Violence in Pre-Civil War America

Aida Kane

The Violent Dispute of the Popular Vote

Civil wars often take decades to develop and end up igniting an entire nation. For example, the French Wars of Religion began with a first stake in 1523, but the Massacre of Vassy and the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre only took place in 1562 and 1572. The same was true for the American Civil War, three centuries later. A nation that created and ushered cohesiveness in the last quarter of the 18th century gave way to civil unrest and political violence that grew over the decades and raged across the Union. Rebellions, mob violence, riots, physical assaults and duels shook the Antebellum Years and this violence was accompanied with clear political goals. Among these aims was the dispute of popular votes. What historians would call “Bleeding Kansas” demonstrates the various acts of violence used to overturn a popular decision. In 1854, the settlers of Kansas and Nebraska requested territorial status from Congress. Immediately, the question of whether these two territories would be opened to slavery came to the forefront. The conflict exhibited an opposition between Northern emigrants who desired to make Kansas a free state, and pro-slavery raiders, who crossed the river from Missouri to ensure representation of southern interests. Both Kansas and Nebraska were north of 36º 30' and, under the Missouri Compromise of 1820, the territories would have outlawed slavery. However, with the desire to reduce the sectional and appease relations between the North and South, Senator Stephen Douglas from Illinois introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Act would allow settlers to make their own decision on the matter. Senator Douglas would lead the appeal of the Missouri Compromise and open slavery to the entire territory acquired in the Louisiana Purchase. Abraham Lincoln considered the Kansas-Nebraska Act a legal term for the perpetuation and expansion of slavery and, as such, nothing less than the possible death knell of the Union and the meaning of America. The bill enticed a rise in anti-slavery sentiment across the North, especially in Kansas. The first territorial election was held in 1855 and thousands of Missourians crossed the river to cast illicit votes to make Kansas a slave state. The cheating was so outrageous, and the fraud in favour of a pro-slavery legislation so severe, that the territorial governor invalidated the results. In 1856, anti-slavery settlers assembled in Topeka and adopted their own anti-slavery constitution. That summer was particularly bloody; in the month of May alone, both the sacking of Lawrence and the Pottawatomie massacre took place. The former occurred when 800 galvanized pro-slavery settlers stormed the city of Lawrence, Kansas at dawn to terrorize and intimidate anti-slavery settlers. Apart from an accidental death, nobody was killed. However, the pro-slavery partisans pillaged, ransacked and destroyed businesses and homes. The Free State Hotel and the house of Charles L. Robinson, the Territorial Governor under the Topeka Constitution, were both burnt to ashes. The mob, led by Douglas County Sheriff Samuel J. Jones, also targeted the Kansas Free State newspaper and the Herald of Freedom newspaper by throwing the presses in the streets and destroying the offices. The Free State newspaper suffered to the extent that the publication was permanently shut down, while the Kansas Free State closed for several years before reopening.
Violence in Pre-Civil War America
The ruins of the Free State Hotel after the sacking of Lawrence in 1856

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Violence in Pre-Civil War America
The Caning of Charles Sumner in 1856

Verbal Retaliations and Targeted Physical Assaults

Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts was one of the most notable anti-slavery leaders and abolitionists in American history. Like many men of his time, he combined the ambition of political action with intellectual and literary affirmation. After graduating from Harvard Law, he spent three years travelling throughout Europe and was particularly attentive when he noticed three black men attending the same lecture at the Sorbonne. The fact that Blacks were present among other attendees without triggering any animosity from their white counterparts made a strong impression on him. Sumner's hatred for slavery mainly stemmed from his family who were abolitionists in Boston in the late 18th century. Just like his lifelong friend Salmon P. Chase, Sumner believed that the abolition of slavery was a step toward a full transformation of American society and that the ultimate goal was full civil rights for the Blacks. Such a political vision outraged Southerners. Sumner was quickly accused of being an extremist who polarized and aggravated sectional conflicts. In Salmon P. Chase: Lincoln's Vital Rival, New York Times bestselling author Walter Stahr explains how during the Kansas-Nebraska Bill debates, the last address of Stephen Douglas, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, was mainly directed to Chase and Sumner. Douglas stated, "You both degrade your own state by arousing passions and prejudices." However, in terms of insults and verbal attacks, Sumner gave as much as he received. Being extremely well read, with an encyclopedic knowledge of legal matters and history, his speeches were incisive, sharp-witted and filled with literary quotations. His infamous Crime Against Kansas speech was no exception. In the months that preceded the delivery of the speech, Sumner visited William and Frances Seward in Washington to seek their advice. William H. Seward was Senator of New York and would later become Secretary of State in Abraham Lincoln's cabinet. In his biography on Seward, Stahr reveals that Frances explained her doubts around "the cutting personal sarcasm, which seldom amends, and is less frequently forgiven." Despite these doubts, Sumner ignored the recommendation. Crime Against Kansas was delivered in the Senate on May 19-20 1856. In true Sumner style, Athens, Sparta, Crecy, Agincourt and Rome were cited to provide a broader historical context. The speech denounced the repeal of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. He also argued that the hostilities between pro-slavery propagandists and their opponents were spreading beyond Kansas and across the country. He stated, "Foreshadowing a strife which, unless happily averted by the triumph of Freedom, will become war fratricidal, parricidal war with an accumulated wickedness beyond the wickedness of any war in human annals..." The part of the speech that became the cornerstone of abolitionism and embodied the violence of pre-civil war America came about when Sumner pinpointed the "criminals'' who were responsible for the Kansas aberration. He identified them as the Senator from South Carolina (Mr. Butler), and the Senator from Illinois (Mr. Douglas). He declared: “The Senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentiments of honour and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight I mean the harlot, Slavery. For her, his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this Senator.” By associating slavery with a mistress, Sumner implied that Senator Butler was not only devoted to the economic and social system of slavery but also to the preference of having enslaved women as sexual partners. Pointing directly or indirectly to the sexual practices of slave owners was a terrible affront to Southerners. Two days after the speech, Senator Butler's cousin Preston Brooks walked into the Senate and located Sumner, telling him that his speech was an insult to his cousin and to the state of South Carolina. Before Sumner could even react, Brooks struck him with his cane. Numerous blows to the head and the neck knocked Sumner to the floor. Chaos immediately overtook the Senate. Stahr explains: “When Senator John Crittenden of Kentucky tried to intervene, shouting ‘Don't kill him!’ at Brooks, Lawrence Keitt, another South Caroline member of Congress, raised his own cane, shouting back at Crittenden, ‘Leave them alone, God damn you!’ Brooks kept striking Sumner even as the cane broke into pieces, and Sumner wrenched the desk from the floor. When Brooks finally stopped and stalked off, the bleeding Sumner was carried from the chamber by his colleagues, nearly dead.” In various ways, the caning of Charles Sumner reveals the power of words in politics. From Brooks' perspective, Sumner's speech was an offense that required satisfaction. His violent retaliation was a way to restore honour for Senator Butler and his state. The brutality and savagery of the attack also reinforced pro-slavery fundamentals which tipped the balance of power in their favour.
Ancestry UK

Rebellions and the Protection of Freedmen

On February 12 1793, President George Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act into law. . The Act ordered states to deliver enslaved people who had escaped back to their owners when requested. The Act was included in Article IV, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution. Yet, in the decades that followed the establishment of the Act, Southern slave-holders continuously complained about the lack of enforcement. Some 57 years later, as part of the compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act was strengthened and bolstered. People who harbored runaways faced civil and criminal penalties with up to six months of imprisonment. Abolitionists and anti-slavery activists fought the two Fugitive Slave Acts on many fronts. People like Salmon P. Chase took the legal route, defending runaways such as Matilda Lawrence, Mary Towns and Samuel Watson. Another route was insurgency and rebellion. In the brilliant book There Is A River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America, scholar and historian Vincent Harding retraces the many sides of the African Americans' fight for freedom, their combativeness and the countless rebellions that began in the slave ships and continued to Reconstruction. Harding explains that black men in cities across the country formed patrol units to try to locate possible slave catchers. In cities such as Cincinnati and Cleveland, black paramilitary companies were dedicated to protecting freedmen and freedwomen. The black resistance groups in the North were not afraid of radical acts of disobedience or taking bold action. John Jacobs, a fugitive from South Carolina who escaped to New York City, had a clear and unequivocal message for abolitionists and the black community in New York City. According to Harding, he stated: “My colored brethren, if you have not swords, I say to you, sell your garments and buy one… They said that they cannot take us back to the South; but I say, under the present law they can; and now I say unto you; let them only take your dead bodies [Tremendous cheers]... I would, my friends, advise you to show a front to our tyrants and arm yourselves ... and I would advise the women to have their knives too.” The words of John Jacobs were perfectly aligned with what is known to be the most violent armed resistance that took place between the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Civil War. It occurred in Christiana, Pennsylvania in September 1851 when Edward Gorsuch, a slave owner from Maryland, went to Philadelphia searching for four black men he claimed belonged to him. Along with his sons, neighbours, relatives and a deputy U.S. marshal, Gorsuch set out to the house in Christiana where he was told the four men could be. When the posse arrived, they found a group of armed black men in the house, barricaded and ready to protect the four black men. The resistants were led by William Parker and have been engaged in multiple rescue operations throughout the years. In There Is A River, Harding explains that when Gorsuch saw the resistants, he yelled, "I want my property!" Parker replied: “Go in the room down there, and see if there is anything belonging to you. There are beds and a bureau, chairs and other things. Then go out to the barn; there you will find a cow and some hogs. See if any of them are yours.” At that moment, the marshal shouted that they were going to burn the house to ashes if the four fugitives didn't surrender. As the two left the house, they continued arguing outside and quickly more black people armed with clubs, corn cutters, guns, and rifles joined the resistance. The argument quickly escalated into a brawl, then a riot, when shots were fired. Edward Gorsuch was shot and killed, but the riot didn't stop there. The violence continued until the federal government sent 45 U.S. Marines from Philadelphia. According to Harding, they arrested five white people and 36 black people; however, William Parker had already escaped and he and his closest companions were on their way to Canada. Most of those arrested would later be acquitted. In this outcome, Southerners and slave owners would see that the Fugitive Slave Act would never be fully implemented. From the perspective of abolitionists and anti-slavery activists across the North, the Christiana Riot was the successful incarnation of a rebellion. This armed struggle to fight the Fugitive Slave Act of 1851 served as a crucial sign that violent protests to fight slavery could be won.
Violence in Pre-Civil War America
The Christiana Riot of 1851
Violence in Pre-Civil War America

Aida Kane

Aida Kane is the founder of a small production company called Wallflower Documentaries. Her passion is to tell the great stories of those who came before us in historical art house documentaries. In addition to working on documentaries, she's a bilingual English/French journalist and the founder of an EdTech company called Picnotes.
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