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Such was the condition in Kansas at the opening of the presidential year of 1856, and it became one of the leading issues of the campaign. The whole country was aroused over reports from Kansas, and it was impossible that such a question remain long out of the halls of Congress, notwithstanding the claim of Douglas that his famous bill would remove the slavery question from national politics. In May, 1856, Senator Sumner made a powerful speech on "The Crime against Kansas." The speech was a fearful arraignment of the slave power. But the speaker went out of his way to abuse certain senators whom he did not like, especially Senator Butler of South Carolina, who was then absent from the city, and who had made no special personal attack on Sumner.

Charles Sumner, with all his learning, was a narrow-minded man. He was opinionated, egotistical, and incapable of giving credit to another for an honest difference of opinion. But he was sincerely honest and courageous.¹ His espousal of the cause of the slave when that cause was very unpopular rose from the innermost depths of his soul. His furious attack on Butler was occasioned by the indignation expressed by the latter at the audacity of the Topeka convention in applying for statehood. But Sumner suffered severely for his extravagance. Two days after making this speech, as he sat at his desk writing, after the Senate had adjourned, he was assaulted with a cane by Preston Brooks, a member of the House and a relative of Senator Butler. Brooks rained blows on Sumner's head with great ferocity. Sumner sat so near his desk that he had no chance to defend himself; but at length he rose, wrenching the desk from its fastenings. Brooks then grappled with him and continued his blows until Sumner fell bleeding and unconscious to the floor.

So great were the injuries of the Massachusetts senator that he did not fully recover for four years; and indeed, never after this assault was he the powerful, robust athlete that he had been before. No incident in many years revealed more vividly the vast gulf between the North and the South than did the different manner of their receiving the news of this assault on Sumner² Throughout the North the deed was denounced as a cowardly outrage, unworthy of any but a bully and a thug. At the South, where Sumner was hated above all men, the verdict was that he received only the punishment he deserved. Brooks was hailed as a champion and a hero, and was presented with many canes. He resigned his seat in the House because of a majority vote--not the necessary two thirds--for his expulsion; but he was immediately reëlected by his district.³

Meantime matters were growing worse on the plains of Kansas. On the day that intervened between the closing of Sumner's speech and the assault by Brooks the town of Lawrence was sacked by a mob. The House of Representatives sent a committee of three to Kansas to investigate matters and report. This committee, composed of William A. Howard of Michigan, John Sherman of Ohio, and Mordecai Oliver of Missouri, after examining several hundred witnesses, reported in July. Howard and Sherman reported favorably to the free-state party, but agreed that the election of Reeder to Congress, as that of Whitfield, was illegal. Oliver made a minority report favoring the southern view.

With the attack on Lawrence the Civil War in Kansas may be said to have begun. Soon after this occurred the massacre of Pottawatomie, the leader of which was John Brown. Brown had come from the East to join his sons, who had been among the early settlers of Kansas. He was an ascetic and a fanatic. He had come to Kansas to make it a free state at any hazard. He regarded slavery with a mortal hatred, and while his courage was unlimited and his intentions upright, his soul was too utterly narrow to see a thing in its true light. He believed that the only way to free the slaves was to kill the slaveholders. "Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins," said John Brown.

A few free-state men, one of whom was a neighbor of Brown, had been killed by the opposite party, and Brown determined that an equal number of them should suffer death to expiate the crime. He organized a night raid--his sons and a few others--and started on his bloody errand. They called at one farmhouse after another and slew the men in cold blood. He did not inquire if they were guilty of not guilty; enough if they belonged to the opposite party. One man was dragged from the presence of a sick wife. Her pleadings that he be spared were not heeded. He was murdered in cold blood in the road before his house. Before the end of that bloody night raid Brown's party had put six or seven men to death--for no crime except that they belonged to the opposite party and had made threats--an offense of which Brown's party were equally guilty. When the news of this ghastly work was flashed over the country, the people in general refused to believe it; and to the credit of the free-state people in Kansas, they repudiated it as wholly unwarranted.


¹While he was uttering this speech, in which he attacked Senator Douglas also without mercy, the latter said to a friend: "Do you hear that man? He may be a fool, but I tell you that he has pluck." Poore's "Reminiscences," Vol. I, p. 461.
²Rhodes, Vol. II, p. 143
³Brooks died the following January, and Butler in May of the same year.

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The Struggle for Kansas
Created May 20, 2000
©Kathy Leigh 2000
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