Today in 1855, groups of Missouri citizens invaded the Kansas territory in order to ensure the election of a pro-slavery legislature. This act was only one in a series of actions, both violent and non-violent, that would be called the Border War, or Bloody Kansas. This conflict became a microcosm of the tensions being felt in the United States as a whole in the 1850’s. In that way, Bloody Kansas really marked the beginning of the Civil War.
The trouble began in 1854 with passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the legislation which created the two territories. It also overturned the Missouri Compromise by stating that the question of slavery in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska would be decided by the territories’ inhabitants. It was hoped that pro-slavery settlers would move to Kansas and anti-slavery settlers (called abolitionists) would move to Nebraska. This hope came to fruition in Nebraska, where a majority of abolitionist settlers found homes.
Kansas was another matter. People on both sides of the slavery issue rallied their forces in order to ensure that their side maintained a majority in the territory. The abolitionist movement brought in people from as far away as Maine to settle in the area, while most of the pro-slavery settlers simply crossed the border from Missouri. There was a third party present in Kansas: the Free Soil movement. On the surface, the Free Soilers appeared to be anti-slavery, and they were. But their main goal was to make the territory a “whites-only” state free of the plantations which, they believed, kept whites from land ownership.
Violence quickly ramped up as settlers moved into Kansas. John Brown, who would later go on to greater infamy with his raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, brought a group of abolitionists to the area with the expectation of an armed conflict. The conflict grew in 1854 and 1855 to the point where it had actually become a small civil war. Realizing that Bleeding Kansas had national importance, a coalition of Whigs, Northern Democrats and Free-Soilers who opposed slavery formed the Republican Party. In 1860, a middle-aged lawyer named Abraham Lincoln would run on their Presidential ticket.
The state legislative election in March, 1855 was rife with fraud. Over 5,000 people crossed over from Missouri to cast their ballots in support of a pro-slavery legislature. When the counting was finished, the number of votes cast exceeded the number of registered voters in the territory. Afraid of more conflict, territorial Governor Andrew Reeder approved the election.
In 1856, a Congressional Committee traveled to Kansas in order to investigate matters there. It was agreed by all members that the elections had been fraudulent. Furthermore, the committee decreed that the will of the people was that Kansas should be a free state. President Franklin Pierce ignored the Committee and continued to recognize the pro-slavery legislature.
It is believed that 55 ultimately died during the fighting in Kansas. The violence continued off and on until until 1859, when a state constitution was finally approved that recognized the abolitionist view. It was approved by voters with a 2-to-1 margin. Kansas, a free state at last, entered the Union in January, 1861, just three months before the beginning of the US Civil War.
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