Bleeding Kansas

violent political confrontations in the United States centered around slavery
Bleeding Kansas anti-slavery poster (1855)

Bleeding Kansas was a border war on the Kansas-Missouri border. It began with the Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 and lasted into the American Civil War (1854–1861).[1] It was an ugly war between groups of people who held strong opinions both for and against slavery.[2] The term was first coined by Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune.[3] He used it to describe the violence happening in the Kansas territory during the mid to late 1850s.[3] Three distinct groups were fighting for power in Kansas at the time. These were those who were pro-slavery, abolitionists and free-staters.[1] Bloody Kansas, fought over the issue of slavery, was a precursor of events to come in the American Civil War.

Settling Kansas TerritoryEdit

Before 1854 when the Kansas-Nebraska Act opened up the territory for settlement, there were people living there.[4] Among these were several tribes of Native Americans. These included the plains Indian tribes of the Kansas, the Osage and the Pawnee people.[4] They lived and moved throughout what is now the state of Kansas. In the 1830s about 20 tribes living east of the Mississippi River were relocated west of Missouri.[4] By 1854 most of these tribes had been forced to give up these land to the federal government and move into what is now Oklahoma.[4]

Before the Kansas-Nebraska act began, the idea of popular sovereignty attracted interest in the territory. Several groups with political interests promoted the idea of settlement by whites.[4] One who was behind free-state settlement was the New England Emigrant Aid Company.[4] The first group of New England settlers founded the city of Lawrence, Kansas and it quickly became a center of abolitionist activity.[4] The same year the city of Topeka, Kansas was founded by Cyrus K. Holliday and other anti-slavery advocates.[4] Missourians felt there was a plot by abolitionists to surround the state of Missouri with free states. Residents of Missouri with an interest in Kansas becoming pro-slavery flooded into the territory.[4] The towns of Atchison and Leavenworth were both founded by pro-slavery Missourians.[4]

Issue of slaveryEdit

Slavery was one of the main issues that led to the Civil War.[5] The Southern United States was mainly dependent on agriculture and the roughly 4 million slaves and their descendants who did all the work on southern plantations.[5] Much of the southern economy depended on the free labor of slave even though only a small percentage of southerners actually owned slaves.[5] Slaves could be traded, rented, bought or sold. A man's social status, prestige and wealth were demonstrated by the number of slaves he owned.[5]

In the Northern United States, by the time of the Civil War, slavery had been abolished.[5] The north was mainly industrial and immigration, especially from Ireland and Germany, provided a source of low cost labor eliminating the need for slaves.[5]

Ever since the The Kansas-Nebraska Act opened up the territory to settlement in 1854, the pro-slavery party in Missouri had been interfering in Kansas affairs.[6] Missouri was admitted as a pro-slavery state under the Missouri Compromise. Slaveholders in Missouri were nervous about having a free-state on its western border where runaway slaves could escape to.[6] So Plantation owners in Missouri wanted to do everything they could to make sure Kansas became a slave state.[6]

Most of the people who came to the Kansas territory came for land and opportunity.[4] Most were from eastern states such as Ohio, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and New York.[4] They were almost all white. While they didn't have slaves themselves most were prejudiced against black people believing the popular idea they were inferior.[4] Most of the settlers seemed to want free soil for white people only.[4]

Violence in KansasEdit

In October 1855, John Brown came to Kansas Territory to fight slavery. On November 21, 1855 a skirmish called "Wakarusa War" began when a Free-Stater named Charles Dow was shot by a pro-slavery settler. The war had one fatality, a free stater named Thomas Barber was shot and killed. On May 21, 1856, Missourians invaded Lawrence and burned the Free State Hotel.[7] They destroyed two newspaper offices, and ransacked homes and stores.[7]

Preston Brooks attacking Charles Sumner in the U.S. Senate in 1856.

In May 1856, Republican Senator Charles Sumner took to the floor to denounce the threat of slavery in Kansas. He had devoted his enormous energies to the destruction of what Republicans called the "Slave Power". In the speech called "The Crime against Kansas", Sumner ridiculed the honor of elderly South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler. He compared Butler's pro-slavery agenda towards Kansas with the raping of a virgin and characterizing his affection for it in sexually explicit and disgusting terms.[8] The next day Butler's cousin, the South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks, nearly killed Sumner on the Senate floor with a heavy cane. The action shocked the nation, brought violence to the floor of the Senate, and deepened the North-South split.[9]

The violence continued to increase. Ohio abolitionist John Brown led his sons and other followers to plan the murder of settlers who spoke in favor of slavery. At a pro-slavery settlement at Pottawatomie Creek on the night of May 24, the group seized five pro-slavery men from their homes and hacked them to death with broadswords. Brown and his men escaped and began plotting a full-scale slave insurrection to take place at Harper's Ferry, Virginia, with financial support from Boston abolitionists.[10] The pro-slavery Territorial government had been relocated to Lecompton.

In August 1856, thousands of pro-slavery men formed into armies and marched into Kansas. That same month, Brown and several of his followers engaged 400 pro-slavery militia in the "Battle of Osawatomie". The hostilities raged for another two months until Brown departed the Kansas Territory. The new territorial governor, John W. Geary, took office and asked both sides for peace. This was followed by a fragile peace broken by intermittent violent outbreaks for two more years. The last major outbreak of violence was touched off by the Marais des Cygnes massacre in 1858. This was when Border Ruffians killed five Free State men. In all, approximately 56 people died in the period called Bleeding Kansas.[11]

Kansas statehoodEdit

The political process that led to statehood for Kansas was a long and labored process. To become a state, Kansas had to submit an acceptable constitution to the U.S. Congress.[12] Kansas attempted statehood four times with a total of four constitutions.[12] This was more than any other state territory.[12] Missourians, because they were so close, flooded across the border to vote on the first state constitution. The fact they were not Kansas residents did not prevent them from stuffing the ballot boxes.[12] With their help pro-slavery candidates were elected to the constitutional convention.[12] What came to be called the "Bogus Legislature" met on July 2, 1855.[12] Among the laws passed by the Bogus Legislature were the death penalty for anyone setting slaves free or for saying or writing anything that might cause a slave rebellion.[12] Citizens of Kansas who had expressed any anti-slavery ideas were not allowed to serve as jurors.[12] The convention did everything it could to drive out anyone with anti-slavery sentiments. Anti-slavery Abolitionists met on June 24, 1855 and rejected the Bogus Legislature's laws and constitution.

The Topeka constitutionEdit

After several conventions the free-staters met in Topeka to draft a constitution. It was submitted to the U.S. Congress and it went to Kansas voters on December 15.[12] The "Topeka constitution won ratification by a vote of 1,731 to 46. The lopsided victory was because the pro-slavery side boycotted the vote.[12] President Franklin Pierce gave a speech January 24, 1856 upholding the authority of the so-called Bogus Legislature. He called the Topeka constitution and the abolitionist convention illegal. The United States House of Representatives accepted the constitution by a vote of 99 to 97. It was sent to the United States Senate but the bill was held up in committee. The House and Senate went back and forth over the issue, but nothing was resolved. Then President Pierce sent federal troops to break up the Topeka legislature on July 4. A year went by with no progress. Both abolitionists and pro-slavery border ruffians began fighting a guerrilla war on the border to try to settle the issue.[13]

The Lecompton constitutionEdit

A year went by with little change. However, James Buchanan was elected president of the United States.[13] He appointed Robert J. Walker as territorial governor of Kansas. His instructions to Walker were to help the "regular legislature" in forming a new constitutional convention. Buchanan promised Kansans that voters would be protected from force or fraud and they should not boycott the convention.[13] Between mid-October and early November the Lecompton Constitution was drafted. When it was presented to Kansas voters it had two choices: a “Constitution With Slavery” and a “Constitution With No Slavery.” But it was cleverly worded in that it did not allow a vote against a constitution.[13] This caused an angry response from voters and Governor Walker was forced to resign.[13] By a vote of 6,226 to 569, on December 21, the Constitution With Slavery option won. But the Lecompton constitution made little progress in Congress. The newly formed Republican Party joined forces with Northern Democrats including Senator Stephen A. Douglas opposed the constitution because they felt it did not represent the will of the people of Kansas.[13] The Democratic Party was split over the measure. Douglas and free-Stater in Kansas got a referendum held on January 4, 1858.[13] This time abolitionists, many of whom had earlier boycotted the vote, voted. Over 10,000 voters completely rejected the Lecompton Constitution.[13]

The Leavenworth constitutionEdit

The third attempt at a constitution was called the Leavenworth Constitution. It was so-named because on March 25, 1858, the delegates assembled in Leavenworth, Kansas.[14] When a bill calling for another convention had been sent to the new territorial governor, James Denver for approval, he ignored it.[14] The territorial legislature then passed the measure but they met after they were scheduled to adjourn.[14] This caused a bitter debate even before the convention met. At the convention abolitionists were split over several issues including what to offer to blacks.[14] Even so, the delegates voted on a new constitution to present to the voters. It was ratified on May 18, but very few Kansans came out to vote on the measure.[14] Congress did not even take the Leavenworth constitution seriously. Instead, President Buchanan stated that the Lecompton constitution had been ratified and it should be the constitution under consideration. While the Leavenworth constitution was waiting on ratification, both houses of congress sent the Lecompton constitution back to the voters of Kansas. This time there was a bribe attached. If the voters would approve the Lecompton constitution they would get 3.5 million acres of public land to use for schools, a university and public works.[14] If they rejected the constitution, Kansas would not be allowed to submit another constitution until it gained a larger population.[14] On August 2, the voters rejected the terms of statehood made by Congress by a vote of 11, 812 to 1,926. Both the Lecompton and the Leavenworth constitutions were dead.[14] Both the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions realized it was time for a new plan for Kansas.[14]

The Wyandotte Constitution and Kansas statehoodEdit

Things quieted down temporarily although the polls had shown the free-state abolitionists were clearly in the majority.[15] Many of the pro-slavery men from Missouri lost interest in the political affairs of Kansas. Many of the more radical abolitionists did also.[15] The territorial legislature proceeded to find a way for Kansas to become a state. On February 9, 1859 the legislature passed an act to create one more constitutional convention. The new governor, Samuel Medary, signed the bill.[15] A vote held on March 28 showed 5,306 Kansans were for the measure while 1,425 were against it.[15] By this time it was widely thought Kansas would be a free state, if approved for statehood. But other issues were being debated. These included state boundaries, suffrage and temperance.[15] Deligates to the convention were elected and on July 5 met at Wyandotte, a town that later became part of Kansas City. On July 29, the Wyandotte Constitution was adopted (without signatures of many of the Democrats at the convention).[15] It was presented to the people of Kansas on October 4 and was approved by a vote of 10,421 to 5,530.[15]

The U.S. House of Representatives introduced a bill in February 1860 for statehood and it passed.[15] In the Senate, however, the measure stalled. It went to the Committee on Territories for three months before it came back to the Senate floor. The committee had recommended it not be passed.[15] Debates on the measure went back and forth, but nothing was done due to the upcoming presidential election.[15] In the 1860 election, Abraham Lincoln won the presidency.[15] The Southern states then seceded from the Union. With Congress cleared of those against Kansas becoming a free state, the measure was passed.[15] President Buchanan was still in office but signed the bill making Kansas the 34th state.[15] The Wyandotte constitution became the constitution of the State of Kansas.[15]

Related pagesEdit


  1. 1.0 1.1 "Bleeding Kansas". National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior. Retrieved 12 June 2016.
  2. "Bleeding Kansas". Legends of America. Retrieved 12 June 2016.
  3. 3.0 3.1 "Bleeding Kansas". Retrieved 12 June 2016.
  4. 4.00 4.01 4.02 4.03 4.04 4.05 4.06 4.07 4.08 4.09 4.10 4.11 4.12 4.13 "Bleeding Kansas". Kansas Historical Society. Retrieved 12 June 2016.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 5.4 5.5 "Causes Of The Civil War". HistoryNet. Retrieved 12 June 2016.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 Thomas Goodrich, Black Flag: Guerrilla Warfare on the Western Border, 1861-1865 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999), p. 6
  7. 7.0 7.1 "The Sack of Lawrence, Kansas, 1856". Eyewitness to History. Ibis Communications, Inc. Retrieved 19 June 2016.
  8. Michael William Pfau, 'Time, Tropes, and Textuality: Reading Republicanism in Charles Sumner's 'Crime Against Kansas', Rhetoric & Public Affairs, Vol. 6, No. 3 (2003), p. 393
  9. William James Hull Hoffer, The Caning of Charles Sumner: Honor, Idealism, and the Origins of the Civil War (2010)
  10. Anne E. Schraff, John Brown: "We Came to Free the Slaves" (Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow Publishers, 2010), p. 56
  11. Dale E. Watts (Summer 1995). "How Bloody Was Bleeding Kansas?" (PDF). Kansas Historical Society. Retrieved 12 June 2016., pp. 116–29
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 12.3 12.4 12.5 12.6 12.7 12.8 12.9 "The Four Kansas Constitutions: Topeka". Homestead on the Range. 6 April 2015. Retrieved 12 June 2016.
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 13.3 13.4 13.5 13.6 13.7 "The Four Kansas Constitutions: Lecompton". Homestead on the Range. 13 April 2015. Retrieved 12 June 2016.
  14. 14.0 14.1 14.2 14.3 14.4 14.5 14.6 14.7 14.8 "The Four Kansas Constitutions: Leavenworth". Homestead on the Range. 20 April 2015. Retrieved 12 June 2016.
  15. 15.00 15.01 15.02 15.03 15.04 15.05 15.06 15.07 15.08 15.09 15.10 15.11 15.12 15.13 "The Four Kansas Constitutions: Wyandotte". Homestead on the Range. 27 April 2015. Retrieved 12 June 2016.