The Border War
Since the birth of the United States there were competing visions of the American nation – one with and one without slavery. The American two party system successfully channeled these competing sectional visions during the first seventy-five years of the nation’s history, but by the mid 1850s, as a result of the addition of more than 558,000 square miles of new territory gained from the Mexican War, the conflict became more intense. Moreover, proponents of these divergent visions – encompassing increasingly different perspectives on labor, power, and freedom – increased their levels of contentiousness at the same time that republican institutions were infused with a greater democratic fervor. When the nation’s leaders failed to reach a true compromise on the question of slavery in the territories, Congress developed a policy of “popular sovereignty” and asked republican citizens to resolve the issue themselves. The concept was put to the test in 1854 when the citizens of the newly organized Kansas Territory were asked to decide for themselves whether the future state would be slave or free.
The eyes of the nation focused on Kansas and the slave state of Missouri just across its eastern border. In the minds of Americans, inhabitants of the border region came to personify the clash of perspectives, sentiments, and emotions that existed in the nation as a whole. As violence erupted on the floors of Congress, it became apparent to many that national institutions could no longer contain the conflict between slavery and free labor that had captured the attention of Americans since the nation’s inception. Americans hoped that people living on the border could bring order to the chaos. While ideally border residents would have resolved the dispute through the civil negotiations of a republican government, the violence that had so long been repressed on a national level exploded on the local scene.
The series of events that so captured the nation’s imagination, including the Lecompton Legislature, David Atchison and the Missouri voting fraud, the sacking of Lawrence, the caning of Charles Sumner, John Brown’s Pottawatomie Massacre, Jim Lane, the Topeka Legislature, and William Quantrill will all be discussed, but within the context of the greater national story. But the perspectives of historical individuals with varying points of view will also be represented in this project.
All of these individuals’ stories will show the complex ethical and even life and death decisions that the people of the border were forced to make during the tumultuous years of the conflict. Viewers will learn to appreciate the complex history that framed people’s differing values and will empathize with these individuals as they struggled to make difficult decisions during these dangerous times.