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[Detail] The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore.

Historical Comprehension

Popular sovereignty gave way to mob rule in the wake of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 as both proslavery and abolitionist emigrants raced to settle the area. The assaults and armed conflicts surrounding the debates on slavery and statehood in Kansas manifest a growing rift in the Union in the decade prior to the Civil War.

Geary and Kansas (1857) chronicles the history of Kansas and describes a number of the conflicts: “Party spirit increased daily in violence . . . and hordes of desperadoes rushed into the country to take advantage of its disturbed condition . . . Brutal and shocking crimes were of daily occurrence, and a state of affairs existed too disgusting and deplorable for language properly to describe,” (page 70).

The conflict in Kansas also spilled into the halls of the United States Senate in 1856. In a speech on the subject of slavery in the territory entitled, “The Kansas Question,” Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner took issue with proslavery senators from South Carolina and Illinois “who have raised themselves to eminence on this floor in championship of human wrongs,” (page 5).

Sumner repeatedly insulted Senator A.P. Butler of South Carolina in his speech, describing him as someone who “touches nothing which he does not disfigure—with error, sometimes of principle, sometimes of fact” (page 29). Two days later, Butler’s cousin, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks, clubbed Senator Sumner over the head with a cane in the Senate chambers and injured him so severley that Sumner did not return to the Senate for two and a half years.

Senator Butler was not in the Senate when Sumner was attacked, but he defended his cousin’s actions in his “Speech . . . on the Bill to Enable the People of Kansas Territory to Form a Constitution.” Butler described Sumner’s divisive attacks on proponents of slavery, quoted some of the more personal insults featured in “The Kansas Question,” and announced:

It is impossible for self-respect to allow me to sit here and listen quietly to such a speech. If there were separate confederacies to-morrow . . . [Sumner] would then put his section in a position to make war . . . I hope the day is fast coming when the fires of that limited sectionaliam will burn out, or will be reduced to the ashes of disappointment and disgrace.

page 27

  • What are the similarities and differences between the causes of violence among the general populace in Kansas and among the Congressmen in the Senate?
  • What do these incidents of violence in Kansas and in Congress suggest about the state of the Union approximately five years before the start of the Civil War?
  • What do these incidents suggest about possible causes of the war?
  • Why do you think that both territorial settlers and Senators were so passionate about the issue of slavery in Kansas?
  • Do you think that Preston Brooks was justified in attacking Senator Sumner?
  • Do you agree with Butler’s defense that Sumner’s personal attacks against proslavery senators amounted to putting “his section in a position to make war”?
  • Do you think that Sumner's insults or Brooks's attack was more inflamatory?
  • Do you think that the senators were more interested in promoting Union solidarity or sectional differences?