Bleeding Kansas

The True Point of No Return

So, what was "Bleeding Kansas"?

Bleeding Kansas was the name given to the conflict that occurred following the Kansas Nebraska Act, when “border ruffians” entered Kansas and voted illegally. This conflict soon turned violent and led to an extreme amount of dissent between political parties, particularly regarding the issue of slavery. Many pro-slavery individuals took to the destruction of abolitionist structures and violence towards abolitionist peoples, whilst those who aligned with anti-slavery, ie John Brown, took violence to the plantations. This conflict became the largest battle between these American factions before the civil war, and didn’t subside until 1859, two years before the war itself began. Bleeding Kansas, thus became a precursor to the war, further dividing the American people and showcasing the violence and destruction that this division could cause.
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Alright, now for the main event...

Why would Bleeding Kansas be the Point of No Return???

*suspenseful music*


Fifth Symphony - Beethoven by Garritan
(Feel free to read the rest of our presentation to Beethoven.)

Main Reason #1: The Start of Violence

Bleeding Kansas was the first openly violent conflict between the proslavery and abolitionist parties. Before this event, all forms of protest and conflict had been solely political and completely nonviolent. The territorial government, moreover, failed to prosecute proslavery lawbeakers, inciting even more animosity from abolitionist forces.

In addition, this violence was not brief. It persisted sporadically from initial violence in 1856 until 1859, just two years before the Civil War began.

Here is a brief timeline of several notable battles from Bleeding Kansas:

  • May 21, 1856: A proslavery force invades and lays waste to the abolitionist town of Lawrence, burning printing presses and murdering the free-state leader, Charles Robinson.
  • June 2, 1856: John Brown defeats a small force of proslavery soldiers at Pottawatomie Creek.
  • Man 19, 1858: Nine abolitionist soldiers are massacred on the Marais des Cygne.
  • Latter half of 1858: James Henry Lane, a leader of abolitionists forces, wins numerous battles at Franklin, Fort Saunders, Hickory Point, and Slough creek.

Note at the extended range of time in which proslavery and abolitionists forces engaged in conflict, heightening tensions all around the country. The violence demonstrated how much each side would sacrifice for the sake of their ideological beliefs, and thus should be deemed the PONR.

Main Reason #2: Suspicion Confirmed

Long before Bleeding Kansas, northerners had long suspected the south of engaging in a Slave Power conspiracy, in which the south waged conquest in order to expand the institutions of slavery. Such expansion would give southern Democrats even more control in the Federal Government.

While many accused Polk and other Democrats of waging the Mexican-American War in order to expand the institutions of slavery, they had no definitive guarantee. The Democrats could justify their actions under the guise of Mexican aggression and Manifest Destiny.

However, Bleeding Kansas directly validated the concerns of northern abolitionists about southern Slave Power. In 1855, when Kansas called for a popular vote over the issue of slavery, roughly 4-5,000 armed proslavery forces from Missouri crossed into Kansas territory and voted in the election illegally. These border ruffians event demonstrated the willingness of proslavery citizens to commit illegal action to extend slavery into new states. At the moment that northern suspicions were confirmed, the Civil War became inevitable.

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This political cartoon from the 1850s clearly illustrates the predominant northern perception of southern proslavery politicians. In the cartoon, planter elite restrain and torture the "free" Kansas, instead forcibly implanting slavery into it. Such a cartoon reflects growing abolitionist sentiment, as well as their increasing willingness to combat it by any means necessary. At the point where both sides vilify each other and view the other as aggressive, war becomes inevitable. Therefore, Bleeding Kansas validated northern concerns about a Slave Power conspiracy, strengthening abolitionism and garnering enough collective will to forcibly remove slavery from the south.

Main Reason #3: John Brown, the Role Model

Brown’s actions at Pottawatomie Creek engendered a sense of unity and pride throughout the north against the common enemy of slavery. Since he was the first major abolitionist general, Brown served as an archetype and role model for future Civil War generals. His actions in Bleeding Kansas garnered large support from radical abolitionists. Furthermore, Brown’s fame granted him financial backing to conduct further antislavery raids in Virginia, demonstrating the north’s willingness to continue violence against the south for the sake of abolition. Along with a small band of followers, Brown instigated a takeover of a federal arsenal known as Harper’s Ferry on October 16, 1859. He attempted to incite multiple slave insurrections, none of which took place, and thus was soon surrounded and outnumbered by federal militia. Brown was later hanged for the crime of treason on December 2. Brown’s actions were viewed with contempt from the southerners, however he died a martyr in the eyes of anti slavery groups. This led to increase tension on an already deepening divide between the north and the south and placing it beyond repair.

Noted abolitionist Lydia Maria Child remarked: "I and thousands of others feel a natural impulse of sympathy for the brave and suffering man" (referring to Brown).

Furthermore, she went on to justify Brown's attempts to incite a slave revolt:

"I will... say that if I believed our religion justified men in fighting for freedom, I should consider the enslaved everywhere as best entitled to that right. Such an avowal is a simple, frank expression of my sense of natural justice."

These accounts clearly demonstrate the strong abolitionist sentiment which Brown's actions inspired in the north.

And the moment you've been waiting for...

(Now might be a good time to restart Beethoven's symphony.)

The Counter-Argument; or, Why the Kansas-Nebraska Act Was NOT the PONR

The Idea of Popular Sovereignty

The Kansas-Nebraska Act was based on the idea of popular sovereignty, a system which allowed residents of a certain territory to decide for themselves on the issue of slavery. The crucial distinction to draw here is that popular sovereignty does not always end in violence. The Compromise of 1850 had already established similar systems in Utah and New Mexico, where no comparable violence occurred over the issue of slavery. Historical precedent showed, in fact, that popular sovereignty had traditionally worked out in a completely nonviolent fashion, rendering Bleeding Kansas a complete outlier. Thus, the establishment of popular sovereignty in the Kansas-Nebraska Act is not to blame; rather, one must look to the irrationally violent actions of both proslavery and abolitionist forces in Kansas from 1856 to 1859.

Alright, let's remove Bleeding Kansas from the equation.

It's time to see where the Kansas-Nebraska Act would get us, had Bleeding Kansas not occurred.

If Bleeding Kansas had not occurred, then the popular decisions outlined in both the Compromise in 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act would have been an entirely peaceful process. In short, popular sovereignty would have worked. Such peacefulness would have dissipated tensions between the north and the south, and it would have provided a template for the decision of slavery in all future US territories. Therefore, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was by no means the Point of No Return for the Civil War.

Primary/Secondary Source Citations

“Bleeding Kansas.” U.S. History in Context. Last modified 2001. Accessed November 18, 2015.

“The Bleeding Kansas Crisis Begins: 1854.” U.S. History in Context. Last modified 2014. Accessed November 18, 2015.

“John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry.” U.S. History in Context. Last modified 2007. Accessed November 18, 2015.

Child, Lydia M. “Letter to Governor Wise.” in Inside American History. Abingdon/Cambridge: Helicon. Last modified 2007. Accessed November 18, 2015.