Bleeding Kansas

The major turning point leading inevitably to the Civil War


Stephen Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 set the stage for squatter sovereignty in the two territories of Kansas and Nebraska. Through the act, settlers of Kansas and Nebraska would be allowed to decide for themselves on the fate of their state's eventual status as a slave state or a free state. In Kansas, however, the voting process lacked validity and transparency. Scores of voters crossed the Missouri-Kansas border in order to participate in the voting, and even when reports of fraudulent voting in favor of slave state status came out, President Franklin Pierce ignored these and supported the pro-slavery government. From 1854 through 1859, infighting between pro-slavery supporters and free-soilers took hold of the region and constituted a major issue in American politics.


Though the Kansas-Nebraska Act heightened tensions between pro-slavery and anti-slavery Americans, the Bleeding Kansas incident featured the first active armed resistance by Americans against Americans in the slavery issue. It also facilitated political fractures so extensive that there was no going back. Because it constituted the first major instance of passionate, uncompromising infighting among Americans, Bleeding Kansas was the ultimate turning point that led to the Civil War.

Holt, Karen. "Bleeding Kansas Served as a Prelude to the American Civil War." Examiner, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <>.

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Armed Resistance

Though it served as part of a continuing trend of escalating strife over slavery, Bleeding Kansas represented a turning point because the conflict turned fatal with large-scale fighting. De-escalation or compromise concerning the fight over slavery proved impossible in this case, as violent infighting among Americans ensued for about 4 years. In 1855, the conflict began with the Wakarusa War and quickly escalated to mass violence as the abolitionists and pro-slavery supporters both retaliated with greater force and violence. Both sides resorted to ransacking, pillaging, massacre, and appeals to individuals outside of Kansas to fight for either free soil or slave state status in Kansas. Missourians became involved in the conflict, most often fighting alongside other pro-slavery settlers and fighters, and American troops issued by President Franklin Pierce attempted to bring down the free soil government. An abolitionist from Ohio named John Brown led his free-soil and anti-slavery supporters against pro-slavery individuals, often encouraging or conducting murder and other forms of violence. In 1856, Brown led his troops against pro-slavery fighters in a defense of the town of Osawatomie, causing many casualties to the pro-slavery force despite his eventual withdrawal. Said Brown about the fight, "I fought at Black Jack Point and Osawatomie, and if I killed anybody it was at one of these places." Several individuals had their loved ones killed by John Brown's forces, including one woman who lamented her status as a "poor disconsolate widow with helpless children." In the aftermath of this battle, President Buchanan's support of a proslavery government despite clear popularity of the free-soil government further inflamed tensions, which fueled further violence over the next several years. By the time the last great battle took place in the form of the 1858 Marais Des Cynes Massacre, over 50 individuals had perished in the Bleeding Kansas incident.

Though the death toll was not particularly high, especially when compared with that of a normal war, it represented the first tangible example of "a house divided" on the issue of slavery with "brother [fighting] against brother." As a result, Bleeding Kansas served as the ultimate step that determined that the fate of the debate over slavery would be dissent, division, and, eventually, violence.

McClymer, John. "Bleeding Kansas: A Narrative Guide to the Sources."Bleeding Kansas: A Narrative Guide to the Sources. Assumption College, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <>.

"The Civil War in Missouri." Kansas-Nebraska Act: Bleeding Kansas. Missouri History Museum, 2011. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <>.

"The Outbreak in Virginia." The African-American Experience. Woodbridge, CT: Primary Source Media, 1999. American Journey. Gale U.S. History in Context. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <>.

"'Bleeding Kansas' and the Pottawatomie Massacre, 1856." The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. The Gilder Lehran Institute, 2009. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <>.

Political divisions

Most symbolic of the escalating and irreversible political divide coming to form was the feud between Republican Congressman Charles Sumner and Democratic Congressman Preston Brooks. Following Sumner's ardent criticism of Brooks' fellow South Carolina congressman, Brooks nearly beat Sumner to death in the Senate. The breakdown of reasonable discussion to mudslinging and violence even among the distinguished intellectuals and leaders of Congress indicated a clear political transition from debate to inevitable separation in the form of the Civil War. The repercussions of this event manifest themselves in the election of 1856, for much of the North's effort to elect a Republican was established on the notions that "P. S. Brooks... struck a blow, laid [Sumner] low" and that "slavery o'er [the] soil [of Kansas was] pouring." Clearly, Brooks' confrontation with Sumner had a powerful and lasting impact on the relationship between the North and the South.

Moreover, President Franklin Pierce's actions marked the onset of secession by the South. Pierce actively supported the pro-slavery government established in Kansas in 1855, even after congressional investigations revealed that the elections were rigged due to the voting of non-settlers and concluded that if only Kansas settlers had voted, the government would have been primarily anti-slavery. Pierce's subsequent response (to ignore this investigation's findings and to continue supporting the pro-slavery government) was widely referred to as the Bogus Legislature because it demonstrated the absurdity to which political figures were going to defend their respective sides. Pierce's later decisions to send troops into the region to support the pro-slavery government only further communicated this point. Furthermore, President James Buchanan's support of fraudulent election interpretations angered Republicans and further divided the two major parties and regions of the country.

Ultimately, the breakdown of politic convention, communication, and compromise to violence, partisanship, and mutual animosity showed the degree to which the political divide grew due to the Bleeding Kansas incident. Democrats realized that Republicans would not stop until slavery was abolished throughout the nation, and Republicans realized that Democrats would only be content upon slavery throughout the Union. No hope of compromise existed. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, "We must get rid of slavery, or we must get rid of freedom."

McClymer, John. "Bleeding Kansas: A Narrative Guide to the Sources."Bleeding Kansas: A Narrative Guide to the Sources. Assumption College, n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2015. <>.

Fuller, A. James. "Bleeding Kansas, Bleeding Missouri: The Long Civil War on the Border." Journal Of Southern History no. 1 (2015): 197. Academic OneFile, EBSCOhost (accessed November 16, 2015).

Counterargument: that the Kansas-Nebraska Act was the root cause of the Civil War

Though the argument exists that the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was the root cause of the Civil War because it directly prompted Bleeding Kansas, this contention assumes that Bleeding Kansas was an inevitable result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Yet this is not the case. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was a clear case of congressional debate and compromise, as indicated by the collective vote taken in Congress to pass it. In the Senate, for example, the vote was a resounding 35 to 13 in favor of the bill, and of those 35 votes, 14 came from free-state senators. Meanwhile, only 12 free-state senators opposed the bill, so clearly, the bill did not divide the North and South on an irreversible level.

What sets Bleeding Kansas apart is that it was no compromise: armed resistance and irreversible divisions defined the incident. These same aspects defined the period from 1861 to 1865, and debate and compromise did not have a place in the Civil War. Moreover, what really triggered Bleeding Kansas was not the Kansas-Nebraska Act; rather, it was the movement of border ruffians from Missouri to Kansas to vote in favor of a pro-slavery government and the executive's subsequent support of the pro-slavery legislature. If the elections had been better regulated or managed, major outbreaks of violence would have been avoided, even with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. This contention is further supported by the words of Thomas H. Gladstone, whose account of the sack of Lawrence, Kansas by Missouri border ruffians demonstrates that escalation of the conflict was largely a result of the actions of the border ruffians.

Finally, even with dissent over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Union would not have come much closer to division and civil conflict without the violence instigated by Bleeding Kansas. The political, social, and cultural passions that the incident aroused in northerners and southerners, Republicans and Democrats alike marked the unique formation of a divide that could not be subsequently cured by any sense of compromise or discussion; the only possible outcome would be war.

Gladstone, Thomas H. "The Sack of Lawrence, Kansas, 1856." EyeWitness to History. 1857. 16 Nov. 2015. <>.

The Congressional Globe. "Nebraska and Kansas." Washington D.C.: U.S. Congress, May 26, 1854. From Library of Congress. (accessed Nov. 17, 2015).