Bleeding Kansas

Violent Upheaval in Kansas Was a Precursor to the Civil War

Engraved portrait of abolitionist fanatic John Brown
John Brown. Getty Images

Bleeding Kansas was a term coined to describe violent conflicts in the US territory of Kansas from 1854 to 1858. The violence was provoked when the residents of Kansas had to decide for themselves whether to become a slave state or a free state.The unrest in Kansas amounted to a civil conflict on a small scale, and was something of a premonition of the full-scale war Civil War that was split the nation less than a decade later.

The outbreak of hostilities in Kansas was essentially a proxy war, with pro-slavery and anti-slavery sympathizers in the North and South sending manpower as well as weapons. As events unfolded, elections were decided by outsiders flooding into the territory, and two different territorial legislatures were established.

The violence in Kansas became a subject of fascination, with reports often being carred in the newspapers of the day. It was the influential New York City editor, Horace Greeley, who was crediting with coining the term Bleeding Kansas. Some of the violence in Kansas was perpetrated by John Brown, a fanatical abolitionist who traveled, with his sons, to Kansas so they might slaughter pro-slavery settlers.

Background of the Violence

The atmosphere in the United States in the 1850s was tense, as the crisis over slavery became the most prominent issue of the day. The acquisition of new territories following the Mexican War led to the Compromise of 1850, which seemed to settle the question of which parts of the country would allow slavery.

In 1853, when Congress turned its attention to the Kansas-Nebraska territory and how it would be organized into states to come into the Union. The battle over slavery began again. Nebraska was far enough north that it would clearly be a free state, as required under the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The question was about Kansas: would it come into the Union as a free state or a slave state?

An influential Democratic senator from Illinois, Stephen Douglas, proposed a solution he called "popular sovereignty." Under his proposal, the residents of a territory would vote to decide if slavery would be legal. The legislation put forth by Douglas, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, would essentially overturn the Missouri Compromise and allow slavery in states where the citizens voted for it.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act was immediately controversial. (For instance, in Illinois a lawyer who had given up on politics, Abraham Lincoln, was so offended by it that he resumed his political career.) With the decision in Kansas approaching, anti-slavery activists from northern states began flooding into the territory. Pro-slavery farmers from the South also began to arrive.

The new arrivals began to make a difference in voting. In November 1854 an election to choose a territorial delegate to send to the U.S. Congress resulted in many illegal votes. The following spring an election to choose a territorial legislature resulted in Border Ruffians coming across the border from Missouri to ensure a decisive (if disputed) win for pro-slavery candidates.

By August 1855 the anti-slavery people who had come into Kansas rejected the new state constitution, created what they called a free-state legislature, and created a free-state constitution known as the Topeka Constitution.

In April 1856 the pro-slavery government in Kansas set up in its capital, Lecompton. The federal government, accepting the disputed election, considered the Lecompton legislature as the legitimate government of Kansas.

Eruptions of Violence

Tensions were high, and then on May 21, 1856, pro-slavery riders entered the "free soil" town of Lawrence, Kansas, and burned homes and businesses. To retaliate, John Brown and some of his followers dragged five pro-slavery men from their homes at Pottawatomie Creek, Kansas, and murdered them.

The violence even reached the halls of Congress. After an abolitionist senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner, delivered a blistering speech denouncing slavery and those who supported it in Kansas, he was beaten nearly to death by a South Carolina congressman.

A truce was finally worked out by a new territorial governor, though violence continued to flare until finally dying down in 1859.

Significance of Bleeding Kansas

It was estimated that the skirmishing in Kansas ultimately cost about 200 lives. While it was not a major war, it was important as it showed how the tensions of slavery could lead to violent conflict. And in a sense, Bleeding Kansas was a precursor to the Civil War, which would violently split the nation in 1861.