The Needless Conflict

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When James Buchanan, standing in a homespun suit belore cheering crowds, took the oath of office on March 4, 1857, he seemed confident that the issues belore the nation could be readily settled. He spoke about an army road to California, use of the Treasury surplus to pay all the national debt, anil proper guardianship of the public lands. In Kansas, he declared, the path ahead was clear. The simple logical rule that the will of the people should determine the institutions of a territory had brought in sight a happy settlement. The inhabitants would declare for or against slavery as they pleased. Opinions differed as to the proper time for making such a decision; but Buchanan thought that “the appropriate period will be when the number of actual residents in the Territory shall justify the formation of a constitution with a view to its admission as a State.” He trusted that the long strife between North and South was nearing its end, and that the sectional party which had almost elected Frcmont would die a natural death.

Two days after the inaugural Huchanan took deep satisfaction in a decision by the Supreme Court of which he had improper foreknowledge: the Died Scott decision handed down by Chief Justice laney. Its vital element, so far as the nation’s destiny was concerned, was the ruling that the Missouri Compromise restriction, by which slavery had been excluded north of the 36° 30’ line, was void; that on the contrary, every territory was open to slavery. Not merely was Congress without power to legislate against slavery, but by implication it should act to protect it. Much of the northern press denounced the decision fervently. Hut the country was prosperous; it was clear that time and political action might change the Supreme Court, bringing a new decision; and the explosion of wrath proved brief.

Buchanan had seen his view sustained; slavery might freely enter any territory, the inhabitants of which could not decide whether to keep it or drop it until they wrote their first constitution. In theory, the highway to national peace was as traversible as the Lancaster turnpike. To be sure, Kansas was rent between two bitter parties, proslavery and antislavery; from the moment Stephen A. Douglas’ Kansas-Nebraska Act had thrown open the West to popular sovereignty three years earlier, it had been a theater of unrelenting conflict. Popular sovereignty had simply iailecl to work. In the spring of 1855 about five thousand invading Missourians, swamping the polls, had given Kansas a fanatically proslavery legislature which the free-soil settlers flatly refused to recognize. That fall a free-soil convention in Topeka had adopted a constitution which the slavery men in turn flatly rejected. Some bloody fighting had ensued. But could not all this be thrust into the past?

In theory, the President might now send out an impartial new governor; and if the people wanted statehood, an election might be held for a new constitutional convention. Then the voters could give the nation its sixteenth slave state or its seventeenth free state—everybody behaving quietly and reasonably. Serenity would prevail. Actually, the idea that the people of Kansas, so violently aroused, would show quiet reason, was about as tenable as the idea that Europeans would begin settling boundary quarrels by a quiet game of chess. Behind the two Kansas parties were grim southerners and determined northerners. “Slavery will now yield a greater profit in Kansas,” trumpeted a southern propagandist in De Bow’s Review , “either to hire out or cultivate the soil, than any other place.” He wanted proslavery squatters. Meanwhile, Yankees were subsidizing their own settlers. “I know people,” said Emerson in a speech, “who are making haste to reduce their expenses and pay their debts … to save and earn for the benefit of Kansas emigrants.”

Nor was reason in Kansas the only need. Impartiality in Congress, courage in the presidential chair, were also required. The stage was dressed for a brief, fateful melodrama, which more than anything else was to fix the position of James Buchanan and Stephen A. Douglas in history, was to shape the circumstances under which Lincoln made his first national reputation, and was to have more potency than any other single event in deciding whether North and South should remain brothers or fly at each other’s throats. That melodrama was entitled “Lecompton.” Douglas was to go to his grave believing that, had Buchanan played an honest, resolute part in it, rebellion would have been killed in its incipiency. The role that Buchanan did play may be counted one ot the signal lailures of American statesmanship.