HIST 119: The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877

Lecture 8

 - Dred Scott, Bleeding Kansas, and the Impending Crisis of the Union, 1855-58


Professor Blight continues his march through the political events of the 1850s. He continues his description of the aftermath of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, describing the guerilla war that reigned in the territory of Kansas for much of 1856. The lecture continues, describing the caning of Senator Charles Sumner on the floor of the US Senate and the birth of the Republican party. The lecture concludes with the near-victory of Republican candidate John C. Fremont in the presidential election of 1856, and the passage of the Dred Scott decision in 1857.

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The Civil War and Reconstruction Era, 1845-1877

HIST 119 - Lecture 8 - Dred Scott, Bleeding Kansas, and the Impending Crisis of the Union, 1855-58

Chapter 1. Introduction: The Passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act [00:00:00]

Professor David Blight: On the 4th of July, 1854, in an outdoor park in Framingham, Massachusetts, which is fifteen, twenty miles west of Boston, William Lloyd Garrison and the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society built a stage. They had a huge turnout. And Garrison and his group performed an act of abolitionist theater. Anthony Burns had just been returned to slavery in Virginia. The Kansas-Nebraska Act had just been passed in the month of May. Behind him, on the stage — a huge array — was first the insignia of the State of Virginia, then an insignia of the State of Massachusetts, a banner on one side that read “Redeem Massachusetts.” Hanging from that sign was something labeled “the crepe of servitude” — nothing very subtle about this. And two flags were on other side of the rostrum, one labeled Kansas and the other labeled Nebraska, and behind Garrison was a very large United States flag, upside down.

Now, this was political theater, directed by a man who, as you will remember, denounced political parties, said that participation in political parties was complicity with slavery. Garrison first read from scripture — Old Testament, Deuteronomy. Then he proceeded to, in three segments, to burn documents. He first held up in his hand what he said was a copy of The Fugitive Slave Act, which he burned in his hand with a lighted match, threw the ashes on the floor, stomped on the ashes, and the crowd shouted “Amen.” Then he held in his hands the documents for the rendition — he said it was a copy of the document for the rendition of Anthony Burns, returning Burns as a fugitive slave to Virginia. He burned that, threw the ashes on the floor, stomped on them, and the crowd shouted “Amen.” Then he pulled out a copy of the United States Constitution, which he announced — as he had announced many times over in his newspaper, The Liberator — he called it a, quote, “covenant with death, an agreement with Hell, so perish all compromisers with tyranny.” He burned it famously, or infamously, stomped on the ashes all over the stage, and the crowd shouted “Amen.”

The Kansas-Nebraska Act had fuelled a political fervor that now could never be bottled up again, it could never be put back on its shelf. Why? Why was that Kansas-Nebraska Act so troublesome? Let me pick that up where I left you off the other day. Now remember, the Kansas-Nebraska Act had two simple resolutions, although it came about through a heightening process. The first was that it explicitly repealed the 36º30’ parallel, or Missouri Compromise line, what Northerners — anti-slavery abolitionist or even, in some cases, hardly-aware-of-slavery Northerners — had always referred as the, quote, “sacred pledge.” That sacred pledge was now thirty-four years old. Everybody in the United States Congress had grown up with it. It was a template, it was an assumption; not unlike you could name certain great resolutions or assumptions that became almost standard parts of American political culture, perhaps in your lifetime, certainly in my lifetime. Certain aspects of the New Deal, we thought, were basic American political assumptions — like Social Security, but recently that one got challenged. You could think of others. The right to collective bargaining out of the Wagner Act in the 1930s. You can think of others. Some would say Roe v Wade, some would say affirmative action, some would say other aspects of our political culture born of the 1960s. Some would say the ‘64 Civil Rights Act, et cetera.

The Missouri Compromise Line, as people imagined this slavery question in the West, had been seen by Northerners as, quote, “a sacred pledge.” That was now repealed explicitly in this very sectionalized, divided vote in the Kansas-Nebraska Act to set up the Kansas-Nebraska Territories. The second part, was, of course, a declaration that any state produced, created from Kansas and Nebraska would be created on a principle of popular sovereignty. There would be a popular referendum at some stage in the territorial process, to be worked out later. It passed the U.S. Senate thirty-seven to fourteen. That’s in great part because the Kansas-Nebraska Act became an absolute test of Democratic Party loyalty, which Stephen Douglas demanded. He didn’t get all Democrats to support it but he got most of them. And the Whig Party, by 1864, in what was still a fledgling two-party system, now greatly challenged by a third party called the American Party, or known more euphemistically as the Know-Nothing party, or known more directly as the Nativist Party — more on that in a moment — is really challenging that two-party system.

Chapter 2. The Early Republican Party [00:07:43]

But it was that vote in the House that I showed you on a graphic the other day that tells you the story. It passed the House of Representatives 113 to 110, in a highly sectionalized vote. Ninety percent of all Southerners, on Kansas-Nebraska, voted for it; sixty four percent of all Northerners, people from Free states, voted against it. The second American party system, born out of the struggle over Jacksonian — so-called Jacksonian democracy — from the 1820s into the ’30s, into the ’40s, into the early ’50s, was now disintegrating, faster than most people even really realized. The effects of this were quickly this: the Kansas-Nebraska Act now threw open the vast expanse of what was left of the Louisiana Purchase to the possible expansion of slavery. Secondly, it will destroy the Whig Party forever, and open a huge vacuum in American political culture for some kind of new coalition, some kind of new persuasion that would fill it, about this great question of its time — the expansion of slavery. And then more directly, third, it brought overnight the birth of the Republican Party — the original Republican Party, I hasten to add — a party formed literally overnight in reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

It was often first called the Anti-Kansas Party. There are three or four towns all over the Midwest in the United States — Ripon, Wisconsin; Jackson, Michigan, and others — that all claim to be the site of the birth of the Republican Party. And they all have their little monuments or their plaques in town squares and parks to say they were the place where the first Republican Party meeting was held. But the Republican Party was really born amidst hundreds of meetings across the North, to discuss the Kansas-Nebraska Act, to react to it, to figure out some way to politically resist it. That “hell of a storm: that Stephen Douglas had predicted, is exactly what happened, but he didn’t have any clue the direction or the ferocity of the political storm that this would cause. To so many Northerners now, who believed — for whom the American dream was mobility in the West, availability of cheap if not free land in the West, the possibility of the small farmer, the small mechanic, moving west and getting land in a society without slaves — now seemed to be completely thrown up in the air, if not denied. I don’t know what to really compare it to today, that might shock people. Something you assumed was just going to be there and tomorrow it’s not — it’s just gone — and you basically defined the future of your children on it.

Lots of people now wondered what happened to the Compromise of 1850. Well that was essentially a dead letter. And what was born in that Republican Party, what was born in those meetings that formed the Republican Party in the summer of 1854 was a theory, an idea they called “the slave power conspiracy.” It actually wasn’t born there, that’s an old idea, the idea of a slave power. [Technical adjustments] But the idea of a slave power, this notion of some kind of conspiracy, a cadre, an oligarchy, a small number of great planters in the Deep South that nevertheless had tremendously disproportionate power over their own states, over their own region, and then in the Congress and in the Supreme Count and in the Presidency, was an old idea. I’ve found it as early as the 1820s in an old, old article I once wrote where people were actually already using the term, “the slave power.” But it really crystallized in the 1850s.

This is a poster, one of hundreds, thousands of posters from 1854 calling for a meeting. It doesn’t even use the term Republican Party anywhere, just calling people together — it’s in Chester, Pennsylvania I think — just calling people together to discuss the Kansas-Nebraska Act, to discuss what’s really happened here, and to discuss the slave power. Classic nineteenth century broadside with eight things going on at once in front of your eyes, but the boldest print is reserved for the slave power: fear, conspiracy, come together, watch out, get ready.

The fear now, you see — think closely about this — to Northerners was, “now wait a second, if what the Kansas-Nebraska Act is saying is that the Louisiana — all the rest of the Louisiana Purchase is now open to the possible expansion of slavery — it’s got to be rooted in a constitutional theory that probably is supporting that Fifth Amendment which is the right to life, liberty, and property, and the transport of that property anywhere you want. So what’s to stop someday, somehow, slave holders from coming into Illinois, Ohio, New York, Boston?” It might seem a bit far-fetched, but editorials started appearing all over the North, like this one from The New York Post that predicted, quote, “Gangs of men and women, chained together may yet be seen now marching up or down Broadway, or trembling in Battery Park.”

What was born in that summer, and especially that fall, was the most rapid third-party political coalition movement in all of American history; and if you want a prototype for any possibility of that kind, any other time in our political history, this is it. The Republican Party, brand new — not six months old — will elect 100 people to the House of Representatives in the fall elections of 1854, and they will begin to draw together a remarkable coalition. They’re going to draw first a whole lot of old Whigs, Northern Whigs in particular, who don’t have any home anymore. This is the old Whig Party of Henry Clay, but it’s also the old Whig Party that had a reformist element to it. This was the old John Quincy Adams wing of the Whig Party. And there were some Whigs who had become genuine abolitionists, in many states, and they now were looking for a real political home in which to plant their flag — of not just free soil, but a moral case against slavery. You got the old Free Soilers. The Free Soil Party had existed in 1848 and in the 1852 elections — remember, I told you they elected, what was it, four people to the House of Representatives. But more importantly, that Republican Party now had tremendous — we’re calling it now “crossover,” aren’t we — tremendous crossover appeal to Northern Democrats, lifelong Northern Democrats who will now break with Stephen Douglas, break with popular sovereignty, break with their own political lives, and join a new free-soil anti-slavery party. David Wilmot, the author of the Wilmot Proviso, you’ll remember from a week ago, that Pennsylvania Democrat who launched this idea during the debates on the Mexican War that said in any state formed from a territory gained from the Mexican War slavery shall never exist, the basic free soil position. In 1854, David Wilmot became a Republican.

This new political coalition, fledging as it was — a lot of strange bedfellows here, guys who had just fought like hell with each other for years in the Congress were now kind of forming the same party. They’re forming it around a few key ideas. One is this notion, this idea of a slave power that has to be resisted now. As a political force it has to be resisted, as an expansionist migration force it has to be resisted, as a labor system it has to be resisted. And secondly, they are rooting their political future and ideology in what they’re calling, quite explicitly now — and they’ve rehearsed this, many of them for some years — an anti-slavery interpretation of the Constitution. They’re going to now really rehearse publicly the idea that “yes, slavery may be protected constitutionally where it already exists, because slaves are legally property. Okay, we’ve heard that for decades,” they’re going to say. But the Federal Government has jurisdiction over territories, it has jurisdiction over the District of Columbia, and the slogan that flows from this idea of an anti-slavery interpretation of the Constitution is “make freedom national, slavery sectional.” That slavery shall forever be, they say, a regional, sectional, local institution, not a national institution, which was an implicit way of saying the West shall be kept free for free labor at all cost.

And then thirdly, the Republican party is rooted — and this is why it could become a coalition — it’s rooted in this cluster of ideas we’ve come to call here — and Bruce Levine’s book is terrific on this — a free labor ideology. A fear of concentrated power, the defense of the individual, the small man. It was a fanfare for the common man, the small farmer or the small clerk, the small — small in the sense of — he has nothing, he may own nothing, but he wants to own something. It’s the immigrant with nothing who wants to own a farm, and he must have, at least in this America of its boundless West, he must have physical mobility, geographical mobility. And historians have come to define all of this, of course, under this cluster of notions we call Republicanism, the belief that the United States was, if not a democracy, at least a Republic, where the people rule, where consent of a majority really counts. And if that majority is increasingly becoming small farmers and clerks and mechanics, and a lot of them immigrants, then oligarchies ought to be put on the run, whether those oligarchies are bankers or those oligarchies are made up of slaveholders. This was in its birth, and for the next six years, one of the most potent political coalition ideologies this country has ever seen.

Now, what happens next? What happens to this new coalition? And why are they going to be so threatening to the South? This in some ways is going to become the planter elite, Southern slaveholding class’s greatest fear, a genuine Yankee, anti-slavery Northern political party. After all, the North now has close to, pushing, a two to one advantage in population; that is if we simply define that by Free states, Slave states. Now — [technical adjustments]

Chapter 3. Bleeding Kansas and the Beating of Charles Sumner [00:21:32]

Maybe you’ve seen this picture before. It’s a lithograph of the famous beating of Charles Sumner in the spring of 1856, on the floor of the U.S. Senate, by Preston Brooks. Now, how do we get to a scene in the U.S. Senate of a Southern Congressman beating the hell out of a Massachusetts Senator, beating him literally unconscious, bloodying him on the floor of the Senate, while his fellow senators look down, and some of them in glee?

There were ninety-one Northern Democrats in the House of Representatives when they voted on the Kansas-Nebraska Act. After the fall elections of 1854 there were only twenty-five left. This is a political sea change happening and no one quite knows where it’s going yet. And in that same year of 1854, this Nativist Party — they called themselves the American Party — a party that stood essentially for trying to stop Catholic — mainly Catholic — immigration into the United States. This was the moment of course — I mean look around today, we’ve got a huge debate going on about immigration and I won’t go into that — but you can see how it’s clustering in parts of our political culture — heighten that six times over to the early 1850s. The huge Irish migrations to the United States had just happened between the mid-1840s, especially the late-1840s, and about 1852 to ‘54. This is the moment, the historical moment, of the terrible, infamous potato famine in Ireland.

The Nativist Party was anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant. They believed that Catholicism would undermine American Protestant values and the Protestant work ethic. They believed that a United States of America ought to be a white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant nation, as it was in its founding. They believed in a conspiracy of Popery; crazy as that may seem to some of us today. They believed that Catholics owed and demonstrated a higher loyalty to the Pope in Rome than they ever would in the United States, to the United States Government, and therefore Catholics could not be true Republicans. I know, give me a break, but it is what this party was rooted in. And man did they succeed. They won huge electoral victories in the fall of 1854, particularly because there’s this new vacuum now, the Whig Party’s dead. By 1856, in the Presidential election of ‘56, the Nativist American Party candidate will win over 800,000 votes for the presidency — more on that in a second. The American Party won forty seats in the U.S. Congress in 1854. They dominated a few northern state legislatures. They won the governorship of Massachusetts and a majority of its legislature. It shocked people. It shocked some Northern Democrats who weren’t comfortable with this nativism, the virulence of this nativism, to become Republicans instead.

Now out west, of course, what’s going to happen to Kansas and Nebraska? Kansas now became the object of tremendous migration. It was nothing but a series of frontier settlements in 1855, but large numbers of people began to go there. These were the so-called squatters, squatter farmers. But immediately, it became a contest between how many Yankees and Northerners would actually get there and try to make the place free soil, and how many Southerners would actually get there, with slaves, and try to produce a pro-slavery constitution. Kansas became the great testing ground of popular sovereignty. Immigrant aid societies emerged, especially in New England. One famous one that had a lot of financial backing behind it, called the New England Emigrant Aid Society, they recruited settlers, they raised money, they paid people’s way out to Kansas, in some cases. Kansas now became a kind of symbol and reality. Out on its border, of course — its eastern border was the state of Missouri, which was a Slave state, and Missourians began to flock across the border into Kansas, taking land.

By March of 1855, only one year, less than a year, 11 months after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, they held their first election for a territorial legislature in the Territory of Kansas. An estimated 5,000 so-called border ruffians — or that meant Missourians — flocked over into Kansas for a day or two to vote. The census — they took a rapid census in the early spring of 1855 in Kansas — recorded 2,905 eligible voters in all of Kansas. In that territorial legislation election, 6,307 people voted; way more than half of the people registered to vote voted. Something was wrong. They elected a pro-slavery legislature, adopted a pro-slavery constitution overnight. And Free Soilers cried foul, formed their own attempt at a government that summer. And by January of 1856, the beginning of the next year, in a sense, in essence, there were two fledgling territorial governments in Kansas, one free soil, one pro-slavery. And it was then — that spring of 1856 — that what we call Bleeding Kansas, this border frontier, civil war, this village against village, river ravine against river ravine, broke out. Before it played out over about a year and a half about 250 people would be killed — many of them in nighttime raids and vigilante violence — and millions in treasure.

I will come back to John Brown later, next week in fact. Our friend John Brown from upstate New York — or somebody’s friend, he wasn’t easy to be friends with — had already sent out some of his sons — more on that later — and John Brown arrived himself in the winter of 1856. John Brown, a genuine, radical, deeply religious Old Testament abolitionist who went to Kansas, make no mistake, to make Kansas free and to kill slaveholders if necessary, in what he believed was a justifiable war. That spring, John Brown with his band of men was traveling along the road when he got news of the beating of Charles Sumner in the Senate.

What happened in the Senate is that Charles Sumner, the radical abolitionist Senator from Massachusetts, one of only a tiny handful — actually one of only two or three, three or four — real card carrying abolitionists, if we want to call them that, who had seats in the U.S. Senate. Sumner, deeply well-educated, classically educated, Harvard man, began his political life as a so-called Conscience Whig in Massachusetts. He got elected to the U.S. Senate in the fervor over the Mexican War and in the fervor over the expansion of slavery. In his first few years in the Senate, from 1849, ‘50, ‘51, ‘52, they had a virtual gag on him. Any time Sumner tried to get the floor — this went on for about four years — there were all kinds of parliamentary maneuvers that the opposition could use to prevent him from speaking. They didn’t want abolitionist rhetoric in the halls of the U.S. Senate.

But with time he got a position, that is, a place where he could speak, in the Senate’s calendar. And he did, he delivered a speech early that spring called “The Crime Against Kansas.” He delivered it in March 1856. It took him about six hours. It was later published in a pamphlet form. It’s about 35, 40 pages. It was the classic free soil argument of what was now the Republican Party, and Sumner was by now, of course, a Republican. He made all the arguments about a slave power conspiracy and an anti-slavery interpretation of the Constitution. He argued deeply into the cluster of ideas we call free labor ideology. But then he laced the speech, over and over, with personal attacks on Southerners, personal attacks on Southern slave holders. He singled out especially Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, and he used Butler’s alleged fathering of children by a slave woman as representative of what Sumner said was a common practice across the south. You could not imagine laying a bigger taboo on your fellow Southern senators than this one. He described Butler as, “a Don Quixote who had taken the harlot slavery as his mistress.” And then he went on and on with that. He was jeered. Southerners started shouting at him and Sumner just enjoyed it and went on; many of them walked out. But he had already had copies of the speech printed. He had copies of the speech on the street within a few days.

In the audience that day, sitting up in the balcony, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives named Preston Brooks who was the nephew of Senator Butler. About a week after this event, it may have been two weeks, Butler decided that he was going to have honor, he was going to exercise an act of honor and revenge deeply rooted in what he believed was the Old South sense of honor. He had thought about challenging Sumner to a duel, but duels by this point in time were highly illegal, even though people did get challenged — read my colleague Joanne Freeman on this. They’re still challenging each other to duels all the time in the 1850s; well, a lot of times. But he decided against challenging Sumner to a duel. Instead, he thought he would take a sort of Plan B — he would meet Sumner at his desk with a cane and try to kill him. And he did.

Brooks took a cane to Sumner — Sumner was sitting at his desk, literally signing copies of “The Crime Against Kansas” speech to be sent out. And he got trapped in the desk, we’re told; he couldn’t get out of it and Brooks just kept banging on his head, over and over, just bloodied him into unconsciousness, and Sumner fell on the floor. And there are all kinds of stories — and in fact this lithograph tries to capture it, although I’m not sure you can see it very well — there are all kinds of stories about Senators, especially Southerners, gathering around and saying, “Hold me back, hold me back,” as they smiled and watched Sumner bleed on the floor. And finally somebody grabbed Brook’s cane and said, “You know, that’s probably enough.” [Laughter] I mean, by any definition this was an assault with a deadly weapon, this was an assault and battery, it was attempted murder.

Preston Brooks went back to the House of Representatives, tendered his resignation and said he would go back home to South Carolina and submit himself to the people of his district. And he did. And they overwhelmingly re-elected him. He also received more than one hundred commemorative canes in the mail, some of which you can see today at the Caroliniana Library in Columbia, South Carolina. This became, of course, a cause célèbre, a brutal example now of the way in which compromise was being ruined, middle realm for moderation, was perhaps being destroyed. Violence had broken out all over Kansas; violence had now broken out in the U.S. Senate. It led many people to a fearful set of expressions; there are literally hundreds of these in the press. This is one from William Cullen Bryant who wrote in The New York Evening Post, after the news broke of the beating of Sumner; I quote him: “A violence reigns in the streets of Washington. Violence has now found its way into the Senate Chamber. Violence lies in wait all over the navigable rivers and all the railways of Missouri to obstruct those who pass from the Free states into Kansas. Violence overhangs the frontiers of that territory like a storm cloud charged with hail and lightening. Violence has carried election after election in that territory. In short, violence is the order of the day. The North is to be pushed to the wall by it, and this plot will succeed if the people of the Free states are as apathetic as the slaveholders are insolent.”

It was news of the beating of Sumner on the floor of the Senate that apparently made John Brown snap and within 48 hours he led what’s called the Pottawattamie Creek Massacre where he murdered five pro-slavery advocates, in cold blood, with broad swords, in the dark of the night. We will return to John Brown’s exploits next week. Now —

Chapter 4. Fremont’s Near-Victory and the Failure of the Lecompton Constitution [00:37:31]

That year was though a presidential election year, and the problem is still just laying there out on the landscape. What is to happen with Kansas-Nebraska? What’s to be done with Bleeding Kansas? What’s to be done with — ? Now in that election of 1856 — this is terribly important just to note for a moment — the Republican Party will mount its first effort at the presidency. And it all but won. This had never happened in American history till then, it’s never happened since, a new third party had come so close to winning. The platform of the Republican Party in 1856 was, if anything, slightly more radical than it had been two years earlier in those congressional elections of 1854. They took a staunch stand about slavery expansion. They took a staunch stand on keeping Kansas free. They announced, directly, that they would, quote, “destroy slavery wherever Federal jurisdiction reigned.” For President they ran John C. Fremont, a young, dashing, romantic, heroic type. He had been one of the great surveyors and explorers of the West. He was already known by the nickname “the Pathfinder,” and he was the first Senator from the state of California. He’s also the son-in-law of Thomas Hart Benton, a very powerful — now Republican — from Missouri. He was well married, well connected and good-looking. They centered their campaign — they borrowed Sumner’s own language — and they centered their campaign on what the Republican Party itself now called “the crime against Kansas.” They were also for tariffs, for the transcontinental railroad across the West and so on.

The American Party, known as the Know-Nothings, by the way, because in their origins — if you didn’t know this about the Know-Nothings — in their origins the American Nativist Party tried to maintain a secrecy — they were kind of a secret society at first — and when asked who they were and how they met and what they were for, the original members would always say they knew nothing. So anytime you hear that term, Know-nNthingism, in American politics, if somebody throws — if Chris Matthews throws that term off at you, showing of his political history knowledge — it usually means nativism, or it means some kind of third party phenomenon. The Know-Nothings nominated that year Millard Fillmore, former president; he’d been the President during the Compromise of 1850. It was a very strange choice. And the Know-Nothings were now in some trouble because of this powerful new Republican coalition which is managing now to draw some of the Nativists into them, because it turns out some Nativists were actually more afraid of the slaveholding oligarchy than they were of this Catholic conspiracy. If they had to choose conspiracies they were a little more frightened of slaveholders than Popes. The Democrats went safe, they chose a largely incompetent James Buchanan to run for President. He was from Pennsylvania — kind of lower north. He was known to have very strong ties to the South and to be what Republicans are already calling a doughface, which meant a Northerner with Southern sympathies. And he had been the United States Ambassador to Britain during the Kansas-Nebraska crisis, so he had never voted on it; he had no position to defend.

It was a highly sectionalized election. Buchanan carried every Slave state except Maryland, and then he carried New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Illinois and California. The Democratic Party was still a national party. Fremont, the Republican, carried the rest of the Free states and New England decisively. Fremont and Fillmore together — and Fillmore, the Nativist candidate, got 850,000 votes; Buchanan about 1.8 million; Fremont about 1.5, 1.6 million — no, 1.3 million. If the Nativist Party had not been in this election and if most of the Nativists had gone to Fremont, the Republican, or even two-thirds of them, Fremont would’ve won the presidency. This anti-slavery northern coalition of free soil advocates came very close. They would even call it, in its wake, a victory within defeat, for such a brand new political party.

Now, out in Kansas they’re still trying to hold elections; one corrupt, fraudulent election after another. Buchanan took office in the spring of ‘57. He appointed a new governor for the Territory of Kansas named Robert J. Walker whose job it was going to — he was a solid Pennsylvania Democrat but nevertheless said, “I will go out and there and enforce popular sovereignty. We’re going to have a true, free ballot in Kansas. Popular sovereignty is still going to work.” The trouble was, popular sovereignty was now dead in the water. It was tainted, at best. In the election of delegates to yet another attempt at a state constitutional writing convention in Kansas in the fall of 1857, the Free Soilers boycotted the election. So at Lecompton, Kansas — and hence the term the Lecompton Constitution — a pro-slavery constitutional convention met, with the Free Soilers all boycotting, and they drafted — no mistake — a pro-slavery constitution. It protected slavery and the right to slave ownership eternally, forever, in the state of Kansas. It excluded from residence in the state of Kansas any free negroes, and it said that it could not be amended, in any way, for seven years.

This process had taken drastic liberties with the idea of popular sovereignty, which as you’ll remember was the idea you’re supposed to have a popular referendum and just let the vote determine whether slavery shall exist. This Governor Walker lost control of the territory, violence continued — terrible violence. And Walker came back to Washington, urged his own president, who had appointed him, to not support this Lecompton Constitution. He said it’s just — it’s not right, it’s just too fraudulent. It was boycotted by half of the people, probably more than half the people, and Buchanan made a fateful decision. He said, “Nope. They’ve had their popular sovereignty, they’ve had their constitutional writing convention. If the Free Soilers chose not to participate that’s the way it goes.” And Buchanan took the Lecompton Constitution to Congress and asked for its approval, of Kansas as a Slave state. Buchanan took huge political risks here and didn’t — for all practical purposes — apparently know what he was doing.

And here we begin to see now the breakup, the tearing apart, now of even the Democratic Party, because none other than Stephen Douglas, father of popular sovereignty, author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the man who had pushed that act through, went to Buchanan and said, “No sir, you cannot support the Lecompton Constitution, it’s a fraudulent constitution. The majority of the people in that territory are probably free soil. You can’t do this.” He broke with his own President, and it would be disastrous for the Democratic Party. The Lecompton Constitution was not accepted by the Congress. Now —

Chapter 5. The Case of Dred Scott and Conclusion [00:47:01]

The Dred Scott decision, which came down that same spring of 1857 in the immediate aftermath of Buchanan’s election — there’s old Dred, not a great picture of him, but it’s the only photograph we have of Dred Scott — the Dred Scott decision also came down in the midst of a major American depression. The so-called Panic of 1857 broke out that very spring. The same time as Buchanan is being inaugurated, the Lecompton Constitution is being forged out in Kansas, the Dred Scott decision is going to be announced, the country is falling into a horrible economic panic. There are many causes of it. I wish I had the time. Actually, I’m going to save the Panic of 1857 because it sets up Lincoln and Douglas in ‘58, ‘59 for me later. But I want to leave you — I’ve got three minutes I think, two minutes, two, three — with this fateful Supreme Court Case; many people like to say the worst Supreme Court decision in all of American history, but I suspect you can get up a debate over that. I think we’ve had a couple of others; I won’t name them.

Who was Dred Scott? This man, who was an old man by the time the Supreme Court ruled on him and put his name forever into American history as a symbol, was born a slave in 1795 in Virginia. He had moved to Missouri in the 1820s with his master, a man — his original master’s name was Peter Blow. He was then later owned by a physician, a doctor named John Emerson. Emerson was an Army surgeon, and Emerson traveled from Missouri all over the upper Midwest and into what then was the Great Plains as an Army surgeon working at Army camps and bases. Dred Scott went with him as his personal servant. They traveled to Illinois and Minnesota. Dred Scott lived with his master from 1834 to 1838, four years, with Dr. Emerson, on various kinds of military bases, especially in Minnesota, a free territory. At one point, Dred Scott tried to buy his own freedom in Minnesota and wasn’t allowed to do it. He married a free black woman named Harriet while he was in Minnesota. Four years residence on free soil, an attempt to buy his own freedom, marries a free black woman. Emerson brought him back to Missouri in 1838 and through an intricate series of events for the next five to six years — not the least of which was Missouri is a very divided place, especially St. Louis — a group of anti-slavery folk gathered around Dred Scott and tried to help him sue for his freedom.

In 1846, they moved his case through local courts, and the first decision — was at a local court — because of his residence and free soil for four years, gave Dred Scott his freedom. That court decided the case in 1850. It was then appealed by the State of Missouri, which was really worried about this case, to the Missouri Supreme Court, and the Missouri Supreme Court, by a decision of two to one, ruled no, no, no. On appeal, Dred Scott’s freedom would be denied — that he did not have the right to his freedom because of residence on free soil. Then, again with the help of an anti-slavery group, and even his own owner, believe it or not, they pushed this appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. Dr. Emerson was gone, Dred was now owned by a man named John Sanford, and hence the case is called Sanford versus Scott.

Scott’s case came before the U.S. Supreme Court as early as 1854 and got on the docket. It would not be decided for 2½ years. Most people didn’t even know this was happening. I’ll leave you here. Only three days after James Buchanan was inaugurated President, having just only narrowly defeated this new Republican coalition, news broke in Washington of something called the Dred Scott decision, and it would electrify the political culture of the country. It will fuel this Republican Party anti-slavery coalition as much as — in some places — as much as the Kansas Nebraska act ever had, and it will inspire Abraham Lincoln to run for the senate. That’s it for now.

[end of transcript]

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