Review of the Kansas Usurpation

“It was scarcely opened, before it became, as might have been expected, the battleground for the opposing civilizations of the Union, to renew and fight out their long quarrel upon. From every quarter of the land settlers rushed thither, to take part in the wager of battle.”

Library of Congress

If it had been the avowed intention of the dominant party in this country to disgust the people by a long and systematic course of wrong-doing, — if it had wished to prove that it was indissolubly wedded to injustice, inconsistency, and error, it could not have chosen a better method of doing so than it has actually pursued, in the entire management of the Kansas question. From the beginning to the end, that has been both a blunder and a crime. Nothing more atrocious, — nothing more perverse, — nothing more foolish, as a matter of policy, — and we might add, but for the seriousness of the subject, nothing more ludicrous, — has occurred in our history, than the attempt, which has now been persisted in for several years, to force the evils of Slavery upon a people who cannot and will not endure them.

We say, to force the evils of slavery upon an unwilling people, — because such has been and is the only end of this protracted endeavor. The authors of the scheme have scarcely shown the ordinary cunning of rogues, which conceals its ulterior purposes. Disdaining the advice of Mrs. Peachum to her daughter Polly, to be “somewhat nice” in her deviations from virtue, they have advanced bravely and flagrantly to their nefarious object. They have been reckless, defiant, aggressive; but, unfortunately for them, they have not been sagacious. The thin disguise of principle under which they masked their designs at the outset—as it were a bit of oiled paper—was soon torn away; the plot betrayed its inherent wickedness from step to step; the instruments selected to execute it have one after another abandoned the task, as quite impracticable for any honest mortal; and now these whilom advocates of Popular Sovereignty stand exposed to the scorn and derision of the country, as nothing less than what their opponents all along declared them to be, — the sworn champions of Slavery-Extension. All the movements and changes of their external policy find their explication in the single phrase, the actual and the political advancement of the interests of Slavery.

It is humiliating to an American citizen to cast his eyes back, even for a moment, to the history of this Kansas plot, — humiliating in many ways; but in none more so than in the revelation it makes of the depth and extent of party-servility in the Northern mind. Throughout the proceedings of the “Democracy” towards the unhappy settlers of Kansas, it is difficult to place the finger on a single act of large, just, or generous policy; every step in it appears to have developed some new outrage or some new fraud; and yet, every step in it has also elicited new shouts of approval from the echoing lieges and bondmen of “the Party.” We should willingly, therefore, turn away from the theme, but that we believe the end is not yet come; a review of its past may instruct us as to its future. For it is not always true, as Coleridge says, that experience, like the stern-lights of a ship, illuminates only the track it has left; the lights may be hung upon the bows, and the spectator be enabled to discern, by means of them, no less, the way in which it is going.

A “Territory,” viewed in connection with the political system of the United States, must be confessed to be a somewhat erratic and embarrassing member. Few or no specific provisions are made for it in the Organic Law, which applies primarily, and quite exclusively, to “States.” The word is mentioned there but once, — in the clause empowering Congress to “make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States,” — and here it occurs in a somewhat doubtful sense. Judging by the mere letter or obvious import of the Constitution, the right of acquiring and governing territory would seem to be a casus omissus, or a power overlooked. Accordingly, Mr. Webster went so far as to assert that the framers of it never contemplated its extension beyond the original limits of the country; but this we can scarcely believe of men so far-seeing and sagacious. It were a better opinion, which Mr. Benton has recently urged, that the acquisition and control of territories are necessary incidents of the sovereign and proprietary character of the government created by the Constitution.1 But be this as it may, whatever the theoretic origin of the right to acquire territory, — whatever the origin of the right to govern it, — whether the former be derived from the war-making power, which implies conquest, or from the treaty-making power, which implies purchase, — and whether the latter be derived from an express grant or is involved as necessary to the execution of other grants, both questions were definitively settled by long and universally accepted practice. Under the actual legislation of Congress, running over a period of sixty years, — a legislation sanctioned by all administrations, by all departments of the government, by all the authorities of the individual States, by all statesmen of all parties, and by frequent popular recognitions, — prescription has taken the force of law, and that which might once be theoretically doubtful became forever practically valid and legitimate.

It was not till within the last few years that the right of Congress over the Territories was questioned. Certain classes of politicians then discovered that the whole of our past statesmanship had been a mistake, and that the time had come to propound a new doctrine. No! they said, it is not Congress, not the Federal Government, which is entitled to govern the Territories, but the Territories themselves, — which means the handful of their original occupants. The real sovereignty resides in the squatters, and Squatter Sovereignty is the charm which dispels all difficulties. Alas! it was rather like the ingredients mingled by Macbeth’s bags, only “a charm of powerful trouble.” Overlooking the fact that the Territories were Territories precisely because they were not States, this absurd theory proposed to confer the highest character of an organized political existence upon a society wholly inchoate. As land, the Territories were the property of the United States, to be disposed of and regulated by the will of Congress; as collections of men, they were yet immature communities, having in reality no social being, and in that light also wisely and benevolently subjected to the will of Congress; but Squatter Sovereignty elevated them, willy nilly, to an independent self-subsistence. They were declared full-formed and fledged before they were out of the shell. A mere conglomeration of emigrants, Indian traders, and half-breeds was invested with all the functions of a mature and ripened civilization. Long ere there were people enough in any Territory to furnish the officers of a regular government, — before they possessed any of the apparatus of courthouses, jails, legislative chambers, etc., essential to a regular government, — before they lived near enough to each other, in fact, to constitute a respectable town-meeting, — before they could pay the expenses or gather the means of their own defence from the Indians, these wonderful entities were held to be endowed with the right of entering into the most complicated relations and of forming the most important institutions for themselves, — and not only for themselves, but for their posterity.

This puerile dogma was asserted ostensibly in the interest of Slavery, in order to get rid of the power of Congress over that subject; but the real source of it was the cowardice of those invertebrate and timorous politicians who desired to evade the responsibility of expressing opinions concerning this power. General Cass was the putative father of it, and it might well have come from one of his pliancy and calibre; but as Slavery itself embodied in the person of Calhoun, scouted the feeble bantling, there was soon no one so mean as to confess the paternity. Abandoned of its begetters, Squatter Sovereignty wandered the streets like a squalid and orphaned outcast, begging anybody and everybody to take it in, and finding no creditable welcome anywhere.

Calhoun and his friends, no less anxious than Cass and his friends to rescue Slavery from the discretion of Congress, though for other reasons, contrived to find a more respectable excuse for such a policy. As California and New Mexico—both free soil—had lately been acquired, they contended that the moment new territories attached to the United States, the same moment the Constitution attached to them; and inasmuch as the Constitution guarantied the existence of Slavery, presto, Slavery must he regarded as existing under it in the Territories! This, we say, was more respectable ground than Squatter Sovereignty, because it met the question more fairly in the face; yet, considered either as dialectics or history, it was not one whit less absurd. We do not wonder that Webster, and all the other sound lawyers of the nation, heard such an announcement of Constitutional hermeneutics with utter surprise and astonishment It was enough to astound even the veriest tyro in the law. The Constitution—and especially by all the premises of the State-Rights school—is a mere compact between the States; it confers no powers but delegated and enumerated powers, and such as are indispensable to the execution of these; and nowhere is there a clause or letter in it extending its operation beyond the States. Even in respect to acknowledged powers, these are inoperative until carried into effect by a special act of Congress; they have no vitality in themselves, — they are only dead provisions or forms till Congress has breathed into them the breath of life; and thence to argue that of their own energy they may leap into or embrace the Territories is to argue that a corpse may on its own motion rise and walk.

But granting this caoutchouc property, this migratory power, in the Constitution, the inference that it would take Slavery with it is a still more monstrous error than the original premises. Slavery as such is not recognized or guarantied by the Federal Constitution. Whatever the five slave-holding judges of the Supreme Court may seek to maintain, they cannot upset the universal logic of the law, nor extinguish the fundamental principles of our political system. Slavery exists only by the local or municipal usage of the States in which it exists; it is there universally defined as a right of property in man; whereas the Constitution of the United States, in all its prohibitions and provisions, designates and acts upon human beings only as persons. Whatever their characters or relations under the laws of the States, they are, under the Federal Constitution, MEN. Nowhere in that immortal paper is there an iota or tittle which gives countenance to the idea that human beings may he held as property. It speaks of “persons held to service or labor,” as apprentices, for instance, — and of persons other than free, i. e. not politically citizens, as Indians and some negroes; but it does not speak of Slaves or of Slavery; on the contrary, in every part, it legislates for men solely as men. The laws of each State, and the relations of the various inhabitants of each State, is of course recognizes as valid within each State; but it recognizes them as resting exclusively on the municipal authority of the State, and not on its own authority. Against nothing did the framers of the Constitution more strenuously contend than against the admission of any phrase sanctioning the tenure of man as property. They refused even to allow of the use of the word servitude, so much did they hate the thing; and Madison expressed their almost unanimous sentiment when he exclaimed, “We intend this Constitution to be THE GREAT CHARTER OF HUMAN LIBERTY to the unborn millions who shall yet enjoy its protection, and who should not see that such an institution as Slavery was ever known in our midst.” In that spirit was the instrument framed, and in that spirit was it administered, while its framers lived.

Nevertheless, under the twofold pretence we have cited, — the one reconciling the conscience with the cowardice of the North, and the other conceding the arrogant pretensions of the South, — the negation of the power of the central government over Slavery was carried into effect. By a legislative hocus-pocus, known as the Compromise Measures of 1850, Congress, contrary to the uniform tendency of bodies entrusted with a discretion, vacated instead of enlarging its powers. Its sovereign function of territorial legislation was abdicated, in favor of that wretched and ragged pretender, Squatter Sovereignty; and silly or misguided people everywhere, who professed to regard as dangerous that political excitement and agitation which are the life of republics, hailed the accession of King Log as a glorious triumph of legitimacy. In the remanding of a delicate question from the central to a local jurisdiction, in the conversion of a general into a topical inflammation, they affected to see an end of the difficulty, a cure to the disease. But no expectation could have been less wise. It was a transfer, and a possible postponement, but not a settlement of the trouble. Had they looked deeper, they would have discerned that the dispute in regard to Slavery is involved in the very structure of our government, which links two incompatible civilizations under the same head, which compels a struggle for political power between the diverse elements by the terms and conditions of their union, and which, if the contest is suppressed at one time or place, forces it to break out at another, and will force it to break out incessantly, until either Freedom or Slavery has achieved a decisive triumph.

The principle of the non-interference of Congress with the Territories once secured, there yet stood in the way of its universal application the time-honored agreement called the Missouri Compromise. Down to the year 1820, Congress had legislated to keep Slavery out of the Territories; but at that disastrous era, a weak dread of civil convulsion led to the surrender of a single State (Missouri) to this evil, — under a solemn stipulation and warrant, however, that it should never again be introduced north of a certain line. Originating with the Slave-holders, and sustained by the Slave-holders, this compact was sacredly respected by them for thirty-three years; it was respected until they had got out of it all the advantages they could, and until Freedom was about to reap her advantages, — when they began to denounce it as unconstitutional and void. A Northern Senator—whose conduct then we shall not characterize, as he seems now to be growing weary of the hard service into which he entered—was made the instrument of its overthrow. That hallowed landmark, which had lifted its awful front against the spread of Slavery for more than an entire generation, was obliterated by a quibble, and the morning sun of the 22d of May, 1854, rose for the last time “on the guarantied and certain liberties of all the unsettled and unorganized region of the American Continent.” Everything there was of honor, of justice, of the love of truth and liberty, in the heart of the nation, was smitten by this painful blow; the common sense of security felt the wound the consoling consciousness that the faith of men might he relied upon was removed by it; and to the general imagination, in fact, it seemed as if some mighty charm, which had stayed the issue of untold calamities, were suddenly and wantonly broken.

Thus, after the Constitution had been perverted in its fundamental character, — after Congress had been despoiled of one of its most important functions, — after a compact, made sacred by the faith, the feelings, and the hopes of the third of a century, was torn in pieces, — the road was clear for the organization of the Kansas and Nebraska Territories. It was given out, amid jubilations which could not have been louder, if they had been the spontaneous greetings of some real triumph of principle, that henceforth and forever the inhabitants of the Territories would he called to determine their “domestic institutions” for themselves. Under this theory, and amid these shouts, Kansas was opened for settlement; and it was scarcely opened, before it became, as might have been expected, the battleground for the opposing civilizations of the Union, to renew and fight out their long quarrel upon. From every quarter of the land settlers rushed thither, to take part in the wager of battle. They rushed thither, as individuals and as associations, as Yankees and as Corn-crackers, as Blue Lodges and as Emigrant Aid Societies; and most of them went, not only as it was their right, but as it was their duty to do. Congress had invited them in; it had abandoned legitimate legislation in order to substitute for it a scramble between the first comers; and it had said to every man who knew that Slavery was more than a simple local interest, that it was in fact an element of the general political power, “Come and decide the issue here!”

Whatever the consequences, therefore, the cowardly action of Congress was the original cause. But what were the consequences? First, a protracted anarchy and civil war among the several classes of emigrants; — second, a murderous invasion of the Territory by the borderers of a neighboring State, for the purpose of carrying the elections against the bonâ-fide settlers; — third, the establishment of a system of terrorism, in which outrages having scarcely a parallel on this continent were committed, with a view to suppress all protest against the illegality of those elections, and to drive out settlers of a particular class; — fourth, the commission of a spurious legislative assembly, in the enforced absence of protests against the illegal returns of votes; — fifth, the enactment of a series of laws for the government of the Territory, the most tyrannical and bloody ever devised for freemen, — laws which aimed a fatal blow at the four corner-stones of a free commonwealth, — freedom of speech, of the press, of the jury, and of suffrage; — sixth, the recognition of Slavery as an existing fact, and the denunciation of penalties, as for felony, against every attempt to question it in word or deed; — and, finally, the dismissal of the Territorial Governor, (Reeder,) who had exhibited some signs of self-respect and conscience in resisting these wicked schemes, and who was compelled to fly the Territory in disguise, under a double menace of public prosecution and private assassination.

These were the scenes of the first act, in a drama then commenced; and those of the next were not unlike. A second Governor (Shannon) having been procured, — a Governor chosen with a double fitness to the use, — on the ground of his sympathy with whatever was vulgar in border-ruffian habits and with whatever was obsequious in Presidential policy, — the deliberate game of forcing the settlers to submit to the infamous usurpation of the Missourians was opened. But, thank heaven! those brave and hardy pioneers would not submit! There was enough of the blood of the Puritans and of the Revolutionary Sires coursing in their veins, to make them feel that submission, under such circumstances, would have been a base betrayal of liberty, a surrender of honor, and a sacrifice of every honest sentiment of justice and self-respect. “Come,” they said to the marauders, — “come, hack this flesh from our limbs, and scatter these bones to bleach with those of so many of our friends and brothers, already strewn upon the unshorn and desolate fields, — but do not ask us to submit to wrongs so daring or to frauds so foul!” The marauders took them at their word, and hewed and hacked them with shameless cruelty; yet, with a singular forbearance, the friends of freedom did not hastily resent the outrages with which they had been visited. They loved freedom, but they loved law too; and they proceeded in a legal and peaceful spirit to procure the redress of their grievances, — in the first place by an appeal to Congress, and in the second, by the organization of a State government of their own. Both of these methods they had an indisputable right to adopt; for the first is guarantied to every citizen, even the meanest, — and the second, though informal, was not illegal, and had, time and again, been sanctioned by the highest political tribunals of the land.

Congress had dismissed the subject of Territorial Government; and here it was again, in a more troublesome guise than it had ever before assumed. The ghost of the murdered Banquo would not down at its bidding. Nearly the entire session of 1856 was consumed in heated and virulent debates on Kansas. The House, fresh from the affections of the people, was disposed to do justice to the sufferers; it confirmed, by the investigations of its committees, the verity of every complaint, and it was not willing to allow a trivial technicality to stand in the way of the great cause of truth and right. But the Senate was dogmatic and hard, — full of whims, and scruples, and hair-splitting difficulties, — ever straining at gnats and swallowing camels; of the few there inclined to bear a manly part, one was overpowered by the club of a bully and the others by the despotism of numbers and of party-drill. As for the Executive, it was bound hand and foot to the Slave Power, and had no option but to let loose its minions, its judges, its sheriffs, its vagabonds, and its dragoons upon the poor Free-State men, whose only crime was a refusal to submit to the most outrageous abuses. Their towns were burned, their presses destroyed, their assemblies dispersed; and their wives and children brutally insulted. The debauched and imbecile Governor, who represented the Federal Power, hounded on the miscreants of the border to the work of destruction, so long as he was able; but he happily became in the end too weak even for this perfunctory labor; and he gradually sank into deliquium, till his final withdrawal into the obscurities whence he had emerged gave a momentary peace to the distracted and baffled settlers.

We pass over the administration of Geary, the third of the Kansas Governors, — a period in which the ravages of the marauders were continued, but under meliorated circumstances. The great uprising of the Northern masses, in the Presidential election, had impressed upon the most desperate of the Pro-Slavery faction the necessity of a restrained and moderated zeal. Geary went to the Territory with some desire to deal justly with all parties. He fancied, from the promises made to him, that he would be sustained in this honorable course by the President. It was no part of his conception of his task, that he should be called upon to screen assassins, to justify perjury. But he had reckoned without knowledge of what he had undertaken. He was soon involved with the self-styled judiciary of Kansas, whose especial favorites were the promoters of outrage; his correspondence was intercepted, his plans thwarted, his motives aspersed, his life menaced; and he resigned his thankless charge, in a feeling of profound contempt and bitter disappointment, — of contempt for the restless knot of villains who circumvented all conciliatory action, and of disappointment towards superiors at Washington who betrayed their promises of countenance and support.

With the advent of Mr. Buchanan to the Presidency a new era was expected, because a new era had been plainly prescribed by the entire course and spirit of the Presidential campaign. All through that heated and violent contest, it was loudly promised on one side, as it was loudly demanded on the other, that the affairs of Kansas should be honestly and equitably administered. As the time had then come, in the progress of population, when the Territory might be considered competent to determine its political institutions, — the period of its immaturity and pupilage being past, — the election turned upon the single issue of Justice to Kansas. Mr. Buchanan and his party, — their conventions, their orators, and their newspapers, — in order to quell the storm of indignation swelling the Northern heart, were voluble in their pledges of a fair field for a fair settlement of all its difficulties. In the name of Popular Sovereignty, — or of the indisputable right of every people, that is a people, to determine its political constitution for itself, — they achieved a hard-won success. On no other ground could they have met the gallant charge of their opponents, and on no other ground did they retain their hold of the popular support. In his inaugural address, Mr. Buchanan foreshadowed a complete and final adjustment of every element of discord. He selected, for the accomplishment of his policy, a statesman of national reputation, experienced in politics, skilful in administration, and of well-known principles and proclivities in the practical affairs of government. Mr. Walker accepted the place of Territorial Governor, under the most urgent entreaties, and on repeated and distinct pledges on the part of the President that the organization of Kansas as a State should be unfettered and free. his personal sympathies were strongly on the side of the party which had so long ruled with truculent hand in the affairs of the Territory; but he was none the less resolved that the fairly ascertained majority should have its way.

Under assurances to that effect, the Free-State men, for the first time since the great original fraud which had disfranchised them, consented to cuter into an electoral contest with their foes and oppressors. The result was the return of a Free-State delegate to Congress, and a Free-State legislature, by a majority which, after the rejection of a series of patent and wretched frauds, was more than ten to one; and yet the desperate game of conquest and usurpation was not closed. For, in the mean time, a convention of delegates to frame a State Constitution had been summoned to assemble at Lecompton. It was called by the old spurious legislature, which represented Missouri, and not Kansas it was called by a legislature, which, even if not spurious, had no authority for making such a call; it was called under provisions for a census and registry of voters which in more than half the Territory were not complied with; and it was elected by a small proportion of a small minority, the Free-State men and others refusing to enter into a contest under proceedings unauthorized at best, and as they believed illegal. Let it be added, also, that a large number of its members were pledged to submit the result of their doings to a vote of the people, — according to what Mr. Buchanan, in his instructions to Governor Walker, and Governor Walker himself on the strength of those instructions, had proclaimed as the policy of “the party.”

This Convention, in the prosecution of its gratuitous task, devised the scheme of a Constitution wholly in the interest of its members and of the meagre minority they represented, — and so objectionable in many respects, that not one in twenty of the voters of the Territory, as Governor Walker informed the writer of this, could or would approve it. Recognizing Slavery as an existing fact, and perpetuating it in every event, it yet purported to submit the question of Slavery to a determining vote of the people. This was, however, a mere pretence; for the method proposed for getting at the sense of the people was nothing but a pitiful juggle, according to which no one could vote on the Slavery question who did not at the same time vote for the Constitution. No alternative or discretion was allowed to the citizens whose Constitution it purported to be; if they voted at all on the vast variety of subjects usually embraced in an organic law, they must vote in favor of the measures concocted by the Convention. The entire conduct of the election and the final adjudication of the returns, moreover, were taken out of the hands of the officers, and from under the operation of the laws, already established by the Territorial authorities, to be vested exclusively in one of the Convention’s own creatures, — a reckless and unprincipled politician, whose whole previous career bad been an offence and a nuisance to the majority of the inhabitants. had the Convention been legitimately called and legitimately chosen, this audacious abrogation of the Territorial laws and of the functions of the Territorial officers would in itself have been sufficient to vitiate its authority; but being neither legitimately called, nor legitimately chosen, and outraging the sentiments of nineteen twentieths of the community, the illegal election provided for can he regarded only as the crowning atrocity of the long series of atrocities to which Kansas has been subjected.

The most surprising thing, however, could anything surprise us in these Kansas proceedings, is, that the President, eating all his former promises, adopts the Lecompton Convention as a legitimate body, and commends its swindling mode of submission as a “fair” test of the popular will! Yet, it is sad to say, this is only following up the line of precedents established from the beginning. The plot against the freedom of Kansas was conceived in a Congressional breach of faith; it was inaugurated by invasion, bloodshed, and civil war; it was prosecuted for two years through a series of unexampled violences; and it would be strange, if it had not been consummated at Lecompton and Washington by a series of corresponding frauds. It seems to have been impossible to touch the business without perpetrating sonic iniquity, great or small; and Mr. Buchanan, cautious, circumspect, timorous, as he is, tumbles into the fatal circle headlong.

And how do we know all this? Upon what kind and degree of evidence do we rest these heavy accusations? Upon the hasty opinions of those who are unfriendly to the principles and purposes of the dominant party? Not at all; but upon time voluntary confessions of the distinguished and chosen agents of that party, these agents being themselves eyewitnesses of the facts to which they testify. For proof of the original invasion and usurpation, with all its frauds and outrages, we appeal to the testimony of Governor Reeder; for proof of the continued ravages and persistent malignity of the border ruffians, we appeal to the testimony of Governor Geary; and for proof of the illegal and swindling character of the late Constitutional movement, we appeal to Governor Walker; — all these witnesses being original friends of the Kansas-Nebraska bill and policy; all the original coadjutors of the Slave Power; all its carefully selected instruments; all strongly prejudiced at the outset against the cause and the men of the Free-State Party; and yet, each one of them, as soon as he has fairly entered the field of his operations, offering such loud rebuke of the plans and projects of his own party as to provoke his speedy removal! — no strength of party attachment, no pliability of conscience, no hope of future favor, no dread of instant punishment, being sufficient to prevent him from turning against his own masters and colleagues! Even the Senators of the party catch the spirit of revolt; and the very godfather of the Kansas scheme, — its most efficient advocate, — the leading and organizing mind of it, — has become the strongest opponent and bitterest denouncer of the policy which directs its execution.

In this view of the case, may we not ask whether this base and cruel attempt at subduing Kansas has not gone far enough? Have not the circumstances shown that it is as impracticable as it is base and cruel? Or are we to see the despotism of the New World as insanely obstinate as the despotisms of the Old? Is there no warning, no instruction, to be derived from the examples of those older nations? An eloquent historian has recently depicted for us, in scenes which the memory can never lose, the mad attempts of the House of Stuart to Romanize England, to the loss of the most magnificent dominion the world ever saw; and another historian, scarcely less eloquent, has drawn a series of fearfully interesting pictures of the stern efforts of the Spaniards to impose a detested State and a more detested Church upon the burghers of the Netherlands. The spirit of James II., and the spirit of Philip II., was the same spirit which is now striving to force Slavery and Slave Law upon Kansas; and though the field of battle is narrower, and the scene less conspicuous, the consequences of the struggle are hardly of less moment. Kansas is the future seat of empire; she will yet give tone and law to the entire West; and they who are fighting there, in behalf of humanity and justice, do not fight for themselves alone, but for a large posterity.

  1. See his late pamphlet on the Dred Scott decision, which we may say, without adopting its conclusions, every statesman ought to read.