History / Warfare

Myth, Slavery, the 1850s and 156 Years

No, this isn’t a revisionist take on how slavery wasn’t the greatest crime perpetuated in the history of the United States of America.  Rather, it is a response to this blithering nonsense:

Lincoln came into office as the first Republican elected to the presidency, a former Whig. Both Whig and Democratic approaches had failed to address the nation’s sectional crisis. The Republican Party formed out of this wreckage. Jacksonian Democratic ideas about popular sovereignty and sectional balance had produced a series of compromises, each more divisive than the last. Whig anti-partyism and refusal to address the slavery issue head-on had resulted in a splintered party, with future Confederate vice president Alexander Stephens leading the Southern Congressional faction. Northern Whigs, along with some Northern Democrats, Free Soilers, and other opponents of slavery, joined to form a new party.

Historical perspectives often take on the conventional wisdom that “explains” such an era in as few words as possible, hence the failed to address the nation’s sectional crisis mantra that has prevailed since the surrender at Appomattox.  The Whig anti-partyism and refusal to address the slavery issue head-on claptrap misses the fact that slavery was tangential to the far more pressing problem of Senatorial distribution in the antebellum U.S.A.:


States in the Union that permitted slavery saw the “peculiar institution” as a unifying cause, initially demanding their traditional dominance in outnumbering non-slave states remain in force and later “compromising” to retain parity (admission of one slave state for every free state and vice-versa).  The sectional issue revolved around the forces that lead to the 1820, 1850 and 1854 compromises which put the slave bloc on equal political footing as the rest of the nation regardless of circumstance.  On 1 January 1850 slave states represented half of the seats in the U.S. Senate yet their parity (the 1850 census tabulated 9,664,706 for the 15 slave states and the District of Columbia versus an overall population of 23,191,876) was built not only on 41.67% of the American population equaling the other 58.33% but with almost a third (3,204,051) of the slave states’ population representing the property of the other two-thirds.

California upset the balance, its 1850 admittance to the Union placing Southern dominance into question.  Slave states had traded its parity for an onerous fugitive slave law, only to find that increasing the ranks of the slave states had become an arduous problem.  The central labor-intensive industry prewar was cotton, a niche that was difficult to stretch from the confines of in the year-round blazing heat and dampness of the South/Southwest.  Moreover, importing plantation farming into the Western territories of the pre-industrial U.S. was an extremely expensive endeavor, evidenced by the fact that the combined slave populations of the expansive New Mexico and Utah Territories never exceeded 30 and the Free Soilist tendencies of the territorial Western homesteaders. 

Return to Kansas

Divisions north of the Mason-Dixon Line were rampant.  New Englanders had strong religious convictions behind supporting abolition (Massachusetts and the territories that became Maine and Vermont were the only states that lacked slave populations in the first U.S. census in 1790), which contrasted mightily with their Western neighbors.  Sparsely-populated frontier states needed population growth, which lead to homestead acts that in turn sparked the Free Soil movement:

The northerners, however, were not all abolitionists as Atchison claimed. In fact, abolitionists were in the minority. Most of the Free State settlers were part of a movement called Free Soil, which demanded free territory for free white people. They hated slavery, but not out of concern for the slaves themselves. They hated it because plantations took over the land and prevented white working people from having their own homesteads. They hated it because it brought large numbers of black people wherever it went. The Free Staters voted 1,287 to 453 to outlaw black people, slave or free, from Kansas. Their territory would be white.

The effect of the Free Soilers was felt hard and fast during the 1850s.  Colorado, with no recorded population in the  1850 census, numbered 34,277 in 1860.  Nebraska too went from 0 to 28,841 in the 1860 census, while Kansas descended into a horror show:

To fulfill its Manifest Destiny, especially following the discovery of gold in California, America was making plans to build a transcontinental railroad from east to west. The big question was where to locate the eastern terminal — to the north, in Chicago, or to the south, in St. Louis. [Steven] Douglas was firmly committed to ensuring that the terminal would be in Chicago, but he knew that it could not be unless the Nebraska territory was organized.

Organization of Nebraska would require the removal of the territory’s Native Americans, for Douglas regarded the Indians as savages, and saw their reservations as “barriers of barbarism.” In his view, Manifest Destiny required the removal of those who stood in the way of American, Christian progress, and the Native American presence was a minor obstacle to his plans. But there was another, larger problem.

In order to get the votes he needed, Douglas had to please Southerners. He therefore bowed to Southern wishes and proposed a bill for organizing Nebraska-Kansas which stated that the slavery question would be decided by popular sovereignty. He assumed that settlers there would never choose slavery, but did not anticipate the vehemence of the Northern response. This bill, if made into law, would repeal the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which said that slavery could not extend above the 36′ 30″ line. It would open the North to slavery. Northerners were outraged; Southerners were overjoyed.

Douglas was stubborn. Ignoring the anger of his own party, he got President Pierce’s approval and pushed his bill through both houses of Congress. The bill became law on May 30, 1854.

Nebraska was so far north that its future as a free state was never in question. But Kansas was next to the slave state of Missouri. In an era that would come to be known as “Bleeding Kansas,” the territory would become a battleground over the slavery question.

The reaction from the North was immediate. Eli Thayer organized the New England Emigrant Aid Company, which sent settlers to Kansas to secure it as a free territory. By the summer of 1855, approximately 1,200 New Englanders had made the journey to the new territory, armed to fight for freedom. The abolitionist minister Henry Ward Beecher furnished settlers with Sharps rifles, which came to be known as “Beecher’s Bibles.”

Rumors had spread through the South that 20,000 Northerners were descending on Kansas, and in November 1854, thousands of armed Southerners, mostly from Missouri, poured over the line to vote for a proslavery congressional delegate. Only half the ballots were cast by registered voters, and at one location, only 20 of over 600 voters were legal residents. The proslavery forces won the election.

On March 30, 1855, another election was held to choose members of the territorial legislature. The Missourians, or “Border Ruffians,” as they were called, again poured over the line. This time, they swelled the numbers from 2,905 registered voters to 6,307 actual ballots cast. Only 791 voted against slavery.

The new state legislature enacted what Northerners called the “Bogus Laws,” which incorporated the Missouri slave code. These laws levelled severe penalties against anyone who spoke or wrote against slaveholding; those who assisted fugitives would be put to death or sentenced to ten years hard labor. (Statutes of Kansas) The Northerners were outraged, and set up their own Free State legislature at Topeka. Now there were two governments established in Kansas, each outlawing the other. President Pierce only recognized the proslavery legislature.

Concerns that 20,000 were descending on Kansas weren’t unfounded; Kansans went from none recorded in 1850 to 107,206 in the 1860 census.  The ensuing fight in Kansas turned into a small-scale war:

As the two factions struggled for control of the territory, tensions increased. In 1856 the proslavery territorial capital was moved to Lecompton, a town only 12 miles from Lawrence, a Free State stronghold. In April of that year a three-man congressional investigating committee arrived in Lecompton to look into the Kansas troubles. The majority report of the committee found the elections to be fraudulent, and said that the free state government represented the will of the majority. The federal government refused to follow its recommendations, however, and continued to recognized the proslavery legislature as the legitimate government of Kansas.

There had been several attacks during this time, primarily of proslavery against Free State men. People were tarred and feathered, kidnapped, killed. But now the violence escalated. On May 21, 1856, a group of proslavery men entered Lawrence, where they burned the Free State Hotel, destroyed two printing presses, and ransacked homes and stores. In retaliation, the fiery abolitionist John Brown led a group of men on an attack at Pottawatomie Creek. The group, which included four of Brown’s sons, dragged five proslavery men from their homes and hacked them to death.

The violence had now escalated, and the confrontations continued. John Brown reappeared in Osawatomie to join the fighting there. Violence also erupted in Congress itself. The abolitionist senator Charles Sumner delivered a fiery speech called “The Crime Against Kansas,” in which he accused proslavery senators, particularly Atchison and Andrew Butler of South Carolina, of [cavorting with the] “harlot, Slavery.” In retaliation, Butler’s nephew, Congressman Preston Brooks, attacked Sumner at his Senate desk and beat him senseless with a cane.

In September of 1856, a new territorial governor, John W. Geary, arrived in Kansas and began to restore order. The last major outbreak of violence was the Marais des Cynges massacre, in which Border Ruffians killed five Free State men. In all, approximately 55 people died in “Bleeding Kansas.”

Franklin Pierce is often referred to as one of the worst American presidents in history, in light of the Kansas affair I would have to agree.  But to what end were the Border Ruffians fighting for?

Several attempts were made to draft a constitution which Kansas could use to apply for statehood. Some versions were proslavery, others free state. Finally, a fourth convention met at Wyandotte in July 1859, and adopted a free state constitution. Kansas applied for admittance to the Union. However, the proslavery forces in the Senate strongly opposed its free state status, and stalled its admission. Only in 1861, after the Confederate states seceded, did the constitution gain approval and Kansas become a state.

The South believed they were getting the short end of the stick.


The turbulence of the 1850s and the resulting trigger of the American Civil War in April 1861 was rooted with three dates–9 September 1850, 11 May 1858 and 14 February 1859.  156 years ago today Oregon was admitted into the Union, the third of three free states that joined during the 1850s (California 1850 and Minnesota 1858 preceding).

1859 set the slave bloc over the edge.  “Old Osawatomie” John Brown assaulted Harper’s Ferry 16-18 October 1859, which despite his capture and execution (for the highly weird crime of Treason against Virginia…for an assault against a U.S. federal arsenal and Virginia has never been a sovereign nation) secession had become inevitable.  The 1860 census put the slave bloc’s population at 12,315,373; 39.17% of the 31,443,321 total.  When the 36th U.S. Congress convened in 1859, the Republicans held a commanding lead in the House which lasted for 16 years.

Funny thing is, the South brought their nineteenth-century political irrelevance upon themselves.  Oddly enough, Minnesota and Oregon were brought into the Union while the Democrats held control over the House, the Senate and the Presidency; the Speaker of the House was South Carolinian traitor James Orr [he tried to arrange the “transfer” (i.e.: theft) of federal property prior to the bombardment of Fort Sumter).  From a short-term political move, the twin admissions seemed brilliant–the Democrats gained five seats in the Senate and three in the House.  But losing 35 seats in the House and six in the Senate during the 1858 elections turned the gain into a nightmare–both of Minnesota’s representatives became Republicans and the Party of Lincoln controlled the governor’s office until 1899.

Happy anniversary, Oregon.  Here’s to your contribution to the destruction of slavery.


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