Kansas, Nebraska, Border states, Race, Gender, Violence, Kansas-Nebraska Act, Slavery, Antislavery
The volumes reviewed here are part of an upsurge in popular and scholarly interest in the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the ensuing events in "Bleeding Kansas," and the influence of both on the coming of the Civil War. Both books revisit familiar historical subjects and approach the topic with fresh questions and methodologies. The texts augment the literature by adding those who have been traditionally excluded from the Kansas narrative and by making compelling cases for the influence of culture on the political divisions between antebellum northerners and southerners.
In Bleeding Borders, Kristen Tegtmeier Oertel presents a persuasive, innovative take on the contest over slavery in territorial Kansas. Arguing [End Page 735] that "Indians, African Americans, and white women played crucial roles in the literal and rhetorical pre-Civil War battle between proslavery and antislavery settlers" (2), Oertel exposes how northern and southern racial and gender ideologies profoundly influenced events in Kansas. Just as northerners and southerners clashed over slavery, they also clashed over competing visions of masculinity, femininity, and white supremacy. Oertel's slim volume clearly demonstrates that cultural conflicts exacerbated the political divisions between free-state and proslavery factions.
For Oertel, this story begins two decades before the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, when white missionaries, traders, and Indian agents first appeared in what would become Kansas Territory. Then, and in the mid-1850s when pro- and antislavery settlers descended on Kansas, white southerners and northerners agreed that "Indians would be either expelled from the territory or 'civilized' through missionizing tactics and/or intermarriage with whites" (5). The place of other nonwhites in the territory was less clear-cut, with northerners and southerners disagreeing about whether a free or slave labor system would "best maintain white supremacy in relation to African Americans" (5). Though proslavery forces worked hard to introduce slavery, the active resistance of slaves and abolitionists (particularly through the Underground Railroad) thwarted those efforts.
"Frontier forces" and sectional tensions also triggered reappraisals of gender ideology (58), particularly among white northern men and women. Richly delineating the activities of famous free-staters and abolitionists like Clarina Nichols, Sara Robinson, and Julia Louisa Lovejoy, and lesser-known figures like Margaret Lyon Wood and Susan Wattles, Oertel establishes that northern women advanced new definitions of womanhood and were "an integral part of free labor's triumph over slavery in Kansas" (59). Her exploration of "how competing arguments about masculinity infused political and sectional tensions" is equally persuasive (8). In person and in the popular press, northerners and southerners criticized each other's version of manhood (using, though Oertel uncharacteristically overlooks this, the same terminology used to disparage Indians). While neither side doubted white male hegemony would prevail, they battled (literally and figuratively) over which version of masculinity would triumph. The violence in Kansas prompted northern men to adopt a new model of manhood by the eve of the Civil War—one heavily informed by "the southern version . . . that endorsed violence and aggression" (86). Because gender identity was closely tied to racial [End Page 736] identity (94), northerners and southerners also worked, albeit for different reasons and in different ways, to establish "ideologies and policies" that would combat miscegenation and uphold white supremacy (133). In the end, though free-staters prevented slavery in Kansas, white supremacy persisted. This, Oertel underscores in the conclusion and epilogue, is the tragic legacy of Bleeding Kansas.
Oertel's reading of the influence of racial and gender ideologies on the political contest over slavery in Kansas enhances recent work by Nicole Etcheson and Gunja SenGupta, who contend that white concerns about their rights drove much of the action in Kansas. The book also raises intriguing questions that merit further investigation. One wonders, for instance, about the extent to which people, events...