A Nation Watches Kansas
Also in May 1856, South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks administered a bloody beating to Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in retaliation for insulting remarks Sumner made about Brooks’s uncle, Senator Andrew P. Butler, in a lengthy tirade called “The Crime against Kansas.” Sumner’s speech had violated the Senate’s decorum with its vulgar characterizations of Butler and other proslavery politicians, but the violent attack earned Sumner sympathy and provided further propaganda points as Republican newspapers howled about “Bleeding Sumner.”
Considering the beating of Sumner a violation of free speech, the Massachusetts legislature reelected Sumner, even though he took over two years to recuperate from the attack. Brooks resigned his seat but was reelected. Southerners rewarded him with canes to replace the one he broke over Sumner’s head.
The Sack of Lawrence, the Pottawatomie Massacre, and the attack on Sumner tipped off more violence in Kansas Territory. Charles Robinson was arrested as he traveled to the east and was held through the summer of 1856 as a prisoner with other Free-State leaders at the proslavery territorial capital of Lecompton. The next year, Robinson was tried and acquitted on charges of usurping office. Jim Lane was already in the east and returned in the early fall, helping blaze a new immigrant path, called Lane’s Trail, through Iowa as harassment of Free-State migrants traveling the Missouri River made that route increasingly difficult.
The overwhelmed territorial governor, Wilson Shannon, abandoned Kansas, leaving the territorial secretary and proslavery sympathizer Daniel Woodson in charge. Woodson used the military to suppress the meeting of the Free-State government in Topeka on July 4, 1856.
John Brown took to the brush, leading a guerrilla band that fought skirmishes at Black Jack and Osawatomie, considered by some historians to be the first battles of the Civil War. The proslavery party had their military chieftains, including Henry Clay Pate, captured by Brown at Black Jack, and Henry Titus. When Lane returned to the territory, he immediately entered into the conflict, attacking a proslavery force, the Kickapoo Rangers, at Hickory Point.
By September, the administration of Franklin Pierce had appointed a new territorial governor, John Geary. Democrats expected Geary, a hardened veteran of the war with Mexico and the mayor of San Francisco during the Gold Rush, to restore order to the territory before the presidential elections. Geary ordered any armed bands, Free-State or proslavery, to disband. Jim Lane backed away from the attack on Hickory Point when he learned of the governor’s order. Those of his men who did not disband were arrested.
Henry Titus left the territory to filibuster in Nicaragua. John Brown left it temporarily to raise support for what would become the Harpers Ferry raid. As the violence and disorder declined, Republicans who had trumpeted the summer’s territorial civil war as “Bleeding Kansas” had a less salient issue. The Democrats’ weakness was still evident in that the 1856 presidential nomination did not go to Stephen A. Douglas, the architect of popular sovereignty, but to James Buchanan, an experienced diplomat whose great virtue in the election was his absence from the country during the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Buchanan made it a priority to see Kansas become a state. Geary, increasingly unpopular with proslavery men for his impartiality, left the territory and was replaced by Buchanan’s hand-picked successor, Robert Walker of Mississippi. Meanwhile, the territorial government had started the process of holding a constitutional convention. Arguing that the delegate election process was stacked against them, Free-Staters refused to participate.
The Lecompton and Wyandotte Constitutions
The convention that met at Lecompton in the summer of 1857 was of proslavery men. Walker, believing he had the president’s backing, insisted that any constitution would be submitted to the voters for ratification. While the convention met, the election of a new territorial legislature was held. The Free-Staters now participated and, after territorial officials threw out blatantly fraudulent returns, took control of the territorial legislature.
The Lecompton delegates faced a dilemma. They did not want to embarrass the president, but they did not want a slave-free Kansas either. They devised a ratification formula that did not allow voters to reject the Lecompton Constitution in its entirety. Rather, voters could choose between Lecompton “with” or “without” slavery. “With” slavery meant that Kansas would be a slave state. But “without slavery” it did not abolish slavery, as it merely prohibited future importations of slaves into the territory. Slaves already held in the territory would remain slaves, the rights of property being paramount.
Free-Staters rejected the ratification formula indignantly. They boycotted the election, and Lecompton “with” slavery overwhelmingly passed and was submitted to Congress. Many Northerners, however, agreed with the Free-State objections. Even Senator Douglas decided that Lecompton did not constitute popular sovereignty and called on President Buchanan not to insist on congressional passage.
Buchanan took seriously Southern threats to secede from the Union if Kansas was not admitted as a slave state under Lecompton. He tried to force Northern congressmen—using patronage, threats, and even bribes—to pass the bill. Congressmen Alexander Stephens of Georgia and William English of Indiana staved off an embarrassing defeat by crafting a compromise to appeal to Northern Democrats.
Alleging that there was a problem with the land allotment, Stephens and English crafted legislation whereby Congress returned the Lecompton Constitution to Kansas for another vote. Finally, in August 1858, in an election in which Free-Staters participated, Kansans “killed” Lecompton. Kansas would remain a territory until 1861, when Southern states seceded from the Union and Kansas was admitted under the Free-State Wyandotte Constitution.
Toward Harpers Ferry and War
Kansas nonetheless remained an intense national controversy, especially in the 1858 senate election in Illinois. Stephen Douglas, running for re-election, faced a powerful challenge from Republican Abraham Lincoln. In lengthy debates throughout the state, the two men argued over the meaning of popular sovereignty and its effects on Kansas and the nation.
Despite the recent Dred Scott decision, in which the Supreme Court ruled that the Missouri Compromise’s prohibition against slavery was unconstitutional, Douglas insisted that settlers could keep slavery out of a territory by refusing to enact a slave code. Lincoln accused Douglas of being part of a conspiracy to nationalize slavery, of which the Kansas-Nebraska Act and Dred Scott were both pieces.
The most profound difference between Lincoln and Douglas was that Douglas took a “don’t care” policy by insisting that white men’s rights to vote on slavery were the highest morality. Lincoln insisted that slavery was a moral wrong, with a stigma placed on the institution by the nation's founders, and should not be expanded. Although the Republicans, led by Lincoln, made a strong showing, the apportionment of the state legislature was such that Douglas was reappointed to his Senate seat (prior to the 17th Amendment in 1913, U.S. senators were not directly elected) and kept his political career alive.
Americans paid less attention to Kansas after the Lecompton controversy subsided, but all was not quiet in the territory. In May 1858, a proslavery band gathered up a group of Free-State men and shot them down along the Marais des Cygnes River. Free-State guerrilla James Montgomery continued activities in southern Kansas, raiding Fort Scott and killing a local man.
John Brown returned to Kansas in the winter of 1858-59 and led a raid to liberate a group of Missouri slaves. Brown’s return to the territory proved temporary. With the support of Eastern backers known as the Secret Six, Brown used his credentials as “Captain” Brown, of Kansas fame, to raise money for the attack on Harpers Ferry. Despite the failure of the raid, Brown’s subsequent martyrdom fixed him in the public mind as the archetypal figure of Bleeding Kansas.
Brown was not a typical Free-Stater. He had arrived in the territory after the Free-State movement formed, participated only peripherally in Free-State politics, and disdained more reserved Free-State leaders, including Robinson and Lane, as “old women.” But like abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, many Americans viewed Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry as evidence of how Bleeding Kansas had polarized the national debate over slavery.
When he went to the gallows, Brown was not alone in believing that “the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with Blood.” Blood had been shed in Kansas, and still more blood would be shed in the years to come.
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Etcheson, Nicole. Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004.
Horwitz, Tony. Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War. New York: Holt, 2011.
Oertel, Kristen Tegtmeier. Bleeding Borders: Race, Gender, and Violence in Pre–Civil War Kansas. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2009.