A Good Southerner: The Life of Henry A. Wise of Virginia

By Craig M. Simpson | Go to book overview

Chapter 10 Kansas

If the sectional controversy of the 1850s had existed in a static environment, it might have evoked less militancy. But because the nation was so rapidly absorbing virgin territory, statesmen North and South had come to identify expansion with perpetuation of their institutions. To a certain extent, then, Southern demands for slavery in the territories represented a normal response to the times, which found Americans anxious to capitalize on opportunities offered by the West. Another element, however, underlay this race. A deep-seated fear that equated loss of the territories with encirclement and proscription of their institutions and differing ways of life had seized upon much of the public mind in both sections. In abrogating congressional authority to prevent slave labor from migrating to the territories, the Supreme Court, in the Dred Scott decision, exacerbated Northern apprehensions. Many Northerners, including Abraham Lincoln, now professed belief in a conspiracy to hand over the unsettled national domain to the retarding effects of slavery. Lincoln even speculated that after conquering the territories, the South might attempt to overthrow free labor in Illinois and elsewhere in the North, just as Calhoun had believed that the abolitionists would use leverage gained from control of the West to destroy slavery in the Southern states. The amalgam of historical rivalry, pride and prestige, fear and interest all blended to intensify the struggle for control of the national domain. In the 1850s. this struggle focused on Kansas.

But should it have? Was anything substantive at stake in Kansas, in view of rapid Northern settlement and prospective control? Wise never believed that the fate of the Union, the South, or slavery depended upon what happened in Kansas. Blizzards, dust storms, and tumbleweeds meant as much to him as the Kansas issue when balanced against the need to preserve Virginia's integrity and the Democracy's stability. Along with other moderates, he feared not only radicals North and South but also the established politicians who had staked their identities and reputations on success in Kansas. When Senator Hunter and his associates pre

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