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Photo of James Henry LaneJames Henry Lane

(1814-1866)

Mesmerizing on the podium and dauntless in the defense of his beliefs, James H. Lane was a principal leader of the anti-slavery forces that ultimately made Kansas free-soil. Lane was born in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, in 1814, and followed the footsteps of his father, an Indiana Congressman, by becoming a lawyer and a Jacksonian Democrat. Lane's service as the commander of two Indiana volunteer regiments in the Mexican-American War helped him to launch his own political career. He served as Indiana's Lieutenant Governor from 1849 to 1853 and then as a Congressman from 1853 to 1855. Instead of running for a second term, however, Lane moved to the Kansas Territory, where he saw the nation's future in the balance.

When Congress created the Kansas Territory in 1854, it broke with precedent and decided to let the territory's citizens determine for themselves whether or not to allow slavery within their borders. The hope was for a democratic resolution of this divisive question. The result was that Kansas quickly became a staging ground for the impending Civil War, as pro-slavery and abolitionist forces from across the nation converged there to battle for their beliefs.

Although he arrived as a Democrat, Lane stood at the forefront of the free-soil faction in Kansas, and was a founder of the Free-State party. He put his military training to use by organizing free-state militia units throughout the territory and in defending Lawrence, Kansas, his base of operations, when it came under attack from pro-slavery marauders.

Lane suffered a brief hiatus in his political career following a dispute over land claims in 1858 which ended with Lane killing one of his neighbors. But when Kansas entered the Union as a free state in 1861, Lane, by this time a Republican, won election as one of its first United States Senators. He arrived in Washington just as the Civil War broke out, and soon became a staunch ally of Abraham Lincoln.

Not content to support the Union cause from the floor of the Senate, Lane helped form two Kansas volunteer regiments that fought against Confederate forces in Western Missouri, and he formed a "Frontier Guard" to protect the White House. During the war, Lane was specially targeted by Confederate forces operating in Missouri and Kansas, who still hated him for his leadership of the free-soil cause. In fact, William Quantrill's notorious 1863 raid on Lawrence was partly motivated by his hope to find and kill the Senator.

Lane was for a time a leader of the so-called "radical Republicans," who not only opposed slavery but also supported civil rights and political equality for African-Americans. During the Civil War, Lane's brigades aided numerous African-Americans fleeing slavery in Missouri and Arkansas, and as a recruiter for the Union army in Kansas, he personally assembled one of the first black regiments.

After Lincoln's assassination, however, Lane deserted the radical Republicans and became a supporter of Andrew Johnson's much more timid reconstruction policy. When his supporters in Kansas harshly condemned this reversal, the criticism proved too much for his already fragile mental health. Lane shot himself on July 1, 1866, and died ten days later.


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