Freedom: A History of US

Webisode 5. Segment 7
Bloody Kansas

The Supreme Court has recently added fuel to the abolition fire with a decision that was supposed to douse that fire. President James BuchananSee It Now - James Buchanan promised that in his inaugural address on March 4, 1857, he said: "Slavery is a question that belongs to the Supreme Court of the United States, before whom it is now pending, and will, it is understood, be speedily and finally settled."

The slavery issue finally settled—how wonderful that would be! The case before the Court deals with a man named Dred ScottSee It Now - Dred Scott. He has lived in Missouri as a slave. Then he spent several years in Wisconsin, a free territory. Did that make him free? Scott and others believe it did. Chief Justice Roger TaneySee It Now - Roger B. Taney gives his opinion, or explanation, of the case. He writes: "The question before us is, whether [Negroes] ... compose a portion of [the American] people and are constituent members of this sovereignty? We think they are not.... On the contrary, they [are] ... a subordinate and inferior class of beings, who [have] been subjugated by the dominant race.... [They] can therefore claim none of the rights and privileges which [the Constitution] provides for ... citizens of the United States Check The Source - The Dred Scott Decision."

Slaves are property, argues Taney, and the Fifth Amendment protects property. Therefore, the Missouri Compromise—which doesn't respect the slaveowner's property—is unconstitutional. That is the decision that President Buchanan thinks will settle the slavery question! What it settles is the question of war. It makes it almost certain. Even a peace-loving man like Frederick Douglass now believes there must be a war. Hear It Now - Frederick Douglass "Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation," he says, "are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning."

They are already fighting in Kansas and Nebraska territories. Slaveowners and abolitionists have attempted to live together, but it isn't working. As early as 1856 the territory has two governments—one for slavery and one against. Then a posse of about 800 pro-slavery men head for the free town of Lawrence, Kansas, and destroy it. It is guerrilla warfare. One of the soldiers in that war in bloody Kansas is a fierce-eyed white abolitionist named John BrownSee It Now - John Brown. He says things like this: "We must fight fire with fire and strike terror in their hearts."

Brown and his followers use axes to murder five pro-slavery settlers. That starts things. Brown burns with religious fire. He believes he is acting for God. He decides to lead a revolution. He thinks blacks will rise up and follow him. On a dark night in 1859, he and a few followers capture a government arsenal and armory in the pretty little West Virginia town of Harper's Ferry See It Now - Harper's Ferry, where two rivers come together, slash the hills, and create spectacular scenery. But Brown isn't interested in the scenery. He needs help and it never comes Check The Source - John Brown's Raid. He is soon captured—by a military officer named Robert E. Lee—and given a trial that all the nation follows. He puts on a performance few will forget, and his words inflame the North: "I deny everything but a design on my part to free slaves. I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away, but with blood Check The Source - John Brown's Last Statement."

He is right. John Brown stuck his head in a noose made of South Carolina cotton. His words will soon haunt both North and South See It Now - The Hanging of John BrownCheck The Source - "John Brown's Body".

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