In 1879, the Kansas state legislature considered a bill to fill the state's two spots in Statuary Hall at the United States Capitol with likenesses of [End Page 347] John Brown and James Lane. Neither man was eventually so honored. The choice of Brown was overwhelmingly popular among Kansans, but ultimately he inspired too many polarizing passions for touchy politicos of the period.1 If Ian Spurgeon's Man of Douglas, Man of Lincoln is correct, despite Lane's indisputable impact on events in Bleeding Kansas, Lane's personality and powerful political enemies probably contributed to his rapid fall from grace in the national memory.
Spurgeon admits up front that James Henry Lane was a "notorious" antebellum politician and "tragic figure of territorial and Civil War Kansas" (1). As the free-state movement's military commander, he often itched restlessly for action, but was also given to grandiose gestures and theatrical speeches, the latter aiding his rise to become Kansas' first U. S. senator. The book's title alludes to the main controversy surrounding Lane—what Nicole Etcheson calls his apparent "chameleon-like" willingness to change political views.2 Raised an ardent Democrat, in 1854 Lane was a U.S. senator from Indiana, Stephen Douglas ally, and supporter of the Kansas–Nebraska Act. Arriving in Kansas Territory in 1855, he quickly promoted himself as a leader in the developing free-state movement, which Spurgeon ably demonstrates did not require Kansas men to alter alliances to national political parties. The movement grew in national importance the more it resisted Kansas' new pro-slavery government and legislature, installed as the result of Missourians crossing the border to vote.
Examined on the face, Lane's fairly typical Northern Democrat free-soilism appears to have morphed into aggressive free-statism, and then pro-Lincoln and later radical Republicanism, eventually shifting yet again to support for conservative Andrew Johnson. Without the benefit of a Lane memoir, some biographers accuse Lane of operating primarily out of opportunism and self-promotion. Correcting this miscalculation of [End Page 348] Lane is Spurgeon's main goal. While acknowledging Lane's sometimes shocking behavior and savvy political maneuvering in service of his own ambitions, Spurgeon insists scholars have largely missed the explanation for Lane's shifting political alignments—an unwavering loyalty to "old-line Democratic principles, including popular sovereignty" (17).
Man of Douglas joins a rash of recent books on Lane, perhaps an indication that antebellum actors on the Kansas stage long overshadowed by Brown now benefit from a resurgence of interest. Spurgeon's book promises to be the most useful, given its sound scholarship and portentous chronological range—from Lane's 1854 migration from Indiana to his 1866 suicide. By comparison, Robert Collins's Jim Lane lacks Spurgeon's deep reading of political events in Kansas and Washington D.C., while Bryce Benedict's Jayhawkers is primarily a military history of the Civil War regiments from Kansas under Lane's command, the so-called "Lane Brigade."3
Ironically, the strength of Spurgeon's book—its close political analysis and tight chronology—is also its primary weakness. In Minerva-like fashion, Spurgeon's Lane almost leaps to life fully formed and armored in Democratic Party ideology, poised to march onto the contentious stage of antebellum partisan politics. The influences of Lane's background, family, or earlier experiences receive scant attention, when remedying this flaw would not have rendered this 291-page book overly long. For example, Spurgeon does not tell readers that the year of Lane's birth, father Amos moved the family back to Indiana after a self-imposed exile to Kentucky, purportedly the result of political persecution for his fervent support of Democratic Party politics.4 While Spurgeon briefly acknowledges the "deep passion" (20) for the party Amos Lane instilled in his son, he misses an opportunity to analyze Lane's later struggles over party loyalty in the context of early indoctrination or his relationship to his father.
Spurgeon writes of James Lane's...