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Intensifying the Sectional Conflict: William Seward versus James Hammond in the Lecompton Debate of 1858
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INTENSIFYING THE SECTIONAL CONFLICT: WILLIAM SEWARD VERSUS JAMES HAMMOND IN THE LECOMPTON DEBATE OF 1858 Mark J. Stegmaier In 1857 the Missouri-dominated, officially recognized territorial government of Kansas, in an effort to maintain power against a growing freesoil majority, attempted to have Kansas admitted as a slave state under the Lecompton Constitution (named for Lecompton, the Kansas territorial capital). The Buchanan administration supported the measure, but a few Northern Democrats, led by Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois , refused to support the president's desire to get Kansas quickly into the Union under the Lecompton Constitution. Historians and biographers have paid ample attention to nearly every aspect of the Lecompton affair , especially the rift between Buchanan and Douglas.1 One aspect of the Kansas issue, though, which has received minimal attention from historians is the strange congressional debate on Lecompton early in 1858 and the doctrines of that debate relative to the sectional crisis in general. This lack of attention is unfortunate because the congressional debate on Lecompton peculiarly and abruptly changed from a routine debate about slavery in the territories into an extraordinary debate about the relative merits of slave labor in the South and free labor in the North, 1 Among works dealing with the Kansas issue, see especially James A. Rawley, Race and Politics: "Bleeding Kansas" and the Coming of the Civil War (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1969); Allan Nevins, Ordeal of the Union (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1947), 2:78-159, 301-46, 380-93, 408-50, 471-86; Nevins, The Emergence of Lincoln (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1950), 1:133-75, 229-304; Roy F. Nichols, The Disruption of American Democracy (New York: MacMillan Co., 1948), 94-98, 102-31, 150-75; David M. Potter, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 154-76, 199-224, 297-327; Robert W. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1973), 401-34, 471-75, 488-505, 524-28, 560-66, 576-613; and Elbert B. Smith, The Presidency of James Buchanan (Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas, 1975), 31^6. Civil War History, Vol. XXXI, No. 3, ©1985 by The Kent State University Press 198CIVIL WAR HISTORY an issue more potentially explosive and divisive between the sections and one normally avoided in congressional debates. The abrupt change in the tenor of the debate originated on March 3 and 4, 1858, in two speeches—New York Senator William Seward's oration, which shocked Southerners with its implied threat of invasion and violence for the purpose of destroying slavery, and South Carolina Senator James Hammond's famous reply that cotton was economically king and that the vaunted free-laboring men of the North were no higher in social status than the black slaves of the South. The debate over whether Kansas would be admitted as a slave state came about as a result of the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. This act had effectively repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise restriction against slavery in the Kansas-Nebraska territories. The passage of this act incited a new period of sometimes violent conflict between proslavery Missourians and antislavery free-soilers, and spawned the Republicans, a party pledged to excluding slavery from the territories. Following a rigged and patently fraudulent election to ratify the instrument , the proslavery legislature sent the Lecompton Constitution to Congress as an expression of the will of the people of Kansas. Although the free-soil majority had participated in the territorial elections in late 1857, had virtually gotten control of the legislature, and would have effectively prohibited slavery in Kansas even if Kansas had been admitted as a slave state, politicians in Congress approached the Lecompton Constitution with the utmost seriousness. The Buchanan wing of the Democratic party favored passage, but Douglas demanded a full and fair ratification vote by the people of Kansas. In this context Seward and Hammond made their oratorical exchange. Seward's speech is not as well known as Hammond's. Although Seward's reference in 1850 to a "higher law" than the Constitution and his "irrepressible conflict" speech in October 1858 are well known, one finds mention of Seward's March 3, 1858, Senate...