Bleeding Kansas Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The failures of legislative compromises to design a political balance between the North and the South on the issue of slavery in the territories turned the Kansas Territory into a bloody battleground between proslave and free-soil immigrants that presaged the U.S. Civil War.

Summary of Event

Between 1855 and 1858, Kansas was engulfed in chaos that affected all of the United States. While the Whig Party Whig Party (American);and slavery[Slavery] disintegrated under the pressure of the slavery controversy, the Democratic Party Democratic Party;split split into feuding sectional factions, and the Republican Party was born. Politicians suddenly found themselves without political homes. Political reputations were made and unmade as prominent national figures paid the price of their inability to resolve the sectional disputes while facing challenges from rising young men. The United States seemed to be drifting off course, and people wondered about the ultimate fate of a nation that apparently had lost control of its own destiny. Bleeding Kansas Slavery;and Bleeding Kansas[Bleeding Kansas] Kansas;Bleeding Kansas [kw]Bleeding Kansas (May, 1856-Aug., 1858) [kw]Kansas, Bleeding (May, 1856-Aug., 1858) Bleeding Kansas Slavery;and Bleeding Kansas[Bleeding Kansas] Kansas;Bleeding Kansas [g]United States;May, 1856-Aug., 1858: Bleeding Kansas[3090] [c]Terrorism and political assassination;May, 1856-Aug., 1858: Bleeding Kansas[3090] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;May, 1856-Aug., 1858: Bleeding Kansas[3090] [c]Civil rights and liberties;May, 1856-Aug., 1858: Bleeding Kansas[3090] Buchanan, James [p]Buchanan, James;and Kansas[Kansas] Douglas, Stephen A. [p]Douglas, Stephen A.;and Kansas[Kansas] Geary, John White Pierce, Franklin [p]Pierce, Franklin;and Kansas[Kansas] Robinson, Charles Brown, John [p]Brown, John;and Kansas[Kansas]

With the opening of Kansas Territory to settlement in 1854, a contest began between groups supporting slavery (mainly persons from Missouri) and settlers from the northwestern states who were free-soilers in practice, if not in ideology. Since the Missourians were closest to Kansas, they seized control of the territorial government and immediately enacted proslavery legislation. President Franklin Pierce Pierce, Franklin [p]Pierce, Franklin;and Kansas[Kansas] and his successor, James Buchanan Buchanan, James [p]Buchanan, James;and Kansas[Kansas] of Pennsylvania, accepted the proslavery Kansas government and committed the Democratic Party to the admission of Kansas as a slave state.

However, the numerical dominance of slavery supporters in Kansas soon dwindled as settlers from free states found their way into the territory. By September, 1855, there were enough Free-Soilers Free-Soil Party[Free Soil Party];and Kansas[Kansas] in Kansas to repudiate the territorial legislature, organize a Free State Party Free State Party , and call for a constitutional Kansas;constitutions convention to meet in Topeka. There, in October and November, 1855, a free-state constitution State constitutions;Kansas was written. In January, 1856, Governor Charles Robinson Robinson, Charles and a legislature were elected. Kansas thus found itself with two governments—one supporting slavery and considered legal by the Democratic administration in Washington, but resting upon a small minority of the population; and the other representing majority opinion in Kansas but condemned as an act of rebellion by President Pierce Pierce, Franklin [p]Pierce, Franklin;and Kansas[Kansas] and Senator Stephen A. Douglas Douglas, Stephen A. [p]Douglas, Stephen A.;and Kansas[Kansas] of Illinois.

Contemporary cartoon laying the blame for Kansas’s violence on proslavery Democrats. The cartoon depicts Stephen A. Douglas and Franklin Pierce (both at left) and President James Buchanan and Lewis Cass (on right) trying to force slavery down the throat of a free-soil Kansas farmer.

(Library of Congress)

Douglas’s Douglas, Stephen A. [p]Douglas, Stephen A.;and Kansas-Nebraska Act[Kansas Nebraska Act] role in the Kansas dispute was of particular interest, as he had drafted the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 as a way to extend a railroad westward across the territories. Douglas favored the theory of popular sovereignty, to “let the people decide.” That doctrine, however, was exposed—eventually by Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln-Douglas debates Debates;Lincoln vs. Douglas Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;and Stephen A. Douglas[Douglas] Douglas, Stephen A. [p]Douglas, Stephen A.;and Abraham Lincoln,[Lincoln] —as unconstitutional: The will of the people could not be held above constitutionally protected rights. Douglas’s bill, however, created an entirely new concern. The North had started to outdistance the South in population, giving it more seats in Congress, and the Missouri Compromise Missouri Compromise (1820);and Kansas-Nebraska Act[Kansas Nebraska Act] had ensured that the North would have a permanent advantage in the Senate. Southerners were beginning to realize that if the wrong kind of presidential candidate came to office, their region would find itself excluded from the power.

Although both proslave and free-soil groups moved into Kansas, actual bloodshed remained at a minimum through 1855; nevertheless, the territory quickly came to symbolize the sectional dispute. Anti-Kansas-Nebraska groups made up of former Whigs and dissident Democrats arose and eventually were led by Douglas. At the eleventh hour, Douglas Douglas, Stephen A. [p]Douglas, Stephen A.;and Kansas[Kansas] had come to realize the extent of his unpopularity in the North and to recognize the fraud that the proslavery government in Kansas had propagated.

Through the spring and summer of 1856, violence became commonplace in Kansas. Armed free-soil and proslavery parties skirmished along the Wakarusa River south of Lawrence as early as December, 1855; but it was the sack of Lawrence in May, 1856, by a large band of proslavery Border Ruffians from Missouri that ignited the conflict. Retaliation was demanded: John Brown Brown, John [p]Brown, John;and Kansas[Kansas] , the abolitionist crusader, his four sons, and three others struck at Pottawatomie, where they executed five settlers who were reputed to be proslavery. That act of terrorism sparked further retaliation.

Early in August, free-soil forces captured the slavery stronghold of Franklin; later that month, Free-Soilers, led by Brown, repelled an attack by a large party of proslavers at Osawatomie. Guerrilla warfare raged throughout the territory until September, when a temporary armistice was achieved by the arrival of federal troops and a new territorial governor, John White Geary Geary, John White . However, a solution to the disorders in Kansas could come only from Washington, D.C., and it would have to overcome the determination of the Democratic administration and its southern supporters to bring Kansas into the union as a slave state. Meeting at Lecompton in January and February, 1857, the proslave territorial legislature called for an election of delegates to a constitutional convention. However, no provision was made to submit what could only be a proslavery constitution to a popular vote. The measure passed over Governor Geary’s veto.

The constitutional Kansas;constitutions State constitutions;Kansas convention that met in Lecompton in September, 1857, hammered out a document to the electorate; the proslavery leadership would agree only to submit the document to the people with the choice of accepting it with or without the clause explicitly guaranteeing slavery. However, ample protection for slavery was woven into the fabric of the constitution. Even if the “constitution without slavery” clause had won popular approval, thereby causing slavery to exist “no longer,” slaves already in Kansas as property would not be affected. Opponents refused to go to the polls, and the proslavery Lecompton constitution was approved in December, 1857.

Meanwhile, the Free-Soil Party Free-Soil Party[Free Soil Party];and Kansas[Kansas] captured control of the territorial legislature and successfully requested the new territorial governor, Frederick P. Stanton Stanton, Frederick P. , to convene the legislature in order to call for another election. In the new election, one might vote for or against the entire Lecompton constitution. On January 4, 1858, the Lecompton constitution met overwhelming defeat. Kansas was, by that time, free-soil in sentiment.

The Congress, U.S.;and Kansas[Kansas] new Buchanan Buchanan, James [p]Buchanan, James;and Kansas[Kansas] administration, which followed Pierce’s, saw the situation in Kansas otherwise. It supported the Lecompton constitution, which became a test of Democratic Party loyalty. Although Douglas Douglas, Stephen A. [p]Douglas, Stephen A.;and Kansas[Kansas] came out against the administration’s position, the U.S. Senate voted in March, 1858, to admit Kansas under the Lecompton constitution. Public sentiment in the North opposed such a policy, and the House of Representatives voted to admit Kansas as a state only on the condition that the state constitution be submitted in its entirety to the voters at a carefully controlled election. That proviso, called the Crittenden-Montgomery Amendment, was rejected by the Senate.

Out of the deadlock, a House-Senate conference ensued that proposed the English Bill, a compromise measure designed to save the Buchanan Buchanan, James [p]Buchanan, James;and Kansas[Kansas] administration from utter defeat. The bill stipulated that the Lecompton constitution should be submitted to the people of Kansas again: If approved, the new state would receive a federal land grant; if rejected, statehood would be postponed until the population of the territory reached 93,000 residents, instead of the 60,000 that had been required of all other territories. Although Congress passed the bill on May 21, the voters of Kansas again rejected the Lecompton constitution, this time by a margin of six to one. In January, 1861, after several southern states announced their secession from the union, Kansas entered the union as a free state under the Wyandotte constitution.

For Kansas, the storm ended with the defeat of the Lecompton constitution in August, 1858; but for Douglas, condemned as a traitor to his party, and for the Democrats, it had just started. Douglas soon met Abraham Lincoln, Debates;Lincoln vs. Douglas Lincoln, Abraham [p]Lincoln, Abraham;and Stephen A. Douglas[Douglas] Douglas, Stephen A. [p]Douglas, Stephen A.;and Abraham Lincoln[Lincoln] the Republican nominee for the Senate seat in Illinois, at Ottawa, Illinois, in the first of their historic debates. In another debate, at Freeport, Lincoln cited the Supreme Court’s 1857 ruling in the Dred Scott v. Sandford (1857) Dred Scott case—that Congress could make no law prohibiting slavery—to ask Douglas how he would keep slavery out of a territory using popular sovereignty. Douglas replied that the population could vote to install antislave judges and sheriffs who would not enforce slavery restrictions. That answer was ridiculed as the “Freeport Doctrine” by southerners, and destroyed any chance Douglas had of carrying the South in the 1860 election. Lincoln lost the Senate race to Douglas Douglas, Stephen A. [p]Douglas, Stephen A.;and Kansas[Kansas] but captured the presidency in 1860 without winning a single electoral vote in the South.


The role of the territories in offering the South a means to continue slavery has been subject to considerable analysis. An important factor in the weakened position of the South was the Democratic Party, which had been created specifically to exclude slavery from the national political debate. The Albany-Richmond axis provided the base of Democratic Party Democratic Party support that tacitly agreed that the party offer presidential candidates who were “northern men of southern principles”—in other words, men who could draw the large electoral states of the North but who would not use the power of the federal government to attack slavery. The irony of the Democratic Party was that it acquired party allegiance by granting government jobs—patronage—which, in turn, caused the government to grow larger and more powerful with each election. As a result, by the time the Republicans became a national force, the federal government stood to pose a threat to slavery in the “wrong” hands. Since the Republicans’ first principle was the elimination of slavery in the territories, their election posed the threat of placing federal power—by then, far greater than anyone had dreamed it might be during the 1820’s—into the hands of a party determined (in southerners’ eyes) to destroy slavery.

Finally, the apparent victory of the Free-Soil elections in Kansas had the immediate effect of convincing railroads that the state would remain free. The Dred Scott ruling made that outcome completely uncertain; as a result, the railroad stocks crashed, bringing on the Panic of 1857, which, ironically, advanced the Republican Party’s fortunes in the North.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Calomiris, Charles W., and Larry Schweikart. “The Panic of 1857: Origins, Transmission, Containment.” Journal of Economic History 51 (December, 1990): 807-834. Analyzes the relationships between railroad politics in Kansas and the financial markets, especially as the Dred Scott decision led to the Panic of 1857.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gienapp, William E. The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Emphasizes the rise of the Republican Party as the crucial element in ending the earlier U.S. party system. Argues that the formation of the Republican Party represented a realignment that started with the demise of the Whigs, continued with the rise of the Know-Nothings, and culminated with the events in Kansas that galvanized the disparate elements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holt, Michael. The Political Crisis of the 1850’s. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1978. Focuses on the transformation of political parties during the 1850’s; argues that sectional differences, as expressed in the party dissolution, caused the Civil War. Still the best one-volume study of the period.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McPherson, James K. Ordeal by Fire. New York. Alfred A. Knopf, 1982. An excellent single-volume study, essentially part of McPherson’s more popular Battle Cry of Freedom (1988), that touches on all explanations of the crises, ultimately finding political causes.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nichols, Roy F. The Disruption of American Democracy. New York: Macmillan, 1948. A traditional, yet effective, analysis of the 1850’s, emphasizing the destruction of the Democrats as the national party. Does not successfully explain the relationship between patronage, spoils, the growing size of government, and the anxiety that growth caused in the sections.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waugh, John C. On the Brink of Civil War: The Compromise of 1850 and How It Changed the Course of American History. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2003. An account of the congressional battling between northern abolitionists, southern secessionists, and moderates from both regions. Douglas is one of the lawmakers whose positions and actions on the compromise are examined.

Missouri Compromise

Compromise of 1850

Congress Passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act

Birth of the Republican Party

Dred Scott v. Sandford

Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Brown’s Raid on Harpers Ferry

Lincoln Is Elected U.S. President

Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: The Nineteenth Century, 1801-1900</i>

John Brown; James Buchanan; Stephen A. Douglas; Abraham Lincoln; Franklin Pierce. Bleeding Kansas Slavery;and Bleeding Kansas[Bleeding Kansas] Kansas;Bleeding Kansas

Categories: History