I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood.
–John Brown, from a note written prior to his execution
Increasingly, anti-slavery crusaders in the North and pro-slavery apologists in the South had but one conviction in common, a hard and absolute belief in the justice of their cause. Each party viewed that justice with uncompromising clarity; each failed to see, if not the justice, at least the complexity of the other’s cause. Political and moral zeal hammered on real sectional differences to forge terribly unreal distortions. Earnest partisans, North and South, engaged in a propaganda war that would help push the nation toward a shooting war. In the North the American Anti-Slavery Almanac, for example, published a woodcut that professed to illustrate the character of Southern life. Its ghastly centerpiece is a gallows tree from which hang four victims of a lynch mob. Around the tree, a white man lashes a black child, two duellists take aim with pistols, a drunken crowd cheers a cock fight, two white men brawl with their fists, two more with daggers, and a drunken man slumps in a stupor at a card game. This scene, the Almanac would have its readers believe, was an authentic picture of the brutal and vicious Southland.
In 1852 Harriet Beecher Stowe published a sentimental novel called Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly. Although Mrs. Stowe’s entire first-hand experience of the South was a visit of several days, her novel made vivid for Northern readers the cruelties of the slave system. It had an electric effect on Northern anti-slavery sentiment, selling more volumes than the Bible, 300,000 copies in the United States and a million and a half abroad in its first year. It was dramatized for the stage, translated, adapted, even turned into a parlor game. Portraying Southern life as a drama of depraved whites and their black victims, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the single most widely disseminated view of slavery and the South. Other novels, less well known, aimed at the same end, showing that slavery violated the most fundamental of institutions, the Christian family. Such novels as Our World; or the Slaveholder’s Daughter, published in 1855, dramatized the lusts of the planter gentlemen for their black bondwomen and traced the destructive effects of their licentiousness on both black and white families. In short, in the decade before the coming of the war, Northern anti-slavery partisans had created in the press, the lecture hall, and the pulpit a Gothic portrait of Southern life as unrelievedly backward, brutal, and ignorant.
An equal and opposite reaction took place in the South. Spurred by what they considered Northern libels, Southerners responded in kind. This propaganda counter-offensive had many expressions and tones, but at the heart of it was the notion that the North was an inferior civilization, peopled by “mudsills, greasy mechanics, shopkeepers, and the undigested emigrant trash of Europe.” Just as abolitionist propaganda had reduced Southern people to stereotypes (the despotic planter and the hapless poor white, for example), pro-slavery propaganda spun out its stereotypes of Yankees: the grasping capitalist, the factory wage-slave, the deceitful shopkeeper, the deranged reformer. An unknown artist about mid-century drew a Hogarthian cartoon of Yankee civilization in which he lampooned drunken immigrants, real-estate con-men, free-love societies, patent-medicine quacks, stock manipulators, and fanatical revivalists and reformers. Also satirized was a militia company bumbling through drill, the implication being that the Yankee was a kind of fool and a distinctly un-military fool at that. And if he weren’t a fool, then he was a swindler. A pamphlet published in 1832 as Memoirs of a Nullifier by Himself imagined the author’s journey to hell. There he witnesses a typical Yankee before the Devil’s court shamelessly rehearsing his long catalogue of swindles, the “cutest tricks” learned at his father’s knee. They included “stealing an old grindstone, smearing it over with butter, and then selling it as cheese.” Even the Devil was appalled.
Thus, the debate over slavery had also become a debate about the kind of society Americans wanted–about the kind of people Americans wanted to be. As the nation lurched blindly toward war, the rhetoric of the debate grew apocalyptic. A South Carolinian, J. H. Thornwell, argued that the antagonists in the struggle “are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders–they are atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, Jacobins on one side, and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. In one word, the world is on the battle-ground. Christianity and atheism the combatants, and the progress of humanity the stake.” In 1860 it seems no Southerner was willing to step forward and say that such a reduction of Northern society was at the very least unreasonable and extreme. Nor was it surprising really, for the gross reduction of Southern life by the abolitionist press was equally fanatical. About the same time the Nullifier imagined the Yankee in hell, Theodore Weld was compiling and publishing American Slavery As It Is. This collection of so-called “Witnesses” was essentially a long recital of whippings, beatings, brandings, ear-croppings, rapes, and lynchings. As real economic, cultural, and political differences came increasingly into conflict in the last decade of peace, neither party could find in the other grounds for anything like reasonable discourse.
After 1850 events seemed to take on a dynamism of their own as political leaders were less and less able to control the energies generated by the debate over the compromise. The Fugitive Slave Act, requiring the free states to retain and return runaway slaves, was particularly provocative. It infuriated equally Northerners who were supposed to enforce its provisions and Southerners who saw its provisions everywhere thwarted. Many in the North, their views shaped by a generation of abolitionist agitation, felt that the act had in effect made them conspirators in what they believed to be a monstrous crime. So intense was resentment of the act that the most extreme abolition voices began calling for dissolution of the Union with slave holders. Journalist and social reformer William Lloyd Garrison burned the Constitution in public, vilifying its protection of slavery as “a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” In Chicago the Common Council pronounced that any Congressman who supported the act was “fit only to be ranked with Benedict Arnold and Judas Iscariot.” Just about this time, in 1852, Mrs. Stowe’s immensely popular Uncle Tom’s Cabin arrived on the scene. One of its most melodramatic scenes was the remorseless pursuit of the helpless runaways. The Fugitive Slave Act was just one piece of a compromise that satisfied no one and infuriated everyone.
Two years later the man most responsible for the final form of the 1850 Compromise, Stephen A. Douglas, made another attempt to resolve the problem of slavery in the territories. Douglas, an intensely hard-working and hard-drinking Illinois Democrat, was himself essentially indifferent to slavery as a moral issue. In 1854 he wanted two things chiefly: one, to keep the Northern and Southern wings of his party together, and two, to gain a northern route for the proposed transcontinental railroad. Douglas argued for a route running from Chicago to the sea; the Southern counter-argument urged a route running across Texas and New Mexico to the sea. It was a high stakes game and Douglas played his high card, “popular sovereignty.” The terms of popular sovereignty as expressed in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 first repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820 and then said that the people of a territory, not Congress, would decide whether a state would be slave or free at the time of its admission to the Union. Although he would not live to see its achievement, Douglas eventually got his railroad. The country, meanwhile, got Bleeding Kansas.
The battle fought with violent words in Congress for a generation would now be fought with violent deeds on the Kansas prairie. Anti-slavery Midwesterners and pro-slavery Missourians made their way to Kansas to put popular sovereignty to the test. In 1854 the New England Emigrant Aid Company was established to encourage free-soil settlement. In Brooklyn, New York, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher supposed that there might be times when a rifle was more instrumental to God’s will than a Bible. New Englanders concluded that this was such a time and shipped to Kansas crates of Sharps rifles, soon to be known as “Beecher’s Bibles.” The slave-holding interest was also vividly aware of how crucial the contest was. Senator David Atchison of Missouri was convinced that Southerners were “playing for a mighty stake…. If we win we carry slavery to the Pacific Ocean, if we fail we lose Missouri, Arkansas, Texas and all the territories.” He went further about the means of the struggle, stating “We will be compelled to shoot, burn & hang.” For Kansas the years ahead were full of shooting, burning, and hanging, as free-soilers and slave-soilers worked their will. No one paid much attention to the fact that the idea of popular sovereignty itself was one of the first victims. Frontier elections, always rough and tumble affairs, degenerated into confusion just a short step from anarchy itself. Elections were held, and their results immediately denounced as fraudulent by the losers. Ultimately, a free-soil convention at Topeka produced a free-state constitution while a slave-soil convention at Lecompton produced a slave-state constitution. As these contradictory measures were being hammered out, the city of Lawrence was attacked and burned by Missouri Border Ruffians. The one sure consequence of popular sovereignty in Kansas was violence which begot violence. Believing–wrongly, as it turned out–that five anti-slavery men had been killed in Lawrence, an obscure, determined, perhaps insane abolitionist, John Brown, led a group of seven followers in reprisal. Stalking up to a settlement on Pottowattamie Creek in the dark, Brown and his band hacked five men to death with second-hand swords. In the next three months, more than 200 men on both sides of the struggle were killed.
The reverberations of this violence on the prairie were felt keenly in Washington. In fact, the day before Lawrence was attacked, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, a man righteous with the confidence that he was without sin, rose to speak to the issue of the “The Crime Against Kansas.” He overreached even the expansive rhetoric of the period in his address, speaking for the better part of two days. His twin themes were slavery and sexual depravity, and in his mind they were one and the same. “Murderous robbers from Missouri, hirelings picked from the drunken spew of an uneasy civilization” had violated a “virgin territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery.” Sumner spread his obloquy generally upon the South and particularly on the head of Senator Andrew P. Butler of South Carolina. Butler, in Sumner’s eyes, “had chosen a mistress… the harlot Slavery.” Two days later Butler’s cousin, a Congressman from South Carolina, Preston Brooks, took issue with what he called the “libel” on both his native state and his cousin. With a gold-headed walking cane, he beat Sumner into unconsciousness on the floor of the Senate. The act itself was sufficiently shocking to Northern sentiment, but the Southern response was even more so. Brooks–now “Bully” Brooks–was lionized throughout the South. Admirers sent him new canes by the score inscribed with such counsel as “Use Knock-Down Arguments” and “Hit Him Again.” Moderates on both sides of the aisle disappeared as wills hardened into terrible resolve.
With violence on the Kansas prairie and the floor of the Senate for a backdrop, the battle over slavery shifted in the following year to a new field, the Supreme Court of the United States. Back in 1846 a slave, Dred Scott, had sued for his freedom in a Missouri court. Scott had been taken by his master, army surgeon John Emerson, to posts in Illinois and in what is now Minnesota–a free-state and a free territory. Residence on free soil, Scott argued, made him a free man. In 1857 the case reached the high court, which hoped to settle finally the slavery question. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, though old and in ill-health, wrote a bold, sweeping opinion for the majority. Taney was a Southerner not much in sympathy with slavery itself. He had in fact emancipated his own slaves. But he was convinced, as he confided privately, that the integrity of the South was “organically linked to the peculiar institution and unpreservable without it.” Writing for the majority, Taney concluded that Dred Scott was a slave, not a citizen, and hence had no legal right to sue in the first place. Moreover, in the view of the framers, slaves and their descendants were “beings of inferior order and altogether unfit to associate with the white race… so far inferior that they had no rights which a white man was bound to respect.” Finally, because the Constitution recognized property in slaves, Congress had no legal power to prohibit slavery in the territories as it had in the Missouri Compromise. It looked as if in one blow nearly four decades of compromise had come crashing down. With five Southern justices on the bench, Northern opinion was all the more convinced of the reality of a slave-power conspiracy.
As the nation was divided on the slavery issue, now the branches of government appeared divided also. Congress in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, as in the Missouri Compromise before it, had exercised its power to fix the status of slavery in the territories, but the highest judicial power in the land declared in Dred Scott that Congress had no such power. In 1858 two men from Illinois would debate the problem of a house divided. That summer Senator Douglas, five-feet, four-inches of Little Giant, was defending his seat against a long-legged Springfield lawyer and former Congressman, Abraham Lincoln, representing the newly formed Republican Party. They met in seven debates, and in the second, at Freeport, Lincoln asked Douglas a momentous question: Can the people of a territory lawfully prohibit slavery within its borders? It was an unflinching question and Douglas flinched ever so slightly. Regardless of the legal status of slavery, he reasoned, “slavery cannot exist a day or an hour anywhere, unless it is supported by local police regulations.” Both Northerners and Southerners quickly grasped the implications of Douglas’ answer; it said that slavery might be prohibited in the territories and thus be put, in Lincoln’s words, “in the course of ultimate extinction.” Douglas was returned to the Senate, but the debate helped send obscure, ambitious Abe Lincoln onto the national stage.
Between 1858 and the presidential election of 1860 Douglas’s Democratic Party would come apart at its sectional seams and another body politic would meet to elect a commander-in-chief of its own. In May of 1858 while Lincoln and Douglas were preparing for their debates, John Brown, lately of Kansas, met secretly in Canada with a handful of like-minded men, white and black. Less than 50 “delegates” voted to frame a “provisional constitution” for a new republic of liberated slaves to be established in the mountains of western Virginia. John Brown would serve as the commander-in-chief of the army of the new republic. From this distance it is difficult to imagine precisely what Brown actually hoped to achieve in Virginia. By the summer of 1859 he had gathered together an army of just five black men and seventeen whites, three of whom were his sons, on a farm in Maryland. He appealed to Frederick Douglass to help recruit blacks to his cause, but when Douglass learned that Brown planned to seize the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, he thought the plan frankly suicidal and refused to have any part in it. It may be that a martyr’s death was the sum of all Brown sought. In mid-October he marched toward Harper’s Ferry; he carried no rations, planned no route of retreat, had no clear idea of what he would do when he seized the arsenal. But he was going to strike a blow. “Without shedding of blood there is no remission of sin,” he was fond of quoting from the Book of Hebrews. In the dark of night on October 16, he and his band attacked the arsenal and began the shedding of blood. The first man killed in the crusade to liberate slaves was a free black man looking for the night watchman.
By the following afternoon Brown and a handful of his band were making a last stand in a fire-engine house. A company of Marines commanded by Colonel Robert E. Lee and Lieutenant J. E. B. Stuart battered down the door and stormed the engine house. Brown was wounded slightly in the attack but was fit to stand trial in nearby Charlestown, Virginia. In light of the intense outrage his raid evoked, he was given, as he admitted himself, a full and fair trail. He was found guilty of murder, treason, and inciting insurrection, and sentenced to hang on December 2, 1859. “Weird John Brown, the meteor of the war,” as Herman Melville called him, would have his martyrdom. Before he went to the gallows he would have one last opportunity to play the prophet as well, like the Old Testament warriors he emulated. “I, John Brown,” he wrote from his cell, “am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with Blood.”
As with most martyrs perhaps, the ghost of John Brown was more dangerous than the man alive. Harper’s Ferry touched something deep and turbulent in the imaginations of men and women on both sides of the Mason-Dixon line. In the North he was apotheosized by men such as Longfellow, Emerson, William Cullen Bryant, and Horace Greeley. There he was both saint and sacrificial victim who would, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, make the “gallows as glorious as the cross.” In the South he was a madman who had tried to realize the Southern nightmare, slave insurrection. In their imaginations the shade of John Brown stalked with the shades of Nat Turner and Denmark Vesey, black insurrectionists earlier in the century. To Southerners Brown’s act itself was appalling enough, but even more so was the way Northerners embraced and celebrated Brown’s attempt to incite slaves, as Southerners believed, to rape and murder. The apotheosis of Brown told Southerners, finally and decisively, what they had long suspected, that the North was determined to destroy slavery and, with it, the South. Thus, there would be no more compromise with Northern power and “Northern insolence.” Southern security lay in secession from the old Union.
Preceding the breakup of the old Union, however, was the breakup of the old party system. In the spring of 1860 the Democrats met in Charleston, South Carolina, to draft a platform and choose a candidate. In calmer times their likeliest candidate would have been Stephen A. Douglas, but calmer times had passed with John Brown. When Southern Democrats passed a pro-slavery platform, Northern Democrats defeated it. When the platform failed, delegates from the Deep South seceded from the party. Two days and 57 ballots later, those that remained adjourned in frustration. Two months later the remnant met again, this time in Baltimore. Some of the original seceders asked to be recognized and were refused. Their sympathizers in turn seceded, walked across town, and chose a nominee of their own, John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky. In effect, the Democratic party had two candidates, the Southern Democrat Breckinridge and the Northern Democrat Douglas who had been finally nominated by what remained of his hopelessly divided party. At the same time, to confuse matters further, a splinter group of former Whigs and nativist Know-Nothings threw another hat into the ring, John Bell of Tennesee, representing the newly formed Constitutional Union Party. In such tumultuous times the Republicans had a tumult of their own in Chicago. Passing over their front-runner, William Seward, they chose the man who had battled Douglas so capably in Illinois in 1858, Abraham Lincoln. On the sixth of November the nation cast its ballots. Although in the four-way race Lincoln won just 40 percent of the popular vote, the Electoral College soon after confirmed his election: 180 votes for Lincoln, 72 for Breckinridge, 39 for Bell, and 12 for Douglas. Ominously, but not unexpectedly, Lincoln did not carry a single slave state. Southerners had determined to defeat Douglas who, they believed, had betrayed them at Freeport in the debates of 1858. They succeeded. But in doing so, they served to put in the White House the one man the South could not endure, the “black Republican,” Abraham Lincoln.
The Richmond Whig spoke for many Southerners: “The election of Lincoln is undoubtedly the greatest evil that has ever befallen this country. But the mischief is done, and the only relief for the American people is to… prepare for a hurricane.” It was only fitting that the hurricane would blow out of South Carolina, which had cultivated a doctrine of states’ rights and secession as far back as the Nullification Crisis of 1832. On December 20, 1860, South Carolina in convention ratified “An Ordinance to dissolve the Union between the State of South Carolina and other States united with her under the compact entitled ‘The Constitution of the United States of America.'” By such means, South Carolina now presumed to be an independent commonwealth. Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas–all of the Deep South–followed her out of the Union. The “revolution of 1860,” the Charleston Mercury announced, “has been initiated.” Before Lincoln would even reach Washington, a Southern Confederacy was framing a constitution and electing a president. In fact, proud, unbending Jefferson Davis would take the oath of office two full weeks before Lincoln. On March 4, 1861, Lincoln stood beneath the unfinished Capital dome and swore “to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States.” In his address he made a final appeal for peace and union: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break the bonds of our affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearth-stone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” What the nation heard, however, were not the mystic chords of memory but a firebell in the night down in Charleston harbor.