The Point of No Return
Grace Amandes, Christian Maines, Jared Margolis, Sadde Mohamed, and Emma Shea
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 granted white males popular sovereignty, the right to decide whether or not to allow slavery in the new Western territories. Politicians such as David Atchison, a Missouri senator, encouraged Southerners to defend the institution of slavery by temporarily migrating to Kansas and voting in their elections. While the Kansas-Nebraska Act could be seen as an catalytic event leading up to the Civil War, it is not the true point of no return because it did not sharply define and augment sectional tensions to the same extent as the Bleeding Kansas crisis. Tensions between Free Soil supporters, who dominated the state, and “Border Ruffians” came to a head in an event that came to be known as Bleeding Kansas. The Bleeding Kansas crisis from 1854 to 1861 was the point of no return in the events precipitating the Civil War because it marked the first significant violence leading up to the War.
Similarly, in Charles Sumner’s “Crime Against Kansas” speech, he attacks supporters of slavery, whom he deems responsible for the bloodshed in the West. Believing that Free State Men should not only abolish slavery but also protect the safety of Kansas, Sumner argued against what he called the “hateful embrace” of slavery, leading to his caning on the Senate floor by Preston Brooks. This source demonstrates that the violence of Bleeding Kansas left a legacy of sectional differences that made a return to peace impossible. Violent acts by proslavery and antislavery leaders made the Bleeding Kansas crisis the most significant event leading up to the war. In Mahala Doyle’s letter, she describes how John Brown “then and there entered my house at midnight and arrested my husband and two boys and took them out of the yard and in cold blood shot them dead in my hearing.”
Painting depicting abolitionist John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry. John Brown sought to incite an abolitionist insurgence with free blacks. Brown is depicted with a rifle and a bible in either hand, since he used both in his fight for abolition.
A notice asking for antislavery forces to pray for a man whom they see as a hero, John Brown, is being executed.
Abolitionist John Brown moved to Kansas in an attempt to prevent slavery from being legal. In the cartoon, Brown ascends the scaffolding before his execution in 1859.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act could be seen as an influential event leading up to the Civil War, but it is not the point of no return because it did not agitate sectional tensions to nearly the same extent as the Bleeding Kansas crisis. Created by Senator Stephen A. Douglas, the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed for ‘popular sovereignty’ in the territories, meaning that the residents of those territories would determine for themselves whether their states would permit slaveholding once introduced into the Union. This act essentially repealed the Missouri Compromise, as the 36°60’ line was disregarded and the settlers of territories were allowed to decide whether or not to allow slavery. The Kansas-Nebraska Act stated that Kansas “shall be received into the Union with or without slavery” and that the “true intent and meaning of this act [was] not to legislate slavery into any Territory or State ... but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way.”
As a result, large numbers of both proslavery and antislavery settlers rushed into the territories, and their opposing views led to violence. This event is known as Bleeding Kansas. However, the Kansas-Nebraska Act itself is not the point of no return because it was merely a political action, not an act of violence; furthermore, this Act could have been repealed, while an act of bloodshed such as Bleeding Kansas left an irreversible tension culminating in the Civil War. Senator Robert Toombs noted in the debates over the Act that the Act itself was “not worth an ounce of powder,” and he did “not expect to burn any over them, except in firing salutes over this great day’s work.” This quote demonstrates that the Act was not the point of no return leading to the Civil War because it alone was not divisive enough to drive the North and the South into conflict. Thus, the true point of no return is Bleeding Kansas, because, after the physical violence occurred, there was no possibility of repairing the relations between proslavery and antislavery advocates throughout the country.
“An Act to Organize the Territories of Nebraska and Kansas.” Lillian Goldman Law Library.
May 30, 1854.
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“Appendix to the Congressional Globe.” The Liberty of Congress. 1854. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llcg&fileName=036/llcg036.db&recNum=764.
Doyle, Mahala. “Letter to John Brown.” The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, November 20, 1859. https://www.gilderlehrman.org/sites/default/files/inline-pdfs/T-07590.pdf.
“Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854).” Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History, edited by Thomas Carson and Mark Bonk. Detroit: Gale, 1999. November 16, 2015. GALE|EJ1667500348.
Quaife, M.M. “Bleeding Kansas and the Pottawatomie Murders.” Oxford University Press 6, no. 4 (1920) : 556-560. Accessed November 17, 2015. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1886473.
Sumner, Charles. “Crime against Kansas.” Furman University Department of History, May 18, 1856. http://history.furman.edu/~benson/docs/sumnerksh2.htm.