The Point of No Return
By Jason Souvaliotis and Jacqueline Ma
As the United States expanded across the North American continent, the debate over slavery resumed with the question of slavery's expansion. Americans took differing viewpoints on the issue of slavery: slave-holders in the South considered slavery a vital institution, while abolitionists in the North demanded the eradication of slavery. Throughout the 1800s, multiple events increased the debate over slavery and increased divisions between proslavery and antislavery Americans, eventually leading to the Civil War in 1861. Between 1840 and the start of the Civil War in 1861, the 1846-1848 War with Mexico was not the point of no return for the Civil War because the resulting discussions of slavery focused on compromise, not war and secession. Ultimately, the Bleeding Kansas crisis of the late 1850s marked the point of no return for the Civil War. The Bleeding Kansas crisis marked the point of no return because it introduced active violence between Americans over slavery, sparking the Civil War.
Bleeding Kansas (1854-1861)
In Kansas, settlers were faced with the task of deciding Kansas’ status as either a slave state or free state. Although the majority of settlers were antislavery, President Pierce accepted the legitimacy of a proslavery legislature elected with the aid of Missourians who had crossed into Kansas to vote for slavery. The antislavery residents refused allegiance to the Lecompton legislature, and both sides turned to violence in 1855, starting a guerilla war that took almost 200 lives. What Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune called the “Bleeding Kansas” crisis had begun.
“I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood. I had, as I now think vainly, flattered myself that without very much bloodshed it might be done.”
John Brown, an abolitionist from New York and Ohio, commanded a free-state militia during the Bleeding Kansas period. After the proslavery force’s attack on the free-soil town of Lawrence that started the Bleeding Kansas crisis, Brown quickly welcomed the budding violence of the period, believing that the issue of slavery could only be solved with active fighting, not compromise. He continued this aggressiveness with his murder of proslavery settlers at Pottawatomie in Franklin County, Kansas. Brown displays the emerging belief of many Americans in the Bleeding Kansas crisis, that the debate over slavery could only be solved with violence and ultimately war.
The accounts of other settlers
Edward P. Bridgman, a settler in Kansas at this time, recounted the massacre at Pottawatomie Creek, stating that while the murdered men had insulted and threatened Brown’s anti-slavery group, Brown had retaliated in a “barbarous and inhuman” way. Brown’s actions show the beginning of the cycle of violence in Kansas, where looting, robbery, and other barbarous acts were commonplace. In fact, Bridgman asks his cousin in this letter to send him a Sharps rifle so he can protect himself. Bridgman’s letter displays how the violence in Kansas harmed everyone involved, pushing all Americans to violence in the debate over slavery.
The violence even affected pacifist Quakers because of their anti-slavery leanings. The Quaker settlers of Kansas believed that they could contribute to the foundation of an anti-slavery government through good works and votes. But Quakers were still in harm’s way, as some had their horses and cattle stolen by pro-slavery militiamen and others were almost beaten to death for working as election officials.
Americans violently turned against Americans as the Bleeding Kansas crisis intensified, and this violence is the reason that the Bleeding Kansas period marked the point of no return for the Civil War.
Mexican War (1846-1848)
In David Wilmot’s defense of his proviso, he emphasized this cooperation between the states, stating that “Texas is the primary cause of this war… we are fighting this war cheerfully, not reluctantly — cheerfully fighting this war for Texas; and yet we seek not to change the character of her institutions. Slavery is there: there let it remain.” While Wilmot’s Proviso sought to limit the expansion of slavery, he cheerfully supported slavery in its existing form. As shown, Wilmot had no intention of violently fighting opposing proslavery forces and instead focused on compromise. Additionally, Wilmot said that when his proviso passed the House, there was “no cry that the Union was to be severed in consequence [and] the South, like brave men defeated, bowed to the voice and judgment of the nation.” Wilmot’s speech exemplified the spirit of cooperation and discussion prevalent during the Mexican-American War over the slavery issue.
This desire of a compromise and union between the nation stands in stark contrast with the antagonistic violence between proslavery and antislavery settlers in Kansas, who refused to recognize the constitutions and governments formed by the opposing side and advocated fighting rather than compromise.
Currey, Cecil. “Quakers in ‘Bleeding Kansas.’” Bulletin of Friends Historical Association 50, no. 2 (1961): 96-101. http://www.jstor.org/stable/41945603
John Brown, quoted in Thayer, William R., F. B. Sanborn, and James DeNormandie. “May Meeting, 1908. The Centenary of Lincoln and Darwin; the Early History of Kansas; Modernism.” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society 1 (1907): 450–507. http://www.jstor.org/stable/25079949.
Quaife, M. M. “Bleeding Kansas and the Pottawatomie Murders.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 6, no. 4 (1920): 556-560. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1886473
Wilmot, David. "Wilmot Defends His Proviso." Student Resources in Context. 1999. GALE|EJ2151000126