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FROM WORDS TO BULLETS IN BLEEDING KANSAS

After the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854) opened new territory for settlement, with popular sovereignty deciding whether the states to be formed would be slave or free, settlers poured into Kansas (see Chapter 11). Most of the Northern settlers just wanted land, but they included some well-armed partisans who were ready to fight to make Kansas a free state. At the same time, the South sent tough gangs of men to raid Northern settlements and fix elections with the goal of making Kansas a slave state. Northerners fought back, and the resulting sporadic violence won the area the name Bleeding Kansas from 1854 to the beginning of the Civil War in 1861.

For several years, Kansans lived under the proslavery Lecompton Constitution (1857), a railroaded partisan document forced through by crooked votes and supported by the U.S. president but not accepted by Congress.

Responding to raids by proslavery Southern bands, militant abolitionist John Brown and his sons brutally killed five Southern sympathizers in 1856 (see the discussion on John Brown later in this chapter). Brown wasn't arrested and continued to lead antislavery defenders in pitched battles with Southern forces. Although plenty of property destruction and beatings occurred, fewer than 60 people were actually killed during the years of Bleeding Kansas.

Having let the genie out of the bottle by pushing through the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Senator Stephen Douglas threw away Southern support for the Democratic Party in general and for his presidential campaign in particular by insisting on an honest vote for Kansas. Douglas was from Illinois, like Abraham Lincoln, but he was willing to compromise on slavery. That made him a popular opponent, but Lincoln beat him in the presidential election of 1860.

Violence even reached the Senate floor when a Southern congressman named Preston Brooks beat abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner almost to death in 1856 over a virulent speech Sumner made against Southern-sponsored Kansan "hirelings picked from the drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization." It is easy to see why that speech made Southerners mad, but outrage over the beating of Sumner contributed to the growth of Sumner's antislavery Republican Party in the North.

In the end, Kansas settlers were allowed to vote in a fair election in which they supported a freestate constitution by a margin of two to one. The territory never had more than a few slaves; no slave owner would risk his valuable property on such dangerous ground. Kansas was admitted to the Union after the beginning of the Civil War and was the scene of raids and reprisals by both sides during the war. Kansas contributed more than its share of volunteers to the Union Army.

 
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