The events in the Kansas territory were a microcosm of the violent forces shaping the United States in the decade of the 1850s, forces that would ultimately lead to a disintegration of the Union itself. This lesson details what has come to be known as Bleeding Kansas and its impact on the issue of slavery.
In 1850, the United States was on the verge of a split. Slave states and free states stared angrily at each other across geographical as well as political lines. It appeared to many observers, both in the South and the North, that the acquisition of new territories in the West after the war with Mexico was both a boon and a bust, inasmuch as the new states formed would most likely lead to the unraveling of the precarious balance that kept the Union together.
Luckily for the Union, both sides were able to maneuver politically and come to a compromise in 1850. This compromise gave the country the draconian Fugitive Slave Act, but it did keep the peace, although the peace was short-lived. Nefarious forces on both sides were already at work in the Midwest territories over the fate of two new states: Kansas and Nebraska. And while much of the country had never heard of these places, through violence and bloodshed these forces were to bring the name of Kansas directly to the public's consciousness.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed settlers in these states to decide on the issue of slavery by voting.
In 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, an act that divided the Great Plains territories into two states, Nebraska and Kansas. As part of the deal, the issue of slavery would be decided not by Congress but by the settlers in these territories at the ballot box, a governance style appropriately called popular sovereignty. Both abolitionists and slave proponents alike agreed with the idea, believing their side would certainly win the vote by stacking the ballot box in their favor.
In truth, Congress hoped that slave owners would occupy Kansas, making it a slave state, while anti-slavery forces would take Nebraska - a simple way to maintain the balance of free and slave states in the U.S. and keep the peace. Unfortunately, this was not to be. While Nebraska remained open and vast and enjoyed relative calm in the years leading up to the Civil War, Kansas would not be so lucky.
While most settlers who moved to Kansas simply wanted to build a life for themselves and be left in peace, forces on both sides of the slavery issue were determined to bring conflict and violence to the territory. It was here, not Nebraska, where sentiments on both sides would be aired, would clash and would lead to bloodshed.
Settlers with differing views on slavery brought conflict and violence to Kansas.
Abolitionists moved quickly to make an example out of Kansas and organized the funding for several thousand settlers to move to Kansas with the full intention of voting to make it a free state. As a result, antislavery settlements sprang up in Topeka and Lawrence, and by the summer of 1855, over 1,200 New Englanders had made the journey to Kansas, armed and ready to fight for freedom.
In response to these actions by Northern abolitionists, thousands of armed Southerners, mostly from Missouri, poured over the lines into the neighboring Kansas territory to vote for the proslavery initiative. This move had an immediate impact. In vote after vote, the proslavery forces carried the day.
But these votes cast in favor of slavery were not without controversy. Congressional inquiries into the elections found massive voter fraud, and they delivered a report claiming that the free state votes actually represented the will of the people. What is more, the Congressional group found that the free state government formed in opposition to the proslavery group was the rightful government of Kansas. But the federal government ignored the findings and continued to recognize the proslavery legislature as the legitimate government of Kansas.
Though voter fraud was discovered, the proslavery legislature of Kansas continued to be recognized.
Throughout it all, violence was commonplace in the territory. Men were killed, others were tarred and feathered. Still others were kidnapped and had their life's possessions stolen, burned or otherwise destroyed. Homes were ransacked, and stores were looted. Much of the violence was perpetrated by proslavery forces, but abolitionists, such as John Brown, led groups of vigilantes who brought their own brand of violence - including the butchering of five proslavery men at Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas.
The violence in the Kansas Territory would also reach Congress. There, the abolitionist senator Charles Sumner delivered a fiery speech called 'The Crime Against Kansas,' in which he accused proslavery senators, in particular co-author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Andrew Butler of South Carolina, of raping the virgin territory of Kansas. The sexual imagery that laced his speech was no accident, as abolitionists frequently argued that the institution of slavery was partly there for white slave owners to engage in the sexual domination of their slaves. It so angered Butler's nephew, Congressman Preston Brooks, that he attacked Sumner at his Senate desk and almost beat him to death with a cane.
Charles Sumner was beaten, almost to death, in response to his anti-slavery speech.
Luckily, civility would prevail in Congress, and it would be the last violent outbreak on the Kansas issue. In the territory, violence would also be quelled when, in September of 1856, a new territorial governor, John W. Geary, arrived in Kansas and began to restore order. By the time he did, 55 people had been killed in what the New York Tribune writer Horace Greeley had labeled 'Bleeding Kansas.'
The violence may have ended with Governor Geary, but the fight over the fate of Kansas as a free or slave state would not be decided until 1861. With the election of Abraham Lincoln, Southern states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. Kansas petitioned to join the U.S., not the Confederacy, and was accepted. The fate of Kansas was now sealed.
In the end, the blood spilled over keeping Kansas a slave state was in vain. Kansas was now a free territory, a proud state of the Union and in opposition to the South. What is more, its men were now preparing to take up arms for America's bloodiest war and end slavery once and for all.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Define the Kansas-Nebraska Act and popular sovereignty, and understand why both abolitionists and pro-slavery people went to Kansas
- Summarize the results of the vote in Kansas and the controversy surrounding it
- Explain why the events in Kansas were called 'Bleeding Kansas'
- Identify Charles Sumner as well as which side Kansas eventually took