Bleeding Kansas

The Point of No Return

Grace Amandes, Christian Maines, Jared Margolis, Sadde Mohamed, and Emma Shea

Introduction

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 granted white males popular sovereignty, the right to decide whether or not to allow slavery in the new Western territories. Politicians such as David Atchison, a Missouri senator, encouraged Southerners to defend the institution of slavery by temporarily migrating to Kansas and voting in their elections. While the Kansas-Nebraska Act could be seen as an catalytic event leading up to the Civil War, it is not the true point of no return because it did not sharply define and augment sectional tensions to the same extent as the Bleeding Kansas crisis. Tensions between Free Soil supporters, who dominated the state, and “Border Ruffians” came to a head in an event that came to be known as Bleeding Kansas. The Bleeding Kansas crisis from 1854 to 1861 was the point of no return in the events precipitating the Civil War because it marked the first significant violence leading up to the War.

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Tensions between proslavery and antislavery settlers in Kansas led to violent confrontations including one in the town of Fort Scott, Kansas. The cartoonist shows how the opposing opinions caused the violence in Kansas just as it would in the upcoming civil war.

Main Argument

The Bleeding Kansas crisis was the point of no return leading up to the Civil War because it involved unprecedented bloodshed resulting from sectional tensions over slavery. In Edward Bridgman’s letter to his cousin Sidney, he states that because the Free State Men’s duty is to fight for abolitionism, they must be ready constantly to fight the proslavery Missourians in Kansas. Even though the Free State Men did not originally believe in violence against the “Border Ruffians,” they ended up using violence to support their goal of abolishing slavery.
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A cartoon depicting slavery being forced into the mouth of a Free Soiler demonstrates how tensions between antislavery and proslavery forces were stressed.

Similarly, in Charles Sumner’s “Crime Against Kansas” speech, he attacks supporters of slavery, whom he deems responsible for the bloodshed in the West. Believing that Free State Men should not only abolish slavery but also protect the safety of Kansas, Sumner argued against what he called the “hateful embrace” of slavery, leading to his caning on the Senate floor by Preston Brooks. This source demonstrates that the violence of Bleeding Kansas left a legacy of sectional differences that made a return to peace impossible. Violent acts by proslavery and antislavery leaders made the Bleeding Kansas crisis the most significant event leading up to the war. In Mahala Doyle’s letter, she describes how John Brown “then and there 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 dead in my hearing.”

All of these violent actions during the Bleeding Kansas crisis marked one of the first times that Americans engaged in internal military conflict over the position of slavery in society. Without the unprecedented bloodshed that occurred during this crisis, the Civil War may not have happened or may not have been as violent as it was. While other events may have helped lead to the Civil War, they never invoked the violence among Americans that the Bleeding Kansas crisis did. Because it involved unprecedented bloodshed resulting from sectional tensions over slavery, the Bleeding Kansas crisis was the point of no return leading up to the Civil War.
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On May 21, 1856, proslavery forces attacked the antislavery stronghold of Lawrence, Kansas and burned down many buildings. The attack was part of an ongoing guerrilla war sparked by a decree that a vote of Kansas citizens would determine whether the state would enter the Union as a free or slave state. This engraving is a testament to the violence that was produced from Bleeding Kansas.

Counterargument

The Kansas-Nebraska Act could be seen as an influential event leading up to the Civil War, but it is not the point of no return because it did not agitate sectional tensions to nearly the same extent as the Bleeding Kansas crisis. Created by Senator Stephen A. Douglas, the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed for ‘popular sovereignty’ in the territories, meaning that the residents of those territories would determine for themselves whether their states would permit slaveholding once introduced into the Union. This act essentially repealed the Missouri Compromise, as the 36°60’ line was disregarded and the settlers of territories were allowed to decide whether or not to allow slavery. The Kansas-Nebraska Act stated that Kansas “shall be received into the Union with or without slavery” and that the “true intent and meaning of this act [was] not to legislate slavery into any Territory or State ... but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way.”

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A map showing how the Kansas-Nebraska Act impacted where each state stood on slavery.

As a result, large numbers of both proslavery and antislavery settlers rushed into the territories, and their opposing views led to violence. This event is known as Bleeding Kansas. However, the Kansas-Nebraska Act itself is not the point of no return because it was merely a political action, not an act of violence; furthermore, this Act could have been repealed, while an act of bloodshed such as Bleeding Kansas left an irreversible tension culminating in the Civil War. Senator Robert Toombs noted in the debates over the Act that the Act itself was “not worth an ounce of powder,” and he did “not expect to burn any over them, except in firing salutes over this great day’s work.” This quote demonstrates that the Act was not the point of no return leading to the Civil War because it alone was not divisive enough to drive the North and the South into conflict. Thus, the true point of no return is Bleeding Kansas, because, after the physical violence occurred, there was no possibility of repairing the relations between proslavery and antislavery advocates throughout the country.

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A picture of Senator Robert Toombs, who believed that the Kansas-Nebraska Act would not drive the U.S. into Civil War.

Conclusion

Because Bleeding Kansas marked the first significant violence resulting from sectional differences, it is considered the “point of no return” leading up to the Civil War. In fact, the sheer magnitude of violence in the events of Bleeding Kansas was replicated in the events of the Civil War. Before this point, there were debates raging through Congress and the nation on the ethics and constitutionality of the institution of slavery in the U.S., but there wasn’t any actual violence to accompany these rising tensions. After these acts of violence, there was no question that the U.S. would go to war.

Bibliography

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“Appendix to the Congressional Globe.” The Liberty of Congress. 1854. http://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/ampage?collId=llcg&fileName=036/llcg036.db&recNum=764.


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Sumner, Charles. “Crime against Kansas.” Furman University Department of History, May 18, 1856. http://history.furman.edu/~benson/docs/sumnerksh2.htm.