Abolitionist john brown—failed businessman, sometime farmer and fulltime agent, he believed, of a God more disposed to retribution than mercy— rode into the PottawatomieValley in the new territory of Kansas on May 24, 1856, intent on imposing “a restraining fear” on his proslavery neighbors. With him were seven men, including four of his sons. An hour before midnight, Brown came to the cabin of a Tennessee emigrant named James Doyle, took him prisoner despite the pleadings of Doyle's desperate wife, and shot him dead. After butchering Doyle and two of his sons with broadswords, the party moved on to kill two other men, leaving one with his skull crushed, a hand severed and his body in Pottawatomie Creek.
In a sense, the five proslavery settlers were casualties not merely of Brown's bloody-mindedness but also of a law described by historians William and Bruce Catton as possibly “the most fateful single piece of legislation in American history.” Ironically, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed by Congress 150 years ago this month (100 years to the week before the landmark Supreme Court decision—Brown v. Board of Education—barring school segregation), was meant to quiet the furious national argument over slavery by letting the new Western territories decide whether to accept the practice, without the intrusion of the federal government. Yet by repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had outlawed slavery everywhere in the Louisiana Purchase north of Missouri's southern border (except for Missouri itself), the new law inflamed the emotions it was intended to calm and wrenched the country apart.