Celia’s trial is set to begin in October 1855. Around this time, a vigorous debate raged across America, concerning the morality of slavery. The previous year, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois lent his support to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would allow slavery to expand into new federal territories, provided that a majority of the residents vote for it. The proposed act arouses opposition in the Northern states, where many citizens believe that slavery is both immoral and opposed to their economic interests. Nevertheless, strong Democratic support leads to the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
In the years leading up to the Civil War, the Kansas-Nebraska was arguably the “last hurrah” for the strategy of political compromise. Douglas believed that he could solve the controversy over slavery by allowing people to vote, state-by-state, on whether they’d allow slavery or not. The problem with this idea, however, was that the Supreme Court had already ruled on the legality of the Fugitive Slave Act, undercutting the idea that slavery could be legal in one place and illegal in another.
To ensure that a majority of people in the new territories support abolition, abolitionists migrate out west in record numbers. David R. Atchinson, a Missouri politician and supporter of slavery, argues that slaveholders must migrate to Kansas and defend their lifestyle with force, if necessary. He sponsors “self-protection” societies for slaveholders, and publicly smears his abolitionist opponents. In 1854, he’s instrumental in sending thousands of “border ruffians” into neighboring Kansas to vote in elections, leading to the election of a pro-slavery congressman in Kansas.
Atchinson was one of the most influential political proponents of slavery in the years leading up to the Civil War. An ingenious, if diabolical, politician, Atchinson helped slaveholders and white supremacists consolidate their power while claiming that he was defending slaveholders’ rights.
In April 1855, members of the Blue Lodge, one of the self-protection societies founded by Atchinson, travel to Parkville to “protest” a local paper that has criticized Atchinson’s electoral tampering. An angry mob runs the editors of the paper out of town. This leads many Northern papers to condemn Atchinson for his bully tactics.
Atchinson’s “self-protection” societies were effective in intimidating their opponents in Missouri and Kansas, but they outraged powerful politicians and journalists in other parts of the country. This emphasizes that slavery really had become a national issue, rather than a regional one (as Douglas had hoped)—the legality of slavery in one state affected people around the country.
In the middle of 1855, tensions regarding the future of Kansas remain high. Residents of Western Missouri vigorously support slavery in Kansas. In June, Atchinson’s supporters announce a special convention to discuss how to protect their property against the aggression of Kansas abolitionists.
Notice that Atchinson’s supporters stressed their rights to property (and the preservation of property), while the abolitionists emphasized the moral aspects of slavery. Slaveholders considered their slaves to be their property, while abolitionists recognized slaves as human beings wrongly being treated as property.
In July, James Shannon, the pro-slavery president of the University of Missouri, makes a speech in which he attacks the abolitionist cause and praises Atchinson for his heroism. He defends slavery on the grounds that it’s justified in “the Bible, the Laws of Nature, and the Constitution.” Shannon also predicts that the slavery debate will break up the Union within five years.
Shannon wasn’t the only influential American to use religion to try to justify slavery. For centuries, the Bible (particularly passages in Leviticus and other books of the Old Testament) has been used to justify the morality of slavery. (A chilling scene in the Oscar-winning film Twelve Years a Slave hammered home this point.) However, many abolitionists who risked their lives to oppose slavery were also pious Christians. Finally, it’s worth noting that Shannon predicted that the Union would dissolve over slavery by the 1860s—a prediction that came true in 1861 when seven Southern states seceded from the Union, signaling the outbreak of the Civil War.
On July 12, pro-slavery supporters of Atchinson from around the state meet to discuss their position. James Shannon delivers the opening address in which he emphasizes the Biblical justifications for slavery. Convention speakers attack abolitionism in the most withering terms. In newspapers, some call Atchinson’s supporters treasonous, and accuse them of trying to start a civil war in America. Afterwards, Shannon embarks on a statewide speaking tour to defend his views. In December, however, Shannon is severely weakened when the state senate passes a measure, proposed by Thomas Hart Benton, an opponent of slavery, to reduce Shannon’s salary unless he devote more time to his university duties.
As the situation in Kansas and Missouri grew more dangerous, both sides became more hostile in their criticisms, and began using “dirty tricks” to neutralize their opposition. The escalating tensions in Kansas reflected the national controversy surrounding slavery, and in some ways foreshadowed the Civil War.
Vigilante groups arise across Missouri. Pro-slavery advocates organize militias to keep their slaves imprisoned and fight off abolitionists. Violence breaks out almost every day. Sometimes, pro-slavery advocates raid churches that are known to denounce slavery, and threaten to end the ministers’ lives.
Pro-slavery forces in Missouri almost always portrayed themselves as traditional and defensive—they weren’t attacking anything; rather, they were just defending their property and their rights to be independent farmers. But of course, many of these militia groups did attack their opponents, even threatening religious leaders (and slavery by its very nature, of course, is an attack on an individual’s rights and freedom).
In neighboring Kansas, slavery is the central issue. In July of 1855, the governor of Kansas, Andrew Reeder, announces that new elections will be held in Kansas—there’s overwhelming evidence of electoral fraud the previous year. In the new elections, “free state” advocates (i.e., opponents of slavery) win seats. However, later in the summer, the pro-slavery Kansas legislature expels these newly elected advocates, defying Reeder’s orders. The legislature then proceeds to pass laws that mirror the Missouri slave codes. Soon afterwards, President Franklin Pierce replaces Reeder with the pro-slavery William Shannon.
By July, it’s become clear that the rule of law is under threat in the territory of Kansas: there’s widespread evidence of electoral tampering, and as a result, a large portion of the population refuses to recognize certain “elected” officials. That President Pierce intervenes in the situation in Kansas again emphasizes that slavery has become a national crisis, not a state-by-state issue, as Stephen Douglas wanted.
Even while the government of Kansas remains pro-slavery, the population of the regions is staunchly in favor of “free soil” (i.e., no slavery in Kansas). Locals organize militias to protect themselves against “border ruffians” and pro-slavery groups. In the second half of 1855, the Free Soil population in Kansas arms itself in preparation for violence.
By 1855, the population of Kansas was largely made up of people who’d moved across the country to ensure that Kansas become a free or slave state. For this reason, the political controversy in Kansas was especially strong. (For more information, see the historian Eric Foner’s excellent book, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men, which touches on the 1850s Kansas controversy.)
In the fall of 1855, opponents of slavery, calling themselves the Free State party, hold a convention in which they declare their own state constitution. Thus, Kansas now has two governments, each one claiming to represent a majority of the people.
The Free State convention encapsulated the controversy surrounding slavery in the 1850s: both sides believed themselves to be legitimate and law-abiding. But of course, the two sides subscribed to two different sets of laws, one emphasizing property, the other emphasizing the immorality of bondage.
Because of all this, on the eve of Celia’s trial, which is scheduled for October 9, 1855, slavery is rapidly becoming a violent political issue—not only in Kansas and Missouri, but throughout the country.
One can’t understand Celia’s trial without understanding how dire the situation had become in Missouri in the weeks leading up to the trial. Celia’s trial had statewide—and in some ways, national—significance.