Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

To Govern the Devil in Hell: The Political Crisis in Territorial Kansas

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

To Govern the Devil in Hell: The Political Crisis in Territorial Kansas

Article excerpt

To Govern the Devil in Hell: The Political Crisis in Territorial Kansas. By Pearl T. Ponce. (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2014. Pp. viii, 314. Paper, $24.95, ISBN 978-0-87580-706-5; cloth, $39.95, ISBN 978-0 87580-486-6.)

Pearl T. Ponce's engaging book examines territorial Kansas in the 1850s, focusing not on the typical "bleeding" Kansas of violence and John Brown but instead on a political crisis in which leaders, both territorial and national, blundered into what Ponce aptly labels a "catastrophic miscalculation" (p. 36). Former (and unsuccessful) territorial governor Wilson Shannon declared that governing Kansas was akin to governing '"the devil in hell,'" and this well-researched book explains all the political intricacies that made territorial Kansas so volatile--and the political mismanagement that helped bring on the Civil War (p. 1).

The book is divided into seven chapters that are roughly chronological and that move back and forth between what was unfolding on the ground in Kansas and what took place in the halls of Congress and the White House. Chapter 1 opens with the 1852 election of the Democrat Franklin Pierce, whose victory obscured the erosion of the second party system. Ponce then carefully details the development of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its contentious passage in Congress. Though debates in Congress over the bill were fraught, it initially "registered weakly if at all on the political radar," but that changed dramatically when settlement of the region began (p. 12). Initial blundering by (and the late arrival of) Governor Andrew H. Reeder quickly resulted in the rise of "dueling governments," a series of six governors in just seven years, and much local bungling, as well as national abdication of responsibility for decisively addressing events in Kansas (p. 4). Presidents Pierce and James Buchanan do not come off well in this book; Ponce argues that both "crossed the line from dispassionate support to proslavery advocacy" (p. 206). Her treatment of the presidential campaign of 1856 highlights how Republican candidate John C. …

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