In the winter of 1858, a grim-faced rider lit by Old Testament fire tracked through the night along the Little Osage River. Somewhere in the timbered bottoms and tallgrass country, he crossed from Kansas into Vernon County, Mo.
For years, that rider had stoked the border with razor-edged rhetoric and broadswords.
In retaliation for a pro-slavery raid on Lawrence, Kan., in 1856, and further incensed by the merciless beating of an abolitionist senator in the nation’s Capitol, that rider “went crazy — crazy,” according to his son.
Vowing revenge, John Brown and his disciples hacked to death with cutlasses five men near Dutch Henry’s Crossing along Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas. Though the victims were pro-slavery sympathizers, none owned a slave and none was armed.
“It has been ordained by the Almighty God, ordained from eternity, that I should make an example of these men,” Brown said.
More than two years after that massacre, that rider, a volatile man in the most volatile place in the country, launched his last act on the Kansas-Missouri border. And with that act, he sewed the seeds for a plan that helped trigger the American Civil War.
The question of slavery vexed America from its birth.
For all their collective genius, the Founding Fathers had been unable to resolve the issue, so they set the pattern future generations would repeat: Compromise. They determined that every slave would count as three-fifths of a human being for political purposes. Otherwise, slaves didn’t count at all.
A second compromise in 1820 gave birth to Missouri. It kept the balance of power by bringing in Maine as a free state while Missouri came in as a slave state. That compromise also restricted the spread of slavery everywhere north of a line that serves as Missouri’s southern border, with one exception. That exception was Missouri itself.
Victory in the Mexican-American War forced the country to confront the issue again. A third compromise, this one in 1850, allowed California to join as a free state while residents in the territories of Utah and New Mexico would decide for themselves whether to allow slavery. Popular sovereignty had entered the political debate.
The first two compromises lasted a generation; the third only a few years. And all because Stephen Douglas, a U.S. Senator from Illinois, wanted a railroad from Chicago to California.
Southerners favored a transcontinental route west out of New Orleans. In order to get his Chicago terminus, Douglas enticed Southern supporters with a promise: Throw out the line laid down in the Missouri Compromise, and let the people of Kansas and Nebraska determine for themselves whether to join the union as a slave state or a free state.
It was enough for Douglas to buy the support of powerful senators for his Kansas-Nebraska Act, senators such as Missouri’s David Rice Atchison and South Carolina’s Andrew Butler, who both had large roles yet to play.