Bleeding Kansas

Date: From 1854-XX-XX to 1861-XX-XX

Place: Kansas Territory

The term “Bleeding Kansas” describes a series of political and violent confrontations that wracked the Kansas Territory between passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. The conflict centered on the question of whether or not slavery would be legal in the territory. The fighting did not technically end with the onset of the Civil War but simply became part of the broader conflict and even continued, to a lesser extent, after the Confederacy’s collapse.

With the imposition of “popular sovereignty” on the Kansas Territory by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, pro-slavery advocates began entering and settling there to increase its slaveholding population and thereby guarantee the legality of slavery once the issue came to a vote. Slaveholding Missourians were particularly active in these efforts, as they considered the slave status of their state particularly vulnerable. To counter this, anti-slavery advocates began sponsoring immigration by non-slaveholders into Kansas. Thus, several settlements developed within the territory of a strictly pro- or anti-slavery nature. In addition, organizations within and outside of Kansas began arming these emigrants and sponsoring militias.

The extent of this crisis became immediately apparent in 1854, when the territory elected its first congressional delegate. Pro-slavery Missourians flooded into the territory and elected a like-minded candidate with less than half of the total votes cast coming from actual Kansas residents. This phenomenon occurred again the following year during the first election for the territorial legislature. The elected legislature began meeting in Shawnee Mission along the Missouri border and set about passing laws to entrench slavery in Kansas. Soon, a shadow anti-slavery legislature began meeting in Topeka and drafted their own state constitution, which President Franklin Pierce declared illegal. In 1856, the U.S. Congress officially investigated the 1855 vote and found it to be extraordinarily corrupt.

Organized violence had already begun to break out in 1855 but the first nationally noteworthy incident occurred on May 21, 1856, when a group of pro-slavery “Border Ruffians” sacked the anti-slavery stronghold of Lawrence. The following day, Congressman Preston S. Brooks caned Senator Charles Sumner in the U.S. Senate chamber following the latter’s speech, “The Crime Against Kansas.” In reaction to these two events, John Brown—a radical abolitionist who had migrated to Kansas the previous year—and a group of followers brutally murdered five pro-slavery men in Pottawatomie Creek. Following these incidents, both sides began organizing more extensively and formed small irregular armies comprised of men from inside and outside of Kansas. These guerilla units engaged in several skirmishes until the Civil War when they transitioned into regular and irregular Union and Confederate forces.

Amidst this heightening violence, the territorial legislature officially relocated to Lecompton and Pierce dispatched federal forces to break-up the competing Topeka government. In 1857, a constitutional convention was held at Lecompton, resulting in a pro-slavery state constitution. Anti-slavery Kansans boycotted the ratification vote but President James Buchanan approved the document and Kansas’ statehood nevertheless. However, Republicans and Democrats led by Stephen A. Douglas overturned Buchanan’s decision, creating rifts in the Democratic Party that would not heal until after the Civil War. A second ratification vote was held which pro-slavery voters boycotted, resulting in the defeat of the Lecompton Constitution. Another constitutional convention was held in 1859, which produced the largely anti-slavery Wyandotte Constitution. Kansans ratified it by a large margin and it became the governing document after Kansas achieved statehood on January 29, 1861.

Elizabeth R. Varon, Disunion!: The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2008), 235-305; Nicole Etcheson, Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004); David M. Potter and Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861 (New York: Harper & Row, 1976), 199-224, 297-327; History of the State of Kansas (Chicago: A. T. Andreas, 1883), 81-179.