America in 1857: A Nation on the Brink

By Kenneth M. Stampp | Go to book overview

CHAPTER 11
Politics as Tragedy: Buchanan's Decision

In the late autumn of 1857, news of the new crisis in Kansas filled the columns of the press, troubled state and national politicians, and seemed to arouse strong feelings among much of the electorate. Kansas deserved the public attention it received, for the manner in which Congress and the administration dealt with the Lecompton issue ultimately would affect the lives of everyone. Yet, at that time, many regarded this political controversy as less important than various concurrent events that touched their lives more immediately and directly. Historical events overlap, interrelate, and are invariably complex, and those who experienced them rarely understood their consequences. To millions of southern slaves, tens of thousands of unemployed urban workingmen, most isolated residents of California and Utah, and unnumbered rural, provincial Northerners and Southerners, Kansas was too remote to elicit more than casual concern.

Even the central figures in the Lecompton imbroglio were distracted by problems arising from other sources. Residents of Kansas Territory worried about the impact of the economic recession on commodity prices and land values as well as about the future of slavery when they achieved statehood. Governor Walker hastened east in November not only to confer with the President about Kansas affairs but to deal with his faltering private business interests. Seward, like numerous other Congressmen, was severely hurt by the commercial panic and struggled with his personal finances as he helped to shape Republican strategy for the Senate debate on Lecompton. Douglas waged his battle against the administration while deeply distressed about the illness of his wife and frantic about heavy losses from speculative investments.

As for Buchanan, although Kansas was by far the most serious problem confronting him, it was only one of many. He devoted most of his first annual mes

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