Sunday, November 27, 2005

Etcheson: "Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era"

[Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era by Nicole Etcheson. (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2004. Pp. 327, $35.00, Hardback, map, notes, photos, illustrations. ISBN 0-7006-1287-4)]

No shortage exists of modern books covering the pre-Civil War struggles of the Kansas Territory, but there is always room in a crowded field for exceptional works. Well written and phenomenally well researched, Bleeding Kansas is a wonderful addition to the scholarship of this important time in our history. Professor Etcheson has written a remarkably thorough social and political history of the Kansas conflict from the debates over the Kansas-Nebraska act through to the Exoduster migration in the decades after the war. Getting to the crux of what was most important to contemporary figures, the main theme of the book is the differing concepts of political liberty between whites of the Free State and Pro-slavery parties. Pro-slavery forces increasingly denied any assertion that slavery could be excluded from the territories by legislation and Free Staters would not allow slavery in territories where a popular majority was against it. Eventually, the Free State party would meld with the Republicans, who were against any extension of slavery into the territories.

Etcheson is strongly critical of Stephen Douglas’s advocacy of the concept of popular sovereignty, which was embodied in the disastrous Kansas-Nebraska Act. Considering the passions of the time, it was as an unworkable idea in practice that was additionally an unnecessary agitation of the slavery issue. The book clearly shows how the debates over the creation of Kansas’s territorial government and constitution served to radicalize both sides, immeasurably strengthening the Republican Party and fracturing the Democratic Party. Lack of support by northern Democrats for the pro-slavery Lecompton constitution and the English Compromise caused many southern Democrats to lose faith in the national party’s defense of slavery rights.

Beginning with the congressional debates and compromises over slavery, the author provides an insightful discussion of the social makeup of the twin migrations—north and south—into Kansas Territory. It quickly became clear that anti-slavery settlers would become the majority, but the later territorial elections were rife with fraud. Though Etcheson asserts this was not unusual during this period, what was different was the level of fraud, which reached new heights in Kansas. Competing territorial governments were created and the outbreak of wider violence followed. The Wakarusa War and the Guerrilla War of 1856 are described in detail. The discussion of violence in the book is fairly well balanced, making it clear that both sides were guilty of excesses stretching from robbery and property destruction all the way to murder. A chapter covering the fighting along the border region during the Civil War is included as well.

One of the best aspects of Bleeding Kansas is that it places the events in Kansas in a broad national context. The conflict served to radicalize both sections of the country. Etcheson demonstrates how John Brown’s attack on Harper’s Ferry and the numerous violent raids into Missouri by men like Jim Lane and James Montgomery helped realize long-held southern views that slavery would soon be threatened where it already existed. In northern circles, the extended upheaval in Kansas eventually led to an increased acceptance of social and political freedoms for blacks and a hardened stance against slavery. Bleeding Kansas is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in studying the crucial role of Kansas in shaping the sectional ideologies that would lead eventually to Civil War.

(Reprinted with the permission of North and South Magazine, originally appeared in vol. 7 #5, reviewed by Andrew Wagenhoffer)

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