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Two Miserable Presidents
How to Rip a Country Apart
On May 22, 1856, a congressman from South Carolina walked into the Senate chamber, looking for trouble. With a cane in his hand, Preston Brooks scanned the nearly empty room and spotted the man he wanted: Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Sumner was sitting at a desk, writing letters, unaware he had a visitor. He became aware a moment later, when he looked up from his papers just in time to see Preston Brooks's metal-tipped cane rising high above his head.
Stop That Cane!
So Preston Brooks's metal-tipped cane is about to land on a senator's head. Interesting. But before that cane actually crashes onto Charles Sumner's skull, let's step back and take a look at the events leading up to this moment. Because, believe it or not, if you can figure out why Preston Brooks was so eager to attack Charles Sumner, you'll understand the forces that ripped the United States apart and led to the Civil War.
Mr. Brooks, please hold that cane in the air for just a few minutes. We're going to run through a quick thirteen-step guide to tearing a country in two.
Step 1: Plant Cotton
After finishing college in 1792, a young man from Massachusetts named Eli Whitney headed south in search of a teaching job. He wasn't too interested in teaching, though--he really wanted to be an inventor.
Whitney got his big chance when he met Catherine Greene, who owned a plantation in Georgia. Greene told Whitney that plantation owners wanted to grow more cotton. The problem was, cotton had to be cleaned by hand and it took forever to pick the sticky green seeds out of the fluffy white cotton. If only there was a way to clean cotton more quickly, planters could grow and sell much more of it.
Greene set up a workshop for Whitney, and he quickly came up with an invention he called the cotton gin ("gin" was short for engine). Whitney proudly announced the benefits of using his machine: "One man will clean ten times as much cotton as he can in any other way before known and also clean it much better."
Before Whitney's invention, farmers grew cotton only along the Atlantic coast. Now they raced to plant more cotton, forming a wide belt of cotton plantations across the southern United States, from the Atlantic Ocean all the way west to Louisiana and Texas. Plantation owners made huge profits selling their cotton to clothing factories in the northern United States and in Great Britain. Cotton became so valuable to the economy that Southerners declared: "Cotton is King!"
This was great for Southern plantation owners and Northern factory owners. But it was terrible for enslaved African Americans. Planting and picking cotton took huge amounts of work, and that work was done by slaves. So as plantation owners planted more and more cotton, they decided that they needed more and more slaves. The number of people enslaved in the South jumped from just over 1 million in 1820 to about 4 million by 1860.
Step 2: Grow Apart
At the same time, the states of the North gradually ended slavery. This was partly because many Northerners thought slavery was wrong. But let's be honest: it was mainly because slavery just didn't make sense in the Northern economy. Most farmers owned small family farms, so they couldn't afford slaves. And factory owners had no interest in owning their workers--they made more money by hiring workers and paying them a few cents an hour.
Slavery was only one of many differences between the North and South in the first half of the 1800s. Most Americans still lived and worked on farms in both the North and South. But life in the North was changing as more and more people moved to cities and took jobs in factories. Immigrants from Europe were also settling in growing northern cities. Northerners were busy building canals and railroads to connect cities and farms. There was less change in the South, where more than ninety percent of the people lived on farms or in small towns. The Southern economy was based on farm products: sugar, rice, tobacco, and especially "king" cotton.
The North and South were developing different ways of life--so what? These differences mattered because they made it harder for Northerners and Southerners to agree on plans for the future. For example, take the issue of tariffs, or taxes on imported goods. Sounds pretty boring, right? But tariffs got people excited in those days. Suppose you asked a Northern factory owner and a Southern plantation owner: "Do you support a tariff on manufactured goods imported from Europe?"
"Of course!" the factory owner might say. "Tariffs make imported goods more expensive. So Americans are more likely to buy things made here in our own factories. And that's good for American companies."
"No way!" the plantation owner might say. "We want to buy the goods we need at the best possible prices. Why should we pay higher prices for manufactured goods just to help make Northern factory owners richer?"
Step 3: Keep Your Balance
Now that the North and South are growing apart, let's look at another issue that's about to cause trouble: land. To put the problem simply: What's going to happen with all that land west of the Mississippi River?
As you probably know, the United States started out as thirteen states along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean. But the country had grown quickly:
Why is this new land important to our story?
In 1819 there were a total of twenty-two states: eleven "slave states," or states with slavery, and eleven "free states," or states where slavery was illegal. Most members of Congress thought it was a good idea to keep this balance between free and slave states. That way neither North nor South would get too much power in government (or get too angry at the other side).
But everyone knew that western territories would soon be divided up into states--would those new states allow slavery? That was the question Northerners and Southerners were beginning to argue about.
So when Missouri asked to join the Union as a slave state, Congress worked out a deal called the Missouri Compromise. In 1820 Missouri joined the Union as a slave state. And to keep the balance, Maine joined as a free state.
What about all the land west of Missouri? Members of Congress drew a line west from the southern border of Missouri. They agreed that the territory north of the line would someday be divided into free states, and the territory south of the line would be divided into slave states.
The goal was to protect the balance between North and South.
Think it worked?
Step 4: Fight Slavery
Frederick Douglass was not interested in keeping the balance.
Born into slavery in Maryland, Douglass grew up working on farms--and thinking nonstop about slavery. How could one person own another? "Why am I a slave?" he wondered. "I will run away. I will not stand it."
When Douglass was eighteen, the man who owned him put him to work in a Baltimore shipyard. One day four white workers attacked him with bricks, knocking him down and kicking him in the face over and over. Fifty white men just stood there watching. Douglass's owner ("Master Hugh," as Frederick called him) went to a judge to complain:
Judge Watson: Who saw this assault of which you speak?
Master Hugh: It was done, sir, in the presence of a shipyard full of hands.
Judge Watson: Sir, I am sorry, but I cannot move in this matter, except upon the oath of white witnesses.
Master Hugh: But here's the boy; look at his head and face, they show what has been done.
But Douglass was a slave, a person with no rights. His word meant nothing. The white workers who had seen the beating refused to testify, so the men who had attacked Douglass were never punished.
Douglass continued working (and giving every cent he earned to Master Hugh). And he thought more and more about trying toescape to the North. He knew the danger. If caught, he could be sold to a cotton plantation far to the south.
He came up with a simple, daring plan. In the South, free African Americans had to carry "free papers"--identification papers proving they were not slaves. Douglass borrowed these papers from a free friend who was a sailor. Then he dressed in sailor's clothes, put the borrowed papers in his pocket, and boldly walked onto a train. The train started north through Maryland.
There was only one problem: free papers included a description of the person, and Douglass looked nothing like his friend.
Douglass tried to quiet his pounding heart as the conductor came through the black passengers' car inspecting everyone's papers. "This moment of time was one of the most anxious I ever experienced," he later wrote.
"Had the conductor looked closely at the paper, he could not have failed to discover that it called for a very different looking person from myself, and in that case it would have been his duty to arrest me to Baltimore."
But the conductor only glanced at the papers, then handed them back to Douglass. The train sped north, and that afternoon Douglass reached the free state of Pennsylvania. He continued on to New York. "I found myself in the big city of NewYork," he remembered, "a free man."
Douglass soon found work in a Massachusetts shipyard. And he became an active abolitionist--part of a movement to end slavery in the United States.
Step 5: Build a Railroad
Frederick Douglass found another way to battle slavery. He used his house as part of the Underground Railroad, a secret system of routes used by people escaping from slavery. Houses like Douglass's were known as "stations"--places where runaway slaves could rest and hide during the day. Daring "conductors," both black and white, guided escaping slaves from station to station all the way to Canada, where slavery was illegal.
The most famous Underground Railroad conductor was a fivefoot-tall woman named Harriet Tubman. Tubman grew up enslaved in Maryland, suffering beatings and whippings that left permanent scars on her body. In 1849, when she was twenty-nine, she found out she was about to be sold. She set off on a hundred-mile walk to freedom, helped along by Underground Railroad conductors who guided her to Pennsylvania.
"When I found I had crossed that line, I looked at my hands to see if I was the same person," she said. "I was free, but there was no one to welcome me to the land of freedom." She was thinking of her family--they were all still living in slavery.
"I was free, and they should be free." Tubman said. "I would make a home in the North and bring them there."
Tubman spent the next ten years planning and carrying out at least thirteen rescue missions, guiding about three hundred people to freedom. Can you guess why she liked to operate in winter? The nights were longer in winter, and it was safer to travel in darkness. Safer not only for escaping slaves, but for Tubman too. Angry slave owners were offering a $40,000 reward for her capture.
Only a small minority of Northerners were abolitionists or Underground Railroad conductors. But their work was causing growing anger in the South. Slave owners saw it like this: Slavery is perfectly legal in the South, and we have invested our money in slaves. Slaves are our legal property. These abolitionists are trying to steal our property. They're trying to make us poor! How would they like it if we came up north and took away their farms and factories?
You might answer: But you have no right to own slaves in the first place! But for now we're not talking about right and wrong. We're just trying to figure out how Northerners and Southerners got angry enough at each other to rip the country in two.
Step 6: Get More Land
Speaking of getting angry, the North and South soon had something else to fight over--more land. By 1848 the United States looked like this:
Then gold was discovered in California and thousands of miners raced west, dreaming of quick riches. Suddenly California had enough people to become a state--and it wanted to enter the Union as a free state.
At this time there were thirty states: fifteen free states and fifteen slave states. Was California going to upset this careful balance? Not if Southern leaders could help it. Senator Jefferson Davis of Mississippi summed up Southern fears: "For the first time, we are about to permanently destroy the balance of power between the sections."
Some Southern members of Congress began to talk openly of "disunion"--the breakup of the United States.
Step 7: Try to Compromise
Hold on , said Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, we canwork this out. Clay offered a compromise designed to keep the peace between North and South. The two most important points were these:
California will be admitted to the Union as a free state.
Congress will pass the Fugitive Slave Act, which will make it easier for slave owners to catch escaping slaves.
By 1850, though, a lot of people didn't feel like compromising anymore. Senator John C. Calhoun from South Carolina declared that the Union could be saved only if the North met Southern demands: stop helping escaped slaves, stop the abolitionist movement, and promise to keep the balance between free states and slave states. He was too sick to give a long speech (he actually died a month later), but he sat in the Senate chamber, a blanket over his legs, while a fellow senator read his emotional words: "The South asks for justice, simple justice, and less she ought not to take."
Senator William Seward of New York rejected Calhoun's demands. Slavery was going to end whether Calhoun liked it or not, Seward insisted. And there was no way he was going to allow slavery to spread into California or any other new territory. "I cannot consent to introduce slavery into any part of this continent which is now exempt from what seems to me so great an evil," Seward said.
This was all part of a months-long argument that included a few fistfights on the floor of Congress. At one point Senator Henry Foote of Mississippi actually pulled out a pistol and aimed it at Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton.
"I have no pistols!" Benton shouted. "Let him fire! Stand out of the way and let the assassin fire!"
Foote didn't fire.
In the end, most members of Congress agreed with Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts. Webster spoke passionately in favor of keeping the peace between North and South:
"I wish to speak today, not as a Massachusetts man, nor as a Northern man, but as an American ... I speak today for the preservation of the Union."
Congress eventually agreed to the compromise outlined by Henry Clay--the Compromise of 1850, as it was called. "The Union is saved!" shouted people in the streets of Washington, D.C.
Unfortunately for the Union, the Compromise of 1850 made people madder than ever.
Step 8: Chase Fugitives
According to the tough new Fugitive Slave Act, any African American suspected of being a fugitive slave could be captured and dragged before a judge. The accused person had no right to testify, and no right to a trial by jury. The judge simply decided if this person was really a runaway slave. The judge got five dollars if he set the person free, and ten dollars if he sent the person into slavery!
Many Northerners, even if they had not been abolitionists before, howled in anger at what they saw as a cruel and unjust law. And escaped slaves living in the North knew they were in serious danger. Just ask Henry Brown.
A year before, Brown had escaped from slavery by packing himself into a small wooden crate in Richmond, Virginia, and instructing his friends to mail him to an abolitionist office in Philadelphia. The friends wrote "This side up, with care" on the crate. But the people handling the box didn't pay much attention, and Brown spent several miserable hours upside down. After a twenty-six-hour train ride, Brown, dying of heat and thirst, heard people prying open the box. He had no way of knowing where he was. So as the top of the crate was lifted, it was with tremendous joy that he looked up and saw four fairly confused Philadelphia abolitionists staring down at him. Brown stood up and reached out his hand and said, "Good morning, gentlemen.
Soon after passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, Henry Brown (now famous as Henry "Box" Brown) was attacked and nearly captured in Providence, Rhode Island. He managed to beat up the kidnappers, but he knew he could be grabbed at any moment. He got on a ship and sailed to Britain.
Step 9: Write Books
Henry Brown was lucky--most fugitives didn't have rich friends to buy them tickets to Europe. Slave catchers stalked the streets of Northern cities, kidnapping escaped slaves and sometimes even African Americans born free in the North.
A writer named Harriet Beecher Stowe was so mad, she had to do something. But what? Her sister-in-law gave her an idea: "Hattie, if I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that will make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is."
Stowe began writing a book, working at night (after putting her six children to bed) at the kitchen table in her family's house in Maine.In her novel, which she called Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe tried to make readers feel the horrors of slavery. She forced parents to imagine what it would be like to see a slave trader coming to buy their only child.
"If it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie, that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader, tomorrow morning,--if you had seen the man, and heard that the papers were signed and delivered, and you had only from twelve o'clock till morning to make good your escape,--how fast could you walk? How many miles could you make in those few brief hours ... ?"
Published in 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin broke readers' hearts, inspiring many in the North to hate slavery like never before. Offended Southern writers fired back with books of their own, arguing that slaves in the South were actually well treated and happy. They insisted that Northern factory workers were much worse off than enslaved African Americans.
Step 10: Divide Nebraska
With tensions between North and South reaching new heights, we now turn back to the most explosive issue: what to do with all that western land?
Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois thought it was time to divide the huge Nebraska Territory into smaller territories that could become states. But there was a problem. All this land was north of the line drawn in the Missouri Compromise (see Step 3), so it could only be made into free states. Southern senators would never allow this, Douglas knew.
Douglas proposed a solution: We'll throw out the Missouri Compromise and make a new deal called the Kansas-Nebraska Act. We'll divide the territory in two: Nebraska in the north and Kansas in the south. And we'll let the people who settle in the territories vote on whether or not they want slavery.
Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, and President Franklin Pierce signed it into law.
Douglas really thought this would stop the North and South from fighting over slavery in the territories. After all, now it was up to the settlers themselves to decide the slavery question. That was democracy, right? Self-government? Who could be against that?
Actually, lots of people. When Douglas went home to give a speech in Chicago, an angry crowd shouted at him for two solid hours, finally driving him off the stage. In Peoria, Illinois, people were calm enough to listen to Douglas's defense of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Then a lawyer and former member of Congress named Abraham Lincoln rose to respond. Lincoln was so tall and skinny, people said it looked as if he unfolded as he stood up.
Lincoln launched his attack based on one simple idea: "There can be no moral right in connection with one man's making a slave of another." Slavery was wrong, he argued, and they should not allow it to spread to new territories. Did white people really have the right to vote on whether or not they could own black people? Was this really self-government?
"When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government--that is despotism.1"
But whether Lincoln liked it or not, the people of Kansas were going to vote on the slavery question. Which side would win? That would depend on who got there first.
Step 11: Race to Kansas
Supporters and opponents of slavery set off on a race to Kansas. New England abolitionist groups sent money and guns to anti-slavery settlers. But the pro-slavery side had an advantage: the slave state of Missouri was right next to Kansas. The Missouri senator David Atchison took a vacation from Congress to personally lead Missouri men into Kansas. "There are eleven hundred men coming over from Platte County [Missouri] to vote," he said, "and if that ain't enough we can send five thousand--enough to kill every *#$%! abolitionist in the Territory."
And sure enough, just as Kansas was about to elect its first government, five thousand Missouri men rode in and voted--illegally, since only real residents of Kansas were supposed to vote. The new legislature quickly legalized slavery in Kansas.
Calling this government "the bogus legislature," anti-slavery settlers held their own election. The anti-slavery settlers, also known as "Free-Soilers," chose their own government, and, of course, banned slavery. So by the beginning of 1856, Kansas had two different governments meeting in two different cities. Both sides were storing up weapons and organizing armies.
Luckily, that winter was bitterly cold, with temperatures dropping to twenty-nine degrees below zero. Most people stayed inside.
But by May it was warm enough to fight. An eight-hundred-man pro-slavery army marched to Lawrence, home of the Free-Soilers' government. The invading army chased out the Free-Soil leaders, dumped two newspaper printing presses into the Kansas River, and fired a cannon at the Free State Hotel.
The hands of Northern readers shook with fury as they read the next day's newspapers. "STARTLING NEWS FROM KANSAS--THE WAR ACTUALLY BEGUN--LAWRENCE IN RUINS--SEVERAL PERSONS SLAUGHTERED," shouted the headlines of the New York Tribune . (Actually, no one was slaughtered, though one pro-slavery man died when a chunk of the Free State Hotel fell on his head.)
Step 12: Insult Senators
No one was angrier about events in Kansas than Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. In a speech he called "The Crime Against Kansas," Sumner called the pro-slavery army "murderous robbers from Missouri ... picked from the drunken spew and vomit." He also slammed senators who supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act, saving his most personal attack for Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Sumner charged Butler with loving slavery--and also hinted that Butler stammered and spat when he talked. This was a low blow, since Butler had difficulty speaking due to a stroke that had left him partially paralyzed. Even Sumner's friends were a bit offended. And Butler's friends were exploding with rage.
That brings us all the way back to the point where we began: with the caneswinging Congressman Preston Brooks.
Step 13: Hit Him Again!
Preston Brooks was Senator Butler's cousin. Two days after Sumner's speech, Brooks walked into the Senate chamber looking for revenge. He strode up to Sumner's desk and declared: "I have read your speech twice over, carefully. It is libel [a false and harmful statement] on both South Carolina and on Senator Butler, who is a relative of mine."
Then Brooks began beating Sumner on the head with his metal-tipped cane. Blood flowed down Sumner's face as he tried to wriggle his long legs out from under his desk, which was screwed into the floor. Sumner finally ripped up the desk, along with some of the floor, then stumbled to the ground. Brooks continued smacking Sumner until his cane snapped and he was yanked away by other members of Congress.
Brooks was thrilled to find that his attack on Sumner made him a hero in the South. "Every Southern man is delighted," he boasted. One Virginia newspaper commented: "The only regret we feel is that Mr. Brooks did not employ a horsewhip ... instead of a cane." Dozens of Southerners sent him new canes, some with cute sayings on them such as "Hit Him Again!"
Northerners were stunned by this reaction. One member of Congress had beaten another nearly to death and was considered a hero!
Now you know why Brooks attacked Sumner--and you can see that the events leading to this attack were splitting the country apart. The conflict between the North and South was bitter, personal, and a little bit bloody.
It was about to turn seriously violent.
Text copyright © 2008 by Steve Sheinkin