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The immediate practical effect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was to throw the political destiny of those Territories into the hands of the future settlers. There were men at the North who were prompt to see and seize the opportunity. In February, 1854, three months before the bill became law, the New England Emigrant Aid Society was incorporated in Massachusetts. Its originator was Eli Thayer of Worcester, and among its active promoters was Edward Everett Hale. In the following July it sent to Kansas a colony of twenty-four, speedily followed by another of seventy, which founded the town of Lawrence. Other colonies followed from various Northern States, and other settlements were made. The natural westward movement of an active population seeking new homes and personal betterment was augmented and stimulated by a propaganda of freedom. Whittier gave the colonists a marching song:
We cross the prairies as of old
Our fathers crossed the sea,
A counter movement was started from the South. Missouri was its natural base. But Missouri furnished the material and leadership for another kind of crusade. The rough and lawless element of a border community was brought out in its worst character by the appeal to champion the cause of slavery. Men high in political life were ready to utilize such forces. The first settlers of Lawrence, before they had time to raise their houses, were visited by a ruffianly mob from Missouri, who tried by threats and show of force to drive them from the Territory, but failed. When in November the first election was held for Territorial delegate to Congress, there was a systematic invasion by bands of Missourians, who captured the polling-places and elected
their candidate by 3000 votes; though it was afterward proved that there were only half that number of voters resident in Kansas.
In 1855 the first Territorial Legislature was elected by a similar invasion of armed men, which chose the entire body. A foremost leader in these operations was United States Senator Atchison of Missouri. President Pierce's administration recognized the usurping faction. It sent a succession of governors—Reeder, Shannon, Geary, Walker (the last was sent by President Buchanan)—who, with the exception of the incompetent and worthless Sliannon, were by the inexorable facts of the situation won to the side of the Free-State men, and accordingly lost favor and their office. Meantime the usurping Legislature had enacted an extraordinary code of laws. By these statutes, decoying a slave from his master was punishable by death or hard labor for ten years; the circulation of writings inciting to revolt was made a capital offense; and the assertion by speech, writing, or the circulation of any book or paper, that slavery was not lawful in the Territory, was punishable by two years' hard labor.
It was not in the blood of free men to submit to such usurpation and tyranny. In the autumn of 1855 the Free State party held a convention, adopted a State constitution, and petitioned for admission to the Union. They elected State officers with Charles S. Robinson as Governor. This organization had really no legal standing; in form it was revolutionary. But the Free State party were not only resolute, but adroit. They had no mind to actively rebel against the United States Government, or come into collision with its forces. Governor Robinson, their foremost leader, was a man of New England birth, who had served a profitable apprenticeship in the settlement of California, and learned a lesson amid the complications of Federal
authority and pioneer exigencies. Counseled by him and men of like mind, the Free State party, while maintaining the form of a State government, and disavowing the Territorial Legislature as fraudulent, always deferred to any express mandate of Federal authority. The Federal troops in the Territory were commanded by Colonel Sumner, afterward a distinguished commander in the Union army, and Governor Robinson (The Kansas Conflict), credits him with a loyal and generally successful purpose to preserve order and peace. In the mixed population there was much bad blood, many threats, and occasional violence, but no general conflict. The “border ruffians” were often insulting, and some murders were committed, but the Free State men kept steadily on the defensive, though there was among them a faction which favored more aggressive measures.
At last, a Free-State man was wantonly murdered; then an eye-witness of the murder was got away on an apparently trumped-up charge; this was followed by a bloodless rescue and the witness was carried off to Lawrence. Then a sheriff with his posse went to Lawrence to arrest one of the rescuers. In the night the sheriff was fired at and wounded. He retreated; and immediately afterward a formidable demonstration was made against the town of Lawrence. The situation was peculiar. Many of the FreeState men were armed; contributions had been openly taken in the North for this purpose, and “Sharpe's rifles” was one of the familiar words of the day. But this policy was fixed—to disown and disobey the authority of the Territorial Legislature, but never to oppose or resist a United States official. In this way, says Robinson, the entire odium of all oppressive proceedings was fixed on the Federal administration; "the more outrages the people could get the government to perpetrate upon them the more victories they would gain, and this simply because the field of battle em
braced the entire country, and the chief victories at this stage were to be moral, political, and national."
The Territorial authorities were bent on breaking down, if possible, the passive resistance of the Free-State men. Indictments were found, by a Federal grand jury, against a number of members of the Free State government for “constructive treason," and they were put under arrest. Indictments were also found against two printing offices in Lawrence, and the principal hotel in the town. A large force of Missourians, led by a United States marshal, advanced on the town. The inhabitants protested, but agreed to respect the United States authority. The hotel and the two printing offices were accordingly destroyed. A considerable amount of lawless pillaging was done, and Governor Robinson's house was burned. Then the force was withdrawn.
The Free-State leaders, as Robinson states, were in no wise cast down by the course of events. Their actual losses had not been great; the temporary confinement of a few of their men did not seriously disturb them; and they considered that by their self-restraint and non-resistance they had put their enemies thoroughly in the wrong, and gained a most valuable vantage-ground for the ensuing Presidential and congressional elections—an estimate which the result fully justified.
But in their party were some spirits to whom these peaceful tactics were distasteful. Chief in this number was John Brown—little known to the world at large till a later time. He and his family of sons had made their homes in Kansas, impelled partly by the hostility to slavery which in him was a master passion. He was a man personally upright and kindly, of only moderate interest and capacity for the ordinary practical affairs of life, given to brooding on public events and ideal causes, and viewing them with a fanatic's
narrowness and a fanatic's absorption. He was a belated Puritan, and his natural place would have been with Cromwell's Ironsides. His ideas were largely influenced by his reading of the Bible, especially of the Old Testament. Of the modern State and the duties of the modern citizen he had no rational idea. Following the Old Testament analogy, he conceived of the slaveholders as the enemies of Godlike the Canaanites; and he came to imagine for himself a mission like one of the Hebrew leaders. His favorite hero seems to have been Gideon, and to assail and overcome the Midianites, a handful against a host, became his dream.
How the peaceful tactics of the Free State party suited his temper may be easily guessed, and four days after the attack on Lawrence (which was May 20, 1856), he acted on a plan of his own. At the head of a small
of men, including two of his sons and a son-in-law, he went at night down Pottawatomie creek, stopping at three houses. The men who lived in them were well-known pro-slavery men; they seem to have been rough characters; their most specific offense (according to Mr. Sanborn, Brown's biographer and eulogist), was the driving from his home by violent threats an inoffensive old man. John Brown and his party went down the creek, called at one after the other of three houses; took five men away from their wives and children; and deliberately shot one and hacked the others to death with swords.
Mr. Sanborn's defense of this act is: “Brown long foresaw the deadly conflict with the slave power which culminated in the Civil War, and was eager to begin it, that it might be the sooner over.” He begins his chapter on “ The Pottawatomie Executions": “The story of John Brown will mean
little to those who do not believe that God governs the world, and that he makes his will known in advance to certain chosen men and women,