The Kansas-Nebraska Act

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 undid the Missouri Compromise of decades earlier and–potentially–opened the entire west (some said the entire nation) to slavery. The newspaper editorial below illustrates one particularly strong view about the controversial law.

New York Tribune
11 January 1854
Slavery is an Ishmael. It is malevolent and malignant. It loves aggression, for when it ceases to be aggressive it stagnates and decays. It is the leper of modern civilization, but a leper whom no cry of “unclean” will keep from intrusion into uninfected company. Hitherto Slavery in this country has held its ground by sheltering itself behind the Constitution. It has played the role of persecuted virtue — and thus it has excited the sympathy of well-meaning persons who would never lend it aid or comfort but when it assumed the character of a distressed and wronged appellant. It has in past years pretended that it was assailed by injustice and fanaticism, which were destroying its supports and overthrowing the constitutional guards and defenses placed around it. It has appealed to the North for aid on the ground of essential justice and constitutional obligation. It has declared its right to existence within the sphere of the States where it was established, and that to assail it, or in any way to interfere with it, was to be guilty of flagrant injustice. Its great charge against Abolitionists has been that they interfered with a domestic institution for which they had no responsibility and with which they had nothing to do. Its advocates have sought to keep the position of the suffering and persecuted party, and have thus enlisted a sort of sense of justice in the Free States, which, more potent than discriminating, has borne Slavery on its shoulders through any contest.

Though it has often been urged that Slavery was aggressive in its nature, the proof of the fact to the common understanding has not been entirely conclusive. To many Northern men it has always seemed to be warring on the defensive side. But present appearances indicate that this erroneous view of Slavery will soon be removed throughout the North. We see already the encroaching steps it is taking in Congress as well as on the Pacific. It dares attempt the appropriation to its uses of territory already consecrated to Freedom by a solemn compact between North and the South. It is manifesting a determined purpose to cross the boundary behind which its pestilent influences have hitherto been confined, and thus to disregard all considerations of justice, and trample upon its own sacred obligations. It is showing itself to be a power which refuses to adhere to its engagements, and breaks its faith at the first temptation. Not content within its own proper limits, defined after a bitter contest, in which more than its due was yielded to its imperious exactions, it now proposes to invade and overrun the soil of freedom, and to unroll the pall of its darkness over virgin territory whereon a slave has never stood. Freedom is to be elbowed out of its own home to make room for the leprous intruder. The free laborer is to be expelled that the slave may be brought in.

It is plain to see how such an aggressive spirit will be met. If slavery is determined upon the conquest of free territory it will inevitably be resisted and paid in kind. If the conviction obtains that Slavery intends to disown its obligations and prove faithless to its own contracts, then will it follow that those who have hitherto admitted its rights under the Constitution, will admit them no longer. Let but the sentiment gain foothold that Slavery intends to make war upon the territory of freedom, and seize and appropriate whatever it can wrest from the hands of free labor, and the banner of reclamation will be raised. If Slavery may encroach upon the domain of freemen, freemen may encroach upon the domain of Slavery. If Slavery thinks this is a safe game to play at, let it be pursued as it has been begun.

Source

Questions for consideration:

  1. How does the author characterize the institution of slavery? Provide specific examples.
  2. Who does the Kansas-Nebraska act threaten, and how?
  3. How might George Fitzhugh respond to this?