Kansas Struggle over Slavery Turns Violent

02 July, 2014

From VOA Learning English, welcome to The Making of a Nation, our weekly program of American history for people learning American English! I'm Steve Ember.

In the middle of the 1850s, the United States was again struggling with the issue of slavery. The dispute centered increasingly on Kansas, a territory in the middle of the country.

In Kansas, white men were able to vote on whether they wanted slavery to be legal in the territory. Many Kansas settlers opposed slavery. Some of the settlers were northern Abolitionists. They believed that owning another person was immoral. Many farmers also opposed legalizing slavery. They did not want to compete with slave labor.

But many people in the nearby state of Missouri wanted Kansas to permit slavery. Slavery was legal in Missouri, and many Missouri slave owners wanted to live next to a territory where slavery was legal.

Kansas Struggle over Slavery Turns Violent
A mural of John Brown, perhaps the best known Free Stater, adorns the hallways of the Statehouse in Topeka, Kansas.

So when Kansas held elections, pro-slavery men from Missouri crossed the border and voted illegally. Yet their votes were accepted.

"The result of the territorial elections is that you have a territorial legislature that is overwhelmingly pro-slavery. It will write a slave code for Kansas, it will say Kansas is a slave territory, slavery is protected here.

Nicole Etcheson is a historian. She says the newly-elected Kansas legislature created strong laws to protect slavery in the territory.

The laws said no Kansan could speak or write against slavery. And they said people who tried to help slaves escape could be put in jail or executed.

The lawmakers also demanded that President Franklin Pierce dismiss the territory's governor, who opposed slavery. The president agreed. He appointed a pro-slavery governor instead.

Anti-slavery settlers in Kansas grew angry. They felt they could not get fair treatment from the president or the new governor. They said pro-slavery groups cheated to control the elections. So the anti-slavery settlers took an extreme step. They formed their own government.

Their political group was known as the "Free State" Party. Its members wrote their own constitution. They also chose their own governor. Historian Nicole Etcheson says Free State members refused to recognize the "bogus authority" of the official Kansas legislature.

"That is the argument that the Free State political movement will make. Not so much that slavery is an awful thing, although some of them make that argument, but that free white settlers in Kansas have had their political rights at the ballot box denied."

President Pierce said the actions of the Free State Party seemed revolutionary. He said that if party members attacked any government property or official, party leaders should be charged with treason. Pierce gave the pro-slavery governor of Kansas control of troops at two army bases in the territory. The situation threatened to turn violent at any time.

In November 1855, a pro-slavery man killed a Free State man in a dispute over land claims. To answer the attack, Free State settlers threatened the killer and burned his house.

At the same time, hundreds of pro-slavery men crossed the border from Missouri. They planned to burn the town of Lawrence, where many Free State members lived.

The pro-slavery governor and the Free State governor agreed to hold an emergency meeting. They negotiated a settlement. And the men from Missouri went home. But the truce did not last long.

In the weeks that followed, a pro-slavery sheriff attempted to arrest the leaders of the Free State government, but failed. A few days later, the law enforcement official was shot.

Around the same time, a pro-slavery grand jury found several Free State leaders guilty of treason. The grand jury also said the town of Lawrence was supporting illegal newspapers and a hotel that stored weapons.

Pro-slavery officials moved to take control of the town. The wounded sheriff urged private citizens to help. Once again, hundreds of men -- including many from Missouri -- gathered in Kansas. Once again, the target was Lawrence. This time, however, there was no truce.

On May 21, 1856, a group of pro-slavery men marched into the town. Historian David Potter describes the incident in his book The Impending Crisis. He says the mob entered Lawrence with flags and flying banners as if it were a victorious army. Some men threw two newspaper printing presses into the river. Others "freed" as much alcohol as they could find. And, Potter writes, the group turned five cannons on the Free State Hotel.

The mob fired the cannons at the hotel and burned the house where the Free State governor lived. But no anti-slavery settlers were killed. The only person killed was a pro-slavery man. He died when part of the Free State Hotel fell on him.

Anti-slavery newspapers called the attack "the sack of Lawrence." In other words, they suggested that pro-slavery raiders had completely destroyed the town.

A settler named John Brown heard about the attack on Lawrence. Brown was from the eastern state of Connecticut, but he had recently moved to Kansas. He strongly opposed slavery. He also thought the Free State government was too weak.

So John Brown persuaded four of his sons, his son-in-law, and two other men to answer the sack of Lawrence. Brown believed that the battle against the forces of slavery must continue. And he believed that God had chosen him to lead it.

Late at night, Brown and the other men went to a settlement near Pottawatomie Creek. They went to three homes and seized five pro-slavery men.

"Took these five men out of their beds, defenseless, unarmed, and hacked them to death with broad swords."

Historian Nicole Etcheson explains that Brown's group seized the men, murdered them, and left their bodies next to the creek. The event became known as the Pottawatomie Massacre.

The combination of the sack of Lawrence and the Pottawatomie Massacre frightened both pro- and anti-slavery forces. Both sides believed they could be attacked at any time. They began collecting weapons to defend themselves.

In the summer and autumn of 1856, the competing forces repeatedly threatened each other. They forced each other off land. They burned each other's houses. More people were killed. The territory became known as "Bleeding Kansas."

Nicole Etcheson says the term Bleeding Kansas was evocative. In other words, it made people feel strongly.

"The term is so evocative because it's a propaganda term."

Ms. Etcheson says that many people, especially in the north, were against slavery in the territory. These individuals used the term Bleeding Kansas in their newspapers to gain support for their cause.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act and the violence that followed also gave birth to a new political party. Its members called themselves Republicans.

The Republican Party was an unusual combination of groups. It included former Democrats who were angry that their party had supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act. They believed the Democrats were allowing slavery to expand.

The Republicans also included members of the old Whig Party. The Whig Party had lost badly in the elections of 1852 because its members could not agree on whether slavery should be legal. Anti-slavery Whigs found a new home in the Republican Party.

The Republican Party of the 1850s also included voters who did not support immigrants – especially Irish Catholics. These nativist Republicans wanted to protect the rights of American Protestants.

All Republicans were united, however, in their opposition to slavery in the Kansas and Nebraska territories. Some Republicans were Abolitionists. They wanted to ban slavery everywhere in the United States. But the majority of Republicans had no interest in ending slave labor in the South. They simply did not want slavery to spread to other areas.

Nicole Etcheson says that white Southerners did not respond well to the new party. They believed that all Republicans were like John Brown – the anti-slavery settler who had murdered five pro-slavery men.

"White southerners do not see the distinction between a Republican party that says we don't like slavery, it's immoral, it shouldn't expand; and a John Brown who says I don't like slavery, it's immoral, and it ought to be overturned by violence!"

In 1854, some Republicans from the state of Illinois asked a politician named Abraham Lincoln to serve on their committee. Lincoln refused. He did not like slavery, but he still supported the Whig Party.

Two years later, in 1856, the Republicans nominated a presidential candidate for the first time. He was John C. Fremont. Fremont had explored the American west. He had been a senator from California. He was young and exciting. Republicans thought he was the right man to lead their young and exciting party.

What happened to John Fremont and the election of 1856 will be our story next week.

I'm Steve Ember, inviting you to join us next time for The Making of a Nation — American history from VOA Learning English.