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The immediate result of the Kansas - Nebraska act was to revolutionize parties in the north, but its ultimate outcome was to lead the country to the verge of civil war by creating an intense rivalry in the territory which it opened to settlement. When the bill passed, the general opinion was that while Nebraska would develop into a free community, Kansas was practically assured as a slave state; for its geographical position marked it out as the field for immigration from Missouri, the lower Mississippi Valley, and Kentucky and Tennessee, rather than from the states to the north of the Ohio River.

Although the southern leaders did not initiate the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, they gladly welcomed the apparently undoubted opportunity to gain an additional slave state to counterbalance California in the Senate. The first settlers in Kansas came from western Missouri, and before the end of 1854 many of them took up claims along the Missouri and Kansas rivers, founding the little towns of Kickapoo, Leavenworth, and Atchison, and bringing a few slaves with them. "Popular sovereignty," as established by Douglas, seemed to mean exactly what the southern leaders desired.

But the indignation among northern men over the opening of Kansas and Nebraska to slave-holders now led to an entirely unforeseen attempt to turn the principle of "popular sovereignty" against the south itself, by securing a majority of anti-slavery settlers in Kansas, the very region conceded to the slave-holders. Even before the passage of the bill, steps were taken which led to the formation of a New England Emigrant Aid Society, organized by Eli Thayer, of Worcester, and largely supported by Amos Lawrence and others of the wealthiest and most prominent men of Massachusetts. The purpose of this corporation was to assist the emigration of genuine settlers — not necessarily abolitionists or even anti-Nebraska men — who were unwilling to see Kansas made into a slave state; the society did not enlist men as recruits but was ready to assist applicants by loaning capital for mills and hotels and by furnishing supplies and transportation. In the summer of 1854, the first band of northern settlers reached Kansas, and others soon followed. With them, although not under the auspices of the society, came other immigrants from New York and the states of the "Old Northwest," looking for farms in the fertile valleys of the Kansas and its tributaries. Soon a new community, holding aloof from the Missourian settlements, was planted near the town of Lawrence, named in honor of the principal patron of the Emigrant Aid Society, and the country became aware that the settlement of the territory was taking on an unusual and ominous form.

This "invasion" of Kansas by northern immigrants brought sharply to the front one of the many hazy points in Douglas's "popular sovereignty." When, under the law, was the decision to be made regarding the existence of slavery? Must it be postponed till a state constitution was framed, or could it be made at any earlier time? The full southern theory, announced by Calhoun as early as 1847, and held by most southerners in 1854, was that there could be no interference with slavery by either Congress or the territorial legislature, no community except a state being competent to make a decision. Douglas would not commit himself on this point, but a very general impression prevailed in the north that the principle of popular or "squatter sovereignty" would permit the inhabitants of a territory to decide the point for themselves as soon as they chose. All saw, northern and southern men alike, that in default of any positive protection of slavery by law, actual control of the territorial government by anti-slavery men would effectually prevent Kansas from ever becoming a slave state.

This danger was perceived as soon as the organized eastern emigration began, and a thrill of indignation ran through Missouri and the entire south. The actual purpose of the Emigrant Aid Society was wholly misunderstood, and the extent of its operations exaggerated beyond all measure. It was believed to be a corporation with unbounded resources, formed for the purpose of holding Kansas by force, sending out hordes of mercenaries, mostly abolitionists, enemies of God and man, provisioned, and armed to the teeth to seize Kansas from legitimate southern emigrants. They are "a band of Hessian mercenaries," said a committee of Missourians, in an address to the people of the United States. "To call these people emigrants is a sheer perversion of language. They were not sent to cultivate the soil.. . . They have none of the marks of the old pioneers. If not clothed and fed by the same power which has affected their transportation they would starve. They are hirelings — an army of hirelings.. . . They are military colonies of reckless and desperate fanatics."

The sense of unfairness and unjust aggression which the operations of the Emigrant Aid Society, as seen through these distorted rumors, excited in the south, was as keen in its way as the northern indignation had been over the repeal of the slavery restriction. The Missourians and southerners in general felt that the attempt to settle Kansas with northern emigrants was a direct effort to take from them what was rightfully theirs, and they were at once driven into a counter-effort to defeat this aggression by controlling the territorial government from the start in the interests of slavery. The contest thus begun not only convulsed Kansas but speedily shook the country from end to end.

The first open conflict between the opposing forces came in the autumn of 1854. The territorial governor, appointed by Pierce to carry the Kansas-Nebraska act into effect, was Andrew H. Reeder, a Pennsylvania Democrat, who announced his entire willingness to see Kansas become a slave state, a man of an excitable temperament, wholly unprepared and to a large degree unfitted for the task which he found thrust upon him. No sooner had he arrived and named November 29 for the election of a territorial delegate than the storm broke. On that day over sixteen hundred armed men from the western counties of Missouri, who had been organized in "Blue Lodges" for the purpose of making Kansas a slave state, marched into the territory under the leadership of United States Senator Atchison, and cast votes for Whitfield, a former Indian agent, and a southerner, as territorial delegate. Owing possibly to the general confusion in the region, as well as to his desire to avoid trouble, Reeder raised no objection to this illegality; nor did the House hesitate to admit Whitfield to a seat in December 1854, and the Missourian invasion, although known in the east, aroused little comment in the whirl of the Republican and Know-Nothing campaign.

During the winter of 1854-1855, the Missourians appealed to the south to prevent the swamping of the slave-holders in Kansas by a flood of New England abolitionists. More money, more settlers, and arms must be supplied if Kansas was to be kept as a slave state. "Two thousand slaves actually in Kansas," urged B. P. Stringfellow, a Missouri leader, "will make a slave state out of it. Once fairly there nobody will disturb them." By the spring of 1855, the excitement in Missouri had become intense, and when Reeder ordered the election of a territorial legislature for March 30, it was felt that the decisive moment was at hand. Although a census of the territory, taken in February 1855, showed that out of a total of 8601 inhabitants more than half came from the south, and less than seven hundred came from New England, the Missourians felt it would not do to leave anything to chance. On the election day, at least five thousand armed and organized men, led by Atchison, Stringfellow, and others, invaded the territory, took possession of the polls in nearly every district, overawed or drove away the election judges, and cast 6307 ballots. The northern immigrants, most of them utterly unused to violence, and all unprepared for such a performance, were too astounded and alarmed to make any effective protest; and when Reeder was called upon to declare the returns he found himself surrounded by Missourians, while he had scarcely any independent supporters.

Had Reeder possessed the courage to declare the entire election fraudulent, the history of the territory and of the country might have been different; but he did no more than to throw out returns from seven contested districts, and gave certificates of election to the remaining members, who, when they met as a legislature, promptly unseated the seven Free-Soilers. Kansas was thus organized with a legislature composed wholly of pro-slavery men, and the south scored the first success in the contest. The victory was won, however, by fraud and violence, and the whole theory of peaceful "popular sovereignty" vanished into thin air.

Very significant were the different ways in which the two sections regarded this election. Upon the people of the north, it produced an impression of horror and disgust. "The impudence of this attempt," said Greeley, "is paralleled only by its atrocity. ... If a man can be found in the Free State to counsel the surrender of Kansas to the Slave power, he is a coward and slave in soul." In the south, on the contrary, it was universally regarded as an act of justifiable self-defense against the unfair encroachments of the north; one invasion had simply been answered by another one in behalf of the right. In no clearer way could the differing standards of the north and the south be contrasted.

To the unfortunate Reeder now fell the duty of cooperating as governor with the legislature chosen by the "Border Ruffians," as the Missourians began to be called. First, he showed by his conduct what a revolution had been worked by his six months' experience in his views regarding slavery and slave-holders, for in returning to Washington to consult the president, he made a speech in Pennsylvania which told the story of the election in detail. When he reached Washington he found himself the object of a growing southern dislike and suspicion. His failure to oppose the northern invaders, his refusal to cooperate with the Missourians, and still more his letters and speeches, earned him in southern eyes the epithets of "incompetent," "corrupt," "traitor," and "scoundrel."

Reeder found Pierce much disturbed by the growing excitement in the south over Kansas affairs, and unable or unwilling to give him any support. He showed so plainly that he would welcome Reeder's resignation that the governor offered to do so, provided Pierce would give him a written statement approving his conduct; but this Pierce dared not do. After fruitless interviews, Reeder returned to Kansas, with the eyes of the whole country upon him, but sure that his official career was to be a short one. The territorial legislature met in July, at Pawnee, a town without inhabitants, according to contemporary accounts, where Reeder had taken up a quantity of land. The governor's message was conciliatory, but the legislature disregarded him utterly, and, in spite of his indignant protest, adjourned to another settlement, Shawnee Mission, on the Missouri border, where it proceeded to enact a set of laws that won immediate notoriety. Regardless of the Calhoun theory of the impotence of a mere territorial legislature over slavery, it passed statutes to establish and protect the institution in the territory, adopting for the purpose the text of the Missouri slave code.

The principal statute, entitled "An act to punish offenses against slave property," inflicted the death penalty for inciting a slave insurrection; death or ten years at hard labor for aiding a slave to escape; and two years at hard labor for denying "by speaking or writing," or by printing or introducing any printed matter, "the right of persons to hold slaves in this territory." The last section also was noteworthy. "No person," it ran, "who is conscientiously opposed to holding slaves or who does not admit the right to hold slaves in this territory, shall sit as jurors on the trial of any prosecution for any violation of any of the sections of this act." The news of this legislation intensified the rising anger of the north. "This will suffice," said the Tribune, "if enforced, to hang nearly every anti-slavery man in the territory. . . . And upheld we presume it will be." Reeder remained in office but a short time, being removed on August 15, nominally because of land speculation and "lack of sympathy with the people," but everybody knew that it was owing to his refusal to adapt himself to the pro-slavery Democrats.

By this time the country was aware that a new and serious "Kansas question" was shaping itself. The anti-slavery indignation of the north, which had dwindled in the winter of 1855, now rapidly revived at what appeared the violent and ruthless determination on the part of the Missourians to make Kansas slave territory with or without law, justice, or a majority of voters. The south, equally aroused, was now thoroughly committed to the effort to defeat the lawless invasions of the northerners, and raised a universal voice of approval over the Missourian exploits. The Georgia Democratic convention of June 5, 1855, resolved, "That we sympathize with the friends of the slavery cause in Kansas in their manly efforts to maintain their rights and the interests of the southern people, and that we rejoice at their recent victories over the paid adventurers and Jesuitical horde of northern abolitionism. . . that the deep interest taken by the people of Missouri ... is both natural and proper, and that it is their right and duty to extend to their southern brethren in the territory every legitimate and honorable sympathy and support."

In the summer of 1855, the situation in Kansas was further complicated by the sudden action of the northern settlers, who had hitherto played a passive part. Led by Dr. Charles Robinson, an aggressive, cool-headed politician, and an agent of the Emigrant Aid Society, who had been in California in 1849, the northerners determined to give a new demonstration of "popular sovereignty" by repudiating the territorial legislature as illegal and seeking admission to the Union under a state constitution. At the same time, they prepared to meet force with force in case the "Border Ruffians" again invaded the territory. Rifles and ammunition were sent for, men were drilled, and "Jim" Lane, a reckless, volatile man from Indiana, with little soundness of judgment but with great natural oratorical ability, became the military chief. During September and October, several mass conventions organized a "Free State party" and provided for a constitutional convention, which met duly at Topeka, on October 23, comprising only delegates elected by the Free State settlers, and drew up the "Topeka Constitution" prohibiting slavery. It is worthy of note that the convention also submitted to popular vote, simultaneously with the constitution, an ordinance prohibiting the entrance of negroes, free or slave, into the state, a fact indicating how far from abolitionist the northern settlers were. During this time occurred the regular election of a territorial delegate, but the Free State men conducted a separate election of their own, and unanimously sent Reeder to contest the seat to which Whitfield had been reelected by all the pro-slavery votes.

This policy of the northern settlers stirred the southern element to lively indignation and contempt. The whole south regarded the Free State movement as a trick by which the "abolitionists," defeated in the election of the territorial legislature, sought nonetheless to gain control of the region. Missourians began to utter threats of violence, and when Shannon of Ohio, the new governor, arrived on the scene, he found the situation growing daily more menacing. Shannon, a Douglas Democrat, favorably disposed to the southern claim for Kansas, easily accepted the pro-slavery view that the Topeka constitution was a revolutionary proceeding, and in his inaugural address clearly showed that he meant to oppose the northerners. He even presided at a meeting at Leavenworth where the pro-slavery sympathizers organized themselves into a "Law-and-Order party" to oppose the treasonable plans of the Free State people, and in a speech declared "The President is behind you!"

By this time it was evident that "popular sovereignty" was producing serious consequences. There were two communities in the same territory, living in separate towns and governed by separate laws. The slightest event might cause a collision, for the Missourians were true frontiersmen, habituated to the ready use of knife or gun and only waiting for a pretext to "clean out the abolition crowd." Cases of brawls and shootings became frequent. Finally, in late November, just before the time set by the Free State men for a vote upon their constitution, an episode occurred that nearly brought on civil war. A Free State man who had been arrested by Sheriff Jones, a red-hot Missourian, for uttering threats against a pro-slavery murderer, was freed by a band of northerners and taken to Lawrence. Without further delay, the infuriated sheriff sent word to Missouri, and later, as an after-thought, to Shannon; and at once about fifteen hundred excited "Border Ruffians" swarmed into the territory, to be joined by the pro-slavery, territorial, "Law-and-Order" militia. The town of Lawrence was found, however, to be surrounded by earthworks, behind which lay several hundred Free State men armed in part with the dreaded Sharps rifles, and the invading force hesitated to attack. This gave time for the cooler heads on each side to work for peace; and finally Shannon, upon visiting the scene, saw that the Free State town had done nothing in the eye of the law to call for any such attack, and drew up a sort of treaty of peace. The Missourians withdrew in great disgust and freely announced that they were simply biding their time.

After this bloodless affair, somewhat absurdly called the "Wakarusa War," the Free State party carried through the rest of its program undisturbed, except for a few brawls and shooting affrays. The Topeka constitution was ratified on December 15, and the ordinance excluding negroes was adopted, and on January 15, 1856 governor and a legislature were elected. On March 4 the Topeka legislature met, and, following the cautious advice of Robinson, the governor, made no attempt for the moment to assume jurisdiction over the pro-slavery settlements, but adopted a memorial to Congress asking for admission to the Union, and adjourned until the summer to await events.

Such was the astounding result of a year and a half of "popular sovereignty" in Kansas. The organized immigration from New England; the Missourian retort of fraud and intimidation; the illegal voting, and the extreme pro-slavery action of the Shawnee Mission legislature were utterly beyond the imagination of the senators and representatives who passed the bill in 1854. On the other hand, the attempted imitation of California by the Free State men, involving a defiance of the territorial authorities and an ignoring of nearly one-half of the actual inhabitants of the territory, was a total surprise to the eastern anti-Nebraska men. The settlers in Kansas, without direction from any quarter, took affairs into their own hands and created a political situation as exciting as the original Kansas question, and far more ominous. The time had come when the federal government could not avoid taking a hand. The rival organizations, the contesting delegates, and the imminent danger of war between the factions forced Congress and the president to act. When the thirty-fourth Congress, chosen in the months of political upheaval, met in December 1855, the attention of the whole country was focused upon the struggle for control of the territory, and sectional passions were deeply involved.