Causes of the Civil War – 9: The Debate Over the War’s Inevitability

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This post concludes a series exploring Causes of the Civil War.

Slave Auction

A review of the literature reveals – not surprisingly – a lack of agreement over whether the American Civil War was inevitable. Given the fact that it did occur, the question under consideration might be better stated as “at what point in time” did the American Civil War became unavoidable.

Slave Auction

Slave Auction, Richmond, Virginia, 1830

Some would argue that war became predestined at the point when the slave trade was first introduced to the colonies. Others have suggested that civil war became preordained when the founding fathers created a Constitution that professed freedom for all but failed to deal with the country’s practice of chattel slavery (image left of slave auction at Richmond). But portions of the country had demonstrated a willingness to move away slavery. And there was some indication that even slave owners in the south did not expect the practice to go on indefinitely. Certainly the rise of King Cotton, made feasible by the invention of the cotton gin and cotton varieties more suited to the southern climate, slowed the inclination to move away from slavery. Even so, the country had opportunity and demonstrated an ability to find compromise on the issues surrounding slavery time and again and could have conceivably continued to do so had other factors not pushed the country to war.

England's Cotton

Sectional differences, well evident even in colonial days, had the potential to make civil war predestined but historian Avery Craven suggests otherwise. “Physical and social differences between North and South did not in themselves necessarily imply an irrepressible conflict. They did not mean that civil war had been decreed from the beginning by Fate.”[i] He points out that the federal system created by the founding fathers had room for differences and that England herself adopted the model of American federalism and used it to manage widely disparate regions.[ii]

Kenneth Stampp in his work, America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink, suggests that “…1857 was probably the year when the North and South reached the political point of no return — when it became well nigh impossible to head off a violent resolution of the differences between them.”[iii] Stampp identified three primary factors that catapulted the country toward disunion within that twelve month period.

  1. The first was the increase in sectional conflict centered on Kansas.
  2. The second was President Buchanan’s fall from grace among most of the Northerners who had voted for him after he supported the Lecompton Constitution and thus broke his pre-election promises. This sparked one of the most vicious debates in Congress and led to…
  3. the third happening which was the crisis that occurred in the national Democratic Party from which “it did not recover until after the Civil War.”[iv] That schism in the party opened the way for Abraham Lincoln’s candidacy for the presidency which in turn raised sectional tensions between North and South to new heights.

Civil War historiographer Gobar Boritt suggests that the American Civil War only became inevitable after the attack on Fort Sumter (pictured right after Fort Sumter After Fallsurrender) and with this I agree. “The popular uprising, North and South, that followed the fight over Sumter, combined with willing leadership on both sides, made the Civil War inevitable. It was not that before.”[v] Boritt acknowledges that “the probability of war” continued to grow in the 1850s, but that “the country’s fate was not sealed until the ides of April, 1861.”[vi]

My conclusion is that the American Civil War was not inevitable but was, rather, the result of a confluence of factors which – taken in aggregate and flared by extremists – resulted in a war unwanted by the majority of Americans. Contributory to the war was the influence of specific individuals – not the least of which was Abraham Lincoln himself. Other politicians, by their action or inaction at critical moments, also had part to play in the circumstances that led to war. Debate over the war’s inevitability has been and will continue to be rigorous.

As always, I invite your comments.

© 2010 L. Rene Tyree
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Photo Credits:
Slave Auction, Richmond, Virginia, 1830. [Source: University of Virginia]. George Bourne.
Cotton – England’s God [Pictorial envelope] [LOC CALL NUMBER PR-022-3-14-19]
Fort Sumter after evacuation, flagpole shot away twice. 1861. LOC CALL NUMBER PR-065-798-22
Endnotes:
[i] Avery Craven. The Coming of the Civil War. 2nd Ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 1.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Stampp, Kenneth M. America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink. Vers. [book on-line] Internet. Questia.com.New York: Oxford University Press. 1990. available from questia.com, http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?action=openPageViewer&docId=24268497 (accessed September 1, 2007), viii.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] ” ‘And the War Came’? Abraham Lincoln and the Question of Individual Responsibility” in Why the Civil War Came., ed. Gabor S. Boritt (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 6.
[vi] Ibid.
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Causes of the Civil War – 8: The Influence of the Individual

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This post continues a series on exploring Causes of the Civil War.
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Civil War scholar Gabor Boritt posits a fascinating theory that the impact of an individual can, in fact, be more influential in the determination of history’s direction than the long confluence of time.[i] “…It may be declared with confidence that a giant in the earth, or a crucial moment, weighs more in the scales of history than dreary ages.”[ii] The giant of which he spoke was Abraham Lincoln. His view makes Lincoln a central figure of both American mythology and history. Lincoln’s role in the coming of the Civil War he “divides into four increasingly important stages.”[iii]

Edmun Ruffin

Edmund Ruffin

Edmun Ruffin

  • First, in the 1850s as tensions grew, Lincoln was one of many political leaders, familiar mostly in and around Illinois, though as the decade progressed so did his reputation in the North.
  • Second, in 1860 he won the presidential nomination of the Republican [P]arty and became a nationally known figure.
  • Third, from his election in early November to his inauguration on March 4, 1861, he was the president-elect.
  • Fourth, in the White House he presided over events that led to Sumter.

Abraham Lincoln

As one stage followed another, Lincoln’s stand changed only gradually, but his voice grew ever more weighty until the end when, together with the voice of President Jefferson Davis, it proved to be decisive.[iv]

I would suggest that there were others whose individual influence – while perhaps not equal to that of Lincoln’s – none the less, impacted the direction of the nation. Key to the South was the “triumvirate of secession” – extremists Robert Rhett, William Yancey, and Edmun Ruffin.

Each, according to his gifts, kept the pressure for secession constant, the evils of the North apparent. In the period after Lincoln’s election, they leveraged the fear, uncertainty and doubt created by Northern and Southern newspapers to move the populous from defeat to secession as the only alternative left.[v] [See more about Rhett, Yancey and Ruffin in my post "The Revolutionaries of the American Civil War" here.]

They fought delay. Many of the leaders had long believed the Union a curse to the South and they feared that if they moved too deliberately the North might offer favorable terms. Others urged quick action lest the people cool off and accept less than justice. They must strike while the iron was hot. Delay was their worst enemy.

By December 17, 1860, Rhett and his followers had secured a convention in South Carolina, composed of those who were ready to stand alone, if necessary, in defense of Southern rights. The next day an ordinance of secession was adopted. Within six weeks, Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas had followed South Carolina’s example. The Cotton Kingdom was ready to form itself into the Confederate States of America.[vi]

Is it a wonder that Edmun Ruffin was among the first to fire a cannon on Fort Sumter?

At a nearby battery, another fire-eater was ready. Edmund Ruffin, with his long flowing white hair, another momentary exile from a still reluctant Virginia, sixty seven-year-old honorary Palmetto Guard, was ready. Staring into the dark, knowing where the enemy was, he sent the first shot from a columbaid into the fort flying the unseen flag of the United States.[vii]

Key individuals in the North included those who catapulted the Abolitionist message into the public consciousness. For this reason, John Brown must be included. The men surrounding Lincoln – Seward, Chase, Bates, Douglas and Buchanan – also deserve a chair.

And So What the Cause?

The Civil War can be attributed to no single cause. Slavery was undeniably an influencing factor – a common thread – inexorably tied to the sectional crises that evolved as the country expanded. Profound sectional differences – social, cultural, spiritual, economic, political – provided sufficient tender to ignite into violent conflict – given the spark. The “fanatical edge” and our politicians created the sparks that erupted in violence and pushed the nation over the precipice and into war. Several key individuals tipped the balance. Chief among these were: the Southern fire-eaters Rhett, Yancey and Ruffin, abolitionists who turned up the heat of anti-slavery sentiments in the North, and – pointedly – Abraham Lincoln himself.

For more reading, I highly recommend Gabor S. Boritt’s Why the Civil War Came. His essay titled “Abraham Lincoln and the Question of Individual Responsibility” is excellent. Avery Craven’s The Coming of the Civil War. 2nd Ed. provides very interesting commentary on Rhett, Yancey, and Ruffin (and more about their individual strengths) and a wealth of information on Antebellum America and its march toward war.

In the next post, I’ll tackle the second question of the series: The Debate Over the War’s Inevitability.

© 2010 L. Rene Tyree
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[i] “Abraham Lincoln and the Question of Individual Responsibility,” in Why the Civil War Came., ed. Gabor S. Boritt (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 7., [ii] Ibid., [iii] Ibid., [iv] Ibid.
[v] Avery Craven. The Coming of the Civil War. 2nd Ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 433., [vi] Ibid.
[vii] Boritt, “Abraham Lincoln and the Question of Individual Responsibility,” in Why the Civil War Came., ed. Gabor S. Boritt (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996), 5.
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Causes of the Civil War – 7: Political Discord, Slavery, and the Fight for Political Control

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William E. Gienapp

Slave sale poster

This post continues a series exploring Causes of the Civil War. See the full series here.
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Political discord represents yet another candidate for the war’s cause. Late historian William E. Gienapp (pictured right) suggests that “however much social and economic developments fueled the sectional conflict, the coming of the Civil War must be explained ultimately in political terms, for the outbreak of war in April 1861 represented the complete breakdown of the American political system. As such, the Civil War constituted the greatest single failure of American democracy.”[i]

Slave sale posterGienapp points to the role of slavery as the underlying cause of the sectional conflict. “Without slavery it is impossible to imagine a war between the North and the South (or indeed, the existence of anything we would call “the South” except as a geographic region).”[ii] He also asserts that America’s slave heritage was completely associated with race. That is, had the slaves brought to America been white, the practice would have disappeared much earlier.[iii] But an argument asserting slavery as chief cause of the war neglects the fact that not only was it older than the republic, but “for over half a century following adoption of the Constitution, the institution had only sporadically been an issue in national politics, and it had never dominated state politics in either section.”[iv] What changed? It was the rise of the slavery issue in American society; that is, the heightened awareness of it. This development was rooted in a number of changes in American society in the first half of the nineteenth century already addressed.[v]

Jame Polk Image

James Polk

As mentioned in previous posts in this series, the abolitionist movement did a great deal to raise that awareness. But Gienapp suggests that “it was the politicians themselves, as part of the struggle for control of the two major parties, who ultimately injected the slavery issue into national politics.”[vi] The key development was the introduction in Congress in 1846 of the Wilmot Proviso, which prohibited slavery from any territory acquired from Mexico, by a group of Van Burenite Democrats who were angry with President James K. Polk and his southern advisers. Once the slavery issue, in the shape of the question of its expansion into the western territories, entered the political arena, it proved impossible to get it out. The issue took on a life of its own, and when politicians tried to drop the issue after 1850, they discovered that many voters were unwilling to acquiesce.[vii]

Gienapp makes a good case for the war’s true cause in the following discourse.

A second critical development, intimately related to the first, was the crystallization of rival sectional ideologies oriented toward protecting white equality and opportunity. Increasingly, each section came to see the other section and its institutions as a threat to its vital social, political, and economic interests. Increasingly, each came to think that one section or the other had to be dominant. Informed by these ideologies, a majority of the residents of each section feared the other, and well before the fighting started the sectional conflict represented a struggle for control of the nation’s future.

It fell to the political system to adjudicate differences between the sections and preserve a feeling of mutual cooperation and unity. And for a long time the political system had successfully defused sectional tensions. Because it brought northern and southern leaders together, Congress was the primary arena for hammering out solutions to sectional problems. In various sectional confrontations–the struggle over the admission of Missouri as a slave state in 1819-21, the controversy over nullification and the tariff in 1833, the problem of the status of slavery in the territory acquired from Mexico in 1850, and the struggle over the proslavery Lecompton constitution in 1858-Congress had always managed to find some acceptable way out of the crisis.

Yet the American political system was particularly vulnerable to sectional strains and tensions. One reason was the institutional structure of American politics. The Civil War occurred within a particular political institutional framework that, while it did not make the war inevitable, was essential to the coming of the war.

Integral to this institutional framework was the United States Constitution. While some aspects of the Constitution retarded the development of sectionalism, it contained a number of provisions that strengthened the forces of sectional division in the nation. No constitution can anticipate all future developments and conclusively deal with all controversies that subsequently arise. The purpose in analyzing the Constitution’s role in the sectional conflict is not to fault its drafters or condemn it as a flawed document, but rather to indicate the importance of certain of its clauses for the origins of the war.

Image of Andrew Moore

Andrew Moore

One significant feature of the Constitution was its provision for amendment. Lurking beneath the surface in the slavery controversy was white Southerners’ fear that the Constitution would be amended to interfere with the institution. In advocating secession after Abraham Lincoln’s election, Governor Andrew B. Moore of Alabama predicted that the Republicans would quickly create a number of new free states in the West, which “in hot haste will be admitted to the Union, until they have a majority to alter the Constitution. Then slavery will be abolished by law in the States.”[viii]

The fear, uncertainty and doubt associated with this possibility, on the part of the Southern political establishment, pushed the country toward war.

The next post: “The Influence of the Individual.”The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party

For further reading, I recommend The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party: Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War by Michael F. Holt and Why the Civil War Came, edited by Gabor S. Boritt. Why the War Came

© 2010 Rene Tyree
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Photo credits:
Historian William E. Gienapp. Source: Harvard Gazette Archives, Issue: April 07, 2005.
Poster Announcing Sale and Rental of Slaves, Saint Helena (South Atlantic), 1829. Source: The Atlantic Slave Trade and Slave Life in the Americas: A Visual Record., Jerome S. Handler and Michael L. Tuite Jr., The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities. Image H003.
President James K. Polk
Cropped image of the constitution of Kansas
Governor Andrew B. Moore of Alabama. Source: Alabama Department of Archive and History
[i] William E. Gienapp, “The Crisis of American Democracy, the Political System and the Coming of the Civil War,” in Why the Civil War Came., ed. Gabor S. Boritt [book on-line] (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, accessed 1 September 2007), 82; available from questia.com http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=78779127; Internet., [ii] Ibid., [iii] Ibid., [iv] Ibid., [v] Ibid., [vi] Ibid., 83., [vii] Ibid., [viii] Ibid., 86.
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Causes of the Civil War – 6: The Contribution of Constitutional Ambiguity

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This post continues the series  Causes of the Civil War.
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Constitution

Boritt

Historian Gabor S. Boritt asserts that the American Constitution’s “fundamental ambiguity” on a number of matters involving slavery contributed to the Constitutionsectional controversy that stimulated the growing conflict between the North and the South.[i] The document was vague on the status of slavery in the territories, the power of Congress over the institution in the District of Columbia, whether the power of Congress to regulate interstate commerce extended to the slave trade, whether it was a state or federal responsibility to return runaway slaves, and whether Congress could impose conditions on a new state or refuse to admit a new slave state to the Union.[ii] But the most important of these was whether a state had the right to secede from the Union.

Whereas the Articles of Confederation had proclaimed the Union to be perpetual, the Constitution contained no such statement. Indeed, nowhere did it discuss whether a state could secede or not. In the absence of any explicit provision, neither the nationalists nor the secessionists could present a conclusive argument on the subject. In upholding the perpetuity of the Union, Abraham Lincoln conceded that the language of the Constitution was not decisive.[iii]

This didn’t stop either side from finding in these documents justification of their positions.

Topic of the next post: Political Discord, Slavery, and the Fight for Political Control.

© 2010 L. Rene Tyree

[i] Gabor S. Boritt, “‘And the War Came’? Abraham Lincoln and the Question of Individual Responsibility,” in Why the Civil War Came, ed. Gabor S. Boritt [book on-line] (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, accessed 1 September 2007), 85; available from questia.com http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=78779127; Internet.
[ii] Ibid.
[iii] Ibid.
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Causes of the American Civil War – 5: The Rise of Sectional Disputes

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This post continues the series on Exploring Causes of the Civil War.
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Anthony burns

Declaration of the Anti-Slavery Convention

Sectional disputes rose and ebbed numerous times in the years before the war. Modernization created social tensions because, as pointed out by James McPherson, “not all groups in American society participated equally in the modernizing process or accepted the values that promoted it. The most important dissenters were found in the South.”[i] The South’s failure to modernize was perceived by many of her citizens as actually desirable.

Sectional arguments expanded to include topics like internal improvements, tariffs, and whether expansion west and south would upset the parity between free and slave states. Foundational to the latter was the belief on the part of the slaveholder in their right to a slave-based social order and a need for assurances of its continuity. Equal representation in government was perceived as critical to that goal.

The rise of abolitionism – largely in the North – put the proponents of slavery on the defensive. The formation of the American Anti-Slavery Society marked the beginning of militant abolitionism and an unprecedented crusade that would rival any modern national marketing campaign. Barbed attacks against slave-holding southerners were launched. They were called the great enemies of democracy and flagrant sinners.[ii] The anti-slavery crusade thus became both a moral one and imperative for the preservation of democracy. Abolitionists created in a section’s consciousness the belief in a “Slave Power.”[iii] Historian Avery Craven suggests that when politicians successfully linked expansion and slavery, the Christian masses accepted as de facto the Abolition attitudes toward both the South and slavery.[iv] Civil war, he contends, “was then in the making.”[v]

Anthony burns

"Anthony Burns" Boston: R.M. Edwards, 1855 Broadside Prints and Photographs Division

The pro-slavery faction fought back with their own “sweeping ideological counterattack that took the form of an assertion that slavery, far from being a necessary evil, was in fact a ‘positive good.’”[vi] “The section developed a siege mentality; unity in the face of external attack and vigilance against the internal threat of slave insurrections became mandatory.”[vii] To insulate itself from the influence of the anti-slavery North, some in the South called for its citizens to shun Northern magazines and books and refrain from sending young men to northern colleges.

The debate over slavery thus infiltrated politics, economics, religion and social policy. Not surprisingly, those who felt most threatened began to speak more loudly of secession.

Next post: The Contribution of Constitutional Ambiguity

© 2010 Rene Tyree

Images:
Library of Congress: The African-American Mosaic.
“Declaration of the Anti-Slavery Convention Assembled in Philadelphia, December 4, 1833″ R[ueben] S. Gilbert, Illustrator Philadelphia: Merrihew & Gunn, 1833 Broadside Rare Book and Special Collections Division
“Anthony Burns” Boston: R.M. Edwards, 1855 Broadside Prints and Photographs Division

[i] James. M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), 22.The Civil War and Reconstruction
[ii] Avery Craven. The Coming of the Civil War. 2nd Ed. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1957), 150.The Coming of the Civil War (Phoenix Books)
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Ibid.
[v] Ibid.
[vi] James. M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 3rd ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), 51-52.
[vii] Ibid., 52.

Causes of the American Civil War – 4: The Antebellum North

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Dewitt Clinton Train

Dewitt Clinton Locomotive

Methodist Camp Meeting

Continuing the series on the causes of the American Civil War, this post looks at the Antebellum North. The North evolved from its Puritan roots into a culture driven by a strong work ethic. A man was valued by what he could earn and accomplish. The capital of the north was invested in the engines of modernization. Labor moved from agriculture and artisan to factory as modern farming tools improved productivity. Individuals became more dependent on wages. Material wealth was seen as evidence of good, productive, hard work.

As the country expanded, northeastern populations migrated almost directly west. Foreign immigration increased. With modernization came an extensive transportation system including both impressive roadways and railroads.

New levels of wealth were attained by the leaders of the industrial revolution. A new poor working class emerged but so did a middle class that no longer had to produce large families to work the land. Urban centers developed particularly in the northeast.

Methodist Camp Meeting

Watercolor by J. Maze Burbank, c. 1839 Old Dartmouth Historical Society-New Bedford Whaling Museum, New Bedford, Massachusetts Gift of William F. Havemeyer (187) Source: Library of Congress.

Modernization drove social reform including the creation of public education systems in the North and associated high literacy rates. Enlightenment crusades flourished, touching literature and religion. Suffrage and temperance movements formed. Abolitionism became tied with humanitarian reforms driven by Christian crusades.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton

Suffrage leader Elizabeth Cady Stanton and daughter, Harriot--1856. LOC Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-48965

The North became more and more distinct from the South on many levels, not the least of which was its distaste for slavery. Even so, like white populations in most of western society, northerners considered blacks to be inferior in the antebellum North.

© 2010 L. Rene Tyree

Causes of the American Civil War – 1

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Dred Scott Image

Photo of Dred Scott. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-5092CE

Image of slaves on Smith's Plantation

To celebrate the opening of Wig-Wags.com, I’m republishing a  series of posts on the much debated topic of the causes of the American Civil war. Let today’s post serve as its introduction. I’ll attempt in the series to address two questions. The first is whether economic interests, political agitation, and the cultural differences between North and South did more to bring about the Civil War than the issue of slavery. The second is whether the American Civil War could have been avoided. Was it inevitable? Underlying both questions is the matter of causation of the war. If there was a singular, definitive reason for it the task would be easier. But deliberation over its cause has continued for almost a century and a half and will no doubt carry on into the future with little hope of achieving clear answers. Scholar Kenneth M. Stampp summarized the challenges of the quest well. [Image of Dred Scott .]

As one reflects upon the problem of causation one is driven to the conclusion that historians will never know, objectively and with mathematical precision, what caused the Civil War. Working with fragmentary evidence, possessing less than a perfect understanding of human behavior, viewing the past from the perspective of their own times, finding it impossible to isolate one historical event to test its significance apart from all others, historians must necessarily be somewhat tentative and conjectural in offering their interpretations.[i]

He concluded, and with this, I whole heartedly agree, that even though the ongoing debate over the causes of the war remains inconclusive, the effort of examination brings increased clarity.[ii]

More in the next post.

Copyright © 2007 Rene Tyree

Kenneth Stampp

Kenneth Stampp

[i] Kenneth M. Stampp, ed. The Causes of the Civil War, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1991), 17-18.The Causes of the Civil War
[ii] Ibid., 18.
Photo of Dred Scott. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-5092CE

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The Sacking of Lawrence, May 21, 1856 – 7 The Deed

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sackingoflawrence

Sacking of Lawrence, 1856

This post completes the series, “The Sacking of Lawrence May 21, 1856.” Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, and Part 5 here, Part 6 here.

Free-State men wounded Douglas County sheriff Samuel J. Jones when he returned to Lawrence to serve arrest warrants in the spring of 1856, despite the presence of Federal troops. The Grand Jury of Douglas County met and “returned indictments against three free-state leaders, against two newspapers at Lawrence – the Herald of Freedom and the Kansas Free State – and against the Free State Hotel at Lawrence, which, it said, was in fact a fortress, “regularly parapeted and portholed for use of small cannon and arms.” (Potter, 208) There is good evidence that the hotel was, in fact, designed with a mind toward defense with filled portholes that could be knocked out with a rifle butt. But it is curious that indictments of treason were levied toward an inanimate building.

israeldonalson

Isreal B. Donaldson, United States Marshall [Source: The Kansas Historical Quarterly, www.kancoll.org

To serve the indictments and associated arrests, United States Marshal Israel B. Donaldson raised a posse inclusive of Missourians. But he left them outside of town as he arrested, along with a deputy, several minor players, others having fled. (Potter, 208) He then attempted to disband the posse but Sheriff Samuel J.Jones, healed of his wounds, rallied the men and rode into Lawrence as a mob force “alleging the need of aid in making arrests and abating nuisances under authority of the grand jury.” (Malin)

Samuel J. Jones

Samuel J. Jones

Michael Holt describes the events of May 21, 1856 as the work of a posse sent by the Lecompton government “to arrest several free state leaders in Lawrence.” (Holt, 194) That posse, “which included Missourians, burned some buildings and destroyed two printing presses but killed no one in the town.” (Holt, 194.) Put in that way, it sounds relatively benign but was pounced on by the Republicans as evidence that the Pierce-backed Kansas territorial government was supporting and condoning atrocities.

“The War Actually Begun,” “Triumph of the Border Ruffians,” “Lawrence in Ruins – Several Persons Slaughtered,” “Freedom Bloodily Subdued,” hyperbolized the Eastern Republican press.” (Holt, 194.) “Kansas was bleeding because lawless slaveholders were butchering defenseless northern settlers in their effort to force slavery on the territory.” (Holt, 194.)

The raid targeted the Free-State Hotel, a building constructed and owned by the New England Emigrant Aid Company. Griffin confirms that Douglas County Sheriff Samuel J. Jones led the posse. He and his men “bombarded the [Free-State] hotel with cannon and then gutted the building with gunpowder and flame. The razing of the hotel, together with the burning of Charles Robinson’s house, the wrecking of the equipment of two newspapers, the Herald of Freedom and the Kansas Free State, and a certain amount of looting and vandalism, became known as the ‘sack of Lawrence.’” (Griffin)

liberty-canon

"Old Sacramento Cannon" captured by U.S. during the Mexican-American War in 1847 and taken to the Liberty Arsenal. The cannon was seized by pro-slavery forces in 1856 and fired during the Sacking of Lawrence. The cannon was damaged in 1896 when it was loaded with clay and straw and fired. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Griffin further claims that proslavery men in the territory justified the action by claiming Jones and his men “were simply executing an indictment of the grand jury of the United States district court at Lecompton and the orders of the presiding judge, Samuel D. Lecompte.” (Griffin)

lecomptecropped

Samuel D. Lecompte

“Free-State men were quick to agree with their enemies, but contended that judge, jury, and Jones had acted illegally and without cause. Newspaper editors sympathetic to the Free-State cause gave the affair enormous publicity — much of it merely falsehoods — and labored to convince their readers that the sack of Lawrence was yet another manifestation of Proslavery barbarism. Before a month was out, Kansas mythology was immensely richer.” (Griffin)

As a final note, both Malin, Griffin, and Holt contend that no one was killed in the raid on Lawrence. But Potter points out that one man, a slave, was killed from falling debris as the Free State Hotel was demolished. (Potter, 209) Clearly it was violent event amidst growing episodes of violence between Free-State and proslavery factions along the border between Kansas and Missouri.

sacking-lawrence

Ruins of the Free State Hotel, after the Sacking of Lawrence, Kansas, 1856

——

C. S. Griffin, “Kansas Historical QuarterlyThe University of Kansas and the Sack of Lawrence: A Problem of Intellectual Honesty,” Kansas Historical Quarterly, Winter, 1968 (Vol. XXXIV. No. 4), pages 409 to 426. Accessed online, February 14, 2009.
Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s, (New York:  W. W. Norton and Company, 1983).
James C. Malin, “Judge Lecompte and the ‘Sack of Lawrence,’ May 21, 1856, ” Kansas Historical Quarterly, August 1953 (Vol. 20, No. 7), pages 465 to 494. Accessed online,  February 14, 2009.
David M. Potter and Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1976).

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The Sacking of Lawrence, May 21, 1856 – 6 The Wakarusa War

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Samuel J. Jones

Samuel J. Jones

David Potter suggests that much of the discord between Kansans and Missourians was less about slavery and more about land claims.(i) The territory had not yet completed land surveys even six months after it opened for settlement so people squatted on land they wanted. Disputes over those claims, largely between Missourian and new Kansan settlers, sparked the events that culminated in the 1856 raid on Lawrence.

samuelwood

Samuel N. Woods

It began with a killing. A pro-slavery man named Franklin N. Coleman killed in 1855 a Free-Soiler named Charles W. Dow south of Lawrence, Kansas in a land-claim dispute. [An account of the killing by Isaac T. Goodnow can be read here.] Because Coleman claimed self-defense, he was not arrested. In retaliation, a group of Free-Soil men threatened Coleman and his corroborators and burned their property. (ii) Douglas County sheriff Samuel J. Jones was sent to arrest the aggressors but was prevented from doing so by armed Free-Soil men lead by Samuel N. Wood.

wshannon

Wilson Shannon

Jones accepted the aid of an army of Missouri “Border Ruffians” who converged outside of Lawrence near the Wakarusa River with the intent of enforcing “Law and order in Kansas.” (iii) Then Kansas Territory governor Wilson Shannon averted violence through negotiation (President Pierce refused him Federal troops) and the band dispersed, albeit reluctantly. Because the threat of violence was so great, the episode became known as the Wakarusa War.

wakarusa-river1

Wakarusa River near Lawrence, Kansas - Source: KansasExploring > Larry Hornbaker > Events > Blanton's Crossing

This post continues the series, “The Sacking of Lawrence May 21, 1856.” Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, and Part 5 here.

the-impending-crisis(i) David M. Potter and Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1976), 206.

(ii) Ibid., 207.

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The Sacking of Lawrence, May 21, 1856 – 5 Beecher's Bibles

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buck

Digital ID: cph 3b37012 Source: b&w film copy neg. Reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-90663 (b&w film copy neg.) , LC-USZ62-1991 (b&w film copy neg.) Repository: Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA

The potential for violence after passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and indeed episodes of violence, increased on the border between Missouri and Kansas as both Free Soiler and pro-slavery factions began actively arming themselves. An agent of the New England Emigrant Aid Society in Kansas, Charles L. Robinson, requested with some urgency a shipment of several hundred rifles and field guns.(i) Guns were sent to aid Free Soilers in Kansas often with the support of northeastern clergy and their congregations. Thus Sharps Rifles sent by Henry Ward Beecher’s congregation became know as “Beecher Bibles”. Likewise, according to Potter, armed militias from the South began forming to support the pro-slavery cause in Kansas. (i)

Library of Congress Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (LC-BH82- 5388 A)

Henry Ward Beecher (Source: Library of Congress Brady-Handy Photograph Collection (LC-BH82- 5388 A))

This post continues the series, “The Sacking of Lawrence May 21, 1856.” Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 here, and Part 4 here.

ABOUT THE POLITICAL CARTOON:  Another Currier satire favoring American party candidate Millard Fillmore. A “buck” (James Buchanan) runs toward the White House, visible in the distance, as the two rival candidates take aim at him with their shotguns. Republican John C. Fremont’s gun explodes (left), as he struggles to free himself from a pool of “Black Mud.” On the far left his two abolitionist supporters Henry Ward Beecher and editor Horace Greeley are also mired in an “Abolition Bog.” Fremont: “Oh! Oh! Oh! I’ve got Jessie this time–” (a puzzling allusion to his wife Jessie Benton). Greeley: “Oh! Brother Beecher! our Kansas Gun has bursted and upset our gunner. I’m afraid we put in too big a load.” Reference is to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and the ensuing violence in Kansas, an issue exploited by the Republicans. Beecher: “Confound the Gun! if I can only get out of this muss I’ll stick to preaching and let fire-arms alone.” The oblique reference to Beecher’s part in outfitting armed antislavery emigrants for Kansas is made in more obvious terms in “Col. Fremont’s Last Grand Exploring Expedition in 1856″ (no. 1856-20). On “Union Rock” (right), which is square in the path toward the White House, stands Millard Fillmore. He aims his flintlock at Buchanan and says confidently, “Ah! Fremont, your sectional Gun has exploded just as I predicted; but my American rifle will bring down that Old Buck.” MEDIUM: print on wove paper : lithograph ; image 24 x 39 cm. CREATED/PUBLISHED: N.Y. : Published at No. 2 Spruce Street, [1856]  Source: Library of Congress

the-impending-crisis(i) David M. Potter and Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1976), 206.

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The Sacking of Lawrence, May 21, 1856 – 4

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An illustration shows men lining up to vote on the issue of slavery in Kansas Territory. In 1855 voters chose to allow slavery.  The Granger Collection, New York

An illustration shows men lining up to vote on the issue of slavery in Kansas Territory. In 1855 voters chose to allow slavery. The Granger Collection, New York

The actual number of free-state settlers that made it to Kansas was far more modest than the expectations set in the press but the perception was in the public psyche.

reeder

Andrew Reeder

When the Kansas Territory’s first governor, Andrew Reeder, called for elections of the Kansas Territorial Legislature on March 30, 1855, pro-slavery Missourians crossed the border in droves and took advantage of a poorly conceived suffrage law that required little to no proof of residency to vote. The government they elected was widely recognized as bogus but Reeder let the election stand and President Franklin Pierce endorsed it. The new government created exceptionally pro-slavery laws, some verging on the absurd. Free-state men revolted by setting up their own shadow government in Topeka claiming that its laws and elected officials would become legitimate once statehood was achieved. This exacerbated further the rift between the two factions and opened the door for the Lecompton government to take legal action against the free-soil men, indeed eventually accusing some of treason.

“If one government was valid, the other was spurious, either morally or legally, as the case might be. If the acts of one were binding upon the citizens, then submission to the authority of the other by, for instance, paying its taxes or serving in its militia would constitute sedition, or even treason.” (i)

Polarization of the factions increased.

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This post continues the series, “The Sacking of Lawrence May 21, 1856.” Read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

the-impending-crisis(i) David M. Potter and Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861, (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, Inc., 1976), 206.

The Sacking of Lawrence, May 21, 1856 – 1

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Ruins of the Free State Hotel, Lawrence, Kansas. From a Daguerreotype. (The Kansas State Historical Society)

One of the most surprising things I learned from reading Michael F. Holt’s exceptional book, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s, was that the “Sacking of Lawrence” was not the murderous affair I had always thought it was. It led to further research on my part and the realization that I was guilty of combining the stories surrounding the raid on Lawrence with other violent events occurring in the region, an area in which I am a resident. As is often the case with history, I had developed a mythical sense of the day, one that went well beyond the simple destruction of property. This new post series summarizes the findings of my search for the truth about the events of May 21, 1856. Its writing helped to crystallize my understanding of why the Kansas and Missouri borderland became such a focal point for politics in the 1850s. It also revealed that there has been much liberty with the facts and that even today, historians do not agree on all of the specifics.

The Compromise of 1850: Effective Political Action or Forecast of Disaster?

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Thanks to everyone that has participated in the Compromise of 1850 Poll going on here. If you haven’t voted, please do!

To expand the discussion, let me share my perspective on the question I raised, whether The Compromise of 1850 was an effective political action or a forecast of disaster.

compromise1850

The United States Senate, A.D. 1850. Drawn by P. F. Rothermel; engraved by R. Whitechurch. c1855. Prints and Photographs Division. Reproduction Number: LC-USZCN4-149

Michael F. Holt makes an excellent case in his classic, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s , that the Compromise of 1850 was more a forecast of disaster than effective political action. His argument is founded on the premise that the Compromise was effectively a deathblow to the Second American Party System and the notion that the health of America’s political parties in the mid-19th century was crucial to containment of sectional strife. As long as “men had placed their loyalty to their own party and defeat of the opposing party within their own section ahead of sectional loyalty, neither the North nor the South could be united into a phalanx against the other.” (1)

This conclusion is, of course, more easily arrived at when looking back at the period through the lens of generations with the full knowledge that the country would be ripped apart within fifteen years in a tumultuous Civil War. The perspectives of the politicians who negotiated the Compromise of 1850 would have, at the time, been much different. Indeed, they might have seen it as artful politics. The agreements made in the Compromise appeared to solve, at least temporarily, the country’s major ills which -  on the surface – revolved around slavery and the country’s expansion.

But the effect was the displacement of the country’s trust in “party” as voice and defender of political views. The void caused men to affiliate more with their section, North and South. The scene was set for the country’s festering issues to rise again to a boil, this time without the benefit of cross-sectional parties that had so successfully contained discord in the past.

Thus my conclusion is that the Compromise of 1850 was BOTH an effective political action AND a forecast of disaster. It was effective for a time in that it allowed the country to continue forward with at least a fragile agreement on monumental issues. But its destruction of the Second American Party System led the country toward potential destruction.

And so…. what do you think? Comments welcome.

—-

See images of the original document – The Compromise of 1850 here.

(1) Michael F. Holt, The Political Crisis of the 1850’s, (New York:  W. W. Norton and Company, 1983), 139.

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On Racism in the Antebellum North – 3 – Lincoln

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Tonight I wrap up a short series of posts dealing with the topic of racism in the Antebellum North. In post 2, I discussed Stephen A. Douglas’ markedly white supremacist views in his debate against Abraham Lincoln in Ottawa, Illinois on August 21, 1858. Such open discussion of racial inequality is admittedly shocking to me, a liberal Midwesterner of another century. And yet this perspective was the norm in the Antebellum North. Even Lincoln, in his response to Douglas during the same debate, revealed a reticence to place the African American on the same level as the white man. He was a man of his times.

“I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races. There is a physical difference between the two, which, in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living together upon the footing of perfect equality, and inasmuch as it becomes a necessity that there must be a difference, I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong having the superior position.” — Abraham Lincoln

Clearly, and epiphanic for me, northern white Americans in the 19th century considered themselves superior in all respects to African Americans, whether free or slave, and understanding this is critical to understanding the times and events of the Antebellum era.

This discussion makes all the more poignant the events of this day, on which we welcome President Obama.

Read the first post in this series here, the second here.

(1) Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, “First Debate: Ottawa, Illinois August 21, 1858,” (<http://www.nps.gov/liho/historyculture/debate1.htm> Accessed on 18 Jan. 2009).

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On Racism in the Antebellum North – 2 – Douglas

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douglasovalI recently had the opportunity to listen to a performance of the first four debates between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas. There is no better example of the Northern Antebellum perception of the black man than in the words of Douglas during the first of those debates held on August 21, 1858 in Ottawa, Illinois. He used the opportunity to mock Lincoln and abolitionists. More importantly, he showed his colors to be that of a true white supremacist. The comments from the crowd are noted in parentheses.

“I do not question Mr. Lincoln’s conscientious belief that the negro was made his equal, and hence is his brother, (laughter,) but for my own part, I do not regard the negro as my equal, and positively deny that he is my brother or any kin to me whatever. (“Never.” “Hit him again,” and cheers.) Lincoln has evidently learned by heart Parson Lovejoy’s catechism. (Laughter and applause.) He can repeat it as well as Farnsworth, and he is worthy of a medal from Father Giddings and Fred Douglass for his Abolitionism. (Laughter.) He holds that the negro was born his equal and yours, and that he was endowed with equality by the Almighty, and that no human law can deprive him of these rights which were guarantied to him by the Supreme ruler of the Universe. Now, I do not believe that the Almighty ever intended the negro to be the equal of the white man. (“Never, never.”) If he did, he has been a long time demonstrating the fact. (Cheers.) For thousands of years the negro has been a race upon the earth, and during all that time, in all latitudes and climates, wherever he has wandered or been taken, he has been inferior to the race which he has there met. He belongs to an inferior race, and must always occupy an inferior position. (“Good,” “that’s so.”)” (1)

Douglas also made a point of repeating in several of his debates with Lincoln the improprieties of an abolitionist who he observed driving a carriage while Fred Douglass lounged in the cab with the driver’s wife. This inflamed sense of impropriety regarding black men and white women was consistent with fear mongering in the South that led to greater controls on slave populations.

Read the first post in this series here.

(1) Abraham Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, “First Debate: Ottawa, Illinois August 21, 1858,” (<http://www.nps.gov/liho/historyculture/debate1.htm> Accessed on 18 Jan. 2009).

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