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"Bleeding Kansas" and "Bleeding Sumner" Previous Next
Digital History ID 3280


Because the Kansas-Nebraska Act stated that the future status of slavery in the territories was to be decided by popular vote, both antislavery Northerners and proslavery Southerners competed to win the region for their section. Since Nebraska was too far north to attract slaveowners, Kansas became the arena of sectional conflict. For six years, proslavery and antislavery factions fought in Kansas as popular sovereignty degenerated into violence.

Even before the 1854 act had been passed, Eli Thayer, a businessman and educator from Worcester, Massachusetts, had organized the New England Emigrant Aid Company to promote the emigration of antislavery New Englanders to Kansas to "vote to make it free." By the summer of 1855, more than 9,000 pioneers had settled in Kansas.

Slaveholders from Missouri feared that the New England Emigrant Aid Company wanted to convert Kansas into a haven for runaway slaves. One Missouri lawyer told a cheering crowd that he would hang any "free soil" emigrant who came into Kansas.

Competition between proslavery and antislavery factions reached a climax on May 30, 1855, when Kansas held territorial elections. Although only 1,500 men were registered to vote, 6,000 ballots were cast, many of them by proslavery "border ruffians" from Missouri. As a result, a proslavery legislature was elected, which passed laws stipulating that only proslavery men could hold office or serve on juries. One statute imposed five years imprisonment for anyone questioning the legality of slavery in Kansas.

Free Soilers held their own "Free State" convention in Topeka in the fall of 1855, and drew up a constitution that prohibited slavery in Kansas, and also barred free blacks from the territory. Like the Free Soilers who settled California and Oregon, most Northerners in Kansas wanted the territory to be free and white. They submitted the Topeka Constitution to the territory's voters, who approved it by an overwhelming majority. The Topeka government then asked Congress to admit Kansas as a free state.

Kansas now had two legislatures--one pro-slavery, the other against. President Franklin Pierce threw his support behind the proslavery legislature and asked Congress to admit Kansas to the Union as a slave state.

Popular sovereignty degenerated into violence. On May 21, 1856, 800 proslavery men, many from Missouri, marched into Lawrence, Kansas, to arrest the leaders of the antislavery government. The posse burned the local hotel, looted a number of houses, destroyed two antislavery printing presses, and killed one man. One member of the posse declared: "Gentlemen, this is the happiest day of my life. I determined to make the fanatics bow before me in the dust and kiss the territorial laws. I have done it, by God."

Two days before the "sack of Lawrence," Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts began a two-day speech in which he denounced "The Crime Against Kansas." "It is the rape of a virgin territory," he declared, "compelling it to the hateful embrace of slavery.'"

The Massachusetts senator proceeded to denounce a number of Southern senators, including Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina. Sumner accused Senator Butler of taking "the harlot, Slavery," for his "mistress" and proceeded to make fun of a medical disorder from which Senator Butler suffered. At the rear of the Senate chamber, Stephen Douglas muttered: "That damn fool will get himself killed by some other damned fool."

Two days later, Senator Butler's nephew, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina, entered a nearly empty Senate chamber. Sighting Sumner at his desk, Brooks charged at him and began striking the Massachusetts senator over the head with a cane. He swung so hard that the cane broke into pieces. Brooks caned Sumner, rather than challenging him to a duel, because he regarded the Senator as his social inferior. Thus, he wanted to use the same method slaveholders used to chastise slaves.

Brooks then quietly left the Senate chamber, leaving Sumner "as senseless as a corpse for several minutes, his head bleeding copiously from the frightful wounds, and the blood saturating his clothes." It took Sumner three years to recover from his injuries and return to his Senate seat.

Brooks became a hero in the South. Merchants in Charleston, South Carolina, bought Brooks a new cane, inscribed, "Hit him again." A vote to expel Brooks from the House of Representatives failed because every Southern representative but one voted against expulsion. Instead, Brooks was censured. He promptly resigned his seat and was immediately reelected to Congress.

In the North, Sumner became a martyr to the cause of freedom. A million copies of Sumner's "Crime Against Kansas" speech were distributed. A young Massachusetts woman summed up popular feeling in the North, condemning Brooks’ assault with these words: "If I had been there I would have torn his eyes out and so I would now if I could."

In strife-torn Kansas, John Brown, a devoted Bible-quoting Calvinist who believed he had a personal duty to overthrow slavery, announced that the time had come "to fight fire with fire" and "strike terror in the hearts of proslavery men. The next day, in reprisal for the "sack of Lawrence" and the assault on Sumner, Brown and six companions dragged five proslavery men and boys from their beds at Pottawatomie Creek, split open their skulls with a sword and cut off their hands.

A war of revenge erupted in Kansas. Columns of proslavery Southerners ransacked free farms and took "horses and cattle and everything else they can lay hold of" while they searched for Brown and the other "Pottawatomie killers." Armed bands looted enemy stores and farms. At Osawatomie, proslavery forces attacked John Brown's headquarters, leaving a dozen men dead. John Brown's men killed four Missourians, and proslavery forces retaliated by blockading the free towns of Topeka and Lawrence. Before it was over, guerilla warfare in eastern Kansas left 200 dead.

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