Don't blame the Whigs for the Civil War
The Kansas City Star
It took a while, but the Civil War is starting to be fun. The big 150th anniversary Lone Jack battle reenactment was a week ago and a few days later William Quantrill was in Kansas City to explain that misunderstanding in Lawrence in 1863. If you missed it at the downtown library you can watch the recording later on KCPT.
Even better, it’s getting near the time we can check out Free State Capitol Constitution Hall at 429 Kansas in Topeka. One of the most important buildings in American history will not be razed after all.
On Friday, Oct. 5, the law firm of Woner, Glenn, Reeder and Girard, will celebrate its 20th anniversary at the hall. It will be the first public open house there in over a century.
The historic hall is the oldest building in Topeka and served as the state capitol from 1863 to 1869. But by the 1990’s, it showed its age, and was known as a site better for seeing prostitutes than patriots. A demolition permit was issued.
A local developer planned to raze the building for a parking lot, according to Don Lambert, who with Chris Meinhardt, is among leaders in the restoration. Historian Lambert is a former Topeka resident who now lives in the Westport area and is a writer and actor. Meinhardt is a Topeka architect and like Lambert a member of The Friends of the Free State Capitol.
They and other horrified historians have stepped in to stop the razing. They are determined that the famous hall shall not perish from the earth. The Friends group bought the property, raised money through a $35,000 Heritage Trust Fund grant, state and city contributions, including money from a hotel bed tax, and began what is now a long process of restoration.
According to Lambert, “The open house is on a first Friday. They’re big in Topeka like they are in Kansas City, with the art galleries in the crossroads. It’s a big building, with two stories and a basement. Its south wall is being restored now. The scaffolding just came down. The back wall has been totally restored to its appearance from 1855.
“We’re taking cues from what they did in St. Charles, the first state capitol in Missouri, after the move from there to the more central Jefferson City.”
Lambert said several businesses had operated in the hall and its area in the 1990s, with a novelty store next to the hall among the last to go out of business. No wonder. What self-respecting historian would go into a famous historical area to ask about buying a whoopee cushion?
I’m sure Rufus Crosby and his friends would be pleased with the restoration. Crosby is the most famous member of the Kemper banking family who isn’t named Kemper. His daughter and son-in-law, William Kemper, started the family banking business in Kansas City.
It was his relative, library executive director R. Crosby Kemper III, who interviewed Quantrill at the library. Kemper also has been involved in the family banking business, ran for office and taught school in China. It appears he also became involved recently in city transit affairs. Perhaps we could get Ingram’s magazine, or another civic-minded body, after Sly James’ terms expire, of course, to support RC3 for mayor. It worked with Dick Berkley.
Rufus Crosby was one of some 40 anti-slavery leaders who in October 1855 in Topeka shaped and signed the constitution intended to assure Kansas would not enter the union as a slave state. Those 40 probably looked like an invasion to townspeople, who then numbered about 350.
Other signers were the so-called firebrand Jim Lane, 33, who became the first U.S. senator from Kansas, and Dr. Charles Robinson, 37, who became the first governor. The Lane Trail, named for the senator, operated from the hall and was the main Underground Railroad to freedom in the north.
The only Topeka delegate was Cyrus K. Holiday, 28, who would found the AT&SF Railroad. Holiday also orchestrated Topeka’s becoming the state capital. Crosby is listed as the youngest signer, at 21, but several were in their 20s.
Lambert said the goal of the young group was the same as that of the founding fathers of 1776: To build a unified nation without slavery.
When the 1776 founders realized that leaders of the slave states would stop the union if slavery were banned, they built a nation offering equal opportunity and freedom for all, with slavery included.
It became the great American irony. But the founders placed founding a nation first. Ending slavery would came later, surely, they believed.
So for almost almost 50 years the new nation continued with slavery, while other nations, including England and all all its territories, were peacefully outlawing it. Even New York state passed a law to end it.
Slavery could end without bloodshed, obviously. It was just a matter of time, and the time came – with the Missouri Compromise of 1820. It was seen as the start of the end of slavery.
America in 1820 had 11 slave states and 11 antislavery states, providing a balance of power in the Senate. But Missouri sought to enter the union as a slave state. That would give the slave states control of the senate, and the nation.
The compromise allowed Missouri to enter the union as a slave state; but Maine was allowed to enter as a free state. The balance of power remained.
There was another provision: Louisiana Purchase territories, including Kansas and Nebraska, could not come in as slave states.
The growth of slavery was stopped. Walled in at eastern Kansas. What could not grow would die. It would not be necessary for blood to flow, it now appeared. Slavery would die a natural death.
The wait became long, but increasingly promising for the antislavery group of mainly northerners. Opposition to slavery continued to build. The nation’s politics became centered in two parties, the Democrats and the Whigs. The Democrats favored slavery, the Whigs provided the opposition.
The Whigs waited patiently for slavery’s death. The Democrats watched its condition sicken with increasing alarm.
In 1854 the Democrats acted. They repealed the Missouri Compromise.
The new act ruled that Kansas and Nebraska territories could come in as slave states, if their residents so voted.
Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, chairman of the territories committee, introduced the bill and it was passed and signed by Democratic President Franklin Pierce, who was urged to do so by his secretary of war, Jefferson Davis. The bill passed the House after Pierce made it clear that patronage would be a factor in the voting.
Douglas said the law did not mean slavery would continue, but merely gave freedom of choice to the territories. “Popular sovereignty” would allow the people to decide. It is not a matter of slavery, Democrats said. It is a matter of states’ rights.
In an expression of the day, all hell broke loose. Blood began to flow not only in Kansas, but also in the U.S. Congress.
After Senator Charles Sumner made a speech in which he called Douglas, among other things, “the squire of slavery,” he also sharply criticized South Carolina senator Andrew Butler.
Two days later, Butler’s cousin, Rep. Preston Brooks, walked up to Sumner’s desk and hit him repeatedly in the head with a heavy cane. Sumner was covered with blood and had to be carried unconscious from the floor. Injuries to his brain and spinal cord kept him out of the Senate for three years.
The Northern press was critical of Brooks, but the Southern press was not. As columnist Charles Krauthammer commented recently, the press has been leaning left since the earth cooled. I can see history’s first headline now: “White Extremist Group May Have Links to Explosion.”
The Richmond Enquirer spoke for many in the South, wrote Doris Kearnes Goodwin in her book on the Civil War, “Team of Rivals.” The Enquirer printed that the act “was good in conception, better in execution and best of all in consequence.” The governor of South Carolina presented Brooks with a goblet and walking cane in honor of his good work.
It’s possible an impressionable actor, John Wilkes Booth, was aware of the highly honored Brooks. Booth shouted “Death to tyrants” after his shooting of Abraham Lincoln. Some analysts have claimed Booth thought he would be praised for his deed by the many who considered Lincoln a tyrant. However, he was not presented a goblet and cane, but perhaps to his great surprise, was hunted down and shot to death.
It all went back to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Lincoln, a Whig congressman from Illinois, said of the repeal, “I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself…It enables the enemies of free institutions with plausibility to taunt us as hypocrites, causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity…I shall try to to show that it is wrong.”
He did try, in debates with Douglas as he challenged Douglas for his senate seat. Douglas won the seat, but Lincoln won the admiration of Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, and a strong antislavery Whig.
The last Whig president, Millard Fillmore, left office in 1853 and the last candidate, John C. Fremont, lost to James Buchanan in 1856. The Whigs had battled slavery, but not very effectively. Lincoln noted sadly that as the nation was beginning to split, as slavery dominated every discussion, the Whig platform promised to deal with protective tariffs.
The need for a new party to fight slavery brought Whigs and many northern Democrats together at Ripon, Wisc., in March 1954. They formed a new party to battle the Democratic party.
In the Tribune, Greeley suggested Republican would be a good name for the new party. Soon he was writing about fighting breaking out in a territory he described as “Bleeding Kansas.” When he wrote a story advising, “Go west young man,” other editors made a note of it.
Bleeding Kansas became the nation’s most talked-about subject. Missouri “Border Ruffians” moved in as a vote on slavery neared. “Jayhawkers,” antislavery supporters, many from New England, also headed for Kansas. In one Kansas voting area with about 200 men registered, voting totaled in the thousands.
According to Lambert, “The Topeka Constitution in October 1855 was in reaction to the March takeover of the Kansas territorial legislature, by fraud, by the Missourians. Most importantly, this Topeka Constitution said, ‘There shall be no slavery in the state.’
“This was a gutsy effort considering that pro-slavery forces were headquartered 17 miles northeast in Lecompton. The Topeka Constitution passed the U.S. House, but the Senate, controlled by the South, blocked a vote. Pierce and his secretary of war Jefferson Davis, were involved.
“When federal troops from Fort Leavenworth were called to Topeka on July 4, 1856, to prevent a Free-State meeting in Constitution Hall there, Pierce was blamed. That’s why when it came time to name the streets in Topeka for presidents, the Free-Staters made sure there was no street named for Pierce. There is none to this day.”
The last Constitution Hall was in Kansas City, Kan., and when Mayor Jack Reardon obtained funding to built a public hall at the downtown site, it was named the Constitution Convention Center. Reardon died at age 45 in 1988, and it was renamed the Jack Reardon Convention Center.
Kansas became a state Jan. 29, 1861, the year the Civil War began. Lincoln, who had lost the senate race to Douglas in 1856, had defeated Douglas in the presidential campaign of 1860.
A more difficult race for Lincoln was defeating in the primary the star of the party, William Seward, senator from New York and a strong antislavery advocate. But Lincoln, with boosts from Greeley, edged Seward, and the party’s star became the forgotten man, who could have become the Lincoln of the 1860s.
Seward is mainly remembered now for Seward’s Folly, in which as secretary of state he bought Alaska for about two cents an acre. Lincoln had named him to his cabinet and they became best friends.
It is Lincoln who now is known, with George Washington, as one of the two greatest presidents. Yet his winning vote total was the lowest in U.S. history, just under 40 percent. He probably was also the most criticized president. Washington, though, served before there were political parties, and nobody found it necessary to insult him.
The Lincoln criticism came, of course, from Southerners, some of whom blamed him for the Civil War. Many felt the war could have been prevented.
I think it is impossible to name with certainty the man most responsible for the war because nobody can say what the future would have held if certain other decisions had been made. But I would go with Douglas. If he had not introduced the Kansas-Nebraska bill, if we had waited for pressure on the south to continue building, sought help from other nations, including England, to force the end of slavery. . .?
The South did send a representative to England for its support during the war. The English showed surprise, not support. The attitude of most but not all of them, was, “Help you keep slavery alive? Are you kidding me?” English officials informed the Confederate representatives that they should put their request in writing and they would get back to them when they had time.
The party that profited most from the Civil War was that new party, the Republicans. They pointed out it was the war between North and South, Republican and Democrats, and that they fought to assure respect for everybody, including minorities. As Lincoln told Douglas, he hated the idea of people in chains, popular sovereignty or not.
The Republican arguments worked. In the 52 years from 1860 to 1913, only one Democrat, Grover Cleveland, was elected president.
In those years through to the 1960s, Democrats forced Jim Crow laws in the South, joined the Klan, lawman Bull Connor used water hoses on blacks, and Democratic governors stood outside school doors to keep out black students. When they did, a Republican president, Dwight Eisenhower, called on the 101st Airborne Division to escort them in. When Democratic president Lyndon Johnson passed a civil rights bill, more Republicans than Democrats backed it. Johnson as a House member had opposed a rights bill, with Republicans in power, not wanting to give them credit. You could look all that up in Google.
While slavery in the land of the free may have been the nation’s greatest irony, there is a second national irony: Republicans, who formed to fight for freedom for blacks, now see blacks vote almost 100 percent for Democrats while believing Republicans don’t like blacks.
But that, as they say, may become past history. It is now time to celebrate the end of race conflict. Again. The nation has finally established a more perfect union, with the election of President Barack Obama, who is both black and white.
As historian Goodwin wrote of an earlier landmark day, it is a time to start enjoying ourselves. She wrote that only a few days after the end of the Civil War, Lincoln and his wife Mary were finally relaxed, and smiling. Lincoln took his wife for a carriage ride on April 14, 1865.
Mary had never seen him so cheerful: “His manner was even playful,” she later said. “I told him, dear husband, you almost startle me with your cheerfulness.”
Lincoln said, “We must both be more cheerful in the future. Between the war and the loss of our darling Willie, we have both been very, very miserable.”
The more cheerful life was to begin that very night. They went to the theater.