American Mobbing, 1828-1861: Toward Civil War

By David Grimsted | Go to book overview
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Bleeding Majoritarianism

The Sectional Mob Systems Meet, Mingle, and Mangle

A man cannot be too careful in his choice of enemies.

-- Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

When the votaries of freedom sacrifice also at the gloomy altars of slavery, they will at length become apostates from the former.

-- William Pinkney, "Address to the Maryland House of Delegates," 1789

I have no objection to the liberty of speech, when the liberty of the cudgel is left free to combat it.

-- Alexander H. Stephens to Thomas H. Thomas, May 25, 1856,

Stephens Papers, Emory University

While slavery lurked in Know-Nothingism despite the party's desire to duck the issue, it loomed fore and center in "bleeding Kansas," where the two systems of sectional violence met and merged under the uneasy supervision of the federal government. And of all the deaths in this Kansas conflict, by far the most important was that of the principle that Representative Sebastian and most Northerners saw as the union's last best hope, the majoritarianism embedded in popular sovereignty. This principle was lynched when it failed to deliver Kansas to slavery as expected, though the Douglas Democrats quite reasonably clung to its mangled corpse as preferable to the alternative deadly courses being pursued.

The political situation in Kansas bore broad similarity to that in Southern cities where Know-Nothings contested proslavery interests, wishing not to end slavery but to stop being intimidated and manipulated in its support. Yet the differences ensured Kansas's greater importance. Here the federal government was involved, not simply in sending a few arms to Baltimore or in authorizing a fifteen-minute marine operation in Washington, as in 1857, but in prolonged decision making. Here slavery was overtly the focus, uncamouflaged by a host of other issues and interests. And here both sides recognized that the resulting "truth" would derive partly from Scriptures out of the mouths of border ruffians and "Beecher's Bibles." Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham, early in the Kansas conflict, planned as the grim conclusion to his political series a painting titled The Border Ruffians in Kansas, a design he never executed as the deeper designs on Kansas grew clear. 1

The gift to the South Stephen Douglas carefully packaged in the Kansas- Nebraska Act, intended to smooth a presidentially ambitious Northerner's troubled


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