Bleeding Kansas

The Point of No Return for the Beginning of the Civil War

The Argument

In 1854, the Senate passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed the formation of two new territories that operated on popular sovereignty for slavery. This act proved controversial to U.S. citizens of differing regions as thousands of petitions flooded the House of Representatives, opposing the bill. Bleeding Kansas prompted the point of no return for the Civil War because it set a precedent for physical violence, demonstrated the uselessness of popular sovereignty and civil compromise, and escalated tensions in the political arena between northern and southern states.

Bleeding Kansas set a precedent of violence.

In Kansas, proslavery people and abolitionists revealed their willingness to commit acts of violence, revealing that both sides were willing to go to war, which proves that Bleeding Kansas was the point of no return for the Civil War. These actions set a precedent for violence and revealed both slave states' and free states' desire for armed confrontation to settle their differences.
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Sack of Lawrence

Proslavery forces invaded the abolitionist town of Lawrence, looting the town and burning it. On May 1, 1856, Judge LeCompte stated in a letter that proslavery newspapers justified Jones' actions as "executing the orders of the grand jury of the United States Court," illustrating that these problems had reached a national level of severity. People willingly argued that governmental bodies pushed for violence as well.

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Pottawatomie Massacre

John Brown, a fervent abolitionist, murdered several proslavery people at Pottawatomie Creek. Mahala Doyle of Tennessee wrote him a letter in November 1859, stating:

"I do feel gratified to hear that you ware stopt in your fiendish career at Harper's Ferry...when you...entered my house at midnight and arrested my husband and two boys and took them out of the yard and in cold blood shot them can't say you done it to free our slaves. I do hope and trust that you will meet your just reward."

Brown's actions further alienated slavery supporters and exacerbated hostility between abolitionists and pro-slavery southerners. His actions demonstrate that both sides were willing to fight for their beliefs instead of compromising and would foreshadow his violent actions at Harper's Ferry.

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The turmoil demonstrates the uselessness of both popular sovereignty and compromise.

Because the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed popular sovereignty to determine whether Kansas would be a free or slave state, proslavery and abolitionist groups from other states moved temporarily to Kansas to sway the vote, giving rise to the term "squatter sovereignty." Therefore, the citizens of the United States showed that they would not fairly follow popular sovereignty or other aspects of compromise, but rather continue to force their agendas. According to the Gale Encyclopedia,

“The practice of sending people into a territory, sometimes only temporarily, to swing the vote prompted critics of popular sovereignty to dub it 'squatter sovereignty.' The tragic conflict in Kansas was evidence that the policy had failed.”

Therefore, due to the patent failure of popular sovereignty, other compromises most likely would not be followed. As each side realized that only war would be an effective method of changing the nation in their favor, no other option remains except the Civil War.

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The violence that occurred in Bleeding Kansas demonstrated and caused the incredibly high tensions in the political arena.

In his speech "The Crime Against Kansas," passionate abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner said the following:

"The Senator from South Carolina [Andrew Butler] has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight -- I mean the harlot, Slavery.”

Two days later, Sen. Preston Brooks (a cousin of Andrew Butler's) came into Sumner's office and caned him, causing severe head trauma. The incident revealed the very intense polarization in American politics; Sumner was hailed as a martyr in the North, and Brooks was called a hero in the South. Therefore, as a result of Bleeding Kansas, political strife erupted, revealing that Northern and Southern politicians simply could not tolerate each others' differences any longer. This lead to the South's ardent desire for secession from the Union. Therefore, Bleeding Kansas is the point of no return in regard to the beginning of the Civil War.

Counter-Argument: The Compromise of 1850

The Compromise of 1850, however, had not been a turning point towards the Civil War, as reconciliation still remained a goal amidst the tension.

On March 7, 1850, senator Daniel Webster stated the following in a speech to the Senate:

"Never did there devolve on any generation of men higher trusts than now devolve upon us, for the preservation of this Constitution and the harmony and peace of all who are destined to live under it. Let us make our generation one of the strongest and brightest links in the golden chain which is destined, I fondly believe, to grapple the people of all the states to this Constitution for ages to come.”

Webster demonstrated how the Compromise's core purpose was to preserve the Union, a purpose that others recognized and sought to reach. The fact that a compromise was developed and passed reveals the different regions' desire in politics and in life to reconcile their differences peacefully, far from the road towards Civil War. In the Bleeding Kansas, however, both politicians and citizens of the United States revealed their contempt towards peaceful reconciliation and fought violently, proving that Bleeding Kansas was the point of no return for the Civil War, not the Compromise of 1850.

The Compromise of 1850 also did not lead to any bloodshed.

The Compromise of 1850 did not directly cause any violence within the United States, revealing that Bleeding Kansas was far more important in the road to the Civil War. Even after the Compromise of 1850 ended, politicians and citizens were very civilized due to their desire to work things out peacefully. Therefore, the Compromise of 1850 was not the point of no return before the Civil War.

Source citations

Primary sources

Doyle, Mahala. "Mahala Doyle to John Brown, November 20, 1859." Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. Last accessed November 18, 2015.“bleeding-kansas”-and-pottawatomie-massacre-1856

Malin, John. "Judge LeCompte and the Sack of Lawrence." Kansas Historical Society. Last accessed November 18, 2015.

Sumner, Charles. “The Crime Against Kansas.” Assumption College. Last modified December 5, 2012,

Webster, Daniel. "Daniel Webster Argues in Favor of the Compromise of 1850." U.S. History in Context. ed. 2015. Gale U.S. History in Context. Gale Group Databases. GALE|QBGFLM949626999 (Accessed November 18, 2015).

Secondary sources

Pierson, Parke. "Bleeding Kansas: the Kansas-Nebraska Act turned peaceful prairies into battlegrounds."America's Civil War. ed. July 2009. Gale U.S. History in Context. Gale Group Databases. GALE|A200411165 (Accessed November 18, 2015).

"Popular Sovereignty." Gale Encyclopedia of U.S. Economic History. Ed. by Thomas Carson and Mary Bonk 1999. Gale U.S. History in Context. Gale Group Databases. GALE|EJ1667500538 (Accessed November 18, 2015).