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Bleeding Kansas

Bleeding Kansas

Following the creation of the new territory of Kansas, large amounts of violence broke out between 1855 and 1859, creating the period known as Bleeding Kansas. During this time, both pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers were desperately fighting for dominance and control of the state. Kansas officially joined the Union in January of 1861, though the Civil War broke out just a few months later, reigniting the violence that had almost ceased.

Bleeding Kansas Definition

Bleeding Kansas is the time between 1855 and 1859 when repeated outbreaks of violent confrontations were held between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces following the creation of Kansas in 1854. Around 55 people were killed, with the violence intensifying the ongoing debates regarding slavery's place in US society. Bleeding Kansas would serve as one of the most important precursors to the Civil War of 1861-1865.

Bleeding Kansas Causes

In early 1854, the United States was rapidly expanding westward. Congress had begun to draft ideas regarding the former Louisiana Purchase lands, also known as the Nebraska Territory.

In May, Senator Stephen A. Douglas and attorney Henry Clay created the "Kansas-Nebraska Act." The Act stated that because Nebraska was guaranteed to be a free state due to its location, another territory would be open to the decisions of settlers. With Nebraska and California entering as free states, the title of "slave state" or "free state" would be up to the people living in Kansas. Stephen Douglas described the decision of the people as "popular sovereignty."

Bleeding Kansas - image of Senator Stephen Douglas - StudySmarter - Wikimedia Commons Public DomainFig. 1 - Senator Stephen Douglas Bleeding Kansas - restored image of attorney Henry Clay, 1848 - StudySmarter - Wikimedia Commons Public DomainFig. 2 - Attorney Henry Clay, 1848

The freedom or enslavement of African Americans in Kansas was left to be determined by the people, as it bordered the "slave state" of Missouri but didn't lay far enough North to be considered a "free state."

Pro-slavery Southerners quickly flocked to the new territory to settle and gain dominance over the land, leaving Abolitionists deeply angered by Douglas' Act. The Act would not only throw off the balance of "free states" and "slave states," but it would also completely disregard the Missouri Compromise.

Missouri Compromise was an agreement that drew a line between the free northern states and the slave states of the South. The Compromise created a balance between the two and protected their interests until the creation of new territories in 1854.

Realizing they had a chance to increase their influence within the Union, anti-slavery Northerners and Abolitionists also rapidly moved into Kansas to strengthen their upper hand. These fights for dominance quickly turned violent, and many were beaten, murdered, and forcibly removed from their settlements on both pro-slavery and anti-slavery sides.

Bleeding Kansas Summary

Upon Kansas' first territorial election in November of 1854, thousands of pro-slavery supporters from Missouri flooded in to vote. Pro-slavery candidate John Whitfield defeated two Free-Soil representatives because around half of the ballots were cast by unregistered voters. Through illegal voting and physical intimidation, pro-slavery supporters implemented a pro-slavery legislature in the state. Northern anti-slavery settlers refused to accept this outcome, and a group titled "Jayhawkers" took up arms and clashed with pro-slavery supporters. According to President Franklin Pierce, regardless of the illegal outcome, he recognized the pro-slavery legislature as the only legitimate government in Kansas.

Did you know?

The decision of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the implementation of a pro-slavery government in Kansas inspired the founding of the Republican Party.

The Sack of Lawrence

On May 21st, 1856, a group of pro-slavery supporters, led by Douglas County Sheriff Samuel J. Jones, stormed into the Free State stronghold of Lawrence, Kansas (which was settled by anti-slavery settlers from Massachusetts. Once there, they destroyed printing presses, looted homes and stores, and set fire to a hotel.

Bleeding Kansas - drawing of The Sack of Lawrence, 1856 - StudySmarter - Wikimedia Commons Public DomainFig. 3 - Drawing of the Sack of Lawrence, 1856

John Brown Bleeding Kansas

As a fierce Abolitionist, John Brown decided to retaliate against pro-slavery supporters for their sack of Lawrence. He brought seven other men, 4 of whom were his sons. On May 24th, just days after the sacking, the men marched through Potawatomie Valley and dragged five men from their homes, bringing them to the Potawatomie Creek and brutally killing them.

Just two days before the attack, Representative Preston Brooks from South Carolina beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with his cane for his speech that denounced the supporters of slavery in Kansas.

John Brown temporarily returned in the winter of 1858-9 to lead a raid to liberate a group of enslaved people. Throughout his role in Kansas, Brown gathered enough money to plan an invasion of Harpers Ferry in Virginia in 1859.

John Brown & Harpers Ferry

John Brown was born into a Calvinist household in Connecticut in 1800. His father, Owen Brown, was a firm believer in Abolitionism and taught his son the same.

When John Brown was 12 years old, he witnessed an enslaved African American boy being beaten, an event that would haunt him for years and encourage his own Abolitionism. Brown often moved between 1820 and 1850; along the way, helping with the Underground Railroad and even met Frederick Douglass in 1847 in Springfield, Massachusetts.

By 1855, Brown and his five sons found themselves in Kansas just after the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of the previous year. At this point in his life, Brown believed that the only way to end the institution of slavery was through violence.

Brown and other Abolitionists carefully planned and attempted to begin a slave riot in Virginia in 1859. Brown and his men sought to take control of the US arsenal at Harpers Ferry from the 16th to the 18th of October. The attack failed, and Brown, with multiple other Abolitionists, was captured and later executed for their actions. The event was extensively covered all over the nation, with Brown's death and dedication to the Abolitionist movement making him a martyr for both the current and future Abolitionists.

Bleeding Kansas - image of John Brown, 1846-47 - StudySmarter - Wikimedia Commons Public DomainFig. 4 - John Brown, 1846-47Bleeding Kansas - image of Frederick Douglass - StudySmarter - Wikimedia Commons Public DomainFig. 5 - Frederick Douglass

In June of 1856, pro-slavery forces once again suppressed a Free State meeting that was being held in Topeka, Kansas. Again, John Brown retaliated with this intervention with guerrilla attacks on Black Jack and Osawatomie.

Following in 1857, anti-slavery Free Staters boycotted a pro-slavery vote to send Constitutional delegates to Lecompton, citing illegal pro-slavery influence. President James Buchanan pushed Congress to accept the Lecompton Constitution despite extreme backlash from Douglas and other Democrats. They saw it as an infringement of the states' right to popular sovereignty.

Lecompton Constitution

Pro-slavery advocates created it to protect slaveholding within the state and exclude free people of color from its bill of rights.

Congress decided to send the Constitution back to Kansas to be voted on again, this time, Free State voters were able to place their votes, and the Constitution was rejected.

Kansas eventually adopted a Free State Constitution at a convention at Wyandotte in 1859, though pro-slavery forces in the Senate refused to enter the Union as a free state; it was only after some Confederate states decided upon their secession in 1860 that Congress finally approved the Wyandotte Constitution. Kansas entered the Union as a free state in January of 1861, barely three months before the Civil War broke out in April.

Despite much blood being spilled before the beginning of the war, many who resided in Kansas only cared to do what was best for their families and did not willingly partake in the violent outbursts between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery militia.

Bleeding Kansas Significance

Bleeding Kansas signified the massive differences between pro-slavery and anti-slavery supporters; it foreshadowed how violent and passionate the oncoming war would be. Despite being horrified by the violence that ensued, the Republican Party used Bleeding Kansas to build its base and strengthen its political advantage. On the opposite side, Bleeding Kansas caused a more profound separation between Northern and Southern Democrats, who were already struggling to find common ground during these turbulent years.

The Senate debate for the state of Illinois in 1858, Abraham Lincoln (Republican) vs. Stephen Douglas (Northern Democrat), would also foreshadow an enormous change in the country. Though Lincoln lost the debates to Douglas, his new-found reputation set him up to be the first Republican President during the election of 1860; the event that would officially drive the South to secession.

Bleeding Kansas - Key takeaways

  • Stephen A. Douglas and Henry Clay implemented the Kansas-Nebraska Act in May of 1854. The Act gave Nebraska the right to enter the Union as a free state, while the remaining territory of Kansas was left to popular sovereignty.

  • Sporadic acts of violence between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers occurred from 1854 to 1859 regarding who would hold power. When the pro-slavery militia attacked, the anti-slavery retaliated, and vice versa.

  • John Brown was a fierce and violent Abolitionist who played a significant role in some attacks aimed at pro-slavery settlers during Bleeding Kansas. He was executed during his failed raid of Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859.

  • After years of violence, Kansas adopted a Free State Constitution and entered the Union as such in January of 1861, just a few short months before the Civil War.

Frequently Asked Questions about Bleeding Kansas

Bleeding Kansas was a series of violent confrontations between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers in the new territory of Kansas.

Bleeding Kansas led to the Civil War because the South felt threatened by the North gaining so much control. When Kansas was declared a free state, and entered the Union as such, the balance between slave and free states (Missouri Compromise) became unequal. The deep divides between pro-slavery and anti-slavery supporters, along with the Souths declaration of secession in 1860, led to a violent war. 

Stephen Douglas’ “Kansas Nebraska Act” of 1854 caused Bleeding Kansas. With the two territories of Nebraska and Kansas, the country needed to figure out how they would be organized; slave or free? Upon Nebraska entering as a free state, Kansas faced violent clashes between its pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers, as the balance of states was at risk of becoming unequal. 

Bleeding Kansas got its name from all of the bloodshed between pro-slavery and anti-slavery supporters in Kansas. 

Bleeding Kansas (1855-1859) occurred after the passing of Stephen Douglas’ “Kansas Nebraska Act” of 1854. 

Final Bleeding Kansas Quiz

Question

Bleeding Kansas lasted from ___ to ____. 

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Answer

1855 to 1859

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Question

The Kansas Nebraska Act was created by ______.

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Answer

Stephen Douglas 

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Question

The leading Abolitionist in Kansas was named ______. 

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Answer

John Brown 

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Question

Illegal voters from the state of ____ flocked to Kansas to ensure a pro-slavery state legislature. 

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Answer

Missouri

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Question

President Franklin pierce only recognized _____ as the official government of Kansas even though many of the votes were placed illegally.

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Answer

pro-slavery

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Question

The Sack of Lawrence took place in the year _____. 

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Answer

1856

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John Brown led his violent march through Potawatomie in response to ________.

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Answer

The Sack of Lawrence 

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Question

The first election for territorial legislature in Kansas took place in the year ______. 

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Answer

1855

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Question

Kansas officially entered the Union in the year _____. 

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Answer

1860

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Though violence in the state began to cease, the Civil War broke out in the year _____. 

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1861

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Kansas entered the Union as a ____ state.

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Answer

Free

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Question

Kansas' Free State Constitution was called ______.

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Answer

The Wyandotte Constitution

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