By Gary W. Gallagher, University of Virginia
The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in May of 1854 had enormous consequences for the national political parties, and for sectional relations to be more broadly defined. It precipitated a political crisis that brought the death to one national party—the already-weak Whigs—and the realignment of the other—the Democrats—into a very strongly pro-southern party.
Divide within Parties
The Act played havoc with the already reeling Whig Party. Every northern Whig in Congress voted against it, and there was not much chance afterward that the Whigs would do well in the South.
As for the Democrats, after the Kansas-Nebraska Act, many of them, especially the Free-Soilers, also began to look for a new political home. The Democratic Party seemed to many in the North to be absolutely controlled by slaveholding interests in the South, and that was not a party that many white northerners could be comfortable in.
Religious Morality Mixed with Politics
Through the rest of the 1850s, white northerners and southerners believed that there were great differences between the sections, and they behaved accordingly. From religious pulpits North and South, though, sermons were preached that made the gulf between the sections wider.
Sermons commented on the politics of the day, and turned political questions such as slavery in the territories into moral issues.
This mixing of politics and religious morality made for a very volatile message, and resulted in actions such as those taken by some northern congregations, to ship guns to antislavery men in Kansas. They were called “Beecher’s Bibles” at the time, after Henry Ward Beecher, who had urged his congregation to give money to help arm the antislavery elements in Kansas. In short, the major religious institutions also became part of the sectional problem, rather than a potential solution to it.
This is a transcript from the video series A History of the United States, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, Wondrium.
A Bleeding Kansas
The “bleeding Kansas”, as it was called, placed sectional animosities on grim display. Stephen Douglas had hoped to finesse the question of extending slavery into the territories by allowing residents to decide for themselves whether to accept the institution. This effort on his part had failed badly.
Far from pushing the question of slavery out of the national spotlight, it had pushed this question in Kansas into the absolutely most glaring spotlight possible. Kansas riveted attention for much of the mid- to late part of the 1850s.
Anti-extensionists in the North, and pro-extensionists in the South squared off against one another in Kansas, and not just rhetorically, they moved into Kansas and began killing each other. “Border ruffians”, as proslavery elements from Missouri who went into Kansas were called, took up the fight against antislavery zealots in the territory of Kansas, and a number of lives were lost from the mid-1850s, toward the end of the decade. President Franklin Pierce weighed in on the side of the proslavery forces in Kansas.
Charles Sumner’s Speech
Others in Congress took very strong stands against what was happening in Kansas, including Senator Charles Sumner, an abolitionist senator from Massachusetts, who, in May 1856, delivered a powerful speech titled “The Crime against Kansas”, in which he excoriated the slaveholding South and proslavery elements in the North for what was happening in the territory of Kansas.
The vast majority of settlers who moved into Kansas were antislavery. They wanted Kansas to be a free state. Charles Sumner said that Kansas should be allowed to go down the path toward freedom.
Caning of Charles Sumner
In response to Sumner’s speech, a representative from South Carolina named Preston Brooks waited until the Senate had adjourned on May 22, 1856, and walked into the Senate while Charles Sumner was sitting at his desk, and savagely beat Sumner with a small cane, beat him over the head.
Sumner was a powerful man. In the midst of the beating, he used all his strength to lift himself up. The old Senate desks were bolted to the floor, and Sumner literally ripped his desk out of the floor and then collapsed in a bloody mess on the floor of the Senate.
He was so severely injured that he didn’t return to the Senate for three years, and the state of Massachusetts, as a gesture, left that Senate seat empty. For three years, Charles Sumner’s empty seat in the Senate stood as testimony, said antislavery people in the North, to the savagery of southern slaveholders, “This is how they react to problems; they beat someone into insensibility.”
Many in the South lauded what Preston Brooks had done. It was a measure of how far apart the sections had become. In 1857, a constitution was passed in Kansas, called the Lecompton Constitution, it was a bogus constitution.
Only about 20 percent voted for it, and Free-Soil people boycotted it. It was a proslavery constitution that President James Buchanan supported. Stephen Douglas opposed it. He said it frustrated the popular will, that popular sovereignty would call for Buchanan’s support for admission of Kansas as a free state under this constitution.
This marked him as a thoroughly pro-southern Democrat. People in the North opposed to slavery in the territories said, “This is just more evidence of the degree to which the proslavery forces in the South, the slave power conspiracy, has taken hold of our government. Our president is supporting this obviously flawed, this obviously bogus constitution in Kansas.” The ongoing debate about, and violence in Kansas, contributed mightily to other sectional controversies in the late 1850s.
Common Questions about the Aftermath of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854
The Kansas-Nebraska Act precipitated a political crisis that brought the death to one national party—the already-weak Whigs—and the realignment of the other—the Democrats—into a very strongly pro-southern party.
Charles Sumner’s powerful speech was titled “The Crime Against Kansas”.
In response to Charles Sumner’s speech, a representative from South Carolina named Preston Brooks waited until the Senate had adjourned on May 22, 1856, and walked into the Senate while Charles Sumner was sitting at his desk, and savagely beat Sumner with a small cane, beat him over the head. Many in the South lauded what Preston Brooks had done.