Bleeding Kansas

Tallgrass Prairie, Kansas.

After the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, William Seward proclaimed to the Senate that “[w]e will engage in competition for the virgin soil of Kansas, and God give the victory to the side which is stronger in numbers as it is in right.” Congressional Globe, 33 Cong., 1 sess., appendix, 769. Rather than settling the issue of slavery in Kansas, the Act made Kansas the figurative and literal battleground for the issue of slavery.

Eli Thayer migrated from Massachusetts to Kansas, after obtaining a charter from the Massachusetts legislature incorporating the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company, which had the purpose of “assisting emigrants to settle in the West.” Private and Special Statutes of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (Boston, 1861) X, 204 (Act of April 26, 1854), 282-83 (Act of Feb. 21, 1855). The company did not come to operate, but Thayer’s “Plan of Operations” was published in Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, which enjoyed a widespread readership. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 200. Proponents of slavery began to fear that there were 20,000 hirelings from a “vast, wealthy, and overpowering abolitionist organization.” Id. Seizing on this fear, Senator David Atchison of Missouri wrote:

Senator David Atchison. By: Mathew Brady.

“[W]e are threatened . . . [with] being made the unwilling receptacle of the filth, scum, and offscourings of the East . . . to pollute our fair land . . . to preach abolitionism, and dig underground Rail-roads.” William Wyandot to Atchison, July 11, 1854, in William E. Parrish, David Rice Atchison of Missouri: Border Politician (Columbia, Mo. 1961), 161.

In response to the purported invasion of easterners, opposition formed and prepared for a conflict. The Platte County Self-Defensive Association formed in Missouri, vowing for its members to travel to Kansas and “to assist in removing any and all emigrants who go there under the auspices of Northern Emigrant Aid Societies.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 200 quoting James C. Malin, “The Proslavery Background of the Kansas Struggle,” MVHR, X (1923), 285-305. Other groups formed with similar vows but less overt in their calls to arms. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 200-01.

Territorial Governor Andrew Horatio Reeder.

The stage was set for chaos as the territorial governor Andrew Reeder arrived in Kansas in October 1854. He called for an election for the territorial legislature where of the population of 8,601, “2,905 were eligible to vote.” Id. at 201. Territorial law permitted “residents” to vote, with a loose definition of “resident” practically inviting outsiders to cross into the territory and vote in the election. See id. Proslavery Missourians were fearful that emigrants were going to pour through the border and install an abolitionist legislature. Senator Atchison led a group of Missourians across the border into Kansas on election day, March 30, 1855, and produced a proslavery majority in the legislature with a total voter count of 6,307, far exceeding the 2,905 that were eligible to vote just six months prior. Id. citing Report of the Special Committee Appointed to Investigate the Troubles in the Territory of Kansas, 72-100, 934. In reality, the number of emigrants was less than the proslavery proponents expected, and there was no need for individuals to cross the border into Kansas to vote. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 201. Governor Reeder, despite having knowledge of voting improprieties, accepted the results of the election. See id. at 202. Earning the trust of antislavery men would be an insurmountable task for Governor Reeder.

Kansas Militia.

This was the first time that a territory argued about the issue of slavery despite having very little interest in extending the institution of slavery to that territory. There were fundamental disagreements between newcomers and Missourians who saw the Kansas territory as being an extension of theirs. See id. To compound the tension, there were numerous squatters and others who sought title to property in the new territory, despite Native Americans still inhabiting parts of the territory and land not being surveyed as to determine the borders of land tracts. See id. There were portions of the population that wanted Kansas to be a free state, but that position did not translate into attempting to create an open, accepting environment for free blacks. A clergyman, who was a free-soiler, said, “I kem to Kansas to live in a free state and I don’t want niggers a-trampin’ over my grave.” William A. Phillips, The Conquest of Kansas by Missouri and Her Allies (Boston, 1856), 127-140; James C. Malin, “The Topeka Statehood Movement Reconsidered: Origins,” in Territorial Kansas: Studies Commemorating the Centennial (Lawrence, Kan., 1954) 33-69. Where more localized and individualized animosities and prejudices would perhaps have remained such, the dynamic of proslavery and antislavery factions contesting each other fostered an environment where everyone brought antagonisms to the surface.

When the “fraudulently elected legislature” convened, it “adopted a uniquely repressive set of statutes for the protection of slavery, making it a capital offense to give aid to a fugitive slave and a felony to question the right to hold slaves in Kansas.” David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 204. Then, the legislature expelled antislavery legislators, which prompted the antislavery faction to form a rival government throughout the rest of 1855 and into the beginning of 1856. See id. The antislavery faction, despite being hopeful that their “shadow government” would be recognized, realized that the odds were against them for the federal government to hold itself out in support of them as they had tried to name their own senators and pass their own laws in direct contravention of the fraudulently elected territorial government. See id. at 204-05. Many in the antislavery faction agreed with Amos Lawrence, who encouraged waiting to set up their government until after the conflict with the territorial government had been resolved. See id. at 205. Not everyone agreed with such a peaceful approach, however. Others saw that there was a window where perhaps violence would be effective in accomplishing their goals, and both antislavery and proslavery forces were well-equipped for such a fight. See id. at 206-07.

Depiction of the Sack of Lawrence. Artist Unknown.

Shortly thereafter, on May 21, 1856, violence broke out. Proslavery forces traveled to Lawrence, meeting resistance, but overpowering the fortifications that had been erected should such a conflict break out. While the proslavery forces sought support from the federal government, through President Franklin Pierce, no help was forthcoming. See id. at 208.

Political Cartoon Depicting Representative Preston Brooks Caning Senator Charles Sumner. By: J.L. Magee.

In Washington, the next day, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina went to the Senate looking for Senator Charles Sumner, who had a well-established reputation as an abolitionist, but he also had recently given a speech attacking slavery and the developments in the Kansas territory. See id. at 209-10. Senator Sumner characterized Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, a relative of Representative Brooks, as a “Don Quixote who had chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who . . . though polluted in the sight of the world is chaste in his sight—I mean the harlot, slavery.” Congressional Globe, 34 Cong., 1 sess., appendix, 529-47. Representative Brooks, in the Senate chamber, found Senator Sumner seated at his desk. He used his cane to strike Senator Sumner’s head numerous times, even after the cane broke. Representative Ambrose Murray restrained Brooks, but the damage was done. Senator Sumner would not return to the chamber for two and a half years. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 210-11.

John Brown.

The day after the assault on Senator Sumner, John Brown of Kansas, who was an ardent abolitionist, gathered a group of abolitionists and killed the men in a prominent Kansan family. See id. at 212. While there was no clear motive for the assault, the family was thought to be proslavery in disposition. See id. Brown’s raid in the countryside brought fear to proslavery forces and inspiration to abolitionists.

By the fall of 1856, a new governor came to the Kansas territory, John W. Geary. He restored peace to the territory by assuring both sides of the disagreement that he would protect them against violence. See id. at 214. Groups on both sides confronted each other, and violence nearly broke out, but before any side made good on their threats, they avoided battle with each other.

Word spread throughout the country about the developments in Kansas. Newspapers reported on the events in Kansas, and public opinion shifted toward the antislavery forces, as the media reported the proslavery forces in a more negative light. See id. at 219. This left one newspaper to report: “Terrible stories have floated through the newspapers, distorted and misrepresented by those whose interest it was to misrepresent them.” William A. Phillips, The Conquest of Kansas by Missouri and Her Allies (Boston, 1856), 316-17.

Deep Creek, Kansas.

Although the proslavery forces had captured the Kansas territory and held it for their own, the antislavery faction had effectively shaped the narrative. The discourse of the country as a whole focused on the events in Kansas, and while many made a martyr of John Brown and his raid, most in the South denounced the developments reported in the press. It was clear that slavery had become an issue that endlessly and severely divided the country, even where it was being applied to a territory that would not come to adopt the institution the same way that southern states had. One would be left to wonder how there could be compromise on the issue when results could not be achieved in Kansas, where the stakes were comparatively lower than the established wage and slavery labor systems in the northern and southern states respectively.

One could partially attribute this conflict to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which all but ensured that the arguments for and against slavery would manifest themselves in the new territory of Kansas. The dynamic became that those against slavery would intervene in the extension of prolonging of the institution prompting proslavery forces to retaliate and protect their livelihood. On both sides, there was ample evidence to support their arguments, rallying individuals to their sides. Astute observers of these developments realized that as the lines were drawn, escalation of the conflict became increasingly inevitable.


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