The events of “Bleeding Kansas” were the result of many factors, including the expansion of slavery into new territories, the free-soil movement, and the growing divide between the North and the South.
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The designation “Bleeding Kansas” came about during the territorial period prior to Kansas statehood when it was decided that Kansas would be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state. “Bleeding” referred to the bloodshed that took place as a result of fighting between pro-slavery and anti-slavery groups vying for control over the government of the territory and, later, the state.
There were a number of factors that contributed to the violence in Bleeding Kansas, including:
-The close proximity of Kansas to slaveholding Missouri and the desire of Missourians to extend slavery into Kansas
-The significant numbers of both pro-slavery and anti-slavery immigrants who came to Kansas in the 1850s in an attempt to influence the outcome of whether or not slavery would be allowed in the state
-The election of a pro-slavery legislature in 1855, which prompted anti-slavery protesters to march on the state capital and force a change in government
-The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which opened up western territories for settlement and allowed residents of those territories to decide for themselves whether or not they would allow slavery
The Kansas-Nebraska Act
The Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed by the United States Congress on May 30, 1854. The act created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, opened new lands for settlement, and repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had prohibited slavery in most of the northern parts of the Louisiana Purchase. The act was designed to appease both pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in the United States by allowing each territory to decide whether or not to allow slavery within its borders.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act was one of the primary catalysts for the outbreak of violence in “Bleeding Kansas.” Prior to the Act’s passage, the area had been mostly settled by pro-slavery migrants from Missouri. However, after the Act’s passage, large numbers of both pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers from all over the country poured into Kansas in an attempt to sway the territory’s vote on slavery. This massive influx of settlers led to increased tensions and eventually to open violence between the two factions.
The Missouri Compromise
The first violence in “Bleeding Kansas” occurred in 1855, when proslavery activists, known as “Border Ruffians,” crossed the Missouri River and began attacking antislavery settlers in Kansas Territory.
The Missouri Compromise, which had admitted Missouri to the Union as a slave state in 1820, had also prohibited slavery north of the 36° 30′ parallel. This line bisected Kansas Territory; however, when the territory was opened for settlement in 1854, proslavery activists argued that the Compromise had been nullified by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which had created Kansas Territory and repealed the Missouri Compromise’s ban on slavery north of 36° 30′.
Antislavery activists countered that even though the Kansas-Nebraska Act had repealed the Missouri Compromise’s ban on slavery north of 36° 30′, the act had not explicitly legalized slavery in Kansas Territory. This interpretation became known as “popular sovereignty”: it was up to the settlers of a territory to decide whether or not to allow slavery.
The dispute over whether or not to allow slavery in Kansas Territory led to violence between proslavery and antislavery settlers. In May 1856, a group of proslavery activists, led by U.S. senator David Rice Atchison and U.S. congressman Henry Clay Dean, crossed into Kansas from Missouri and attacked the town of Lawrence, which was an antislavery stronghold. The attack became known as the “Sacking of Lawrence.”
The Compromise of 1850
The Compromise of 1850 was an effort by the U.S. Congress to defuse a four-year confrontation between the pro-slavery government of Kansas and the anti-slavery settlers from Missouri and other northern states. The crisis was caused by the effort of the pro-slavery party to write a constitution for Kansas that would permit slavery, despite the fact that most of the settlers were opposed to it.
The Compromise of 1850 consisted of five bills:
-The first bill admitted California as a free state.
-The second bill organized the Utah Territory and New Mexico Territory, allowing them to decide for themselves whether or not to allow slavery within their borders.
-The third bill abolished the slave trade in Washington, D.C., but left slavery untouched in other parts of the nation’s capital.
-The fourth bill strengthened the Fugitive Slave Act, making it easier for slaveholders to recapture escaped slaves and return them to bondage.
-Lastly, the fifth bill ended a dispute over which branch of government had the authority to regulate slavery in U.S. territories. It declared that Congress did have that power, thereby nullifying the Supreme Court’s decision in the Dred Scott case which said that neither Congress nor individual states could prohibit slavery in any territory of the United States.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act, which was passed by Congress in 1854, provided for the organization of the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and opened new lands in the American West to settlement. The act was a victory for proponents of popular sovereignty, the doctrine that the people who live in a territory should decide whether or not it will allow slavery.
The act also repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had prohibited slavery north of latitude 36°30′, the southern boundary of Missouri. This repeal angered antislavery activists, who feared that slavery would be reintroduced into areas where it had previously been banned.
As a result of these concerns, many antislavery settlers moved to Kansas in an effort to influence its outcome when it came time to votes on whether or not to allow slavery. This mass migration from the North is what led to Kansas becoming known as “Bleeding Kansas.”
The violence that characterized Bleeding Kansas was largely a result of two opposing groups vying for control over the territory’s future: pro-slavery settlers, who were mostly from Missouri, and antislavery settlers, who had come from all over the Northern states. These two groups clashed repeatedly, often with fatal results.
The most infamous episode of violence during Bleeding Kansas was the massacre at Pottawatomie Creek, in which a group of proslavery activists murdered five antislavery settlers. This event helped spark nationwide outrage against the violence in Kansas and helped rally more Northern antislavery supporters to move to the territory.
The outbreak of violence in Kansas Territory was the culmination of a long and bitter struggle over the issue of slavery in the United States. The territory had been part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and until 1850 it had been part of Missouri Territory. In the 1830s, settlers began to move into the area, and by 1854 there were nearly 10,000 white settlers living in Kansas Territory.