Seeding Civil War: Kansas in the National News, 1854-1858. By Craig Miner. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, September 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-7006-1612-1, $34.95. 305 pages.
Review by Gary L. Cheatham, Northeastern State University, Oklahoma
Craig Miner’s many achievements as an eminent scholar include writing, co-authoring, and editing well over a dozen books and monographs on the history of Kansas and the Southwest. His latest book, Seeding Civil War: Kansas in the National News, 1854-1858, explores how “Kansas was more important to the coming of the Civil War than has been hitherto recognized,” because of the way in which the national press “talked about” events in Kansas Territory. “The rhetoric surrounding Kansas events” in the press, Miner writes, became the “main event in influencing cultural understanding and political behavior” on the national level. The Northern versus Southern debate over the western expansion of slavery in Kansas was made more antagonistic as a result of the way in which the national press framed the news of events in the territory.
Drawing from more than 70 period newspapers and other periodicals from coast to coast, and in the North and South, Miner looks at the language used by newspaper writers and editors in covering events in Kansas during the first four years of the territory’s history. Going behind the words and phrases found in the newspapers, Miner uses a probing writing style that opens a door to the mid-nineteenth century United States, allowing the reader to feel transported back in time. Through this door the author successfully shows how a national press helped set the mood and tone of the nation shortly before it erupted into armed conflict. The national tension created by the press was partly manufactured by the newspapers and their Kansas correspondents, who were sometimes guilty of sensationalism in an attempt to get editors to print their stories.
Miner’s work is not confined, however, to a discussion of how the press covered Kansas during its territorial period. Recognizing that Americans were not getting their news and political insights from newspapers alone, he also discusses the role of religious periodicals and viewpoints in the debate. From this the reader learns that not only did many Northerners find slavery “evil,” Southerners were shocked by the anti-Southern political rhetoric coming from Northern pulpits. The author also points out that abolitionism had itself become a religion by the 1850s. In addition, Miner ensures that the Northern and Southern religious and political views on the Kansas question are given equal billing.
The political and social events occurring inside Kansas are also well covered in the book. This material is not only useful for helping to explain the role of the press in the national debate on Kansas, it provides an excellent summary of the history of the territorial governors and legislatures, and the history of the Lecompton Constitution. Although the various territorial governments and constitutional questions were plagued by internal political and social upheaval, including charges of spurious activities, Miner correctly points out that the “Kansas government, bogus or not, had operated.”
In the end, some national press stories about what was going on in Kansas did not always precisely correspond with actual events. Newspapers publishing stories about “bleeding Kansas” may have helped sell papers, but the embellishment tactics used by the correspondents and their editors only heightened the growing social and political divisions between the North and South. Although the competition among journalists over the Kansas story and the business of selling newspapers was not the most important factor that influenced the coming of the Civil War, the press did play a significant role in the development of this national tragedy.
Miner’s writing style makes this an engaging and easy-to-read book. Seeding Civil War is an impressively researched volume that is sure to become a standard work on the role of the press in the political and social struggle that resulted in the Civil War. The book is also an important work for anyone wanting to study the history of Kansas Territory.