Bleeding Kansas describes the period of repeated outbreaks of violent guerrilla warfare between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces following the creation of the New Kansas Territory in 1854. In total, some 55 people were killed between 1855 and 1859. The struggle escalated the fight against slavery. ongoing debate over the future of slavery in the United States and served as a key precursor to the Civil War.
WATCH: Bleeding Kansas
Kansas-Nebraska law passed
By early 1854, with the rapid expansion of the United States westward, Congress had begun debating a bill to organize Louisiana’s former purchase lands then known as the Territory. of Nebraska. To secure crucial southern votes for the bill, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois proposed an amendment that effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise, which had banned the extension of slavery north of parallel 36 ° 30 ‘(southern border of Missouri), except in Missouri itself.
Passed through fierce opposition in Congress and enacted in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and gave everyone the right to decide whether or not to allow slavery when they joined the Union. Douglas believed that popular sovereignty, as this idea was known, would resolve the ongoing sectoral debate between North and South over the extension of slavery into the territories.
The Kansas-Nebraska law divided the Douglas Democratic Party and inspired the formation of the Republican Party, which opposed the extension of slavery to new territory. While Nebraska was so far north that it was virtually guaranteed to become a free state, Kansas bordered the slave state of Missouri. Over the next seven years, Kansas became a battleground over the future of slavery in the United States.
WATCH: Missouri Compromise
Fight for the elections
In New England, a group of abolitionists formed the Emigrant Aid Company, which sent anti-slavery settlers to Kansas to ensure it would become free territory. On the other side, thousands of pro-slavery Missourians flocked to the new territory to vote illegally in Kansas’ first territorial election in November 1854. Pro-slavery candidate John Whitfield easily defeated two Free Soil candidates to become the territory’s delegate to Congress, with only half of the votes cast by registered voters.
In March 1855, when the elections were held for the first territorial legislature, thousands of heavily armed “border thugs” ran again in Kansas. Through illegal votes and the intimidation of anti-slavery voters, they secured the election of a list of pro-slavery lawmakers.
Northerners and other anti-slavery settlers refused to accept this government and created their own. Some of these Free Staters, known as “jayhawkers”, have armed themselves to prepare for clashes with pro-slavery forces. As tensions grew inside the territory, President Franklin Pierce recognized the pro-slavery legislature as the only legitimate government in Kansas.
John Brown reacts to violence in Lawrence
Sporadic outbursts of violence occurred between pro and anti-slavery forces in late 1855 and early 1856. In a sharp escalation of this violence, a pro-slavery group stormed the stronghold of the Lawrence Free State on May 21, 1856, destroying printing presses, looting homes and shops, and torching a hotel.
In response to Lawrence’s “sack,” as it became known, abolitionist John Brown marched through the Pottawatomie Valley in Kansas Territory on May 24 with seven men, including four of his sons. Determined to confront pro-slavery settlers, the group dragged five men from their homes along Pottawatomie Creek and brutally killed them.
Despite the visibility of the violence in Kansas, relatively few settlers in the new territory were deeply involved in the slavery conflict. Many of those listed on the pro-slavery side were poor farmers who didn’t even enslave people, while few anti-slavery settlers were champions of black rights. Both groups simply wanted land for themselves and their families, but got caught up in the ongoing battle that was tearing the nation apart.
WATCH: The John Brown Raid
‘Bleeding Kansas’ Gets National Attention
The upheaval in Kansas captured the nation’s attention and even spread to Congress. Two days before Brown’s attack in Pottawatomie, Senator Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with his cane in the Senate in retaliation for Sumner’s angry speech denouncing the supporters of slavery in Kansas ( including Brooks’ cousin, Senator Andrew Butler of the South Carolina).
In July 1856, pro-slavery forces suppressed a meeting of the Free State government in Topeka, another anti-slavery stronghold. Brown fought back again, leading his followers in guerrilla attacks against Black Jack and Osawatomie. This fall, newly appointed Territory Governor John Geary ordered the armed settlers to disperse, and the violence subsided.
In late 1857, the Free States boycotted the vote to send delegates to a constitutional convention in Lecompton, citing illegal pro-slavery influences on the election. Seeking to resolve the Kansas state issue quickly, President James Buchanan pushed Congress to accept Lecompton’s Constitution, despite overwhelming opposition from Douglas and others who saw it as an unlawful violation of popular sovereignty. .
As a compromise, Congress returned the Constitution from Lecompton to Kansas for another vote in August 1858; this time the Free States voted and the constitution was rejected.
Impact of the Kansas hemorrhage
Although attention to Kansas waned after 1856, sporadic violence continued, including the murder of a group of Free Staters along the Swan Marsh River in May 1858 and the temporary return of Brown, who led a raid to free a group of enslaved people in the winter of 1858-59. Brown’s role in the Kansas violence helped him raise funds for his 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry in Virginia. The raid failed and Brown was executed, becoming a martyr to the abolitionist cause.
The volatile situation in Kansas was still a hot topic of controversy during the 1858 Illinois Senate race, when former one-term congressman Abraham Lincoln, now a Republican, challenged Douglas for its seat in the Senate. Lincoln lost that race, but his eloquent performance in their series of debates helped revive his political career and earned him a national reputation in 1860.
Although Kansas adopted a Free State constitution in a convention at Wyandotte in 1859, pro-slavery forces in the Senate refused to allow the territory to enter the Union as a Free State. It was not until after the secession of the Confederate States following the election of Lincoln in 1860 that Congress approved Wyandotte’s Constitution. Kansas entered the Union in January 1861, just three months before the start of the Civil War.
Bleeding Kansas. American Battlefield Trust.
Ross Drake, “The Law That Tore America in Two”. Smithsonian, May 2004.
Nicole Etcheson, “Bleeding Kansas: From the Kansas-Nebraska Act to Harpers Ferry.” Civil War on the Western Frontier: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. Kansas City Public Library.
Eric Foner, The fiery trial: Abraham Lincoln and American slavery (WW Norton, 2010)