National Debate About KansasKansas Territory was officially established in 1854 with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Congressional debate on the act continued discussion of the question of whether or not slavery would be allowed to expand into newly opened territories. The act provided that each territory would decide the issue through the constitution under which it would enter the union. Kansas Territory, because of its proximity to Missouri, a slave state, became a political and literal battleground for pro- and antislavery forces. Contested elections, armed conflict, and recruitment of and support for settlers from both the North and the South contributed to the label of “Bleeding Kansas.” But just as importantly, the battle for Kansas was waged in the halls of Congress, the national press, and just about anywhere in the country where people gathered to discuss or debate the issues of the day. All of this increased the tensions between the North and the South, which eventually led to the outbreak of the Civil War.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act set in motion a plan that was supposed to decide the Kansas question through a peaceful, democratic process. The nation was ready to expand into the vast interior that had previously been reserved, for the most part, for American Indian peoples. At mid-century, however, the era’s two great themes, westward expansion and sectionalism, were frequently at odds, and a new plan to facilitate American growth seemed necessary. The principle of “popular sovereignty,” some believed, offered the solution. First introduced as a method for dealing with the issue of slavery’s expansion in the West after the Mexican War (Compromise of 1850), the popular sovereignty approach was incorporated into the Kansas-Nebraska bill in 1854. Just let the people decide, said Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and others of his ilk. And the act they passed decreed that “when admitted” the new state or states “shall be received into the union with or without slavery, as their constitution may prescribe at the time of their admission.”
Many, including Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, appeared to believe this approach would work. They assumed Nebraska would enter the Union as a free state and Kansas, which shared its eastern border with the slave state of Missouri, would be admitted as a slave state. However, this assumption failed to take into account the Northern commitment to the Missouri Compromise of 1820 that prohibited slavery in any state that might be created out of the Louisiana Territory north of the southern border of the state of Missouri (the 36’30” line). Reopening the “settled” question of slavery in the territories was more than the growing anti-slavery forces in the North could tolerate, and they organized to contest the area.
Thus, timing and geography made Kansas the battleground for a clash between two increasingly antagonistic forces—those who opposed slavery and those who favored it, or at least held pro-Southern views on the subject. Soon after its creation, settlers from both the South, including Missouri, and the North came to Kansas. Many from the South supported the use of slaves or for political reasons wanted Kansas counted among the states that favored the institution. Those from the North generally opposed slavery in Kansas. Election fraud, intimidation, and some violence resulted, when the two sides began to contest the territory. Because partisans inside and outside Kansas exaggerated the clash of arms for their own political advantage, the territory was often called “Bleeding Kansas.” The turmoil in Kansas contributed to the growing tension between the North and the South, which eventually led to the outbreak of the Civil War.
The Kansas conflict polarized the nation in many respects. Reflected in the journalism, the poetry, and the music of the day, the Kansas Question also changed the face of politics and government in the United States. Prior to 1854, the second American party system had already begun to unravel under the pressures of sectionalism and westward expansion. The Democratic Party of Andrew Jackson, with its pro-Southern, state rights bent, was well entrenched in the North, the South, and the West, but the Whig Party of Henry Clay and Daniel Webster lost its way during the late 1840s and early 1850s. The Whigs were victorious with the election of General Zachary Taylor in 1848, but it was a hollow victory. Dissidents from both major parties ultimately organized as the Free Soil Party in the summer of 1848, and the new party united around the Wilmot Proviso (a ban on slavery in the territory acquired as a result of the Mexican War) and the slogan “free soil, free speech, free labor, and free men.” Although their candidate, former Democratic president Martin Van Buren, ran a distant third, the third party movement impacted the outcome and was a harbinger of political things to come. In less than six years, despite the efforts of Clay, Webster, and others who fashioned the Compromise of 1850, the two party system reached its breaking point with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Superseding the Free Soil Party in 1854 was the Republican Party, which emerged in opposition to the principle of “squatter” or popular sovereignty and to the expansion of slavery in the territories. The new party soon replaced the Whig Party as the main opposition to the Democratic Party and mounted its first national challenge in the presidential elections of 1856. In a campaign that featured much harsh rhetoric, including the first documented use of the term “bleeding Kansas,” the infant Republican Party made a respectable showing. The Democrats had abandoned their embattled and much maligned incumbent, President Franklin Pierce (1853-1857), who supported the proslavery government in Kansas, in favor of James Buchanan (1857-1861), while the upstart Republicans opted for the famous “Pathfinder of the West,” Colonel John C. Fremont. The Republican Party lost its first national contest, but in the process it launched a new party system, deepened the sectional gulf, and positioned itself for a second chance in 1860.
During the months leading up to and following the pivotal 1856 contest, several incidents in Kansas Territory and in Washington, D.C., drastically altered the national discourse. Civil war broke out in Kansas with the sacking of Lawrence and the subsequent Pottawatomie Massacre of May 1856; while in Congress, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner denounced the slave power and its “rape of Kansas” in his famous “Crime Against Kansas” speech. Two days later, violence entered the Senate chamber in the form of Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina, who beat the defenseless Sumner senseless for his antislavery remarks. Throughout 1856 much congressional time and attention was given to the Kansas Question, especially as it pertained to the proposed free-state Topeka Constitution. Although the violence in Kansas subsided by election day, sectional strife had risen to a new level, and immediately after the inauguration of the new president, the U.S. Supreme Court entered the fray, when Chief Justice Roger B. Taney rendered the decision of the high court in Dred Scott v Sanford. Taney’s opinion in effect held that slaves were not citizens of the U.S., residency in a “free” state did not alter their status, and that Congress had no authority to ban slavery in the territories. The decision made the Missouri Comprise unconstitutional. Drawing on the dissenting opinions of two Northern jurists, opposition to the decision was vehement.
Also in 1857 a second constitutional convention (see essay on Territorial Politics and Government for a discussion of the various constitutions) in Kansas resulted in increased national tension. The Lecompton Constitutional Convention, which resulted in the ratification of a proslave constitution for Kansas before the end of the year, badly split the national Democratic Party. Clearly, antislavery Kansans were in the majority by January 1858 when they defeated the Lecompton Constitution in a second referendum. Nevertheless, President Buchanan submitted the Lecompton document to Congress on February 2 and recommended that Kansas be admitted as a slave state. Many Northern Democrats, including the influential Senator Douglas, who recognized the violation of the principal of popular sovereignty in the Lecompton action, split with their party's president on this issue. Subsequently, the Senate voted for admission and the House for resubmission; a compromise—the English bill, providing for an up or down vote by territorial residents on the constitution—passed both houses on April 30, and Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejected the Lecompton Constitution on August 2, 1858. Technically, because of Dred Scott, slavery remained legal in the territory of Kansas until admission; in reality, however, the free-state victory in the fall 1857 legislative elections and the defeat of the proslave constitution in 1858 settled the issue for Kansas. As Senator Douglas had indicated during one of his debates with Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln-Douglas Debates, August 21-October 15, 1858), slavery could not survive, no matter what the courts might say, in a territory where the majority was hostile to its continued existence.
Tensions moderated in Kansas after the final defeat of the Lecompton Constitution, but the seeds of the “irrepressible conflict” had been sown. John Brown brought the country to the brink of disunion at Harpers Ferry in October 1859, and Lincoln inadvertently pushed the nation beyond the point of no return when he captured the presidency in November 1860. With the election of this Illinois Republican, southern states began to leave the Union and opposition to Kansas admission, blocked in the Senate the previous year, decreased. On January 21, 1861, with the departure of senators from Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida, the Senate passed the Kansas bill. A week later the House passed the bill, and President James Buchanan signed it into law on January 29, 1861. Thus, Kansas became the thirty-fourth state in a Union that was a rapidly disintegrating. In less than three months, the nation was at war, and Kansas had played an important part in that development.