Skip to main content
Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

When It Was Grand

The Radical Republican History of the Civil War

LeeAnna Keith

Hill and Wang




The founding father of the Republican Party hailed from Illinois and stood just over five feet tall with his boots on. His name was Stephen Douglas, and by 1854 the so-called Little Giant of the United States Senate was the country’s most prominent Democrat, surpassing even the sitting president, Franklin Pierce, as a party operator and philosopher. So great was his influence that by a single legislative initiative, the Kansas-Nebraska bill, Douglas accidentally ballooned into existence an opposition movement that formed almost immediately as a potent new political party.

Kansas-Nebraska, which churned toward becoming law in the winter and spring of that year, represented the “Democracy,” as the party used to be known, at its most revolutionary: it overturned the twenty-four-year-old Missouri Compromise, opening the remaining unincorporated parts of the Louisiana Territory to the possibility of slavery at the insistence of the Democratic Party’s fervent proslavery wing. “Thunderstruck and stunned,” as Abraham Lincoln later described them, Republicans came into the world bearing the mark of the radical circumstances of the party’s birth.

In the decades leading up to 1854, the country had divided into hostile parties, though no one had known yet what to call them. The Kansas-Nebraska Act completed the transformation of the Democratic Party into the tool of white supremacy, an identity that it would need more than a century to shake. The first Republicans, meanwhile, represented opposition to slavery, even as their commitment to that goal existed on a spectrum. Radicals in the avant-garde carried enough weight in the founding generation to steer the party toward total abolitionism (1854 to 1863), and even briefly (1864 to 1875) toward a broader antiracist agenda.

Republicanism emerged from a series of meetings of outraged officials in the fall of 1853 and the spring and summer of 1854 in locations such as Ripon, Wisconsin, Exeter, New Hampshire, and Jackson, Michigan. The origins of the Republican Party featured the defection of prominent officeholders, drawn from the ranks of new “Independent Democrats” and from the collapse of the ailing Whigs. Senator Salmon Chase of Ohio—a dissident Democrat—denounced the Kansas-Nebraska legislation as “a gross violation of a sacred pledge” and “part and parcel of an atrocious plot to … convert [the Nebraska Territory] into a dreary region of despotism.” Senator William Seward—an antislavery Whig—condemned the Democrats’ apocalyptic partisanship. “To ravage, to slaughter, to usurp under false titles, they call empire,” Seward insisted, quoting Tacitus in Latin in a Senate speech: “and where they make a desert, they call it peace.”

In his bill, Douglas had proposed that slavery in Kansas and Nebraska be allowed if a majority of settlers voted for it at some later date—the doctrine of “popular sovereignty.” To the surprise of the Democratic leader, opponents of the measure objected to the idea of sacrificing any portion of the territory to the Slave Power. Led by the Free-Soil Party—an antislavery coalition that included members of Congress from both parties–—officeholders actively campaigned against the bill, moving directly to sever the ties that most Free-Soilers had maintained to the mainstream parties. In a series of manifestos, speeches, and office discussions, the major players rapidly aligned themselves in a single-issue “Anti-Nebraska” coalition.1

While congressional and party officials contemplated legislative and electoral responses, a second tier of activists took the Kansas-Nebraska matter into their own hands. Legislatures in nine Free States passed condemnation resolutions, the first in a series of official rebukes of federal policy in the years leading up to the Civil War. Party organizers and abolitionist groups moved to take up the gauntlet (as William Seward had described it) and contest neighboring Missourians for control of the lower “Kansas” portion of the territory, still sometimes spelled “Kanzas” in 1854. Citizen migrants who could populate the zone roused themselves for relocation, hoping to swing the outcome of any future slavery referendum. In an innovation, dealmakers in the private sector moved to organize antislavery migration to Kansas for both patriotic and profit-minded reasons.

The face of the campaign to win settlers for a Free Kansas was Eli Thayer, a member of the Massachusetts legislature, a feminist and founder of a women’s college in Worcester, the Oread Institute. Thayer became famous nationwide in 1854 as a promoter of organized colonization. While Kansas-Nebraska was still only a bill, Thayer obtained a charter and sold shares in a joint stock company he named the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company. Its business model was to resist the expansion of slavery into Kansas while making a profit by providing the goods and services that emigrants required.

Once the Free State had been secured, Thayer forecast, his company could demonstrate the superiority of Yankee ingenuity and free labor in underdeveloped territories elsewhere. “We shall beat you like a threshing floor,” he warned Southerners, “filling the land with the portents of your general doom.”2

Thayer directed his program to the attention of genuinely antislavery white people, though he also hinted at organized black migration to the territory. His organization—incorporated early in 1854 and active by midsummer—aimed “to fill up that vast and fertile Territory with free men—men who hate slavery, and will drive the hideous thing from the broad and beautiful plains where they go to raise their free homes.” The company was also marketed to potential shareholders and the public as a commercial advancement in the rapidly expanding field of Westward Movement. Massachusetts Emigrant Aid would specialize in developing transportation routes to Kansas and later to such other areas of settlement as became available to industrious Northerners. They could hope to turn a profit by charging fees, and by operating facilities and useful enterprises to assist in the migration.

In promotional materials and Thayer’s speeches, the entrepreneurial aspects of the project received more emphasis than the humanitarian intent. In its opening report, for example, the subject of “philanthropy” did not appear until the thirtieth page. Thayer noted the burgeoning population of the Atlantic States, buoyed by new arrivals from Europe—four hundred thousand in 1853. “Especially will it prove an advantage to Massachusetts”—the most industrialized part of the New World at that time—“to supply first the necessities to inhabitants—and [then to] open, in the outset, communications between their homes and her ports and factories.”3

Though Thayer predicted the sale of $5 million in company shares, the directors of Massachusetts Emigrant Aid were mostly political and antislavery. Alongside Thayer in the published list stood Samuel E. Sewall, a soon-to-be Republican colleague of Thayer’s in the legislature; Francis W. Bird and Samuel Gridley Howe, Massachusetts Free-Soilers and philanthropists; Anson Burlingame, a state senator soon to be elected to the Congress; and Moses Kimball, a future Republican, museum owner, and associate of P. T. Barnum (himself a future Republican office-seeker). Within a year of its first stock offering, in fact, the directors would reorganize the company as a traditional nonprofit philanthropic organization.4

Emigrant Aid was a private company operated by Republicans to promote the fundamental cause of the party, although a key donor and supporter—the industrialist Amos A. Lawrence—would identify himself as a Whig long after the party ceased to function. Seeking action, Lawrence cast his lot with Republicans and transitory figures such as Thayer himself, who later became famous as a conservative. The founder of the company would speak out bitterly against class and racial protest in the decades after the Civil War, but the fluid 1850s saw Thayer occupy the vanguard of vanguards, in Kansas and elsewhere. As an officeholding Republican, elected to Congress in 1856, he drove his party hell-bent into what became an armed struggle on the western frontier.

Thayer promoted Kansas as a first-rate agricultural region, blessed with fertile soil, a favorable climate, and ample supplies of water and timber, citing the observations of a Massachusetts doctor and adventurer, Charles S. Robinson, who had made extensive notes about the area when he passed through en route to California in 1849. Robinson was the first to join the company payroll, charged with organizing transportation by steam and rail to Iowa, hiring wagons and teamsters, and scouting out appropriate areas for settlement. The company had yet to make arrangements to build boardinghouses, sawmills, and other amenities for travelers, but all of these and more were intended as the program reached maturity. For the comfort of its subscribers and to underscore the superiority of the free labor system, Emigrant Aid promised to re-create the sophistication of New England on the Kansas plains by establishing newspapers, lecture halls, and schools.

The prospective printing presses and newspapers in Kansas were deemed especially important, both as a means of advertising the success of the venture and as an expression of the movement’s Free-State, antislavery, and ultimately Republican ideals. A hopeful rumor in the early weeks proposed that the activist and editor Frederick Douglass would lead the company-sponsored masthead, a prospect that promoters celebrated as “Douglass versus Douglas.”5

For those “self-sacrificing” migrants who were willing to brave the initial rough conditions, the Emigrant Aid Company offered passengers an 1854 discount. The special offer of the summer was for tickets “at half the usual rate,” as well as the assistance of an agent of the company in every stage of transit to the new territory.6

July and August were disastrous months to relocate to unsettled territory, unfortunately—too late for crop planting and too close to the onset of the deadly plains winter. Unanswered questions—Was Kansas a desert or a watered plain? Was it temperate or tropical?—would be resolved in disappointing ways.

Charged with constructing the boardinghouses and other essential facilities in the name of the company, Robinson and his cohort struggled to put together even basic housing for themselves and the other migrants. An Emigrant Aid party led by James B. Abbott, formerly of Hampton, Connecticut, arrived in October to find the future Governor Robinson and his household living in a tent.

By the end of 1854 the company had sent 450 settlers, including many families, to their outpost at Lawrence and scattered destinations. All were left to squabble among themselves and with outsiders over company assets: grist and sawmill equipment, tools, food supplies, and even the tents, which had been designated to change hands as more permanent housing was obtained. They fought over claims and proximities, struggling to reach terms with squatters and new claimants from Missouri and Iowa. Theft and attacks on property proliferated, particularly along the lines of transportation into the territory. Within weeks of the first arrivals—and while, in fact, new parties straggled in as late as December—rival emigrants began to challenge the New Englanders on the Kansas plains. Proslavery settlers and joyriders from Missouri, scorned by the Free-Soilers as “Border Ruffians,” made it clear that they would not surrender Kansas without a fight.

Before the physical assaults had come the threats. In late July, a group advertised in an Iowa paper a reward of $200 “for the apprehension and safe delivery into the hands of the squatters of Kansas territory one Eli Thayer.”7 On the ground in the West, the company agents encountered direct and personal threats against their safety and the security of their claims.

By October, these disputes resulted in the first round of gunplay between the two sides, as well as an exchange of hostile notes. “Dr. Robinson,” demanded a James Baldwin in a missive datelined “Kanzas Territory, Oct. 6th,” “Yourself and friends have one half hour to move the tent which you have on my undisputed claim.” Robinson’s response—“If you molest our property, you do it at your peril”—was delivered by an armed contingent of thirty Yankees.8 Bloodshed averted, the scramble for land claims continued with the planting of a second New England Emigrant Aid town, Topeka, and a missionary outpost in Osawatomie, to the west and south of the original settlement, named for the investor Amos Lawrence.

The menace of a series of harsh winters first showed its face on November 11, when an unexpected snowstorm caught Kansas settlers by surprise. With many residing in tents, the so-called town of Lawrence, at the junction of the Kansas and Wakarusa Rivers, made emergency provisions for housing. The grandly named meetinghouse and hotel provided by the company were in fact A-frame lean-tos, roofed with thatch and surrounded on all sides by stacks of sod.9 Within these walls and a scattering of other dens, those migrants who did not contrive to leave waited out the winter months in uncomfortable proximity to one another. Their dreaming and scheming did not cease, however, as they sketched out visions of their model town, designating a donated plot of land as the future home of the University of Kansas.

By springtime, Kansas partisans had broadened their appeal for support in the East, making a special plea for weaponry and finding allies more than ready to provide it:

The Philadelphia Ledger states that [the Unitarian minister and abolitionist] Theodore Parker told them in his antislavery address in that city, last week, that 200 of Sharp’s [sic] rifles had been sent from Boston in boxes labeled “books,” to arm as many of the New England settlers in Kansas territory against the attacks of Missourian incursionists.10

The demand for rifles among antislavery Kansas pioneers surged in spring 1855 and accelerated virtually without pause for the next two years. A key motivation was the violence of proslavery incursions, sponsored mostly from Missouri, where a fire-eating U.S. senator, David Atchison, rallied residents to “shoot, burn & hang” until antislavery settlers abandoned the field. By the end of the year, the conflict over slavery in Kansas had resulted in two hundred deaths and some $2 million in damages—mostly inflicted by the antislavery side.11 The Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company sponsored eastern tours of company officials for fund-raising and political awareness, while a National Kansas Committee functioned as a kind of war department in exile for an emerging antislavery army.

In Manhattan, the rough-and-ready James B. Abbott met at Astor House with the editor Horace Greeley and other antislavery activists in the city. Among the New Yorkers recruited for the defense of Free Kansas was the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, then at work on the construction of Central Park. A longtime abolitionist, Olmsted was among those who came to embrace violent solutions to the slavery problem. Within weeks of the meeting, Olmsted would personally supervise the shipment to Abbott in Kansas of a howitzer cannon and a supply of shell and canister ammunition.

Olmsted’s cannon was not just for show. “One discharge of it at musket range is considered equally effective with the simultaneous fire of one hundred muskets,” the park designer reported, speculating that its effect on disorganized Missouri militants would be profound. “If you can use it properly, as I doubt not you will,” he wrote, “it is worth a dozen field pieces.”12

The Free-Staters would require all the firepower that friends in the East could provide that autumn. Militant Republicans—including Radical organizers Martin Stowell of Worcester, Massachusetts, and the English journalist Richard Hinton—took the lead in organizing a constitutional convention that met in Topeka on October 23, 1855.13 One measure of the movement’s success was its ability to attract delegates from a broad political range. While devoted to Free Kansas, the forty-seven participants included Democrats, Whigs, Free-Staters, Free-Soilers, and Independents, as well as a handful who already called themselves Republicans. Free-Statism did not overlap neatly with antislavery and humanitarian impulses. Many participants manifested an open disdain for African Americans as neighbors in the frontier districts.

At Topeka, they were quick to agree on language prohibiting slavery or indentured servitude in the proposed state. More radical measures failed to win a majority, including a bid to strike the word “white” from militia and voting requirements. Seven of the delegates, however, led by the New England Aid Company’s Dr. Robinson, identified themselves as champions of a Kansas constitution blind to color.14

As Theodore Parker understood it, the Topeka Movement embodied the emergence of a new party system, and indeed a new society. “Just now there are two great ideas in the consciousness of the people, that of Slavery and that of Freedom,” he wrote on the opening day of the convention. The Slavery Party was entrenched, empowered, and frankly out of contact with the wellsprings of patriotism. “The second party,” he admitted, “exists in the young woods and mills on the rivers of Kansas, hardly more.” The Party of Freedom lacked experience, organizers, offices, even a platform for action, “but it is exceedingly powerful through [its] ideas,” and in the courage and integrity of its adherents, Parker argued. “All the genius of America is on that side, all the womanly women.”15

Meanwhile, the nascent party in the “young woods” of Kansas hastily suspended its constitutional proceedings in late November 1855. A dispute over claims had resulted in bloodshed in the vicinity of Lawrence. Inflamed by arrests and the successful rescue of a Free-State prisoner, both Free-State and Pro-Slave partisans set aside their peaceful enterprises to prepare for battle. The Free-Stater and future senator James H. Lane moved as president of the convention to suspend discussions. Lane himself, along with Dr. Robinson and “Major” Abbott, assumed command of hastily assembled militia units. They dug trenches in the streets of Lawrence, including four embankments on central Massachusetts Street. Forts appeared on Vermont, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island Streets. Somewhere amid the fortifications, Abbott placed the massive howitzer recently shipped from New York.

The siege of Lawrence (called the Wakarusa War of 1855 by antislavery partisans) heightened the profile of the Kansas Troubles, attracting more than a thousand proslavery militants from out of state and also winning the support of new antislavery radicals.16

Among the Free-State cadres mobilized for the fight was a new arrival, still unknown and undistinguished at the opening of Bleeding Kansas. John Brown was a moral purist who despised the Republican Party until his death. While he had been a fervent antislavery activist all his life, he had come to Kansas that winter only to assist his grown sons and a cousin who had settled in the Free-State town of Osawatomie. Introduced at Wakarusa, Brown would rise among the ranks of Free-State militants to become the protégé and idol of Republican Radicals.

Back east, Thayer arranged for the Emigrant Aid Company to deliver a thousand rifles to Lawrence. Out west, the Free-Staters reconvened in Topeka and scheduled elections on the basis of the new constitution. The vote—on January 15, 1856—resulted in a landslide for Kansas Radicals, not least because proslavery voters refused to participate. The Emigrant Aid Company’s top officer, Dr. Charles L. Robinson, emerged as governor. To the U.S. Senate, Free Kansas elevated another company man, Samuel C. Pomeroy, and Topeka Convention president James H. Lane. These men held office in a theoretical sense only, since Congress refused to admit Kansas or its representatives under the Topeka document. Led by President Pierce, Democrats rejected the movement emphatically, favoring a proslavery government based in the town of Lecompton, elected by what Free-Staters claimed to be a majority of nonresidents from across the Missouri border. Pierce pushed Congress to recognize the Lecompton Constitution and admit Kansas as a slave state, denouncing the Lawrence, Kansas, government as “a mere party in the territory” and its election as “revolutionary.”17

If Topeka, Kansas, was the scene of revolution in 1856, the East Coast Republicans were its committees of correspondence. They prepared a warm welcome for Free-State fund-raisers on winter tours, arranging meetings with potential supporters of every antislavery stripe. The Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company also merged with a New York–based agency and renamed itself the New England Emigrant Aid Company. Eli Thayer’s new partner, John C. Underwood, was a Northern abolitionist married to a Southern woman, the sponsor of a network of free-labor farms in Virginia. Underwood’s plan called for northern migration to the border regions, starting with Kansas and Virginia and ultimately expanding into Texas and Arkansas. From the beginning, the colonization scheme hinted at land grabbing and potential violence. It was aligned from the outset with Republicans like Thayer and Underwood, who used their party contacts to raise money and build support for the movement in Boston and New York City.18

The most famous minister in the United States, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, weighed in in favor of the resort to force in early February. Hosting Kansas freedom fighters at his Plymouth Church in Brooklyn—the largest and most politically active congregation in the New York area—Beecher raised more than $30,000. He praised the use of force by Free-State pioneers: in the context of the Kansas fight, he said, “the Sharpe [sic] Rifle was a truly moral agency.”19 Border Ruffians would not be moved by moral suasion, said Beecher: “You might just as well read the Bible to Buffaloes.” Being immoral but not stupid, he suggested, such men “have a supreme respect for the logic that is embodied in Sharp’s [sic] rifles.” Beecher admired the sturdy resistance of New Englanders in Kansas and recognized their historical antecedents. “The Puritans used to carry their Bibles and their muskets to church,” the minister insisted, “the one for inside work, and the other for outside work!”20 In a church ceremony, Beecher distributed rifles to migrants with an equal number of Bibles stamped with the motto “Be ye steadfast and immovable.”21

Reverend Parker shared Beecher’s enthusiasm (having carried a loaded pistol on his person since 1850) but was less inclined to align guns and godly work. He did not pack guns and Bibles together or use crates labeled “Bibles” to disguise his shipments, preferring merely to call them books.22 The book label served as both a subterfuge and an inside joke among the Free-Staters, a way of satirizing the supposed lack of sophistication of the Border Ruffians. Vegetarians associated with the Transcendentalist Bronson Alcott’s movement, for example, reported that their enemies had seized their wagons and all their freight while they were crossing into Kansas from Missouri. Upon discovering that the boxes held books instead of weapons or whiskey, however, the ruffians had abandoned the lot undamaged, to be joyfully reclaimed.23

In April 1856, Parker cheered a group of pioneers departing from the train station and expanded the book metaphor. “There were twenty copies of ‘Sharp’s [sic] Rights of the People’” in their hands, “of the new and improved edition, and divers Colt’s six-shooters also.” The settlers’ parting hymn was apropos: “When I Can Read My Title Clear.”24

Washington witnessed the parliamentary version of drilling and presenting arms, as the Kansas Crisis made its way home to Congress. Senator Henry Wilson, a Massachusetts Know-Nothing turned Republican, serving as junior senator alongside the abolitionist Charles Sumner, anticipated trouble even in the halls of government. “The next Congress will be the most violent one in our history,” Wilson had written on July 23, 1855; “and if violence and bloodshed come, let us not falter, but do our duty, even if we fall upon the floors of Congress.”25

In the spring of 1856, Wilson took the floor, despite his lack of seniority, to assail members of Congress and the Franklin Pierce administration. The problem in Kansas, as he saw it, was that proslavery had recruited Border Ruffians, mercenaries, and even the U.S. Army post in Leavenworth to subvert self-government in Kansas, while Free-State settlers appeared virtually defenseless. Wilson saw the repeated “invasions” of the territory as part of a Washington conspiracy, citing the offer of a Democratic representative from South Carolina, Preston Brooks, to pay $100 to any man from his district willing to travel to Kansas. Free-State Kansas needed more guns and cannons to confront the challenge, while people of conscience in the Senate and elsewhere needed to recognize the nature of the game. “We accept your issue,” Wilson taunted proslavery senators, using language borrowed from the ritual of dueling. “Nominate some one of your scarred veterans.” In what Wilson called “the battle of 1856,” this champion might prevail, but “he will not come out of it without scars.”26

Politicos awaited with anticipation the remarks of Charles Sumner—the handsome, combative, and outrageously erudite senior senator from Massachusetts. “Pardon me for the expression of an earnest wish to hear from you soon upon the Kansas Freedom Question,” wrote a constituent. Sumner should hit them fast and hit them hard, another advised: “Bold deeds and bold language,” said a man who had apparently found Henry Wilson’s speech too mild; “I have always felt humiliated by the tone our men have taken in Congress, yielding everything, and never daring to assert their rights or to exercise their true power to crush these fellows into submission.”27

Sumner reciprocated warmly: “I shall pronounce the most thorough philippic ever uttered in a legislative body,” he told Parker.28 He would employ “argument, scorn and denunciation” on both “crime and criminals”: the repression in Kansas and its authors and abettors among Sumner’s colleagues in the U.S. Senate. “The whole arsenal of God is ours,” he wrote, “and I will not renounce one of its weapons,—not one.”29

In the space of three days in 1856, Sumner’s speech and its aftermath, along with a pair of violent events in Kansas, put the country on what seemed like a war footing.

Sumner’s speech was extraordinarily long even by the standards of the nineteenth century, and its author presented it over the course of two full days of the session. He had enjoyed himself too much in the writing of it, indulging his waspish sense of humor, bons mots delivered in foreign languages, and ad hominem attacks. Stephen Douglas had bad breath, Sumner said; he was “noisome, squat.” Butler of South Carolina (a stroke victim) gurgled when he spoke. South Carolina, Sumner stated, in elaborate language, was populated by lushes and dimwits, achieving less in its two hundred years of existence than the industrious Yankees in Kansas had accomplished already.30

Sumner got personal, while simultaneously, Border Ruffians in Kansas unleashed their own barrage of personal attacks against Free-Staters in what became known as the Sack of Lawrence. Attackers injured no one, but they destroyed the printing presses and scattered the type to disrupt the publication of two newspapers in the antislavery town, burning the Free State Hotel to the ground after failing to destroy it with cannon fire and gunpowder. A number of prominent Free-Staters were taken captive, including Henry Lane (who escaped) and “Governor” Charles Robinson and his wife, Sara Lawrence Robinson.

Like many women in Lawrence, Mrs. Robinson had been active in the city’s defense. She was scarcely the only woman to be personally assaulted or threatened during the raid.31 The would-be governor’s wife was part of a more or less official women’s unit for self-defense, said to have studied marksmanship as well as less traditional defenses. In the buildup to Lawrence, for example, one woman had deterred a man attacking her home by dousing him with hot water from the stove.32 The wife of James B. Abbott, the Free-State “major,” distributed rifles from her home during the height of the attack on Lawrence.33

Neither the women’s vigilance nor the stockpile of arms from back east could prevent the antislavery team from being routed, however. Humiliated and terrorized, the Robinsons and other victims were imprisoned at Leavenworth, where a proslavery prosecutor prepared to try them on the capital charge of treason against the United States.

Offended Southerners also mobilized a direct response to Sumner’s incendiary speech. His remarks (and Henry Wilson’s) seemed calculated to escalate tensions into physical conflict, Democrats believed. Stephen Douglas—accused by Sumner, in a new round of rhetoric days after the original speech, of “switch[ing] out from his tongue the perpetual stench of offensive personality”—said publicly that he thought Sumner meant “to provoke some of us to kick him as we would a dog in the street, that he might get sympathy upon the just chastisement.”34

Sumner’s friends were quick to offer physical protection but were rebuffed. “None of that, Wilson,” he had said when his colleague offered to serve as bodyguard. Rumors circulated about Congressman Brooks, a relative of the maligned Butler of South Carolina, but Sumner was not afraid.35 Amid sweltering heat on May 23, Brooks surprised Sumner at his desk in the Senate, beat him mercilessly upon the head with a heavy cane, and left him bleeding and unconscious.

The dual assaults on Sumner and Lawrence mobilized a profoundly militant antislavery response. The most dramatic of these fell outside the purview of Republican activism, as the antipolitical John Brown and some followers hacked to death with broadswords five proslavery Kansans in a settlement on Pottawatomie Creek.

The Pottawatomie Massacre hurt the cause of Free Kansas in public opinion, and created a dilemma for Republican sponsors of the Kansas militants. Though Brown was not working directly with Republicans, many proved all too ready to justify the crime or to accept his naked claim that he had not killed the men with his own hand. As the Massachusetts abolitionist the Reverend Thomas Wentworth Higginson explained later in the year in a speech transcribed by a newspaper, as a Christian “he had great faith in the general efficacy of returning good for evil … but he believed there were exceptional cases when it would not only be right, but a duty, to take the sword and rifle.” In “every such case,” Higginson insisted, “he thought the end would justify the means.”36

Radical Republicans also embraced violence as a rhetorical device and organizational initiative. Addressing the American Antislavery Society in New York, Theodore Parker advocated resistance with such zeal that the feminist Lucretia Mott took the podium to remind him that the society was “opposed to the use of carnal weapons” and that he should not imagine “for a moment that it was right to use physical force.” Parker had brought Lucy Stone and Senator William H. Seward of New York to the speakers’ rostrum to advocate for the Republican Party (and for Seward the presidential candidate, as Parker’s choice). Warming to Parker’s message, the assembly resolved “that all constitutional liberty has ceased in this country,” that Pierce “was no longer the legitimate President of the United States,” and that “we are in the midst of a revolution.” In the face of this emergency, the nation’s most venerable antislavery group resolved “that we shall neither give nor ask for any quarter; but our motto is, Victory or Death!”37

On the following Sunday, Parker delivered a surprisingly cold-blooded sermon on the subject of the attack on Sumner, which he claimed to see as no surprise. Visionaries had always been subject to scorn, he reminded parishioners:

In all those dark days behind us, there have been found faithful men who risked their political prospects, the desires of honorable ambition, their social standing, [and] the esteem of their nearest relatives, and were faithful to truth and justice. What treatment have they met in the parlor, in the forum, in the market, in the church? One day their history must be writ; and some names now hated will appear like those which were the watchwords of the revolution.

Parker said that he expected people of goodwill to follow in Sumner’s example, and if he died, to make his cause the object of a struggle to the death. “There is a war before us worse than Russian,” he insisted, referring to the horrors of the recent conflict in Crimea.

It has already begun: when would it end? “Not till slavery has put freedom down,” say your masters at the South; “Not till freedom has driven slavery from the continent,” let us say and determine.”38

Listening in the pews was Richard Hinton, who resolved that day to go back to Kansas, believing, as he later wrote, that “it was the road to South Carolina!”39 Hinton, like others in the movement, enrolled in an organized antislavery militia. That summer they would venture into filibustering, a piratical new nation-building technique that they aimed to transplant from its roots in Central America and the Caribbean to the Kansas plains. Filibusters used armed force and phony electoral districts to stage coups d’état and establish governments dominated by Americans, often proslavery Southerners, in neighboring Latin American districts. The king of filibustering was William Walker, a proslavery gunslinger with a record of attacks on civil government in California, Mexico, and Nicaragua, where he had been recognized by Franklin Pierce as head of state the same week that conservatives sacked Lawrence and caned Sumner. Free Kansas had long accused Missourians and allies of employing Walker’s filibuster tricks against settlers in Kansas: the recruitment of mercenaries, the establishment of bogus towns and polling places, terrorization and diversionary violence, and the early recognition of the bogus government by the avidly proslavery Pierce. The antislavery National Kansas Committee now aimed to appropriate the tactics for their own use, staging a new political bid using military power in Kansas.

The roots of the NKC lay in Boston and in New York City, where cochairman Thaddeus Hyatt lived and marketed his best invention, glass sidewalk tiles as a source of lighting for basement spaces. Hyatt was a lapsed antislavery Democrat, a minor officer in a recent New York City convention in which the visiting Benjamin Butler of Massachusetts and a number of other prominent officeholders publicly defected from their party to endorse the Republicans.40 To fulfill his local responsibilities to the movement, Hyatt culled the Democratic city’s modest ranks of Republican activists for Kansas adventurers.

In the end the New York recruits fell short of a state contingent, but the experience of young New Yorkers answering the call casts a light on the culture of Free Kansas filibustering. Future president Chester Alan Arthur and some of his aristocratic friends enlisted, departing after posing for a jaunty souvenir photograph in which three of them embraced facing the camera. Arthur also outfitted himself with a gray suit and matching military cap. The future president bought land near Leavenworth and considered opening a Kansas practice with his partner, Henry Gardiner, who had accompanied Arthur and companions from New York. Meeting with Charles Robinson and attending political rallies at the very least, Arthur probably also took part in a series of so-called battles in August and September 1856. He found Kansas rough going, hard living. In response to an imploring letter from his fiancée, the young lawyer packed up his shingle and returned to New York after a few months.41

Massachusetts dispatched three full companies, surpassing the New York branch of the committee by virtue of the state’s radical politics and the relative prestige of the Boston organizer, “Chevalier” Dr. Samuel G. Howe, a noted philanthropist and Republican. The first group departed in July under the direction of Calvin Cutter, a forty-nine-year-old medical doctor. Cutter was an experienced Kansas hand, having run rifles for the National Kansas Committee and commanded a military company during the violence that spring. Cutter’s party of sixty settlers followed the river transit route from St. Louis through Missouri, but was stopped by armed men just inside the border of Kansas.42 Its members were disarmed and briefly held prisoner. When a second Massachusetts party also failed to find safe passage into the territory, a sense of outrage spread across the state. Amid talk of accumulating military force to break the impasse, a third Massachusetts company began to coalesce among the most radical of the Radical Republicans.

At its head was Martin Stowell, a strongman of antislavery agitation from Worcester, Massachusetts. Stowell recruited the toughest men he knew, including the young Englishman Richard Hinton. They were—a partisan later recalled—“the finest set of men for physique I ever encountered and not bad at heart.”43 To project a plausible identity as settlers, the Stowell group also solicited the participation of activist women and families. All were prepared for the worst as they moved toward Kansas in August 1856.

Both Stowell and Hinton were veterans of the Kansas movement, credited with helping to organize the Topeka constitutional convention and early efforts at self-defense. So-called Border Ruffians and recruits from the Southern states had already come to know both of them by sight. During a scouting mission early in the summer, Hinton had been captured and tortured with a rope; he had attended the Republican convention in June with noose marks still visible around his neck.44 For his part, Stowell carried a price tag on his head. By 1856, he had already abandoned the idea of homesteading in Kansas and instead purchased farmland nearby in Peru, Nebraska. They would lead the mission even as men of higher rank in the movement—Higginson, Hyatt, and Dr. Howe—accompanied the group to Chicago and then launched the company as an armed expeditionary force.

Since river transport had proven vulnerable to attack, the group crossed the entire state of Iowa overland, with teams and wagons stretched out in a single line. Arriving at Tabor, Iowa, near the borders with Nebraska and Missouri, the Massachusetts party made a rendezvous with travelers from other National Kansas Committee companies: one from Indiana, one from Ohio, two each from Wisconsin and Illinois, and three from Iowa, partially recruited en route. In this company, comprising two or three hundred, the Free-Staters hoped to find safety in numbers. Before entering the territory, after traveling seven hundred miles by wagon train, the Stowell migrants met up with the militia commander Colonel James H. Lane.

Lane had also been traveling overland. His group got under way in Buffalo with supplies and encouragement from a group calling itself the National Convention of Friends of Freedom in Kansas. Accompanied by a marching band, the Lane party functioned as the political and fund-raising arm of the summer missions. In major stops at Chicago and Detroit, Lane had delivered speeches in a style that one viewer compared to “lava from Vesuvius.”45 Lane was a former member of Congress from Indiana, the claim to fame that he had leveraged to win appointment to the Senate from the aspiring Topeka legislature. Lane had been a Democrat, a supporter of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and a sponsor of legislation at Topeka to ban African Americans from the Kansas Territory. Now, however, he spoke as a fire-breathing Radical Republican and, most of all, as a general in the antislavery war for control of Kansas.

The atmosphere in Tabor was ebullient, its pioneers punch-drunk. “One particularly jolly fellow asked us over and over if we had enough Beecher’s Bibles,” remembered a young woman traveling from Michigan with her father and sister. “He said he would be happy to supply … ‘a rifle for every rifleman.’” Asked if he meant to include the women, the Free-Stater said, “You betcha, little sister,” to the great amusement of the ladies.46 Pamphlets on woman suffrage, spiritual healing, and Free Kansas circulated among the campsites, including one that invited audiences to hourly lectures by representatives of the National Kansas Committee. The band played, strident singing filled the air, and everyone seemed to regard everyone else with an air of wonder. Even the women were drilling, and the thrill of holding weapons and camping on the plains suffuses every surviving account.47

On August 7, 1856, the Kansas Filibusters surged forward from Tabor to the strains of martial music. Immediately across the Kansas line, they encamped and declared that their encampment was a town, a technique of William Walker–style banana republic filibusterism. Hastily elected town officers made a survey of the eligible voters for use in future electioneering; Conestoga wagons circled for self-defense; and the men of the expedition assembled for the purpose of drilling and forming ranks.

One of the militants had devised a clever salute to allow antislavery militiamen to recognize their friends. It was initiated on the scene by an enormous, stentorian drillmaster, an escaped army prisoner from Fort Leavenworth named Aaron Stevens (at the time using the alias Colonel Whipple), who would later die with John Brown at Harpers Ferry. “Present arms!” shouted Whipple. Seeing guns, he boomed out, “What are you doing here?” “Holding town meeting,” the militiamen would reply. “Where is your ballot box?” “Here!” was the response, as three hundred hands struck the stock ends of three hundred rifles, a resounding charge.

The leading men among the militants assembled to make strategy: Jim Lane and the Republicans Stowell, Hinton, and James Abbott; Aaron Stevens and the wizened, bloody-minded John Brown. They agreed upon immediate departure from the first encampment, now called Plymouth, and the settlement of two new towns in which the process of establishing electoral districts and military drills would be repeated. Martin Stowell, elected president of a town calling itself Lexington, made haste to leave behind a token of the founders’ intentions—an antislavery fort, constructed of logs and pointed sticks—before rushing to settle the next town.48

As a matter of filibustering for control of the interior of the territory, the summer 1856 exercises offered little to the cause of Free Kansas. Despite all, Missourians staged repeated advances on the genuine and established Kansas towns in August and September, terrorizing Topeka and Grasshopper Falls and defeating John Brown’s allies and killing one of his sons in what both sides called the Battle of Osawatomie. Congress and the Pierce administration held their ground. Instead, the overland crossings served as an exercise in cultural and political unity, in which Yankees mobilized their most sacred institutions, resources, and drives for the cause. Their sacrifices on the march and in camp anticipated the hardships of the looming war.

Copyright © 2020 by LeeAnna Keith

Maps copyright © 2020 by Jeffrey L. Ward