specific demands on Douglas in terms of the language of the act, forcing the Illinoisian to explicitly repeal the Missouri Compromise as it applied to Kansas and Nebraska.)

Presidential reaction was at first tepid. Franklin Pierce, a Democrat, was now in the White House, and he initially opposed the act because the repeal of the Missouri Compromise would obviously re-open all the agitation over the slavery question. But Atchison and colleagues (James Mason and Robert M.T. Hunter of Virginia, Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina, Senators all), along with Pierce's Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, made it clear that to refuse to support the repeal of the Missouri Compromise would cost the Administration the support of the South, in consequence of which the President not only endorsed the Kansas bill, but promised to make it a test of party loyalty.

Northern reaction was livid in its oppostion to the act, one manifesto on the subject branding it "a gross violation of a sacred pledge," but Douglas and Democratic party discipline were sufficient to ram the bill through both houses of Congress in relatively quick order. Having been first proposed in January of 1854, the bill was passed in final form by the House on May 22. Having decided the question in haste, the nation could now repent at leasure.

The most immediate consequence was the death of the Whig Party. The forceful oppostion of the Northern Whigs to the bill completely drove the Southern wing of the party away. (In fact, the floor manager of the bill in the House was the Whig Alexander Stephens, of Georgia.) In time, the Northern Whigs would unite with the fledgling Free-Soil Party and a group of Democrats who opposed the bill to create the Republican Party.

A second consequence was the decision by a young Illinois attorney to re-enter politics.

But the most obvious consequence was the outbreak of open warfare on the Kansas prairie.

Bleeding Kansas

No state had more of an interest in the developments in Kansas than Missouri, and no Missourian was more determined to influence those events than Senator Atchison. Writing to a colleague from Virginia, he said, "if we win we carry slavery to the Pacific Ocean; if we fail we lose Missouri, Arkansas and Texas and all the territories; the game must be boldly played."

Both sides organized to carry the territory by settlement. The New England Emigrant Aid Society got started first, and earned a lot of publicity (both then and now) but the majority of Kansas settlers came from the Ohio Valley, and, in the end, a majority of them were for making Kansas a free state.

But they had trouble getting their way of it. Atchison's "Border Ruffians" routinely would cross over from Missouri on election day to swell the ranks of pro-slavery voters and to intimidate free-soil settlers where possible. The result was that Kansas initially had a pro-slavery delegate to Congress and a pro-slavery territorial legislature, but both of dubious validity -- later investigation would reveal that, out of 5,247 pro-slavery ballots cast in the legislative election, 4,968 were fradulent. The territorial governor refused to call a new election, and the bogus legislature passed a slave code, restricted office holding to pro-slavery men, and made it a crime to even question the legality of slavery.

The free-soil element in the state organized their own "government" with capital in Topeka, with their own legislature. The territory now had two governments, one of which was recognized as legitimate by the President and the Senate, the other by the House. When the Governor finally decided that the free-soil government was more legitimate than the pro-slavery one, he was sacked by President Pierce and replaced by a pro-slavery man.

Chaos breeds violence, and violence finally broke forth. On May 21, 1856, 700 pro-slavery men rode into the free-state stronghold of Lawrence and sacked the town. Partly in response to this event, someone -- only later would the name John Brown be associated with this act -- led a group of men into the bottomlands along Pottawatomie Creek, taking five pro-slavery men from their homes and splitting their skulls open with swords. With blood now on the prairie, open warfare raged for the next four months.

Some would say it had already come to Washington. Just before the Lawrence affair, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, successor to the seat of the great Daniel Webster, had delivered a two-day speech on "The Crime Against Kansas," in which he had bluntly assailed (among others) Sen. Andrew Butler of South Carolina. On May 22, Butler's cousin, Congressman Preston Brooks, approached Sumner at his desk and beat him senseless with his cane. Feted in the South and reviled in the North, Brooks's act revealed the acrimony that was affecting the entire national polity.

Kansas continued to be a festering sore. A new governor -- future Union General John Geary -- was appointed and by the fall of 1856 he had skillfully combined toughness with persuasion to dampen down the violence, but the basic problem was not solved. The free soil element in the state would clearly win a fair election on any subject, so the "legitimate" territorial legislature enacted provisions for a constitutional convention to be called, said convention to be elected based on voting lists maintained by the pro-slavery territorial officials; moreover, the constitution that was written would not be submitted to a referendum of the people. Geary vetoed the bill but the legislature passed it over his veto and Geary resigned as a consequence. New president James Buchanan appointed Robert J. Walker of Mississippi to replace Geary. Kansas's status as a future slave state seemed secure.

No one had counted on Walker's honesty counting for more than his pro-slavery views, however.

The pro-slavery constitutional convention met in the town of Lecompton, and drew up their entirely predictable document. Meanwhile, Walker had discovered that in the latest territorial election, nearly 2,800 pro-slavery votes had been fraudulent (1,600 of them had been copied in from the Cincinnati city directory) and threw them out, giving the free-soil forces control of the legislature. Besides outraging the pro-slavery men, Walker's act indicated that the Lecompton constitution could not win a fair election. As a result, two referenda were held (!), one in which the pro-slavery side participated, and one in which the free-soilers participated. It is not hard to figure out the results of each election. With the constitution duly written and passed (well, sort of) by the people of the territory (plus who knows how many residents of Cincinnati) it was sent on to Congress for approval.

It never really had a chance. President Buchanan made the passage of the Lecompton Constitution a test of party loyalty, like his predecessor Pierce had done with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and although Douglas of Illinois broke with the party on this issue -- thus earning the undying enmity of the very Southerners whose support he had curried with the original Kansas-Nebraska Act -- Buchanan was able to get the Senate to approve the Lecompton Constitution, based on a combination of the solid South and a few Northern votes. But the House was up for election in 1858, and half of the Northern Democrats voted with all the Republicans to kill it, appropriately enough on April 1st, 1858.

The controversy over the Lecompton constitution planted the seeds of secession. Irate over his oppostion, many Southern Democrats vowed to block Douglas's bid for the presidential nomination in 1860, come what may.

Formation of the Republican Party

To say that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was unpopular in the North would be putting it mildly. Out of 91 free state Democrats up for election in 1854, a full 66 were defeated. Only 7 out of 54 Democrats who had voted for the act won re-election, and many of those who had opposed it were willing to end their association with a party which had made such an act a test of loyalty. These men found common cause with the Northern Whigs and the smaller Free-Soil and Liberty parties, and coalesced into the Republican Party. A secondary consequence of the defection of the free-soil Northern Democrats was that the party became increasingly a sectional party, beholden to the South. (According to McPherson, Ordeal by Fire, page 90, Northern Democrats did not reach parity with Southern Democrats until 1930.)

The new party was quickly successful across the North, helped no doubt by the inclusion of so many popular and powerful politicians who had been successful as Whigs or Democrats. Men such as Salmon Chase of Ohio and William Seward of New York were established powers in their states. While adopting much of the Whiggish ideas on internal improvements, the fundamental tenet of the Republicans was anti-slavery, be it conservative anti-slavery (in the form of Abraham Lincoln) or radical anti-slavery (in the form of Thaddeus Stevens). In 1856 the Republican nominee for president, John C. Fremont of California, came within 60 electoral votes of winning the office.

The Emergence of Lincoln

After leaving Congress in 1849, Abraham Lincoln had returned home to Springfield and gone back to the law. Although he kept his hand in the political game, it appears he was content to play it behind the scenes. By all accounts, the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act changed that. His first public comments came in August of 1854, at a county Whig convention, and he spent the fall vigorously campaigning across the state for anti-Nebraska candidates. In the process he re-emerged as one of the leading Whig politicians in Illinois.

The legislature that Illinois elected that fall would also elect a United States Senator, and Lincoln let it be known he was interested in the position. The incumbent was Democrat James Shields, a disciple of Douglas whom Lincoln would one day appoint as a Union general. One other candidate was Lyman Trumbull. Lincoln ran as a Whig. He led the first ballot, taken on February 8th, 1855, with 45 votes to 41 for Shields, only 5 for Trumbull, and a single vote for Democratic Governor Matteson. But as ballot followed ballot, Lincoln's support evaporated while Matteson rose steadily higher and higher. On the ninth ballot, Lincoln had only 15 votes, Trumbull had 35, and Matteson 47. Rather than risk the election of a Democrat, Lincoln threw his support (and, thus, the election) to Trumbull, who was slightly more radical on slavery than Lincoln was.

Throughout 1855, Lincoln insisted on calling himself a Whig, but in early 1856 he attended a meeting of anti-slavery newspaper editors -- he was the only non-journalist present -- who were interested in forming a "fusionist" party of anti-slavery elements. This meeting of journalists led to a state-wide fusionist convention in late May, 1856, at which time a very conservative platform was adopted and Lincoln's role in creating the new party -- the Illinois Republican Party -- was recognized.

The stage was nearly set. Lincoln was clearly the most prominent member of the new party in Illinois, and in 1858 the Democrat stalwart of the West, the author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, would be up for re-election to the United States Senate.

James F. Epperson