An Anti-Slavery Crusade; a Chronicle of the Gathering Storm

Author: Jesse Macy

Chapter X. "Bleeding Kansas"

Both the leading political parties were, in the campaign of 1852, fully committed to the acceptance of the so-called Compromise of 1850 as a final settlement of the slavery question; both were committed to the support of the Fugitive Slave Act. The Free-soil party, with John P. Hale as its candidate, did make a vigorous attack upon the Fugitive Slave Act, and opposed all compromises respecting slavery, but Free-Boilers had been to a large extent reabsorbed into the Democratic party, their vote of 1852 being only about half that of 1848. Though the Whig vote was large and only about two hundred thousand less than that of the Democrats, yet it was so distributed that the Whigs carried only four States, Massachusetts, Vermont, Kentucky, and Tennessee. The other States gave a Democratic plurality.

Had there been time for readjustment, the Whig party might have recovered lost ground, but no time was permitted. There was in progress in Missouri a political conflict which was already commanding national attention. Thomas H. Benton, for thirty years a Senator from Missouri, and a national figure, was the storm-center. His enemies accused him of being a Free-Boiler, an abolitionist in disguise. He was professedly a stanch and uncompromising unionist, a personal and political opponent of John C. Calhoun. According to his own statement he had been opposed to the extension of slavery since 1804, although he had advocated the admission of Missouri with a pro-slavery constitution in 180. He was, from the first, senior Senator from the State, and by a peculiar combination of influences incurred his first defeat for reelection in 1851.

Benton’s defeat in the Missouri Legislature was largely the result of national pro-slavery influences. In a former chapter, reference was made to the Ohio River as furnishing a "providential argument against slavery." The Mississippi River as the eastern boundary of Missouri furnished a like argument, but on the north not even a prairie brook separated free labor in Iowa from slave labor in Missouri. The inhabitants of western Missouri, realizing that the tenure of their peculiar institution was becoming weaker in the east and north, early became convinced that the organization of a free State along their western boundary would be followed by the abolition of slavery in their own State. This condition attracted the attention of the national guardians of pro-slavery interests. Calhoun, Davis, Breckinridge, Toombs, and others were in constant communication with local leaders. A certain Judge W. C. Price, a religious fanatic, and a pro-slavery devotee, was induced to visit every part of the State in 1844, calling the attention of all slaveholders to the perils of the situation and preparing the way for the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. Senator Benton, who was approached on the subject, replied in such a way that all radical defenders of slavery, both national leaders and local politicians, were moved to unite for his political defeat.

David R. Atchison, junior Senator from Missouri, had been made the leader of the pro-slavery forces. The defeat of Benton in the Missouri Legislature did not end the strife. He at once became a candidate for Atchison’s place in the election which was to occur in 1855, and he was in the meantime elected to the House of Representatives in 1852. The most telling consideration in Benton’s favor was the general demand, in which he himself joined, for the immediate organization of the western territory in order to facilitate the building of a system of railways reaching the Pacific, with St. Louis as the point of departure. For a time, in 1859, and 1853, Benton was apparently triumphant, and Atchison was himself willing to consent to the organization of the new territory with slavery excluded. The national leaders, however, were not of the same mind. The real issue was the continuance of slavery in the State; the one thing which must not be permitted was the transfer of anti-slavery agitation to the separate States. Henry Clay’s proposal of 1849 to provide for gradual emancipation in Kentucky was bitterly resented. It had long been an axiom with the slavocracy that the institution would perish unless it had the opportunity to expand. Out of this conviction arose Calhoun’s famous theory that slaveowners had under the Constitution an equal right with the owners of all other forms of property in all the Territories. The theory itself assumed that the act prohibiting slavery in the territory north of the southern boundary of Missouri was unconstitutional and void. But this theory had not yet received judicial sanction, and the time was at hand when the question of freedom or slavery in the western territory was to be determined. Between March and December, 1853, the discovery was made that the Act of 1850 organizing the Territories of New Mexico and Utah had superseded the Compromise of 1820; that a principle had been recognized applicable to all the Territories; that all were open to settlement on equal terms to slaveholders and non-slaveholders; that the subject of slavery should be removed from Congress to the people of the Territories; and that they should decide, either when a territorial legislature was organized or at the time of the adoption of a constitution preparatory to statehood, whether or not slavery should be authorized. These ideas found expression in various newspapers during the month of December, 1853. Though the authorship of the new theory is still a matter of dispute, it is well known that Stephen A. Douglas became its chief sponsor and champion. The real motives and intentions of Douglas himself and of many of his supporters will always remain obscure and uncertain. But no uncertainty attaches to the motives of Senator Atchison and the leaders of the Calhoun section of the Democratic party. For ten years at least they had been laboring to get rid of the Missouri Compromise. Their motive was to defend slavery and especially to forestall a successful movement for emancipation in the State of Missouri.

From early in January, 1854, until late in May, Douglas’s Nebraska bill held the attention of Congress and of the entire country. At first the measure simply assumed that the Missouri Compromise had been superseded by the Act of 1850. Later the bill was amended in such a way as to repeal distinctly that time-honored act. At first the plan was to organize Nebraska as a single Territory extending from Texas to Canada. Later it was proposed to organize separate Territories, one west of Missouri under the name of Kansas, the other west of Iowa under the name of Nebraska. Opposition came from Free-soilers, from Northern Whigs and a few Whigs from the South, and from a large proportion of Northern Democrats. The repeal of the Missouri Compromise came like a thunderbolt out of a clear sky to the people of the North. For a time Douglas was the most unpopular of political leaders and was apparently repudiated by his party. The first name designating the opponents of the Douglas bill was "Anti Nebraska men," for which the name Republican was gradually substituted and in 1858 became the accepted title of the party.

The provision for two territorial governments instead of one carried with it the idea of a continued balance between slave and free States; Kansas, being on a geographical parallel with the slave States, would probably permit slavery, while Nebraska would be occupied by free-state immigrants. Though this was a commonly accepted view, Eli Thayer of Worcester, Massachusetts, and a few others took a different view. They proposed to make an end of the discussion of the extension of slavery by sending free men who were opposed to slavery to occupy the territory open for settlement. To attain this object they organized an Emigrant Aid Company incorporated under the laws of the State. Even before the bill was passed, the corporation was in full working order. Thayer himself traveled extensively throughout the Northern States stimulating interest in western emigration, with the conviction that the disturbing question could be peacefully settled in this way. California had thus been saved to freedom; why not all other Territories? The new company had as adviser and co-laborer Dr. Charles Robinson, who had crossed the Kansas Territory on his way to California and had acquired valuable experience in the art of state-building under peculiar conditions.

The first party sent out by the Emigrant Aid Company arrived in Kansas early in August, 1854, and selected the site for the town of Lawrence. During the later months of the year, four other parties were sent out, in all numbering nearly seven hundred. Through extensive advertisement by the company, through the general interest in the subject and the natural flow of emigration to the West, Kansas was receiving large accessions of free-state settlers.

Meanwhile the men of Missouri, some of whom had striven for a decade to secure the privilege of extending slavery into the new Territory, were not idle. Instantly upon the removal of legal barriers, they occupied adjacent lands, founded towns, staked out claims, formed plans for preempting the entire region and for forestalling or driving out all intruders. They had at first the advantage of position, for they did not find it difficult to maintain two homes, one in Kansas for purposes of voting and fighting and another in Missouri for actual residence. Andrew H. Reeder, a Pennsylvania Democrat of strong pro-slavery prejudices, was appointed first Governor of the Territory. When he arrived in Kansas in October, 1854, there were already several thousand settlers on the ground and others were continually arriving. He appointed the 29th of November for the election of a delegate to Congress. On that day several hundred Missourians came into the Territory and voted. There was no violence and no contest; the free-state men had no separate candidate. Notwithstanding the violence of language used by opposing factions, notwithstanding the organization of secret societies pledged to drive out all Northern intruders, there was no serious disturbance until March 30, 1855, the day appointed for the election of members of the territorial Legislature. On that day the Missourians came full five thousand strong, armed with guns, bowie-knives, and revolvers. They met with no resistance from the residents, who were unarmed. They took charge of the precincts and chose pro-slavery delegates with one exception. Governor Reeder protested and recommended to the precincts the filing of protests. Only seven responded, however, and in these cases new elections were held and contesting delegates elected.

The Governor issued certificates to these and to all those who in other precincts had been chosen by the horde from Missouri. When the Legislature met in July, the seven contests were decided in favor of the pro-slavery party, the single freestate member resigned, and the assembly was unanimous.

Governor Reeder fully expected that President Pierce would nullify the election, and to this end he made a journey to Washington in April. On the way he delivered a public address at Easton, Pennsylvania, describing in lurid colors the outrage which had been perpetrated upon the people of Kansas by the "border ruffians" from Missouri, and asserting that the accounts in the Northern press had not been exaggerated.

While Governor Reeder in contact with the actual events in Kansas was becoming an active Free-Boiler, President Pierce in association with Jefferson Davis and others of his party was developing active sympathies with the people of western Missouri. To the President this invasion of territory west of the slave State by Northern men aided by Northern corporations seemed a violation of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and he sought to induce Reeder to resign. This, however, the Governor positively refused to do unless the President would formally approve his conduct in Kansas—an endorsement which required more fortitude than President Pierce possessed. On his return to Kansas, determined to do what he could to protect the Kansas people from injustice, he called the Legislature to meet at Pawnee, a point far removed from the Missouri border. Immediately upon their organization at that place the members of the Legislature adjourned to meet at Shawnee, near the border of Missouri. The Governor, who decided that this action was illegal, then refused to recognize the Assembly at the new place. A deadlock thus ensued which was broken on the 15th of August by the removal of Governor Reeder and the appointment of Wilson Shannon of Ohio in his place. In the meantime the territorial Legislature had adjourned, having "enacted" an elaborate proslavery code made up from the slave code of Missouri with a number of special adaptations. For example, it was made a penitentiary offense to deny by speaking or writing, or by printing, or by introducing any printed matter, the right of persons to hold slaves in the Territory; no man was eligible to jury service who was conscientiously opposed to holding slaves; and lawyers were bound by oath to support the territorial statutes.

The free-state men, with the approval of Reeder, refused to recognize the Legislature and inaugurated a movement in the fall of 1855 to adopt a constitution and to organize a provisional territorial Government preparatory to admission as a State, following in this respect the procedure in California and Michigan. A convention met in Topeka in October, 1855, and completed on the 11th of November the draft of a constitution which prohibited slavery. On the 15th of December the constitution was approved by a practically unanimous vote, only free-state men taking part in the election. A month later a Legislature was elected and at the same time Charles Robinson was elected Governor of the new commonwealth. In the previous October, Reeder had been chosen Free-soil delegate to Congress. The Topeka freestate Legislature met on the 4th of March, 1856, and after petitioning Congress to admit Kansas under the Topeka constitution, adjourned until the 4th of July pending the action of Congress. Thus at the end of two years two distinct Governments had come into existence within the Territory of Kansas. It speaks volumes for the self-control and moderation of the two parties that no hostile encounter had occurred between the contestants. When the armed Missourians came in March, 1855, the unarmed settlers offered no resistance. Afterward, however, they supplied themselves with Sharp’s rifles and organized a militia. With the advent of Governor Shannon in September, 1855, the proslavery position was much strengthened. In November, in a quarrel over a land claim, a free-state settler by the name of Dow was killed. The murderer escaped, but a friend of the victim was accused of uttering threats against a friend of the murderer. For this offense a posse led by Sheriff Jones, a Missourian, seized him, and would have carried him away if fourteen freestate men had not "persuaded" the Sheriff to surrender his prisoner. This interference was accepted by the Missourians as a signal for battle. The rescuers must be arrested and punished. A large force of infuriated Missourians and pro-slavery settlers assembled for a raid upon the town of Lawrence. In the meantime the Lawrence militia planned and executed a systematic defense of the town. When the two armies came within speaking distance, a parley ensued in which the Governor took a leading part in settling the affair without a hostile shot. This is known in Kansas history as the "Wakarusa War."

The progress of affairs in Kansas was followed with intense interest in all parts of the country. North and South vied with each other in the encouragement of emigration to Kansas. Colonel Buford of Alabama sold a large number of slaves and devoted the proceeds to meeting the expense of conducting a troop of three hundred men to Kansas in the winter of 1856. They went armed with "the sword of the spirit," and all provided with Bibles supplied by the leading churches. Arrived in the territory, they were duly furnished with more worldly weapons and were drilled for action. About the same time a parallel incident is said to have occurred in New Haven, Connecticut. A deacon in one of the churches had enlisted a company of seventy bound for Kansas. A meeting was held in the church to raise money to defray expenses. The leader of the company declared that they also needed rifles for self-defense. Forthwith Professor Silliman, of the University, subscribed one Sharp’s rifle, and others followed with like pledges. Finally Henry Ward Beecher, who was the speaker of the occasion, rose and promised that, if twenty-five rifles were pledged on the spot, Plymouth Church in Brooklyn would be responsible for the remaining twenty-five that were needed. He had already said in a previous address that for the slaveholders of Kansas, Sharp’s rifles were a greater moral agency than the Bible. This led to the designation of the weapons as "Beecher’s Bibles." Such was the spirit which prevailed in the two sections of the country.

President Pierce had now become intensely hostile towards the free-state inhabitants of Kansas. Having recognized the Legislature elected on March 30, 1855, as the legitimate Government, he sent a special message to Congress on January 24, 1856, in which he characterized as revolutionary the movement of the free-state men to organize a separate Government in Kansas. >From the President’s point of view, the emissaries of the New England Emigrant Aid Association were unlawful invaders. In this position he not only had the support of the South, but was powerfully seconded by Stephen A. Douglas and other Northern Democrats.

The attitude of the Administration at Washington was a source of great encouragement to Sheriff Jones and his associates, who were anxious to wreak their vengeance on the city of Lawrence for the outcome of the Wakarusa War. Jones came to Lawrence apparently for the express purpose of picking a quarrel, for he revived the old dispute about the rescuing party of the previous fall. As a consequence one enraged opponent slapped him in the face, and at last an unknown assassin entered the sheriff’s tent by night and inflicted a revolver wound in his back. Though the citizens of Lawrence were greatly chagrined at this event and offered a reward for the discovery of the assailant, the attack upon the sheriff was made the signal for drastic procedure against the town of Lawrence. A grand jury found indictments for treason against Reeder, Robinson, and other leading citizens of the town. The United States marshal gave notice that he expected resistance in making arrests and called upon all law-abiding citizens of the Territory to aid in executing the law. It was a welcome summons to the pro-slavery forces. Not only local militia companies responded but also Buford’s company and various companies from Missouri, in all more than seven hundred men, with two cannon. It had always been the set purpose of the free-state men not to resist federal authority by force, unless as a last resort, and they had no intention of opposing the marshal in making arrests. He performed his duty without hindrance and then placed the armed troops under the command of Sheriff Jones, who proceeded first to destroy the printing-press of the town of Lawrence. Then, against the protest of the marshal and Colonel Buford, the vindictive sheriff trained his guns upon the new hotel which was the pride of the city; the ruin of the building was made complete by fire, while a drunken mob pillaged the town.

On May 22, 1856, the day following the attack upon Lawrence, Charles Sumner was struck down in the United States Senate on account of a speech made in defense of the rights of Kansas settlers. The two events, which were reported at the same time in the daily press, furnished the key-note to the presidential campaign of that year, for nominating conventions followed in a few days and "bleeding Kansas" was the all-absorbing issue. In spite of the destruction of property in Lawrence and the arrest of the leaders of the free-state party, Kansas had not been plunged into a state of civil war. The free-state party had fired no hostile shot. Governor Robinson and his associates still relied upon public opinion and they accepted the wanton attack upon Lawrence as the best assurance that they would yet win their cause by legal means.

A change, however, soon took place which is associated with the entrance of John Brown into the history of Kansas. Brown and his sons were living at Osawatomie, some thirty miles south of Lawrence. They were present at the Wakarusa War in December, 1855, and were on their way to the defense of Lawrence on May 21, 1856, when they were informed that the town had been destroyed. Three days after this event Brown and his sons with two or three others made a midnight raid upon their pro-slavery neighbors living in the Pottawatomie valley and slew five men. The authors of this deed were not certainly known until the publication of a confession of one of the party in 1879, twenty years after the chief actor had won the reputation of a martyr to the cause of liberty. The Browns, however, were suspected at the time; warrants were out for their arrest; and their homes were destroyed.

For more than three months after this incident, Kansas was in a state of war; in fact, two distinct varieties of warfare were carried on. Publicly organized companies on both sides engaged in acts of attack and defense, while at the same time irresponsible secret bands were busy in violent reprisals, in plunder and assassination. In both of these forms of warfare, the free-state men proved themselves fully equal to their opponents, and Governor Shannon was entirely unable to cope with the situation. It is estimated that two hundred men were slain and two million dollars’ worth of property was destroyed.

The state of affairs in Kansas served to win many Northern Democrats to the support of the Republicans. The Administration at Washington was held responsible for the violence and bloodshed. The Democratic leaders in the political campaign, determined now upon a complete change in the Government of the Territory, appointed J. W. Geary as Governor and placed General Smith in charge of the troops. The new incumbents, both from Pennsylvania, entered upon their labors early in September, and before the October state elections Geary was able to report that peace reigned throughout the Territory. A prompt reaction in favor of the Democrats followed. Buchanan, their presidential candidate, rejoiced in the fact that order had been restored by two citizens of his own State. It was now very generally conceded that Kansas would become a free State, and intimate associates of Buchanan assured the public that he was himself of that opinion and that if elected he would insure to the free-state party evenhanded justice. Thousands of voters were thus won to Buchanan’s support. There was a general distrust of the Republican candidate as a man lacking political experience, and a strong conservative reaction against the idea of electing a President by the votes of only one section of the country. At the election in November, Buchanan received a majority of sixty of the electoral votes over Fremont, but in the popular vote he fell short of a majority by nearly 400,000. Fillmore, candidate of the Whig and the American parties, received 874,000 votes.

There was still profound distrust of the administration of the Territory of Kansas, and the free-state settlers refused to vote at the election set for the choosing of a new territorial Legislature in October. The result was another pro-slavery assembly. Governor Geary, however, determined to secure and enforce just treatment of both parties. He was at once brought into violent conflict with the Legislature in an experience which was almost an exact counterpart of that of Governor Reeder; and Washington did not support his efforts to secure fair dealings. A pro-slavery deputation visited President Pierce in February, 1857, and returned with the assurance that Governor Geary would be removed. Without waiting for the President to act, Geary resigned in disgust on the 4th of March. Of the three Governors whom President Pierce appointed, two became active supporters of the free-state party and a third, Governor Shannon, fled from the territory in mortal terror lest he should be slain by members of the party which he had tried to serve.


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Chicago: Jesse Macy, "Chapter X. Bleeding Kansas," An Anti-Slavery Crusade; a Chronicle of the Gathering Storm, ed. Jameson, J. Franklin (John Franklin), 1859-1937 in An Anti-Slavery Crusade; a Chronicle of the Gathering Storm Original Sources, accessed September 30, 2023,

MLA: Macy, Jesse. "Chapter X. "Bleeding Kansas"." An Anti-Slavery Crusade; a Chronicle of the Gathering Storm, edited by Jameson, J. Franklin (John Franklin), 1859-1937, in An Anti-Slavery Crusade; a Chronicle of the Gathering Storm, Original Sources. 30 Sep. 2023.

Harvard: Macy, J, 'Chapter X. "Bleeding Kansas"' in An Anti-Slavery Crusade; a Chronicle of the Gathering Storm, ed. . cited in , An Anti-Slavery Crusade; a Chronicle of the Gathering Storm. Original Sources, retrieved 30 September 2023, from