Just a few observations on research-in-progress.
I’m currently reading Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War by Eric Foner. Three groups came together to form the early Republican Party: Conscience Whigs, Moderate-Conservative Whigs, and anti-slavery ex-Democrats, with the middle group being the overwhelming majority. And it made me kind of giggle when I suddenly realized that, to this group, what led them to an anti-slavery stance was their single most important issue: Giving the Federal Government a bigger role in running the country.
It is also intriguing to find that there was such a drastic difference between those who considered themselves “abolitionists” and those who were “anti-slavery.” The former were, for the most part, religious, and driven by the belief that slavery was a great moral wrong and must be ended forthwith; the latter, much more numerous, believed that slavery interfered with the growth of the nation, or that the slave power’s control of the Federal Government was destructive to national (ie, Northern Capitalist and Western Agricultural) interests, and so slavery had to be limited and put on the road to extinction. I knew these differences existed; I hadn’t realized just how profound they were.
I also read War to the Knife: Bleeding Kansas 1854-1861 by Thomas Goodrich, and found it very upsetting. I don’t know if Mr. Goodrich is just one of those historians who feels the need to bend over backward to be “objective” or if he is actually an apologist for the slave-owners, but the book seems to spend a lot of time questioning the accuracy of reported atrocities by the pro-slavery settlers, and simply accepting reports of atrocities by anti-slavery settlers. The fact is, that could be my imagination, so don’t put too much stock in it. Much more upsetting are passages such as the one on page 104, “Perhaps the greatest explanation why so few bondsmen ‘stole themselves’ and fled to Kansas was simply that many slaves were not entirely convinced that freedom was better for them than slavery.” He follows this with quotes from various slaves explaining how happy they are, without appearing to question them (ie, was this statement given in a place where the slave would feel safe saying anything else?). Anyway, the book kind of squicks me. Nevertheless, it is filled with extremely useful information, so I’m glad read it. Sort of. This is one reason why I’ll never make a real historian: I get much too emotionally involved in stuff like this for any sort of objective assessment.
I also read Kansas: The Prelude to the War for the Union by Leverett W. Spring (Houghton Mifflin, 1885) which is a positive gold mine of stuff. I’ll need to go over it again to purify the nuggets, but there is an amazing amount of material. This book is refreshingly partisan (anti-slavery). Aside from the fact that it is partisan on my side of the issue, I find myself much more comfortable with open, clearly stated partisanship than with efforts at “objectivity” that appear dishonest.* Also, on page 165, to my inexpressible delight, I came across the following: “The volume of anti-slavery migration toward the territory swelled like mountain streams after heavy showers. A constant movement thitherward had been in progress…” Thitherward. I cannot express how gleefully I have added that word to my dictionary. Thitherward. Rapture!
Two people weave their way through all of these: James Lane and John Brown. Lane is, well, if I need a villain, he’ll do. He was a leader of the anti-slavery faction, but seems to have been an opportunist in the worst sense of the word, changing positions constantly so as to advance his own interests, violent when it would serve him, perfectly happy to run from battle and leave his command to fend for themselves, and utterly unprincipled. Naturally, he became a Senator. Brown is generally treated by most of what I’ve read as a fanatic, but there are strong hints that this isn’t the whole story, and I’m going to need to dig deeper before I dare touch him.
Still to read is Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri edited by Earle and Burke, graciously given me by Carol Kennedy. That will be next.
* Note to self: Do a blog post on just what “objective” means in the context of historical writing.