The Case for White Civility: Bleeding Kansas

Mural of John Brown, fanatic

A new argument has been made in recent weeks, or perhaps an old argument has been revived, holding that calls for “civility” in public discourse amount to a smoke screen, that white people call for civility as a way to tamp down non-white peoples’ calls for greater equality.

“We were going to end up here eventually. A major story involving subjugated people of color was bound to become a conversation about offending privileged white folks,” writes Jamil Smith in Rolling Stone.

In the New York Times, Professor Thomas Sugrue made the sobering point that while he was alive, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was deeply unpopular with the white public. While he has since been canonized by mainstream America, in life King found calls for moderation frustrating.

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice,” King wrote. He was quoted both by Sugure and Smith.

Closer to home, so did Shawn Vestal in the Spokane Spokesman-Review. He argues, “No, if someone is crying about civility right now and they’re not starting, ending and focusing 88 percent of their argument on the president’s words and actions and the consequences of them, then you know that civility isn’t their main concern. You know that order is being elevated above justice.”

It very well may be that moderates do not like extremes of any kind, that would be implied in the term “moderate.” And it is factually true that many of the social values we now espouse as universal were, at one time, extreme. But in an age of identity politics and rising Confederate ideology, we should probably also acknowledge that for white people, “civility” has kept us from killing each other over politics. Case in point: Kansas Territory.

Kansas, or rather, the political destiny of Kansas, was one of the final political battles leading to the mass casualties of the Civil War. Having acquired the land for both Kansas and Nebraska, Congress turned in 1854 to establish a way for it to become territories, then states. Whether it should be a free state or a slave state became one of the fiercest debates in congressional history, and one of the casualties was a civil tradition of criticizing policies, not persons. When a bill that would in effect nullify the slavery-limiting Missouri Compromise surfaced, Northern antislavery politicians and the press launched a new kind of invective upon the bill’s supporters.

The National Era covered the proposal as “a gross violation of a sacred pledge, as a criminal betrayal of precious rights, as part of and parcel of an atrocious plot.”

“This was the tactic of attacking the defenders of slavery not on the merits or demerits of their position, but on the grounds that they were vicious, dishonest and evil,” writes historian David M. Potter, who wrote the definitive account of the lead-up to the Civil War. These denunciations of the outgroup proved so successful for the anti-slavery side, he said, “… increasingly after 1854, they had a strength which derived not only from the righteousness of their cause but also from the technical skill of a distinctive style of publicity, which discredited their opponents as not only wrong on principle but also morally depraved and personally odious.”

Despite the rhetorical aggression about it, and the demise of the Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act actually failed to settle the fate of Kansas. The result was that whites of both anti- and pro-slavery predilections moved there in a kind of ideological settlement race. Northerners went so far as to collect rifles for their sympathetic cousins and ship them to Kansas, where they were brandished at Southern settlers who were already well-armed.

At first, most Southerners had little hope of turning Kansas into a slave state. It was the symbolism of a free state they loathed. Ironically, a more civil-minded approach might have given the pro-slavery factions a new slave state anyway. Pro-slavery settlers outnumbered the free-staters in Kansas and could have ruled the roost through free and fair elections. They feared, however, a vast army of anti-slavery settlers financed by East Coast interests, based on the propaganda they read from the north.

Sen. David Atchison of Missouri, from whence many of the pro-slavery forces came, complained of Kansas “being made the unwilling receptacle for the filth, scum, and offscourings of the east… To pollute our fair land… To preach abolitionism, and dig underground railroads.”

So, the pro-slavery folks were not inclined to niceties of civility or fair play, and instead engaged in rigged elections to set up a territorial government. Atchison himself led a group of Missourians over the border to take place in the elections of March 1855 as Kansas “residents.” Once in power, they used their Topkea-based government to pass onerous, pro-slavery laws, for example, making helping a fugitive slave punishable by death.

The free-staters declared that government bogus and countered by setting up their own territorial government in Lawrence. They banded together into militias, and the pro-slavery factions did likewise. With the explosives set, the fuse was lit in the November of 1855 when a pro-slavery man killed a free-stater. Already at war in their rhetoric, the two sides moved quickly to violence. Lawrence was “sacked” by a pro-slavery mob and the (anti-slavery) governor’s house burned. The Pottawatomie Massacre saw John Brown drag pro-slavery men from their homes and hack them to death.

The Northern newspapers covered all this in great detail, always favoring the anti-slavery side and accentuating the pro-slavery “ruffians’” worst traits, a classic characteristic of group conflict.

Potter noted, “… for the United States, the war was a propaganda war (or, alternatively, a struggle for the minds of men), and by 1857 the South and the [Pierce] Administration had lost it decisively.”

Just as Congress could not agree on what to do with slavery in Kansas, it could not resolve the war it provoked there. Two presidential administrations would come and go without a resolution. Kansas would not become a state until after the Civil War its troubles helped precipitate. Instead, those who were ready to drop civility and proceed to direct action literally did so, on larger battlefields.

Sen. Atchison become a general in the Confederate Army. John Brown invaded Virginia with a small band and seized a federal armory at Harpers Ferry. He had hoped to free slaves and lead them, presumably, in a battle for freedom. But instead, four of his followers were killed, including two of his sons. He was hung for treason (against Virgina), and lionized by the liberals with whom he had socialized before his endeavor. Ralph Waldo Emerson, who had hosted the man behind the Pottawatomie Massacre in his house, said Brown would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.”

The people who used words to call for bold action grew ever louder and less civil over “Bleeding Kansas” and John Brown’s raid. But the slaves didn’t join Brown in his war. And the people of Kansas settled down when the government got better at actually processing land claims in the disputed territory.

Of the Kansasans, the New York Tribune reported that “the love of the almighty dollar had melted away the iron bitterness and Anti-Slavery and Pro-Slavery men were standing together as a unit on their rights as squatters. “

And of Brown’s would-be revolution, Potter said, “To Frederick Douglass and the Negroes of Chatham, Ontario, nearly every one of whom had learned something from personal experience about how to gain freedom, Brown was a man of words trying to be a man of deeds, and they would not follow him.”

The European-Americans who squared off in Kansas were fighting one another over a concept. They did not concern themselves with the well-being of the Indian tribes who had been living there for generations. (One northern newspaper argued that John Brown couldn’t be the man behind the massacre because it was so vicious, which showed that it must have been Comanches.)

Kansans were not particularly concerned with African Americans, only about 200 of which were brought into the the territory as slaves, and who many whites wanted to bar from coming to the area as free citizens. Certainly the need for aggressive, even violent, resistance to those forces would be calculated differently for non-whites. But Bleeding Kansas was the result of the failure of the white man’s own political and social system. He could not resolve the slavery issue through discourse — however passionate — so instead sought to work it out on the plains, in person.

And that became a terrible thing, a small war, which lead to a worse thing, a large war.

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