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When Congress was ready for action, the Kansas situation presented a threefold problem: the policy of the federal government towards the territory; the attitude which parties should take on the pressing question; and the effect of the controversy on the election of a president, vice-president, and congressmen. By this time Pierce had definitely committed himself.

During the early stages of the Kansas difficulties the administration had not intervened directly except to remove Reeder; while nothing was done against the fraudulent territorial legislature, no impediment was placed in the way of the Free State party movements; and Shannon, in the "Wakarusa War," tried in vain to get the use of federal troops against Lawrence. Every instinct of caution urged Pierce to avoid a decisive stand that would furnish an opportunity for further party attacks. But to expect Pierce to separate himself from his party leaders, or even to restrain them, was out of the question. With his cabinet and Douglas, as well as the southern spokesmen, united in disapproving the Free State program, it was inevitable that he should adopt their attitude.

On January 24, 1856, he sent a special message on Kansas, which totally condemned the Topeka movement in precisely the terms employed by the leading southern newspapers and speakers. The whole trouble, he said, arose from the Emigrant Aid Society, "that extraordinary measure of propagandist colonization of the Territory of Kansas to prevent the free and natural action of its inhabitants in its internal organization." After criticizing Reeder's career with severity, he declared the Topeka organization to be "revolutionary." "It will become treasonable insurrection," he said, "if it reaches the length of organized resistance to the fundamental or to any other federal law and to the authority of the general government." In phraseology which to Republicans seemed intended as a direct offer of aid to the "Border Ruffians," he intimated his purpose to use force to suppress insurrection, and if summoned by territorial authority, to prevent invasions of citizens of other states. "But," he added, "it is not the duty of the president of the United States to volunteer interposition by force to preserve the purity of elections." His sole recommendation to Congress was the passage of an enabling act for the formation of a state constitution.

On February 11 he issued a proclamation directed against both "Border Ruffians" and Free State men, warning persons planning insurrection or invasion to disperse, announcing his purpose to use federal troops to maintain order, and calling upon citizens of other states "to abstain from unauthorized intermeddling in the local affairs of the territory." Regarded as a tactical move, Pierce's ^action was needless unless the immediate necessity of satisfying his southern constituents overbore all other considerations. The administration needed to avoid every appearance of partiality, and in this Pierce was wholly unsuccessful. His attitude rendered any action by Congress impossible unless the anti-slavery majority in the House chose to accept his ground, and it furnished at the same time a vulnerable point for attacks from an excited and hostile north. The upshot was the total failure of action by Congress and a steady increase in popular agitation, while in Kansas the situation went from bad to worse.

The congressional contest was opened by a report from the committee on territories, by Douglas, who demonstrated to his own satisfaction the entire legality of the territorial legislature and the illegality of the Topeka organization, laying the blame for everything upon the Emigrant Aid Societies, which he called "combinations to stimulate an unnatural and false system of emigration with a view to controlling elections." Collamer, of Vermont, in a minority report, laid emphasis upon the Missourian invasions, which Douglas contemptuously minimized, and defended the character of the Free State leaders. A few days later, on March 17, Douglas introduced a bill for the settlement of Kansas affairs in the form of an enabling act for the election of a constitutional convention and advocated it in a powerful speech. As usual, he took the offensive from the start, mercilessly attacking Reeder's record, and pointing out that before the Free State men determined to repudiate the territorial legislature as illegal they had repeatedly recognized it. He proved, by quotations from utterances of the more hot-blooded Topeka leaders, including a phrase of Reeder's about carrying the contest to "a bloody issue," that the Free State movement was "a case of open and undisguised rebellion."

In conclusion, he savagely denounced the operations of the Emigrant Aid Society. "The people of Missouri," he insisted, "never contemplated the invasion and conquest of the territory of Kansas; to whatever extent they had imitated the example of the New England Emigrant Aid Societies, it was done upon the principles of self-defense. . . . From these facts it is apparent that the whole responsibility for all the disturbances in Kansas rests upon the Massachusetts Emigrant Company and its affiliated Societies." This bill and the speech, stripped of the abuse of the Emigrant Aid Society and the special pleading in behalf of the territorial government, meant that Douglas and Pierce and their associates recognized the difficulties of the existing situation to the extent of being willing to provide an opportunity for the people of the territory to vote on the slavery problem.

The anti-Nebraska opposition, however, was not ready to abandon the Kansas question to the Pierce administration and met Douglas's plan by advocating the admission of Kansas under the Topeka constitution. When the application of the Topeka legislature was brought to Washington by Lane, the Free State leader, it was done in such a bungling manner as to enable the Democrats to handle the memorial without mercy; but the efficiency of the Republicans in the debate was such as to put the administration on the defensive. Hale, Sumner, Seward, and Wade were now joined by Trumbull, of Illinois, Harlan, of Iowa, and Wilson, of Massachusetts, and they made a series of severe attacks upon the pro-slavery party in Kansas. Wilson, always a bold speaker, filled parts of two days with a description of the Missourians' violence and the fraudulent voting, and a defense of the New England settlers. "Sir," he said, "the Emigrant Aid Society of New England has violated no law, human or divine. Standing here, sir, before the Senate and the Country, I challenge the Senator from Missouri or any other Senator, to furnish to the Senate one fact, one authenticated fact to show that the Emigrant Aid Society has performed any illegal act, any act inconsistent with the obligations of patriotism, morality or religion. . . . Those who charge the emigrants from the North with aggression upon the members of other sections of the country, utter that which has not the shadow of an element of truth in it and they know it or they are grossly ignorant of Kansas affairs."

In the House the Kansas question took the form of a struggle for the seat of congressional delegate, which was contested by Whitfield and Reeder; and after a month of heated discussion, the matter was shelved for a time by the appointment of a special committee to visit Kansas and report on the conduct of elections in the territory. A practical result of the election of an anti-Nebraska speaker was the appointment by Banks of Sherman, of Ohio, and Howard, of Michigan, as the majority of the committee, with Oliver, of Missouri, as the only Democrat. For a time, after the departure of this committee, Kansas matters occupied a less prominent place.

While matters were thus in suspense in Congress, Pierce's message and proclamation led to grave events in Kansas. As soon as spring brought the opening of navigation on the Missouri River, northern and southern reinforcements began to enter the territory where, during the previous cold winter, there had been an entire cessation of hostilities. The time had now come, in the opinion of the pro-slavery party, for a decisive stroke; and, relying on Pierce's utterances and the speeches of dozens of Democrats as promises of support in enforcing their authority, they decided to expunge the Free State party by legal process. A pretext came when Sheriff Jones, whose conduct in and about the town of Lawrence can only be interpreted as inspired by a desire to pick a quarrel, was shot in the back by a northern assassin. Although the Free State leaders made every effort to disavow the attempted murder, Judge Lecompte, of the territorial court, seizing upon this as evidence of the lawless character of the whole Free State party, charged a grand jury that all who resist the territorial laws "resist the power and authority of the United States and are therefore guilty of high treason. If you find that no resistance has been made, but that combinations have been formed for the purpose of resisting them, . . . then you must find bills for constructive treason."

The jury, composed of pro-slavery men, promptly indicted Reeder, Robinson, Lane, and all the Free State leaders for treason, and presented the Free State Hotel and the Free State newspaper in Lawrence as nuisances. The blow was well-aimed. Reeder fled from the territory in disguise, and Robinson was caught in Missouri, brought back to Kansas, and kept a prisoner, in danger of his life from a pro-slavery mob. Then, on May 11, the United States marshal summoned a posse to abate the nuisance of the Free State Hotel, and at once the Border Ruffians came over the river and were joined by the Kansas territorial — that is, pro-slavery — militia, including Buford's band. The Free State people, hesitating to oppose a federal officer, tried to placate their enemies through public meetings and promises, but Jones, Stringfellow, Atchison, and the rest were not to be balked a second time. Lawrence was entered on May 21, the hotel burned, the press destroyed, some leaders arrested, and many houses pillaged. Though only two lives were lost in this affair, the intensely partisan action of Lecompte and the grand jury, and the reckless destruction of property by the so-called posse, made a profound impression at the east.

Almost simultaneously with this action in Kansas, an episode in Congress stirred popular feeling to the depths. On May 19, Sumner delivered a speech in the Senate which, in the tension of the time, fairly drove southern members to fury. It was entitled "The Crime against Kansas," and very nearly merited the name he attached to it — "the most thorough philippic ever uttered in a legislative body." Sumner was a high-minded philanthropist, utterly incapable of understanding an opponent, and to him, the attempt to make Kansas a slave state was something inconceivably repulsive. On this occasion he freed his mind with almost hyperbolical language in a speech as offensive and insulting to the south as the fertile imagination of the author could possibly make it. Mixed in were personalities as contemptuous and sneering as could be uttered in the Senate, aimed at Douglas and especially at Butler, of South Carolina, who had made a savage attack on Sumner two years before, which had not been forgotten.

Douglas rose on the spot and repaid Sumner's attack with vituperation of equal bitterness and scorn; but southern leaders, when insulted, felt that they needed a different sort of satisfaction, for in their eye Sumner had put himself so far below the plane of decency as to be worthy only of such chastisement as one would give to a dog or an impudent slave. Two days after the conclusion of Sumner's speech, a relative of Senator Butler's, a member of the House from South Carolina named Preston S. Brooks, who was personally unknown to Sumner, entered the Senate chamber at the close of the session, stood by Sumner's desk, and, after stating who he was, struck him, without further warning, a heavy blow on the head. Stunned and blinded, Sumner was unable to make any resistance and was quickly beaten into insensibility, while Keitt, of South Carolina, and Edmundson, of Virginia, stood by to prevent interference, and Toombs, Douglas, and a number of other Democrats remained quietly in the vicinity.

This affair produced a tremendous sensation. The Senate could take no action since Brooks was a member of the other branch of Congress, but the House appointed an investigating committee, which took evidence and reported on June 2. An attempt to expel Brooks and Keitt failed to receive a two-thirds vote, but each resigned, to be triumphantly returned by his admiring constituents. Although Sumner barely escaped with his life and was practically unable to occupy his seat in the Senate for three years, he was commonly sneered at in the south for simulating illness in order to win sympathy. "Sumner and his friends," wrote hot-blooded Governor Wise, of Virginia, "lie like people with brains already soft. . . . Such skulking poltroonery would hurt a man anywhere that the institution of slavery exalts masters to a pride of genteel manhood. At first, I regretted the caning, now I am glad of it." Almost two years later, when Sumner had recovered sufficiently to vote in the Senate but not to speak, the correspondent of the Charleston Mercury described him as a "masterpiece of hypocrisy, cowardice, and infamy," exciting the "ridicule and contempt of the spectators as they looked at his gross, beefy, carcass, which he would have his nigger-worshipping friends believe was still laboring under the affliction of great feebleness and debility."

The differing points of view of the north and south were clearly brought out by this assault. In the north, the provocation given by the coarse personalities of Sumner's speech was ignored, and the action of Brooks was regarded as typical of the slave-holder. The cowardice shown in attacking a man under such a disadvantage was the chief feature that impressed the north. "I denounce it," cried Burlingame, of Massachusetts, in the House, "in the name of that fair play which bullies and prize-fighters respect. What! strike a man when he is pinioned — when he cannot respond to a blow! Call you that chivalry?" On the other hand, Brooks was enthusiastically praised by southern congressmen, newspapers, and public meetings was given canes by admiring young men, and was eulogized as the personification of "gallantry." To them, he had soundly thrashed an abolitionist, and the circumstances of the deserved punishment did not matter. The violence which shocked northern men struck the southerners as normal. A writer in the Southern Literary Messenger summed up the affair by saying that a "foul-mouthed blackguard, presuming upon his senatorial prerogative for immunity from castigation, thought fit to malign an old gentleman and received a severe caning at the hands of a kinsman," and expressed surprise at so much stir over "the ordinary occurrence of one man's chastising another." Brooks himself showed sufficient sensitiveness to the persistent accusation of cowardice to challenge Senator Wilson and Representative Burlingame, but although the latter accepted, the duel did not come off, owing to the well-justified hesitation of Brooks to risk crossing New York to reach the appointed fighting ground at Niagara.

By June the situation in Kansas was growing more serious every day; the policy of the administration had not prevented matters from growing worse, and the debates in Congress served no purpose but to inflame sectional feelings. Congressmen now went armed and were prepared to meet violence with violence. Under these conditions, the various national nominating conventions met, and the presidential campaign opened.