Sunday, February 18, 2018

. . . And An Englishman in (Bleeding) Kansas

...Or Squatter Life and Border Warfare

While getting into the spirit of rewriting an old WIP (Channing, by name), I started brushing up on the events of Bleeding Kansas. It's surprising to me that more people aren't acutely aware of this episode of American history, but I think most people would stare at your blankly if you asked them about Bleeding Kansas. (Kansans would probably be the exception.)

In the mid-1850's, small-scale civil war broke out in the territory of Kansas, just a few years before the Civil War engulfed the nation as a whole. It was a preview of what was to come, with bloody little battles, high passions, and remarkable characters. John Brown and his sons famously hacked five pro-slavery men to death at Pottawatomie Creek. The Free State town of Lawrence (where my grandmother's family lived) was sacked; the hotel, the biggest building in the territory, was destroyed, and two printing offices were ransacked and the presses tossed into the river. The violence never really stopped until the Civil War finally settled the question of slavery for good.

So what caused this crisis in Kansas? Specifically, it was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Ever since the Constitution in 1789, there had been a series of crises and compromises to do with slavery: the three-fifths compromise, the Missouri Compromise, the Nullification Crisis, the Compromise of 1850. The trouble was that these were thin veneers over the very real, very deep-seated differences between the North and South (which isn't to say that the North and South weren't intimately interwoven in myriad ways). This was becoming more and more apparent by the mid-1850's, and Abraham Lincoln stated it best when he said that ultimately the country must become all one thing or all the other. There was no way it could continue to be so divided. There was no middle ground, as the failure of the repeated compromises demonstrated. Either slavery was acceptable, or it wasn't.

In 1854, Kansas and Nebraska were being organized as territories, and the old difficulty reared its ugly head: would these be slave territories or free territories? This was more than an existential question of what was best for Kansas and Nebraska The carefully-maintained balance in the Senate between free and slave states was at stake. Tensions rose. But in stepped the Little Giant, Stephen A Douglas, Senator from Illinois. He proposed "popular sovereignty" on the question of slavery: let the people vote on whether to allow slavery. After all, this is a democracy, is it not?

The difficulty is, of course, that questions of morality can't be put to a vote that way. Democracy can't mean that 51% of the people can simply do whatever they please. There has to be a "higher law", as Seward put it.

But the law was passed, and Kansas and Nebraska became "popular sovereignty" territories, though apparently it was Kansas everyone cared about (sorry, Nebraska). In short order, Missourians started pouring over the border to vote fraudulently in Kansas elections, while Emigrant Aid Societies in New England sent Free-Soilers to settle the new territory. Rival constitutions and governments were established, and it didn't take long for the Border Ruffians (Missourians) and the Jayhawkers (Free-Soilers) to begin clashing.

In any case (and that explanation was much longer than I meant it to be), I came across a book called An Englishman in Kansas, or Squatter Life and Border Warfare, about the experiences of an Englishman named T.H. Gladstone in Kansas during the crisis there. It's entirely evident that he despises the Border Ruffians, but I'm alright with that. He paints a vivid picture of the ugliness of the whole situation and of Kansas as a place at that time--a dangerous, violent, almost absurdly topsy-turvy place where right is wrong and wrong is right.

Also of interest to me was the introduction by Frederick Law Olmsted, who was, among other things, the man who created Central Park in New York City. He makes very pointed remarks about the hypocrisy and moral ugliness of slavery. Perhaps the most striking passage for me was the following one. It may be an entirely, or partially, fabricated, but it has power because it's entirely plausible. The last phrase ties in with the first sentence and neatly sums up the point: terror was the order of the day. Any appearance of safety and of obedience from the enslaved people was only a product of well-founded and constantly-cultivated fear:

But, ‘Planters sleep unguarded, and with their bedroom doors open.’ . . . 
It is but a few months since, in Georgia, or Alabama, a man treated another precisely as Mr. Brooks treated Mr. Sumner, coming up behind him, with the fury of a madman, and felling him with a bludgeon*; killing him by the first blow, however, and then discharging vengeance by repeated strokes on his senseless body. The man thus pitifully abused had been the master of the other, a remarkably confiding and merciful master, it was said—too much so; “it never does to be too slack with a nigger.” By such indiscretion [i.e. being too lax] he brought his death upon him. But did his assassin escape? He was roasted, at a slow fire, on the spot of the murder, in the presence of many thousand slaves driven [from their homes] to the ground from all the adjoining counties, and when, at length, his life went out, the fire was intensified until his body was in ashes, which were scattered to the winds and trampled under foot. Then “magistrates and clergymen” addressed appropriate warnings to the assembled subjects. 
It was no indiscretion to leave doors open again that night.

 *Famously, Mr. Brooks, a Southerner, attacked Senator Charles Sumner on the Senate floor, beating him senseless. Brooks felt that Sumner had insulted his family in a speech Sumner gave about the slavery question. Sumner was famously anti-slavery.

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