This attitude they formulated in connection with Kansas, which at that time had two governments: one, a territorial government, set up by emigrants from the South; the other, a state government, under the constitution drawn up at Topeka by emigrants from the North. One authorized slavery; the other prohibited slavery; and both had appealed to Washington for recognition. It was with this quite definite issue that Congress was chiefly concerned in the spring of 1856. During the summer Toombs introduced a bill securing to the settlers of Kansas complete freedom of action and providing for an election of delegates to a convention to draw up a state constitution which would determine whether slavery or freedom was to prevail--in other words, whether Kansas was to be annexed to the South or to the North. This bill was merely the full expression of what Douglas had aimed at in 1854 and of what was nicknamed "popular sovereignty"--the right of the locality to choose for itself between slave and free labor.
Two years before, such a measure would have seemed radical. But in politics time is wonderfully elastic. Those two years had been packed with turmoil. Kansas had been the scene of a bloody conflict. Regardless of which side had a majority on the ground, extremists on each side had demanded recognition for the government set up by their own party. By contrast, Toombs's offer to let the majority rule appeared temperate.
The Republicans saw instantly that they must discredit the proposal or the ground would be cut from under them. Though the bill passed the Senate, they were able to set it aside in the House in favor of a bill admitting Kansas as a free state with the Topeka constitution. The Democrats thereupon accused the Republicans of not wanting peace and of wishing to keep up the war-cry "Bleeding Kansas" until election time.
That, throughout the country, the two parties continued on the lines of policy they had chosen may be seen from an illustration. A House committee which had gone to Kansas to investigate submitted two reports, one of which, submitted by a Democratic member, told the true story of the murders committed by John Brown at Pottawatomie. And yet, while the Republicans spread everywhere their shocking tales of murders of free-state settlers, the Democrats made practically no use of this equally shocking tale of the murder of slaveholders. Apparently they were resolved to appear temperate and conservative to the bitter end.
And they had their reward. Or, perhaps the fury of the Republicans had its just deserts. From either point of view, the result was a choice of evils on the part of the reluctant Whigs, and that choice was expressed in the following words by as typical a New Englander as Rufus Choate: "The first duty of Whigs," wrote Choate to the Maine State central committee, "is to unite with some organization of our countrymen to defeat and dissolve the new geographical party calling itself Republican.... The question for each and every one of us is...by what vote can I do most to prevent the madness of the times from working its maddest act the very ecstasy of its madness--the permanent formation and the actual triumph of a party which knows one half of America only to hate and dread it. If the Republican party," Choate continued, "accomplishes its object and gives the government to the North, I turn my eyes from the consequences. To the fifteen states of the South that government will appear an alien government. It will appear worse. It will appear a hostile government. It will represent to their eye a vast region of states organized upon anti-slavery, flushed by triumph, cheered onward by the voice of the pulpit, tribune, and press; its mission, to inaugurate freedom and put down the oligarchy; its constitution, the glittering and sounding generalities of natural right which make up the Declaration of Independence.... Practically the contest, in my judgment, is between Mr. Buchanan and Colonel Fremont. In these circumstances, I vote for Mr. Buchanan."
The party of political evasion thus became the refuge of the old original Whigs who were forced to take advantage of any port in a storm. Buchanan was elected by an overwhelming majority. To the careless eye, Douglas had been justified by results; his party had triumphed as perhaps never before; and yet, no great political success was ever based upon less stable foundations. To maintain this position, those Northerners who reasoned as Choate did were a necessity; but to keep them in the party of political evasion would depend upon the ability of this party to play the game of politics without acknowledging sectional bias. Whether this difficult task could be accomplished would depend upon the South. Toombs, on his part, was anxious to continue making the party of evasion play the great American game of politics, and in his eagerness he perhaps overestimated his hold upon the South. This, however, remains to be seen.
Already another faction had formed around William L. Yancey of Alabama--a faction as intolerant of political evasion as the Republicans themselves, and one that was eager to match the sectional Northern party by a sectional Southern party. It had for the moment fallen into line with the Toombs faction because, like the Whigs, it had not the courage to do otherwise. The question now was whether it would continue fearful, and whether political evasion would continue to reign.
The key to the history of the next four years is in the growth of this positive Southern party, which had the inevitable result of forcing the Whig remainder to choose, not as in 1856 between a positive sectional policy and an evasive nonsectional policy, but in 1860 between two policies both of which were at once positive and sectional.