Antebellum America: The Dred Scott Decision

In 1857, the Supreme Court of the United States handed down its ruling in the famous (or more correctly the infamous) case of Dred Scott v. Sandford. In what many legal scholars consider to be the worst US Supreme Court decision ever, the court ruled that people of African descent brought into the United States and held as slaves (or their descendants whether or not they were slaves) were not protected by the Constitution and were not U.S. citizens. Since passage of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the decision is meaningless, but at the time it had great significance, and many list the decision as one of the causes of the Civil War.

Dred Scott was born a slave in Virginia sometime between 1795 and 1800. In 1820, he followed his owner, Peter Blow, to Missouri. In 1832, Blow died and the next year U.S. Army Surgeon Dr. John Emerson purchased Scott. After purchasing Scott, Emerson took him to Fort Armstrong, which was located in Illinois, a free state which prohibited slavery in its constitution. Scott remained there until 1836, when Scott was again relocated. This time he was taken to Fort Snelling, which was located in part of the Wisconsin territory, where slavery was “forever prohibited” by United State Congress under the Missouri Compromise. This provided Scott with a legitimate basis on which to claim his freedom in court, although Scott did not act on this opportunity.

In 1837, the Army ordered Emerson to Jefferson Barracks Military Post, south of St. Louis, Missouri. Emerson left Scott and Scott's wife Harriet at Fort Snelling, where Emerson rented them out for profit. By hiring Scott out in a free state, Emerson was effectively bringing the institution of slavery into a free state, which was a direct violation of the Missouri Compromise, the Northwest Ordinance, and the Wisconsin Enabling Act.

Before the end of the year, the Army reassigned Emerson to Fort Jessup, Louisiana. Emerson then sent for Scott and Harriet, who proceeded to Louisiana to serve their master and his wife. While on route to Louisiana, Scott's daughter Eliza was born on a steamboat underway along the Mississippi River between the Iowa Territory and Illinois. Toward the end of 1838, the Army again assigned Emerson to Fort Snelling. By 1840, Emerson's wife, Scott, and Harriet returned to St. Louis while Emerson served in the Seminole War. While in St. Louis, they were once again hired out and Emerson was once again breaking federal law. In 1842, Emerson left the Army. He died in the Iowa Territory in 1843; his widow Eliza inherited his estate, including Scott. For three years after Emerson’s death, the Scotts continued to work as hired slaves. In 1846, Scott attempted to purchase his and his family’s freedom, but Eliza Irene Emerson refused, prompting Scott to sue for his freedom.

In a trial held in 1850, a jury found Scott and his family to be free, but In November 1852, the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the jury's decision. Scott then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

(Chief Justice Roger Taney on the left, President James Buchanan on the right)

After the Missouri Court ruling, President-elect James Buchanan wrote to U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice John Catron, asking whether the case would be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court before his inauguration in March 1857. Buchanan hoped that a decision finding Scott to be a slave would quell unrest in the country over the slavery issue by issuing a ruling that put the future of slavery beyond the realm of political debate.

Buchanan successfully pressured Associate Justice Robert Cooper Grier, a Northerner, to join the Southern majority in the Dred Scott decision, to prevent the appearance that the decision was made along sectional lines. By present-day standards, such correspondence would be considered extremely unethical. Even under the more lenient standards of that century, Buchanan's applying such political pressure to a member of a sitting court should have been seen as improper. Republicans made an issue of Buchanan's influence on the decision by publicizing that Chief Justice Roger Taney had whispered in Buchanan's ear prior to Buchanan declaring, in his inaugural address, that the slavery question would "be speedily and finally settled" by the Supreme Court

Just two days after Buchanan's inauguration, the court handed down its decision, with each of the concurring and dissenting Justices filing separate opinions. By a 7-2 majority the court held that Dred Scott had no standing to sue for his freedom because Scott, and all people of African descent for that matter, were found not to be citizens of the United States.

The sons of Peter Blow, Scott's first owner, purchased emancipation for Scott and his family on May 26, 1857. This soon became national news and celebrated in northern cities. Scott worked in a hotel in St. Louis, where he was considered a local celebrity. He died of tuberculosis only eighteen months later, on November 7, 1858. His wife Harriet died on June 17, 1876.

The Dred Scott case has been considered by legal scholars and historians as the court's worst decision throughout its history. The late Chief Justice William Rehnquist expressed that opinion in the history of the court. Another Chief Justice and onetime Presidential candidate Charles Evans Hughes called the decision a "self-inflicted wound" from which the court would not recover for many years.

Antebellum America: Preston Brooks and Charles Sumner

Polarization over the issue of slavery was perhaps no better personified than in comparing Preston Brook and Charles Sumner. Both were members of Congress, but that was where the similarity ended. Brooks was from the south, and he was a Democrat and a rabid supporter of slavery. Sumner was a Republican from the north and he was a fervent abolitionist. In what was a portent of things to come, their disagreement went from being philosophical to being violent, leading to one of the most shocking events to ever occur on the senate floor in history.

Preston Smith Brooks, who was born on August 5, 1819, was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from South Carolina. He was first elected in 1852 and would serve in the House until his death, with one brief interruption. Brooks was a strong advocate of slavery and of states' rights. Brooks took an extreme pro-slavery position. He said that the enslavement of black people by whites was "right and proper" and he considered any attack or restriction on slavery to be an attack on the rights and the social structure of the South. When the great controversy arose over slavery in Kansas Territory and whether Kansas would be admitted as a free or slave state, Brooks supported the actions by pro-slavery men from Missouri to make Kansas a slave territory. In March 1856, Brooks wrote: "The fate of the South is to be decided with the Kansas issue. If Kansas becomes a hireling State, slave property will decline to half its present value in Missouri and abolitionism will become the prevailing sentiment. So with Arkansas; so with upper Texas."

Charles Sumner was eight years older than Brooks. He was born on January 6, 1811 and served as a United States Senator from Massachusetts. His background was as an academic lawyer and he became a powerful orator. Sumner was the leader of the anti-slavery forces and of the Radical Republicans in the U.S. Senate. Before the Republican party had been formed, Sumner changed his political party several times depending on who the anti-slavery coalition was supporting. He showed a tremendous devotion to the destruction of what Republicans called the Slave Power, and he wanted to end the influence over the federal government held by Southern slave owners who sought to continue slavery and to expand it into the territories.

In 1856, during the "Bleeding Kansas" crisis, Sumner gave a famous and emotionally charged speech on the floor of the Senate that became known as the "Crime Against Kansas" speech. In the speech, delivered over two days, May 19 and 20, he denounced the Kansas–Nebraska Act and argued for the immediate admission of Kansas as a free state. He also went on to denounce the "Slave Power" which was his name for the political arm of the slave owners. In the speech he compared southern efforts to take over Kansas to the rape of a virgin. He said:

Not in any common lust for power did this uncommon tragedy have its origin. It is the rape of a virgin Territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery; and it may be clearly traced to a depraved desire for a new Slave State, hideous offspring of such a crime, in the hope of adding to the power of slavery in the National Government.

Sumner then levelled his attack on the authors of the Act, Senators Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and Andrew Butler of South Carolina. His attack on Butler, a southerner from Brooks' home state, was particularly scathing. Sumner said:

The senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight—I mean the harlot, Slavery. For her, his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this senator. The frenzy of Don Quixote, in behalf of his wench, Dulcinea del Toboso, is all surpassed.

Sumner was making a reference to the famouse Cervantes' work, and was comparing Butler to Don Quixote and slavery as his Dulcinea. Sumner may also have mocked Butler's speaking ability. Butler had been recently suffered a stroke, and some felt this was what Summer was referring to when he said that Butler "touches nothing which he does not disfigure with error, sometimes of principle, sometimes of fact. He cannot open his mouth, but out there flies a blunder."

The personal attacks went both ways. Earlier in the debate, Sumner had been ridiculed both by Douglas and Butler, with Butler making crude allegations that Sumner was intimate with black women. Although Sumner was a bachelor, it was rumored that he was intimate with his African-American housekeeper. Sumner, like many other abolitionists, routinely accused slaveholders of wanting to maintain the institution of slavery so that they could engage in forcible sexual relations with their slaves.

Douglas became concerned that Sumner had gone too far in his remarks. He is quoted as later saying, "this damn fool is going to get himself killed by some other damn fool".

Brooks was not only from the same state as Butler, he was Butler's first cousin once removed. When he learned of Sumner's remarks he became infuriated. He later said that he considered challenging Sumner to a duel, but was told by fellow South Carolina Representative Laurence M. Keitt that dueling was for gentlemen of equal social standing, and that Sumner was beneath Brooks' station. Brooks said that since Sumner was no gentleman, he did not deserve honorable treatment.

Two days later, on the afternoon of May 22, 1856, Brooks entered the Senate chamber with Keitt and another pro-slavery supporter, Representative Henry A. Edmundson of Virginia. They waited for the galleries to clear, and when he felt the moment was right, Brooks confronted Sumner, who was seated at his desk, writing. The Senate chamber was almost empty. Brooks told the Massachusetts Senator, "Mr. Sumner, I have read your speech twice over carefully. It is a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler, who is a relative of mine." As Sumner began to stand up, Brooks began beating Sumner severely on the head with a solid wooden walking stick, before Sumner could reach his feet. He used a thick gutta-percha cane with a gold head. The force of the blows were so violent that Sumner would end up losing his sight. Sumner recalled, "I no longer saw my assailant, nor any other person or object in the room. What I did afterwards was done almost unconsciously, acting under the instincts of self-defense."

Sumner was knocked down and trapped under the heavy desk that was bolted to the floor. His chair, which was pulled up to his desk, moved back and forth on a track. Sumner was pinned him under his desk as Brooks continued to strike Sumner. Sumner somehow managed to get to his feet and rip the desk from the floor in an effort to get away from Brooks. By this time, Sumner was covered in blood. He staggered up the aisle. Brooks continued to beat him across the head, face, and shoulders and did not stop when his cane snapped. He continued striking Sumner with the piece that held the gold head. Sumner stumbled and reeled convulsively before collapsing unconsciously. Brooks grabbed the fallen Sumner and held him up by the lapel with one hand, continuing to lash out at him with the cane in the other.

Another of other Senators and Representatives tried to help Sumner, but they were blocked by Edmundson, while Keitt brandished a pistol. Senator John J. Crittenden, a slaveholder from Kentucky, also attempted to intervene, and begged Brooks not to kill Sumner. Representatives Ambrose S. Murray and Edwin B. Morgan were finally able to intervene and restrain Brooks. Brooks then quietly left the chamber. Murray obtained the aid of a Senate page and the Sergeant at Arms, Dunning R. McNair. As Sumner regained consciousness they were able to help him to walk to a cloakroom where he received first aid and medical attention. With the aid of Nathaniel P. Banks, the Speaker of the House, and Senator Henry Wilson, Sumner was taken home by carriage, where he received further medical treatment. Brooks also required minor medical attention as he he had hit himself above his right eye with one of his backswings.

The cane Brooks used was broken into several pieces and these were collected by Edmundson, who gave the portion with the head to the House Sergeant at Arms. This portion of the cane eventually ended up at the Old State House Museum in Boston. Southern lawmakers made rings out of the other pieces Edmundson recovered from the Senate floor, which they wore on neck chains to show their solidarity with Brooks.

Sumner and Brooks soon became symbolic to their polarized political factions. Sumner became a martyr in the North and Brooks was considered to be a hero in the South. Thousands attended rallies in support of Sumner in Boston, Albany, Cleveland, Detroit, New Haven, New York, and Providence. More than a million copies of Sumner's speech were distributed. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote of the incident, "I do not see how a barbarous community and a civilized community can constitute one state. I think we must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom."

Brooks was praised by Southern newspapers. Southerners sent Brooks hundreds of new canes in endorsement of his assault.

Massachusetts Representative Anson Burlingame was later challenged to a duel by Brooks, but Brooks backed down upon learning that Burlingame was a crack shot and had the choice of weapons and dueling ground. He selected rifles on the Canada side of Niagara Falls, where U.S. anti-dueling laws would not apply. Brooks refused to duel, claiming that he did not want to expose himself to the risk of violence by traveling through Northern states to get to Niagara Falls.

Southerners mocked Sumner, claiming he was faking his injuries. In fact, Sumner suffered head trauma that caused him chronic, debilitating pain for the rest of his life. He spent three years convalescing before returning to his Senate seat. Massachusetts chose not to replace him, instead leaving his empty desk in the Senate as a visible reminder of the incident. The state legislature reelected him in 1857, even though he was unable to take his seat until 1859.

In a speech to the House defending his actions, Brooks stated that he "meant no disrespect to the Senate of the United States" or the House by his attack on Sumner. Brooks was arrested for the assault. He was tried in a District of Columbia court, convicted, and fined $300 (equivalent to $9,050 in today's dollars), but he did not receive a prison sentence. A motion for Brooks' expulsion from the House failed, but he resigned on July 15 in order to permit his constituents to ratify or condemn his conduct via a special election. They re-elected him to office on August 1 and then re-elected to a new term of office later in 1856. But Brooks died unexpectedly from a violent attack of croup on January 27, 1857, just weeks before the March 4 start of the new congressional term.

Keitt was censured by the House and resigned in protest. His constituents reelected him to his seat within a month. In 1858, he attempted to choke Representative Galusha Grow of Pennsylvania, a Republican, during an argument on the House floor. An effort to censure Edmundson failed to obtain a majority of votes in the House.

In the 1856 elections, the new Republican Party made gains in Congress by campaigning on the theme of "Bleeding Kansas" and "Bleeding Sumner." Both events cost Democrats heavily in the north. Republican Presidential candidate John C. Fremont made a strong showing in the election. Though Democrat James Buchanan won the presidential election, Republicans made major gains in elections for the state legislatures, which enabled them to make gains in the U.S. Senate elections, because senators were chosen by the state legislatures. The violence in Kansas and the beating of Sumner helped the Republicans unite as a party, which would set the stage for their victory in the 1860 presidential election.

Antebellum America: Bleeding Kansas

It had seemed inevitable that the clash between slaveholders and abolitionists would lead to mass violence. Even before the Civil War broke out, America experienced the Border War, which came to be known as "Bleeding Kansas" or "Bloody Kansas." This was a series of violent confrontations in the Kansas Territory that took place between 1854 and 1859. The conflict was accompanied by electoral fraud, guerilla raids, assaults, and murders all taking place in the Kansas Territory and neighboring Missouri between pro-slavery forces that became known as "border ruffians" and anti-slavery "free-staters". Sources suggest between 56 and 200 documented political killings during this time. The battle was over the question of whether Kansas would join the Union as a slave state or a free state. This was an important question because once Kansas became a state, its two new senators would affect the balance of power in the U.S. Senate, a body that was was bitterly divided over the issue of slavery.

The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 had called for popular sovereignty, meaning that the decision about slavery would be decided by popular vote among the territory's settlers, and not by legislators in Washington. Neighboring Missouri had been a slave state since 1822. It was populated by many settlers with Southern sympathies, who held pro-slavery views. This faction wanted to influence the Kansas decision by falsely entering Kansas and claiming to be residents.

As support for the abolition of slavery grew in the United States, tensions rose among those supporting the "peculiar institution" who saw their way of life and their economic stability being threatened. Congress had tried to maintained a tenuous balance of political power between Northern and Southern representatives, but this only seemed to increase each side's resentment of the other. The increasing emigration of Americans to the country's western territory led to the desire to build a transcontinental railroad that would connect the eastern states with California. While everyone agreed that this was a good idea, strong conflict existed in how these territories would treat the issue of slavery when they eventually became states. This question had really come to light during political debates following the Mexican–American War. The Compromise of 1850 had temporarily solved the problem by permitting residents of the Utah and New Mexico Territories to decide their own laws with respect to slavery by popular vote.

In May of 1854, the Kansas–Nebraska Act created the new territories of Kansas and Nebraska for settlement by U.S. citizens. The Act had been proposed by Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois as a way to appease Southern representatives in Congress, who opposed earlier proposals to admit states from the Nebraska Territory because of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had explicitly forbidden the practice of slavery in all U.S. territory north of 36°30' latitude and west of the Mississippi River, except in the state of Missouri. Southerners feared the incorporation of Nebraska would upset the balance between slave and free states, giving abolitionist Northerners an advantage in Congress.

Douglas believed that his proposal would allay these fears by organizing this region into two territories instead of one. He thought that the inclusion of a "popular sovereignty" clause would permit settlers of Kansas and Nebraska to vote on the legality of slavery in their own territories, even though this notion directly contradicted the Missouri Compromise. Douglas and others in Congress wrongly assumed that settlers of Nebraska would ultimately vote to prohibit slavery and that settlers of Kansas, being further south and closer to the slave state of Missouri, would vote to allow it and that this would maintain the balance of slave and free states. This was a safe assumption in Nebraska, but in Kansas, abolitionist sentiments were stronger than Douglas estimated. Each side saw an opportunity to assert its position in Kansas

Immediately, immigrants supporting both sides of the slavery question moved in the Kansas Territory to establish residency and gain the right to vote. Among the first settlers of Kansas were citizens of slave states, especially Missouri. Pro-slavery immigrants settled in towns like Leavenworth and Atchison.

It wasn't just the settlers who took sides. The administration of President Franklin Pierce appointed territorial officials in Kansas who held pro-slavery views. Pierce was a Democrat and his party needed the support of southern voters to win re-election. This helped pro-slavery factions to win many early territorial elections, often by fraud and intimidation. In November 1854, thousands of armed pro-slavery men known as "Border Ruffians," mostly from Missouri, arrived in the Kansas Territory and swayed the vote in the election for a non-voting delegate to Congress in favor of pro-slavery Democratic candidate John Wilkins Whitfield. The following year, a congressional committee investigating the election reported that 1,729 out of the 2,843 votes cast were fraudulent. In one location, only 20 of the 604 voters were residents of the Kansas Territory. In another, 35 were residents and 226 non-residents.

Northern abolitionists encouraged their own supporters to move to Kansas in the effort to make the territory a free state. One of the most famous of these was John Brown of Leavenworth, who moved from Ohio. Many citizens of Northern states arrived with assistance from benevolent societies such as the Boston-based New England Emigrant Aid Company. It is said that abolitionist minister Henry Ward Beecher (the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin), shipped these settlers Sharps rifles in crates labelled "Bibles," causing the rifles to be nicknamed "Beecher's Bibles". Settlement in the region by abolitionist supporters led to the establishment of towns which later became strongholds of Republican and abolitionist sentiment, such as Lawrence, Topeka, and Manhattan, Kansas.

On March 30, 1855, the Kansas Territory held an election for its first territorial legislature. It was this legislature that would decide whether the territory would allow slavery. "Border Ruffians" from Missouri once again filed into the territory to vote, and pro-slavery delegates were elected to 37 of the 39 seats. Free-Staters loudly cried foul and denounced the elections as fraudulent. Territorial Governor Andrew Reeder invalidated the results in only 11 of the 40 legislative races. A special election was held on May 22 to elect replacements. This time eight of the eleven delegates elected in the special election were Free-Staters. This still left the pro-slavery side with an overwhelming 29–10 majority.

The pro-slavery legislature convened in the newly created territorial capital of Pawnee on July 2, 1855. The legislature invalidated the results from the special election in May and seated the pro-slavery delegates elected in the original March election. One week later, the legislature moved the territorial capital to the Shawnee Mission, on the Missouri border, where it reconvened and adopted a slave code for Kansas modeled largely on that of Missouri. This legislature also began passing laws favorable to slaveholders.

In response, the Free-Staters elected delegates to a separate legislature based in Topeka, which proclaimed itself the legitimate government. This body created the first territorial constitution, the Topeka Constitution. Charles L. Robinson, a Massachusetts native and agent of the New England Emigrant Aid Company, was elected territorial governor.

Reeder had been appointed by President Franklin Pierce, and now Pierce fired him on August 16, 1855. He replaced Reeder with pro-Southern territorial governor Wilson Shannon. Pierce refused to recognize the Free-State legislature and in a message to Congress on January 24, 1856, Pierce called the Topeka government "insurrectionist". Congress decided to send a three-man special committee to the Kansas Territory in 1856. The committee reported, in July 1856, that if the election of March 30, 1855, had been limited to "actual settlers" it would have elected a Free-State legislature. The report also stated that the pro-slavery legislature, located in Lecompton "was an illegally constituted body, and had no power to pass valid laws". On June 30, 1856, Congress rejected ratification of the Topeka Constitution.

On November 21, 1855, a conflict known as the "Wakarusa War" began in Douglas County. A a pro-slavery settler, Franklin Coleman, shot and killed a Free-Stater, Charles W. Dow. The two men had been engaged in a feud that was unrelated to politics. Dow was the first American settler to be murdered in the Kansas Territory. Douglas County Sheriff Samuel J. Jones decided to arrest another Free-Stater rather than Coleman. When that prisoner was rescued by a Free-State posse, a battle arose between armed pro-slavery settlers and anti-slavery settlers. Governor Wilson Shannon called for the Kansas militia, but the assembled army was composed almost entirely of pro-slavery Missourians. They camped outside the town of Lawrence with stolen weapons and a cannon.

Knowing that this militia would offer no help, free state residents of Lawrence raised their own militia, led by Charles L. Robinson, the man elected governor by the Topeka legislature, and James H. Lane. The pro-slavery militia reluctantly dispersed only after Governor Shannon negotiated a peace agreement between the two sides.

On May 21, 1856, pro-slavery Democrats and Missourians invaded Lawrence, Kansas, and burned the Free State Hotel. They also destroyed two anti-slavery newspaper offices, and ransacked homes and stores. A cannon was stolen and used by a pro-slavery group. It was later recovered by an anti-slavery faction and returned to the city of Leavenworth.

On July 4, 1856, Pierce sent approximately 500 U.S. Army troops to Topeka from Fort Leavenworth and Fort Riley. There, Colonel E.V. Sumner (cousin to the senator of the same name) ordered the dispersal of the Free State Legislature. In August 1856, thousands of pro-slavery men formed makeshift armies and marched into Kansas. That month, John Brown and his followers engaged 400 pro-slavery soldiers in the Battle of Osawatomie. The hostilities raged for another two months until Brown departed the Kansas Territory, and a new territorial governor, John W. Geary, took office and managed to prevail upon both sides for peace.

Pierce was unsuccessful in his bid for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination and he was succeeded as President in 1857 by James Buchanan. Buchanan was also a Northerner sympathetic to the South and to pro-slavery interests. Like Pierce, he knew that he needed their support to win re-election. That year, a second constitutional convention met in Lecompton and by early November had drafted the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution. Buchanan supported this constitution. The constitution was submitted to Kansans for a vote on a special slavery article, but Free-Staters refused to participate. The Lecompton Constitution, including the slavery article, was approved by a vote of 6,226 to 569 on December 21. Congress once again ordered another election because of voting irregularities uncovered. On August 2, 1858, Kansas voters rejected the document by 11,812 to 1,926.

While the Lecompton Constitution was pending before Congress, a third document, the Leavenworth Constitution, was written and passed by Free State delegates. It would have extended suffrage to "every male citizen," regardless of race. This proposed constitution was forwarded to the U.S. Senate on January 6, 1859, where it was left to die in committee.

The final Free State proposal was the Wyandotte Constitution, drafted in 1859. It was approved in a referendum by a vote of 10,421 to 5,530 on October 4, 1859. With Southern states still in control of the Senate, confirmation of the Wyandotte Constitution was indefinitely postponed. When senators from the seceding states left in January 1861, Kansas was immediately admitted—the same day—as a free state.

The troubles in Kansas spilled over onto the floor of the US Senate where, in May 1856, Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts took to the floor to denounce the threat of slavery in Kansas. Sumner gave his famous "Crimes Against Kansas" speech in which he viciously attacked the slave power. Sumner criticized South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, portraying Butler's pro-slavery agenda towards Kansas as being like the raping of a virgin, characterizing his affection for it in sexual terms. Two days later, Butler's cousin, the South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, nearly killed Sumner on the Senate floor with a heavy cane. Brooks was praised by Southern Democrats for the attack.

The violence continued to increase. John Brown led his sons and other followers to plan the murder of settlers who spoke in favor of slavery. At a pro-slavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek on the night of May 24, the group seized five pro-slavery men from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords. Brown and his men escaped and began plotting an even greater slave insurrection to take place in Virginia.

The fragile peace that had been brokered by Governor Geary was marred by intermittent violent outbreaks for two more years. The last major outbreak of violence was known as the Marais des Cygnes massacre in 1858, in which Border Ruffians killed five Free State men. In January, 1859, John Brown led escaped slaves through a pro-slavery ambush to freedom via Nebraska and Iowa.

The Congressional legislative deadlock was broken in early 1861 when, following the election of Abraham Lincoln as President, seven Southern states seceded from the Union. Kansas's entry as a free state had already been approved by the House of Representatives, but had been blocked by Southern senators. When, early in 1861, the senators of the seceding states withdrew from Congress or were expelled, Kansas was soon admitted to the Union as a free state, under the Wyandotte Constitution. Pro-Confederates in Missouri attempted to effect that state's secession from the Union, but by the end of 1861 even that state was firmly in control of its Unionist government.

Antebellum America: The Birth of the Republican Party

Many people consider March 20, 1854 to be the date of birth of the Republican Party. It was on that day, at a meeting in Ripon, Wisconsin, that a group of anti-slavery activists held what is considered by many as the first public meeting of the party. In the course of the debate over the Nebraska bill, a man named Alvan Earl Bovay (pictured below) wrote to Horace Greeley on February 26, 1854, urging Greeley to use his newspaper, the New York Tribune, to call together every opponent of the Nebraska bill and unite them under the name Republican. A preliminary meeting was called by Bovay on March 1st, 1854 and it was resolved that if the Nebraska bill passed, a new party opposed to the principles of the bill should be formed. Greeley responded offering some support for the idea, but did not mention it in his paper.


Bovay was born in Adams, Jefferson County, New York, on July 12, 1818. he was graduated from Norwich University in Vermont at age 23 and began a career as a teacher in New York state. He later became Professor of Languages in the Bristol Military Academy before reading law and teaching school in new York City. It was there that he became secretary of the National Reform Association. He met and became a friend of Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune. Bovay was admitted to the bar in Utica, N. Y., in 1846. In late 1850, he he moved to Wisconsin and settled in Ripon where he began the practice of law. He became a member of the Whig Party, but could see the writing on the wall which predicted that party's disintegration.

During the National Whig Convention in 1852, Bovay was visiting in New York City, where he met Greeley for lunch in the Lovejoy Hotel. Bovay correctly predicted that General Winfield Scott would be chosen as the Whig Party's presidential nominee, even though at the time Scott was not in the lead. Greeley felt confident of a Whig victory in the next election, while Bovay correctly predicted the defeat of the Whig party. The issue of slavery had become as much of a political as of a moral issue, and Bovay told Greeley that it was time for the formation of a new party that would bring together all of the anti-slavery elements of all of the other parties. When asked by Greeley what name he would give to the new party, Bovay suggested the name "Republican."

Bovay returned to Wisconsin and continued to support the Whig party. His prediction about the defeat of General Scott came true, and after the presidential election of 1852 the Whig party disintegrated. Many of the old party members joined the new American or "Know-Nothing" party that had just been organized. This was a time of intense polarization and unrest throughout the country and a time when people seemed to be losing confidence in their political leaders.

During the Congressional session of 1853-54, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, of Illinois introduced the "Kansas- Nebraska Bill". The bill caused a storm of indignation from the anti-slavery factions in the North. Bovay and his followers were convinced that the time had come to take some form of action. On February 26, 1854, when the Nebraska Bill was before the senate, Bovay wrote to Greeley explaining how- strong the feeling was in his area against the Nebraska Bill. He told Greeley that since the New York Tribune was the leading paper in the country, he urged him to mount a call for unity among the bill's opponents. Bovay told Greeley that these groups should band them together under the name Republican

Bovay called for a meeting in Ripon. The meeting's notice read: "NEBRASKA. A meeting wall be held at 6:30 o'clock this Wednesday evening at the Congregational Church in the Village of Ripon to remonstrate against the Nebraska swindle." This meeting was held on Wednesday, March 1, 1854. At the meeting a resolution was adopted, which read as follows:

"Resolved, That of all the outrages hitherto perpetrated or attempted upon the North and freedom by the slave leaders and their natural allies, not one com¬ pares in bold and impudent audacity, treachery and meanness with this, the Nebraska Bill; as to the sum of all its villainies it adds the repudiation of a solemn compact held as sacred as the constitution itself for a period of thirty- four years."

A resolution was also adopted which stated that if the Nebraska Bill, then pending in the senate, should pass, they would cast off their old party organizations and form a new party directly opposed to the principles of the Nebraska Bill. On March 3 the Nebraska Bill passed the Senate. Bovay decided to call a second meeting for more definite action and to attempt to create a new party. Greeley's letter in reply, dated March 7, agreed with the plan of organizing a party if there was sufficient public support, but Greeley did not make any mention of the idea in the Tribune.

The second meeting was held in the school-house of district No. 2 on Monday evening, March 20, 1854. Bovay personally went from house to house and from business to business. He even stopped men on the street to get their names for the meeting. Out of the 100 voters in Ripon, 54 showed up to the meeting, composed mainly of Whigs, Democrats and Free-Soil party members. They met at 6:30 p. m., filling the school-house. After length deliberation, a formal vote was held and committees of the Free-Soil and Whig parties were dissolved and a the committee of the new party was formed.

The Nebraska Bill passed the House on May 22, 1854. The next day about thirty anti-slavery members of the House of Representatives from both of the major parties held a meeting and discussed organizing a new party under the name "Republican". President Franklin Pierce signed the bill into law on May 30, 1854.

On June 7, 1854, a state convention was held in Strong, Maine for prohibitionists and anti-slavery Democrats. At this meeting C. J. Talbot, the presiding officer, delivered an address calling for a combination of these two parties with the old-line Whigs under the name of "The Republican Party." This suggestion had considerable support. Today Maine Republicans claim that this was the first time that the name Republican Party was used in a public assembly, though this in contradicted by the reports of Bovay's gathering in Wisconsin. A convention was held in Strong on August 7, 1854, and the name Republican was adopted for the party.

On June 12 Bovay once again wrote to Greeley urging him to put forth the name Republican into his publication. On June 24, an article appeared in the Weekly Tribune, entitled "Party Names and Public Duty," in which the editor recommended the name Republican, previously suggested to him by Mr. Bovay, to designate those who had united to pursue the goals of anti-slavery. Greeley learned that a convention had been called in Michigan to protest the Nebraska Bill and he wrote to Mr. Jacob M. Howard, suggesting that the convention adopt the name Republican for the party that he thought was about to be formed. The Anti-Nebraska convention in Michigan met at Jackson on July 6 and gave the name Republican to the party.

Several other state conventions followed uniting opposition to the Nebraska bill. At such conventions, both Wisconsin and Vermont chose the name Republican. In July Asher N. Cole, editor of an Alleghany County New York newspaper, called a mass meeting of anti-slavery voters at Friendship in that county. It also adopted the name Republican Party and for years afterward in western New York, Cole was referred to as the "Father of the Republican Party." A convention of anti-slavery men was held in New York state on August 16, and another on .September 27. A convention was also held in Massachusetts on September 7. The anti-slavery state conventions which were held during the summer and fall of 1854 resulted in an electoral changes in the House of Representatives and the Senate. Fifteen states showed anti-slavery pluralities in the House and eleven Senators were either elected as Republicans voted with the new party.

An informal convention for the purpose of creating a national organization was held in Pittsburgh, on February 22, 1856. This convention met in response to a call issued by the chairmen of the Republican state committees of Maine, Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin. Twenty-four delegates were present and the name Republican was adopted for the national party. Delegates declared that the object and purpose of the new party was its opposition to the extension of slavery into free territory. Present at this convention were Horace Greeley and Abraham Lincoln. At this convention a Republican National Committee was formed.

The first national delegate convention met in Philadelphia on June 17, 1856, selected because it was the anniversary of the Battle of Bunker Hill. The convention nominated John C. Fremont of California for President and William L. Dayton of New Jersey for Vice-President. Meanwhile, opposition to the Nebraska Bill was growing within the Democratic Party also. Opponents included Salmon Chase of Ohio, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, Edward Wade of Ohio, Gerrit Smith of New York, and Preston King also of New York. Chase and Sumner had been considered as presidential candidates for the new party, but each requested that his name be withdrawn from nomination.


Although Fremont lost the election of 1856, it was clear that his position was the prevailing one in the free states and that slavery had become an intensely polarizing issue. In the free states, there was a three-way campaign, which Frémont won with 45.2% of the vote to 41.5% for Democrat James Buchanan and 13.3% for Know-Nothing candidate Millard Fillmore. In these states, Frémont received 114 electoral votes to 62 for Buchanan. In the slave states, however, Fremont was shut out. Buchanan won 56.1% of the vote to 43.8% for Fillmore and 0.1% for Frémont. Buchanan won 112 electoral votes, compared to 8 for Fillmore. Nationwide, Buchanan won 174 electoral votes, enough for a majority. Frémont received no votes in ten of the fourteen slave states with a popular vote. He received votes in only four slave states: 306 in Delaware, 285 in Maryland, 283 in Virginia, and 314 in Kentucky.

Antebellum America: The Know-Nothing Party

In the middle of the 19th century, pro-American, anti-immigrant sentiment became political with the formation of the Native American Party (renamed the American Party in 1855, but better known as the Know Nothing party). This party arose in response to an influx of immigration and the rising political influence of immigrants. The Know-Nothings promised to "purify" American politics by limiting or ending the political influence of Irish Catholics and other immigrants. They played off of the contemporary nativist and anti-Catholic sentiment that existed in many circles in America at the time. It was fed by popular fears that the country was being overwhelmed by German and Irish Catholic immigrants.

Anti-Catholicism was not really a factor in American politics until the arrival of large numbers of Irish and German Catholics in the 1840s. Many of these immigrants were Catholic and this elicited a prejudiced response from the Protestant majority. In New York, in 1843, the first nativist political party emerged, calling itself the American Republican Party. The nativist movement spread to nearby states, using that name or Native American Party or other similar names. These parties succeeded in a number of local and Congressional elections. For example, in 1844 in Philadelphia, following the Philadelphia riots, anti-Catholic orator Lewis Charles Levin was elected U.S. Representative from Pennsylvania's 1st District.

In the early 1850s, numerous secret nativist groups formed. The most prominent were the "Order of United Americans" and the Order of the Star Spangled Banner. These two groups merged in New York in the early 1850s as a secret order that quickly spread across the North, reaching non-Catholics, particularly those who were laborers or skilled workmen. They became known by the name "Know Nothings". The name originated from when a member was asked about its activities, he was supposed to reply, "I know nothing." In 1855, the Know Nothings first entered politics under the American Party label.

The immigration of large numbers of Irish and German Catholics to the United States in the period between 1830 and 1860 made religious differences between Catholics and Protestants a political issue. Violence sometimes erupted at the polls. Protestants accused Pope Pius IX of being an opponent of liberty. Catholicism was portrayed as tyrannical, opposed to material prosperity, the enemy of the railroad, as a group that wanted to take over schools with the intention of indoctrinating American children into Catholicism. Nativists spread conspiracy theories about the Pope wanting to subjugate the United States through a continuing influx of Catholics controlled by Irish bishops obedient to and personally selected by the Pope.

In 1849, one oath-bound secret society, the Order of the Star Spangled Banner, was created by Charles B. Allen in New York City. Fear of Catholic immigration led to a dissatisfaction with the Democratic Party, whose leadership in many cities included Irish-Catholics. They formed secret groups, throwing their support behind candidates sympathetic to their cause. When asked about these secret organizations, members were to reply "I know nothing", which led to their being called Know Nothings.

In spring 1854, the Know Nothing candidates swept the state of Massachusetts in the fall elections. The Whig candidate for mayor of Philadelphia, editor Robert T. Conrad, was a Know Nothing who promised to appoint only native-born Americans to office. He won the election by a landslide. In Washington, D.C., Know Nothing candidate John T. Towers defeated incumbent Mayor John Walker Maury. After the 1854 elections, they showed political strength in Maine, Indiana, Pennsylvania, and California. Stephen Palfrey Webb was elected as Mayor of San Francisco, and J. Neely Johnson as Governor of California. Nathaniel P. Banks, former Speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, was elected to Congress as a Know Nothing candidate. (He later aligned with Republicans and was elected Speaker of the United States House of Representatives).

The results of the 1854 elections were so favorable to the Know Nothings that they formed officially as a political party called the American Party. They attracted many members of the nearly defunct Whig party as well as a significant number of Democrats. Membership in the American Party increased significantly, from 50,000 to an estimated one million plus during the course of the year. This was in part due to the collapse of the Whig Party, weakened by internal dissent and sectional factionalism.

In San Francisco, a Know Nothing chapter was founded in 1854 to oppose Chinese immigration. One judge of the state supreme court, who was also a member of the party, ruled that no Chinese person could testify as a witness against a white man in court.

In the spring of 1855, Levi Boone was elected mayor of Chicago for the Know Nothings. He barred all immigrants from city jobs. Abraham Lincoln was strongly opposed to the principles of the Know Nothing movement but also needed the votes of its membership to form a successful anti-slavery coalition in Illinois, so he did not protest this. In Ohio the party gained strength in 1855 with the support of German American Lutherans and Scots-Irish Presbyterians, both hostile to Roman Catholicism. Know Nothings scored victories in northern state elections in 1854, winning control of the legislature in Massachusetts and polling 40% of the vote in Pennsylvania. Although most of the new immigrants lived in the North, the American Party also polled well in the South.

The party even spread its brand to products as Nativism became a new American rage. These included Know-Nothing candy, Know-nothing tea, and Know-Nothing toothpicks. In Trescott, Maine, a shipowner dubbed his new 700-ton freighter, Know-Nothing.

The new party was well-received in rapidly growing industrial towns, where nativist workers competed with new Irish immigrants for jobs. It was strongest in poor districts. They tended not to attract the traditional wealthy political leadership class, especially lawyers and merchants. Their appeal was to working class men, farmers, and a large number of teachers and ministers. Their leadership showed incomes, occupation and social status that were about average. Few were wealthy. The party's voters were by not all native-born Americans. It received support from German and British Protestants as well as the Lutherans, Dutch Reformed, and Presbyterians.

The party also opposed slavery, called for an expansion of the rights of women, regulation of industry, and support of measures designed to improve the status of working people. It supported legislation to regulate railroads, insurance companies, and public utilities, free textbooks for public schools, and appropriations for local libraries.

The party attacked the civil rights of Irish Catholic immigrants. They called for public schools had to require compulsory daily reading of the Protestant Bible. In Massachusetts, the governor disbanded the Irish militias, and replaced Irish holding state jobs with Protestants. They tried and failed to reach the two-thirds vote needed to pass a state constitutional amendment to restrict voting and office holding to men who had resided in Massachusetts for at least 21 years. The legislature then called on Congress to raise the requirement for naturalization from five years to 21 years, but Congress never did so. The Know Nothing legislature appointed an investigating committee designed to prove widespread sexual immorality underway in Catholic convents, but the media mocked the move, especially after it was discovered that the key reformer was using committee funds to pay for a prostitute. The legislature shut down its committee and ejected the reformer.

Nativist sentiments sometimes became violent. On 6 August 1855, in Louisville, Kentucky, where a hotly contested race for the office of governor was underway, 22 were killed and many others injured in violent riots between Know Nothing activists and Catholics. In Baltimore the mayoral elections of 1856, 1857 and 1858 were all marred by violence and well-founded accusations of ballot-rigging. In Maine, Know Nothings were associated with the tarring and feathering of a Catholic priest, Father Johannes Bapst, in the coastal town of Ellsworth in 1851 and the burning of a Catholic church in Bath in 1854.

in Louisiana and Maryland, the Know Nothings tried to enlist native-born Catholics. In Maryland, the party's influence lasted through the Civil War. American Party Maryland Governor, and later Senator, Thomas Holliday Hicks and others all supported the United States in a State which bordered the Confederate States.

The party declined rapidly in the North after 1855. In the presidential election of 1856, it was bitterly divided over slavery. The main faction supported the ticket of presidential nominee Millard Fillmore and vice-presidential nominee Andrew Jackson Donelson. Fillmore, a former President, had been a Whig, and Donelson was the nephew of Democratic President Andrew Jackson, so the ticket was designed to appeal to both major parties. It won 23% of the popular vote and carrying one state, Maryland, with eight electoral votes. Many were surprised that Fillmore accepted the nomination of the party, since he had sent his daughter to a Catholic school to be educated. Nathaniel Banks left the Know Nothing Party for the more anti-slavery Republican Party. He took a large portion of its members with him.

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Abraham Lincoln expressed his disgust with the Know-Nothings in a letter to Joshua Speed written in August 24, 1855. Lincoln never publicly attacked the Know Nothings because he relied of anti-slavery members of the party for political support. But he told Speed, "I am not a Know-Nothing – that is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that 'all men are created equal.' We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except negroes.' When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equals, except negroes and foreigners and Catholics.' When it comes to that I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty – to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy."

After the Supreme Court's controversial Dred Scott v. Sandford ruling in 1857, most of the anti-slavery members of the American Party joined the Republican Party. By the 1860 election, they were no longer a serious national political movement. Most of their remaining members supported the Constitutional Union Party in 1860.

The Nativist movement didn't end in Antebellum America. It was revived in later political movements, such as the American Protective Association of the 1890s and the Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s. George Wallace's 1968 presidential campaign was called the "neo-Know Nothing banner" by Time magazine. Recently Fareed Zakaria wrote that politicians who "encourage Americans to fear foreigners" were "modern incarnations of the Know-Nothings."

Antebellum America: The Kansas-Nebraska Act

I suspect that when the Compromise of 1850 passed, everyone knew that it was only a band-aid solution to a problem that would someday tear the nation apart. Bu this time virtually the entire world had recognized that slavery was morally reprehensible, but the slave states in the south continued to insist on the continuation of this "peculiar institution". The abolitionist movement grew and the choice facing the United States soon became a stark one: the abolition of slavery would either split the country into two nations, or it would have to be held together by force.

The two prevailing political parties addressed the issue in different ways. The Whig Party fractured, with many Whigs ultimately joining the new Republican Party, a party which opposed slavery. The Democrats continued to run "doughface" candidates, i.e. northerners who were willing to tolerate the continuation of slavery in order to appease southern slaveholders. After Millard Fillmore's term in office ended, the Democrats selected such a candidate, former New Hampshire Senator Franklin Pierce as its candidate for President. Pierce was able to attract wider support than his Whig opponent, General Winfield Scott, and he was elected President in the 1852 election.

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The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 had been passed as an effort to address this problem. It called for "popular sovereignty". This meant that the decision about slavery was to be made by the settlers not by Congress. The pro-slavery side believed that every settler had the right to bring his own property, which was defined to included slaves, into the territory. Anti-slavery "free soil" forces opposed slavery both on moral grounds and because many were concerned that rich slaveholders would buy up all the good farmland and work them with slaves, to the disadvantage of non-slaveholders. The conflict turned violent and two presidents failed to take adequate steps to prevent and address the bloodshed.

In 1820, the Missouri Compromise helped to maintain a tenuous balance of political power between pro and anti slavery interests in the north and south. In May 1854, Congress passed the Kansas–Nebraska Act, which contemplated the admission of this territory as a state. Those supporting both sides of the question arrived in Kansas to establish residency. Kansas Territory officials were appointed in 1854 by the pro-slavery administration of President Franklin Pierce. Pro-slavery interests were aided by thousands of non-resident pro-slavery Missourians who entered Kansas with the goal of winning local elections for those like minded. Territorial elections were sometimes won by fraud and intimidation.

To counter this, northern abolitionist elements flooded Kansas with "free-soilers." Anti-slavery Kansas residents wrote the first Kansas Constitution in 1855. They elected the Free State legislature in Topeka. The pro-slavery elements set up a parallel government in Lecompton. The two Territorial governments each claimed legitimacy, resulting in intense conflict. Pro-slavery forces settled towns including Leavenworth and Atchison. At the same time, citizens of the North, many aided by the New England Emigrant Aid Company, moved to Kansas to make it a free state and settled towns including Lawrence, Topeka and Manhattan.

A clash between the pro and anti slavery sides seemed inevitable. In November 1854, thousands of armed pro-slavery men known as "Border Ruffians", mostly from the slave state of Missouri, moved into the Kansas Territory. They swayed the vote in the election for a non-voting delegate to Congress in favor of pro-slavery candidate John Whitfield. The following year a Congressional committee was appointed to investigate the election. The committee reported that 1729 fraudulent votes were cast compared to 1114 legal votes. In one location only 20 of the 604 voters were residents of the Kansas Territory. In another 35 were residents and 226 non-residents.

On March 30, 1855, the Kansas Territory held the election for its first Territorial Legislature. It was an important election because this legislature would decide whether Kansas Territory would allow slavery. Once again the "Border Ruffians" from Missouri again streamed into the territory to vote, and proslavery delegates were elected to 37 of the 39 seats. Territorial Governor Andrew Reeder invalidated the results in five voting districts, because of concerns about voter fraud, and a special election was held on May 22, 1855, to elect replacements. Eight of the eleven delegates elected in the special election were Free-State, but this still left the pro-slavery camp with a 29–10 majority.

In the summer of 1855 around 1,200 anti-slavery New Englanders emigrated to Kansas Territory. Abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher armed many of them with Sharps rifles, which came to be known as "Beecher's Bibles". To address the rising tension, Congress sent a special committee to Kansas Territory in 1856. The committee report concluded that if the election on March 30, 1855, had been limited to "actual settlers" it would have elected a Free-State legislature. The report called the legislature seated "an illegally constituted body" which "had no power to pass valid laws."

The pro-slavery territorial legislature ignored the Congressional committee's report. It convened in the newly created Territorial Capital in Pawnee on July 2, 1855. The legislature invalidated the results from the special election in May and seated the pro-slavery delegates elected in March. After only one week in Pawnee, the legislature moved the territorial capital to the Shawnee Mission on the Missouri border, where it reconvened and passed pro-slavery laws.

In August 1855, antislavery residents met to formally reject the pro-slavery laws. This led to the election of Free State delegates, and the writing of the Topeka Constitution. But in a message to Congress on January 24, 1856, President Franklin Pierce declared that the Free-State Topeka government was illegitimate and insurrectionist.

The parallel legislatures intensified the conflict. On November 21, 1855 a Free-Stater named Charles Dow was shot by a pro-slavery settler named. Another free stater named Thomas Barber was shot and killed near Lawrence on December 6. On May 21, 1856, a group of pro-slavery Missourians invaded Lawrence and burned the Free State Hotel, destroyed two newspaper offices, and ransacked homes and stores.

Meanwhile, back in Washington, Republican Senator Charles Sumner took to the floor in May of 1856 to speak out against the threat of slavery in Kansas. In his speech he attacked what he called "the Slave Power". In the speech (called "The Crime against Kansas") Sumner ridiculed elderly South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler. He compared his pro-slavery plans for Kansas to the raping of a virgin. The next day Butler's cousin, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, attacked Sumner on the Senate floor with a heavy cane, badly injuring him. The action intensified the North-South split.

The violence in Kansas continued to escalate. Ohio abolitionist John Brown led his sons and other followers to plan the murder of settlers who spoke out in favor of slavery. At a proslavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek on the night of May 24, Brown's group removed five pro-slavery men from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords. Brown and his men escaped.

The pro-slavery Territorial government that Franklin Pierce had sanctioned had moved to Lecompton. In April 1856, a Congressional committee arrived there to investigate voting fraud. The committee found the elections improperly elected by non-residents, but President Pierce refused to recognize these findings and continued to authorize the pro-slavery legislature, which Free State supporters called the "Bogus Legislature."

On the Fourth of July in 1856, Pierce sent 500 Army troops to Topeka from Ft. Leavenworth and Ft. Riley. With their cannons pointed at Constitution Hall, and the long fuses lit, Colonel E.V. Sumner, a cousin to Senator Charles Sumner, ordered the dispersal of the Free State Legislature.

In August 1856, thousands of pro-slavery men formed into armies and marched into Kansas. Also during that month, John Brown and several of his followers fought with 400 pro-slavery men in what was called the "Battle of Osawatomie". The hostilities raged for another two months until Brown left the Kansas Territory.

A new territorial governor, John W. Geary was appointed in September and he was able to broker a fragile peace for the next two years, with occasional violent incidents. James Buchanan was inaugurated president in March of 1857. On May 18, 1858, an incident known as the Marais des Cygnes massacre occurred, in which Border Ruffians killed five Free State men. In all, approximately 56 people died in Bleeding Kansas by the time the violence ended in 1859.

In 1857, the second constitutional convention drafted the "Lecompton Constitution", a pro-slavery document. The Lecompton Constitution was supported by President James Buchanan. But Congress instead ordered another election because of voting irregularities uncovered. On Aug. 2, 1858, Kansas voters rejected the Lecompton Constitution by a lopsided vote of 11,812 to 1,926. The Leavenworth Constitution was written and passed by Free State delegates. It was more radical than other Free State proposals in that it would have extended suffrage to "every male citizen", regardless of race. Voter turnout for the vote on this constitution on May 18, 1858 was light as even some of the anti-slavery supporters thought it went too far. This proposed constitution was forwarded to the U.S. Senate on January 6, 1859, but it died in committee. The Wyandotte Constitution drafted in 1859 represented the Free State view of the future of Kansas. It was approved in a referendum by a vote of 10,421 to 5,530 on October 4, 1859. With southern states still in control of the Senate, Kansas awaited admission to the Union until January 29, 1861.

Pierce's reputation suffered because of his support for the pro-slavery interests in Kansas. The midterm congressional elections of 1854 and 1855 were devastating to the Democrats, who lost almost every state outside the South. Pierce was not re-nominated by his party.

Antebellum America: The Demise of the Whig Party

The Whig Party had formed in the 1830s from an alliance of disaffected Democratic-Republicans, many of whom were antagonistic towards the policies of Andrew Jackson, especially to his opposition to the re-chartering of the national bank. The Whigs were successful two presidential elections, first in 1840, and then in 1848. In both cases history repeated itself. In each case the Whigs selected a former general as their victorious Presidential candidate, and each time that winning candidate died in office before completing his full term.

The issue of slavery would cause section divisions within the two major parties, the Whigs and the Democrats, but the issue would hurt the Whigs the most. As the 1852 election approached, the nation was being held together, barely so, by the compromise of 1850, signed by President Millard Fillmore. The compromise was almost universally unpalatable. In the north, free states bristled at the requirement of having to enforce the Fugitive Slave Act, which compelled the return of escaped slaves. Southerners were unhappy that California had been admitted as a free state and that slavery in the territories acquired in the Mexican-American War was not automatic, but would be decided by popular sovereignty. Northerners resented the political power held by the slave states and southerners saw the growing anti-slavery sentiment in the north as an attack on their way of life.

These political tensions divided both parties, but the Whigs seemed to be more bitterly divided that the democrats. President Millard Fillmore, who had become President upon the death of Zachary Taylor in July of 1850, hoped to win election to the presidency on his own merit. He pointed to the Compromise of 1850, seeing it as a success, and as something that halted a secession movement. The northern Whigs believed that the Compromise of 1850 favored the slaveholding South over the North. Southerners generally supported Fillmore, for his support of the compromise, but many distrusted the President, who was from New York and who had anti-slavery sympathies, though his first professed loyalty was to following the Constitution, which at the time allowed for slavery.

The Congressional Whig caucus, led by North Carolina Senator Willie P. Mangum, met on April 9, 1852, to decide the date and location for the 1852 convention. The party chose to hold the convention in Baltimore, Maryland, at the Maryland Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts. They agreed to hold the convention during the second week of June. In late 1851 and early 1852, state conventions began to meet to select delegates to the national convention. The party was divided between those who felt that Fillmore could not win the election and those who were loyal to the president's nomination. Despite the fact that Fillmore was a New Yorker, Northern Whigs did not think he could win the election. They turned to their previous tried and true formula: a victorious general. Many favored General Winfield Scott, commanding general in the Mexican War. Most Southern Whigs tended to prefer Fillmore.

The party was also torn on the issue of slavery. Most in the party wanted to prevent slavery from becoming the dominating issue in the election. However, the Whigs were split on the issue of the Compromise of 1850, which had been proposed and designed by Whig Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky. President Zachary Taylor, a Southern Whig, had tried to avoid the issue altogether by proposing that California and New Mexico be admitted as free states immediately. After Taylor's death in July 1850, Fillmore, a moderate Whig, had supported Clay's compromise and was instrumental as president in its passage. Northern Whigs, led by William Henry Seward of New York, opposed the compromise because it did not apply the Wilmot Proviso (which banned slavery in any federal territory acquired from Mexico after the Mexican-American War) to the western territories.

Northern anti-slavery Whigs tried to associate Scott with the Free Soil wing of the party, which opposed the expansion of slavery into the western territories. Just days before the convention was scheduled to begin, Southern Whigs warned that they would not support Scott unless he pledged to disavow the Free Soilers and to exclude them from his administration if he was elected.

Secretary of State Daniel Webster of Massachusetts launched another campaign for the presidency in 1851. Fillmore liked Webster, but he feared that a Webster victory would turn the party over to the Free Soil wing, which in turn would spell the end of the party.

Winfield Scott had supported the Compromise of 1850, and claimed not to support the Free Soil wing of the party, but his association with William Seward made him unacceptable to Southern Whigs. Southerners also distrusted Webster, and decided to backing Fillmore. Scott became the preferred candidate of most Northern Whigs, Fillmore became the main candidate of Southern Whigs, and Webster was only able to win backing from a handful of delegates, mostly from New England.

On the eve of the convention, The New York Times estimated that Fillmore would have the support of 133 delegates, Scott 120 and Webster 40. Meanwhile, two weeks before the Whig convention was set to begin, the Democrats nominated Franklin Pierce, a northerner from New Hampshire, as their candidate. Supporters of Daniel Webster believed that Scott, not Fillmore, could defeat Pierce in the general election, because Pierce had also served as a general in the war, under Scott's command. This caused several delegates to switch their support from Webster to Scott.

The convention met from June 17 to June 20. On the first day, delegates selected former Senator George Evans of Maine as temporary chairman. A large number of delegates had not yet arrived, and many on the floor objected to the selection. The delegates also appointed the Whig Party's National Committee, as well as a Committee on Credentials and a Committee on Permanent Organization, before adjourning. On the second day, the party settled on its platform. Southern delegates submitted a platform, but it was rejected in favor of a relatively weak and noncontroversial one, which was easily passed by a vote of 227 to 66. Then the voting began.

Fillmore narrowly led on the first ballot, receiving 133 votes. Scott placed a close second with 131 votes. Webster received 29 votes. Five more ballots were held with little change in the vote before the convention adjourned for the weekend.

Both Webster and Fillmore were willing to withdraw in favor of the other, but their respective delegates at the convention were unable to unite around either candidate. The delegates resumed voting on Monday. On the 8th ballot, Scott took the lead with 133 votes to 131 for Fillmore, but neither received the necessary majority for nomination. The convention was deadlocked, and a number of delegates unsuccessfully moved to allow a nomination with a plurality, rather than a majority, of votes. After the 46th ballot, with Scott ahead by seven votes (but still without a majority), the delegates voted to adjourn for the night. On the first ballot of the final day of the convention, the 47th overall, Scott still had not received the majority of votes necessary for nomination. Several more votes were taken. Fillmore lost votes on each successive ballot. On the 52nd ballot, Scott received exactly one half of the vote. He was finally nominated on the next ballot, obtaining a majority when several delegates from New England and Virginia switched their support.

Scott had earned the nickname of "Old Fuss and Feathers" in the military due to his fascination with appearance and discipline. Though respected, he was also mocked for this trait. But going into the election, many Whigs were confident that he would command more respect among voters than his opponent, Franklin Pierce. William Alexander Graham was chosen as the vice-presidential nominee.

With both parties trying to manage their own internal sectional divisions, the Whigs' platform was almost indistinguishable from that of the Democrats. The lack of significant differences on the issues between the two parties sent voter turnout down to its lowest level since 1836. Scott's antislavery reputation made him unattractive to many southern Whigs, while Pierce at least was reputed to be a "Doughface", that is a northerner with sympathies to southern political interests. The pro-slavery Whig platform also undermined the Northern Whig vote.

Scott's status as a war hero was somewhat offset by the fact that Pierce was himself a Mexican–American War brigadier general. Whig efforts to slander Pierce as a coward and a drunk ("the hero of many a well-fought bottle") were not well-received.

When American voters went to the polls, Pierce won the election by a significant margin. Scott won only the states of Kentucky, Tennessee, Massachusetts, and Vermont. Pierce won the electoral vote by 254 to 42. He won 50.84% of the popular vote (to 43.87% for Scott.)

Despite their decisive loss in the 1852 elections, most Whig leaders still believed the party could recover during the Pierce presidency, just as it had during the presidency of James K. Polk. But the economy was strong and the Whigs could not unite on a platform of any substance. The 1854 Kansas–Nebraska Act had effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise by allowing slavery in territories north of the 36°30′ parallel, and this divided both parties, but the Democrats seemed better able to weather the storm. In northern states, opposition to the Kansas–Nebraska Act gave rise to anti-Nebraska coalitions consisting of Democrats focused on their opposition to the Act, along with Free Soil Party members and northern Whigs. In Michigan and Wisconsin, these two coalitions called themselves the Republican Party. Similar groups in other states initially took on different names.

Another political coalition appeared: the nativist and anti-Catholic "Know Nothing" movement, which eventually organized itself into the American Party. Both the Republican Party and the Know-Nothings battled for the void left by the Whig Party, but they could not unite. Republicans focused their opposition on the "Slave Power," while the Know-Nothings focused on what they said was the anger of mass immigration and a Catholic conspiracy. The Republican Party almost exclusively appealed to Northerners, while the Know-Nothings had some support in both the North and South.

Congressional Democrats suffered huge losses in the mid-term elections of 1854, as voters provided test drove the vast array of new parties opposed to the Democratic Party. For those still left in the Whig Party, cooperation between Northern and Southern Whigs became increasingly impossible, and leaders from both sections continued to abandon the party. In 1855 Fillmore became a member of the Know-Nothing movement, not because he was anti-immigrant or anti-Catholic (his daughter had attended a Catholic school), but because he saw the party as the most politically viable. He encouraged his Whig followers to join as well. In September 1855, William Seward and his faction of Whigs joined the Republican Party. Now appearing to be a leaderless party, this effectively marked the end of the Whigs as an independent and significant political force. The 1856 presidential election became a three-way contest between Democrats, Know-Nothings, and Republicans. Democrat James Buchanan won the election with a majority of the electoral vote and 45 percent of the popular vote.

The Whig Party vanished after the 1850s, with most Whigs joining the Republican Party, a party that most southerners saw as the party that was determined to end their way of life.

Antebellum America: Harriet Beecher Stowe and Uncle Tom's Cabin

"So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war."

This is what Abraham Lincoln is reported to have told Harriet Beecher Stowe, best known for being the author of the classic book Uncle Tom's Cabin, a work of fiction. The book was intended to open the eyes of Americans to the reality of the life of an enslaved person. It might be an overstatement to say that the book "started this great war," but it certainly caused a lot of commotion and had the nation talking about it.

The author was born Harriet Elisabeth Beecher in Litchfield, Connecticut on June 14, 1811, the sixth of 11 children born to the prominent Calvinist preacher Lyman Beecher. Her mother was his Beecher's wife, Roxana Foote, who died when Stowe was only five years old. The Beecher family had a Roxana's maternal grandfather was General Andrew Ward of the Revolutionary War. Her siblings were a talented group. Her sister, Catharine Beecher was educator and also an author. Three of her brothers became ministers: Henry Ward Beecher, who also achieved fame as an abolitionist, and also Charles Beecher and Edward Beecher.

Harriet enrolled in the Hartford Female Seminary which was run by her older sister Catharine. She received something a traditional academic education at a time when this was something very rare for young women to acquire. She was taught the Classics, languages, and mathematics. In 1832, at the age of 21, Harriet Beecher moved to Cincinnati, Ohio to join her father, who was now the president of Lane Theological Seminary. She also joined something known as the Semi-Colon Club, a literary and social club, In that group she met the Beecher sisters, as well as Salmon P. Chase (who would go on to become Governor of Ohio and Secretary of the Treasury under President Lincoln, and Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court.)

Cincinnati was a busy city for trade and shipping due to its location on the Ohio River. Ohio was a free state, while Kentucky, on the other side of the river, was a slave state. Many escaped slaves as well as slave hunters, passed through the city. The city also had a large population of Irish immigrants who worked on the state's canals and railroads. There was tension between the Irish and the escaped slaves because the former worried that the latter were after their jobs. In 1829 a group of Irish workers attacked some of the African-American population, causing havoc in parts of the city. Beecher met with a number of African Americans who had been victims of those attacks. She learned much from talking with them and this contributed to what she would subsequently write about slavery.

In February of 1834 a series of debates on the subject of slavery were held at the Lane Theological Seminary. Harriet Beecher Stowe attended most of these debates and was impressed by the arguments made by Theodore Weld and other abolitionists. Her father and the school's trustees were afraid of violence from anti-abolitionists and they decided to ban further discussions of the topic. The result was that many of the Lane students as well a one of the trustees and one professor left the school and moved as a group to the new Oberlin Collegiate Institute. The trustees of that school had agreed to accept students regardless of race, and to allow discussions of the topic of slavery.

While she was a student at Lane, Harriet met Rev. Calvin Ellis Stowe, a widower who was a professor of Biblical Literature. They were married at the Lane Seminary on January 6, 1836 and had seven children together.

In 1850, Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Law, which prohibited the provision of assistance to fugitive slaves and which required law enforcement in free states to assist in their return. By this time the Stowes had moved to Brunswick, Maine, where Rev. Calvin Stoew was now teaching at Bowdoin College. The Stowes supported the Underground Railroad, and would temporarily house fugitive slaves in their home. The death of her eighteen-month-old son, Samuel Charles Stowe is believed to have contributed to her inspiration to write her famous novel. She said, "Having experienced losing someone so close to me, I can sympathize with all the poor, powerless slaves at the unjust auctions. You will always be in my heart Samuel Charles Stowe." On March 9, 1850, Stowe wrote to Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the weekly anti-slavery journal The National Era, and told him that she planned to write a story about slavery. In June of 1851, at the age of 40, she published the first installment of Uncle Tom's Cabin. It was published in serial form in the National Era. Her working title was "The Man That Was a Thing", but she later changed it to "Life Among the Lowly".

Installments were published weekly from June 5, 1851, to April 1, 1852. She was paid $400 for the newspaper serialization of her novel, equivalent to about $14,750 today. Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in book form on March 20, 1852, by John P. Jewett with an initial print run of 5,000 copies. Each of its two volumes included three illustrations and a title-page designed by Hammatt Billings. It was a commercial success. In less than a year, the book sold over 300,000 copies. In December of 1852, as sales began to slow down, Jewett issued an inexpensive edition at 37½ cents each. In Britain and other foreign countries, the book was a great success, though Stowe was not paid for these sales because there was no international copyright agreement in place at the time. In late 1853 Stowe embarked on a lecture tour of Britain and the Glasgow New Association for the Abolition of Slavery set up Uncle Tom's Offering for people to make donations.

The book is about an enslaved man named Tom, a middle-aged man with a wife and children. Tom and Harry, another enslaved man, are sold by their Kentucky slaveholder to Mr. Haley, a coarse slave trader. Harry's mother, Eliza, decided to run away with her son. Eliza departs that night, later making a dangerous crossing over the ice of the Ohio River to escape her pursuers. Tom is sold, an on route, he dives into the river to save the life of a young white girl named Eva. Being grateful to Tom, the child's father buys him from Haley and takes him with the family to their home in New Orleans.

During Eliza's escape, she meets up with her husband George Harris, who had run away previously. They decide to attempt to reach Canada, but are tracked by Tom Loker, a slave hunter hired by Mr. Haley. Eventually Loker and his men trap Eliza and her family, causing George to shoot him in the side. Worried that Loker may die, Eliza convinces George to bring the slave hunter to a nearby Quaker settlement for medical treatment.

After Tom has lived with the St. Clares for two years, Eva grows very ill. Before she dies she experiences a vision of heaven, which she shares with the people around her. St. Clare pledging to free Tom, but before he can follow through on his promise, he dies after being stabbed outside a tavern. His wife reneges on her late husband's pledge and she sells Tom at auction to a vicious plantation owner named Simon Legree. Legree takes an instant dislike to Tom, who refuses Legree's order to whip his fellow slave. Despite Legree's cruelty, Tom refuses to stop reading his Bible and comforting the other slaves as best he can. While at the plantation, Tom meets Cassy, another slave whom Legree used as a sex slave.

Meanwhile, after being healed by the Quakers, Tom Loker helps George, Eliza, and Harry enter Canada from Lake Erie and become free. In Louisiana, Uncle Tom almost succumbs to hopelessness as his faith in God is severely tested by the hard life on the plantation. He encourages Cassy to escape, which she does. When Tom refuses to tell Legree where Cassy has gone, Legree orders his overseers to kill Tom. As Tom is dying, he forgives the overseers who savagely beat him. George Shelby, Arthur Shelby's son, arrives to buy Tom's freedom, but Tom dies shortly after they meet. George Shelby returns to the Kentucky farm, where after his father's death, he frees all his slaves. George Shelby urges them to remember Tom's sacrifice every time they look at his cabin. He decides to lead a pious Christian life just as Uncle Tom did.

Stowe hoped that by writing the book, she would educate Northerners on the realistic nature of slavery and open their eyes to what was happening in the slaveholding states. She also hoped to make people in the South feel more empathetic towards enslaved people. Stowe showed that slavery touched many aspects of society, not just those directly involved. Her novel fired up debate about abolition and slavery, and aroused intense opposition in the South. Within a year, 300 babies in Boston alone were named Eva (one of the book's characters), and a play based on the book opened in New York in November. Southerners countered with a genre of novels known as "anti-Tom novels", which tried to portray Southern society and slavery in more positive terms. None of these matched the popularity of Stowe's book.

After the start of the Civil War, Stowe traveled to Washington, D.C., where she met President Abraham Lincoln on November 25, 1862. Stowe's son later reported that Lincoln greeted her by saying, "so you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war." Her own accounts of their meeting are vague, but she did comment on Lincoln's sense of humor, stating in a letter to her husband that "I had a real funny interview with the President."

Stowe's husband, Calvin Stowe died in 1886, and Harriet's own health began to decline rapidly. She began to show signs of dementia and in 1888, The Washington Post reported she had started writing Uncle Tom's Cabin over again, imagining she was engaged in the book's original composition. Mark Twain was a neighbor of Stowe's in Hartford, and in his autobiography, he gave this account of her final years:

Her mind had decayed, and she was a pathetic figure. She wandered about all the day long in the care of a muscular Irish woman. Among the colonists of our neighborhood the doors always stood open in pleasant weather. Mrs. Stowe entered them at her own free will, and as she was always softly slippered and generally full of animal spirits, she was able to deal in surprises, and she liked to do it. She would slip up behind a person who was deep in dreams and musings and fetch a war whoop that would jump that person out of his clothes. And she had other moods. Sometimes we would hear gentle music in the drawing-room and would find her there at the piano singing ancient and melancholy songs with infinitely touching effect.

Harriet Beecher Stowe died on July 1, 1896, in Hartford, Connecticut, 17 days after her 85th birthday. She is buried in the cemetery at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, along with her husband and their son Henry Ellis.

Remembering James Garfield

On September 19, 1881 (141 years ago today) James Abram Garfield, the 20th President of the United States, died as the result of gunshot wounds he sustained earlier that year, when he was shot by assassin Charles Guiteau at a Washington DC train station. Garfield was 49 years old when he died.

On the morning of July 2, 1881, Garfield was on his way to Williams College, his alma mater, where he was scheduled to give a speech. Garfield was accompanied by two members of his cabinet, Secretary of State James G. Blaine and Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, as well as his two sons, James and Harry. As he was walking through the Sixth Street Station of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad in Washington at 9:30 a.m., Garfield was shot twice from behind, once across the arm and once in the back.

His assassin, Charles J. Guiteau, was the poster boy of disgruntled office-seekers. Guiteau had deluded himself to believe that he was on close terms with Garfield even though the two had never spoken to each other. Guiteau also believed he was entitled to a Federal appointment as the United States consul in Paris, a position for which he had no qualifications. Guiteau also believed that a short speech he had made to a small group of people during the presidential election campaign was the cause of Garfield's election to the presidency, which therefore justified his appointment. When the appointment did not materialize, Guiteau believed he could save the nation if Garfield was killed.

Guiteau stalked Garfield for weeks, armed with a .44 caliber Webley Bulldog revolver. As Guiteau was being arrested after the shooting, he repeatedly said, "I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts! I did it and I want to be arrested! Arthur is President now!" This very briefly led to unfounded suspicions that Vice-President Chester Alan Arthur or his supporters had put Guiteau up to the crime.

One bullet grazed Garfield's arm. The second bullet was thought later to have lodged near his liver but could not be found. When his autopsy was done, the bullet was found behind the pancreas. Alexander Graham Bell specifically devised a metal detector to find the bullet, but the device's signal was thought to be distorted by the metal bed springs. Later the detector was proved to work perfectly and would have found the bullet had Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss (yes, he was a Doctor of Medicine whose given name was also "Doctor") allowed Bell to use the device on Garfield's left side as well.

Garfield became increasingly ill over a period of several weeks due to infection, which caused his heart to weaken. He remained bedridden in the White House with fever and extreme pain. As the heat of summer became more oppressive for the stricken President, a Navy engineer installed what may have been the world's first air conditioner, in Garfield's bedroom. An air blower was installed over a chest containing 6 tons of ice, with the air then dried by conduction through a long iron box filled with cotton screens, and connected to the room's heat vent. This device was at times capable of reducing the air temperature to 20°F (11°C) below the outside temperature.

On September 6th Garfield was moved to the Jersey Shore in the hope that the fresh air and quiet there might aid his recovery. In a matter of hours, local residents put down a special rail spur for Garfield's train. Some of the ties are now part of the Garfield Tea House.

On Monday, September 19, 1881, at 10:20 p.m. President James Garfield suffered a massive heart attack and a ruptured splenic artery aneurysm, following blood poisoning and bronchial pneumonia. Garfield was pronounced dead at 10:35 p.m. by Dr. Bliss in the Elberon section of Long Branch, New Jersey. Mrs. Garfield remained with her dead husband for over an hour until prompted to leave the room. The wounded President died exactly two months before his 50th birthday. His final words were "My work is done."

Guiteau was formally indicted on October 14, 1881, for the murder of the President. Guiteau's counsel argued the insanity defense, but the jury found him guilty on January 5, 1882, and he was sentenced to death. Guiteau was executed on June 30, 1882.

An outstanding book about Garfield's assassination is Candice Millard's 2011 work Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, a review of which was posted in this community here. PBS has produced an excellent documentary about Garfield called Murder of a President.

Antebellum America: Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad

Harriet Tubman was born as Araminta Ross, probably sometime in March of 1822. She was born into slavery and went on to become a great abolitionist and political activist. Tubman would ultimately escape her captivity and would lead 13 missions to rescue approximately 70 enslaved people, many of whom were her family and friends. She utilized a network of antislavery activists and safe houses which became known as the Underground Railroad. During the Civil War, she served as an armed scout and spy for the Union Army. In her later years, Tubman was an activist in the movement for women's suffrage.

Tubman was born in Dorchester County, Maryland. Her parents were Harriet Green (known as "Rit") and Ben Ross, who were also enslaved persons. The estimate of her birth year as 1822 is based on a record of payment to a midwife and on several other historical documents, including her runaway advertisement. But Tubman herself reported the year of her birth as 1825, while her death certificate says she was born in 1815 and her gravestone gives her year of birth as 1820. Her experience as a child was abhorrent, as she was beaten and whipped by her various slaveholders. In her adolescence, she suffered a traumatic head wound when an irate overseer threw a heavy metal weight intending to hit another enslaved person. The weight hit Tubman, causing dizziness, pain, and spells of hypersomnia. After her injury, Tubman claimed to have experienced strange visions and vivid dreams, which she considered to be premonitions from God.

Sometime around 1844, she married a free African-American man named John Tubman, a marriage that was complicated because of her slave status. Her status meant that any children she and John had together would be enslaved. Marriages between free African-Americans and enslaved people were not uncommon on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and by this time, half of the African-American population was free. Tubman changed her name from Araminta to Harriet soon after her marriage, possibly right after their wedding.

In 1849, Tubman became ill and this diminished her value as an enslaved person. Edward Brodess tried to sell her, but could not find a buyer. When it appeared as though a sale was being concluded, Tubman prayed for Brodess, first that he would have a change of heart, and then when it was clear that this was not going to happen, she said: "I changed my prayer. First of March I began to pray, 'Oh Lord, if you ain't never going to change that man's heart, kill him, Lord, and take him out of the way.'" There was power in her prayer as a week later, Brodess died. Tubman expressed regret for her prayers.

After Brodess's death, his widow, Eliza, began working to sell the family's enslaved people. Fearing what this might mean, Tubman and her brothers, Ben and Henry, escaped on September 17, 1849. Tubman and her brothers had been hired out and Eliza Brodess did not learn of their absence for about two weeks, at which time she posted a runaway notice in the Cambridge Democrat, offering a reward of up to $100 for each slave returned. Tubman's brothers had second thoughts. The two men went back and they forced Tubman to return with them.

Soon afterward, Tubman escaped again, alone this time. She made use of the network known as the Underground Railroad, an informal but well-organized system was operated free and enslaved African-Americans, white abolitionists, and other activists. In Maryland many of those involved in the Underground Railroad were members of the Religious Society of Friends, called the Quakers. Tubman is believed to have travelled through the Preston area of Maryland near Poplar Neck, which contained a substantial Quaker community. From there, she likely went northeast along the Choptank River, through Delaware and then north into Pennsylvania. This was a journey of nearly 90 miles (145 km) made by foot and would have taken between five days and three weeks. Tubman had to travel by night, and had to avoid slave catchers. After reaching Philadelphia, Tubman later wrote:

"I was a stranger in a strange land, my father, my mother, my brothers, and sisters, and friends were in Maryland. But I was free, and they should be free."

The U.S. Congress meanwhile passed the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which required law enforcement officials, even in states, to assist in their capture. As a result, many escaped enslaved persons sought refuge in Southern Ontario (then part of the British colony of Canada) which, as part of the British Empire, had abolished slavery.

The "underground railroad" which grew as a result of the Fugitive Slave Act was neither underground nor a railroad. It was called that because those who took passage on it disappeared from public view as if they had literally gone underground. After the fugitive slaves entered a "depot" on this network, no trace of them could be found. They were secretly passed from one depot to another until they arrived at a destination where they were able to remain free. It was described as a railroad, and used rail terminology such as stations and conductors, because that was the transportation system known of at the time.

The Underground Railroad network consisted of meeting points, secret routes, transportation, and safe houses, all of them maintained by abolitionist sympathizers. Communication was by word of mouth or by coded messages. Participants generally organized in small independent groups in order to maintain secrecy. People escaping enslavement would move north along the route from one way station to the next. "Conductors" included free-born African Americans, white abolitionists, the formerly enslaved (either escaped or manumitted), and Native Americans. Many Christian congregations and clergy played a role, especially denominations such as the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), Congregationalists, Wesleyan Methodists, and Reformed Presbyterians, Other religions encountered schisms over slavery and the anti-slavery branches also participated. These religions included some in the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Baptists.

The geography of the U.S.–Canada border aided in transporting the former enslaved persons to freedom. Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and most of New York were separated from Canada by water, and transport over these lakes was usually easy to arrange and relatively safe. The main route for fugitives from the South led up the Appalachians. Harriet Tubman frequently used a route that went via Harpers Ferry, through the highly anti-slavery Western Reserve region of northeastern Ohio to the shore of Lake Erie, and then to Canada by boat. A smaller number, travelling by way of New York or New England, went via Syracuse (home of Samuel May) and Rochester, New York (home of Frederick Douglass), crossing the Niagara River or Lake Ontario into Canada. Those travelling via the New York Adirondacks sometimes travelled through Black communities like Timbuctoo, New York, They entered Canada via Ogdensburg, on the St. Lawrence River, or Lake Champlain. The western route, used by John Brown among others, led from Missouri north to free Iowa, then east via Chicago to the Detroit River.

Tubman helped many other enslaved person escape to freedom. In December 1850, Tubman returned to Maryland and assisted in the escape of her niece Kessiah and her two children, six-year-old James Alfred, and baby Araminta, along with Kessiah's husband, a free Black man named John Bowley. Early next year she returned to Maryland to help other family members to escape and during her second trip, she helped her brother Moses and two unidentified men. In late 1851, Tubman returned to Dorchester County for the first time since her escape, to find her husband John. Meanwhile, John had married another woman named Caroline. Tubman sent word that he should join her, but he insisted that he was happy where he was. Suppressing her anger, she helped some other enslaved people who wanted to escape and led them to Philadelphia.

In December 1851, Tubman guided an unidentified group of 11 fugitives, escape to Canada. Tubman and her group stopped at the home of abolitionist and former slave Frederick Douglass. Douglass wrote: "On one occasion I had eleven fugitives at the same time under my roof, and it was necessary for them to remain with me until I could collect sufficient money to get them on to Canada. It was the largest number I ever had at any one time, and I had some difficulty in providing so many with food and shelter." Douglass and Tubman had great admiration for one another. Douglass wrote of Tubman:

"The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day – you in the night. The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism."

Over 11 years, Tubman returned to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, where she rescued some 70 slaves in about 13 expeditions. Because of her efforts, she was nicknamed "Moses". One of her last missions into Maryland was to retrieve her aging parents. She traveled to the Eastern Shore and led them north to St. Catharines, Ontario, where a community of former slaves (including Tubman's brothers, other relatives, and many friends) lived. Years later, she said, in an address she gave: "I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can't say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger."

In April 1858, Tubman was introduced to the abolitionist John Brown, an abolitionist who advocated the use of violence to fight slavery in the United States. Tubman never advocated violence, but she worked with Brown, who called her "General Tubman." Her knowledge of support networks and resources in the border states was of great assistance to Brown and his planners. Other abolitionists like Douglass did not endorse Brown's tactics. Brown had asked Tubman to gather former slaves then living in present-day Southern Ontario who might be willing to join his fighting force. On May 8, 1858, Brown held a meeting in Chatham, Ontario, where he set out his plan for a raid on Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Tubman aided him in this effort and with more detailed plans for the assault.

In late 1859, as Brown and his men prepared to launch the attack, Tubman could not be contacted and when the raid on Harpers Ferry took place on October 16, Tubman was not present. She may have been in New York at the time, ill with fever related to her childhood head injury. Some historians believe that she may have begun sharing Frederick Douglass's opposition to the plan.

When the raid failed, Brown was convicted of treason, murder, and for inciting a slave rebellion. He was hanged on December 2. His actions were seen by many abolitionists as a the acts of a noble martyr. Tubman later said of Brown, "He done more in dying, than 100 men would in living."

In early 1859, abolitionist Republican Senator William H. Seward sold Tubman a small piece of land on the outskirts of Auburn, New York, for $1,200 (around $35,000 today). Auburn was home to many antislavery activists. This land in Auburn became a haven for Tubman's family and friends. She took in relatives and boarders, and offered them a safe place for African-Americans seeking a better life.

In November 1860, Tubman conducted her last rescue mission, which was to effect the escape of her sister Rachel, and Rachel's two children Ben and Angerine. On her return to Dorchester County, Tubman discovered that Rachel had died, and the children could be rescued only if she could pay a bribe of US$30 (around $900 today). She had no money and was unable to effect their escape. Instead, Tubman gathered another group, and brought to Auburn, though the journey took them weeks because of slave catchers along the route.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Tubman saw a Union victory as a key step toward the abolition of slavery. General Benjamin Butler had helped escaped slaves escape from Fort Monroe in Virginia. Butler had declared these fugitives to be "contraband" – property seized by northern forces. He put them to work, initially without pay, in the fort. Tubman joined a group of Boston and Philadelphia abolitionists that went to the Hilton Head district in South Carolina where they assisted fugitive slaves in their escape.

Tubman met with General David Hunter, a strong supporter of abolition. Hunter had began gathering former slaves for a regiment of African-American soldiers. President Abraham Lincoln was not prepared to enforce emancipation on the southern states. Tubman was critical of Lincoln's response, stating:

God won't let master Lincoln beat the South till he does the right thing. Master Lincoln, he's a great man, and I am a poor negro; but the negro can tell master Lincoln how to save the money and the young men. He can do it by setting the negro free. Suppose that was an awful big snake down there, on the floor. He bite you. Folks all scared, because you die. You send for a doctor to cut the bite; but the snake, he rolled up there, and while the doctor doing it, he bite you again. The doctor dug out that bite; but while the doctor doing it, the snake, he spring up and bite you again; so he keep doing it, till you kill him. That's what master Lincoln ought to know."

Tubman served as a nurse in Port Royal, where she tended to men with smallpox. She did not contract the disease herself. When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, Tubman considered it an important step toward the goal of liberating all black people from slavery. In early 1863 she led a band of scouts through the land around Port Royal, South Carolina. Her group, working under orders from Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, mapped the area. She also worked with Colonel James Montgomery, and provided him with key intelligence that aided in the capture of Jacksonville, Florida.

Later that year, Tubman became the first woman to lead an armed assault during the Civil War. When Montgomery and his troops conducted an assault on a collection of plantations along the Combahee River, Tubman accompanied the raid. On the morning of June 2, 1863, Tubman guided three steamboats around Confederate mines in the waters leading to the shore. Once ashore, the Union troops set fire to the plantations, and seized thousands of dollars worth of food and supplies. Tubman watched as slaves stampeded toward the boats. As Confederate troops raced to the scene, steamboats packed full of slaves took off toward Beaufort. More than 750 slaves were rescued in the Combahee River Raid. Tubman was praised in Union newspapers. Tubman later worked with Colonel Robert Gould Shaw at the assault on Fort Wagner.

For the remainder of the war, Tubman worked for the Union forces, tending to newly liberated slaves, scouting into Confederate territory, and nursing wounded soldiers in Virginia. She returned to Auburn several months after the Confederated surrendered in April 1865.