What was the short term significance of settlement in Kansas in the 1850s and 1860s? 

The USA had become divided over the ‘great issue of the age’, the issue of slavery. Slavery first caused divisions on a political level which then seeped, like a virus, out across America to become a serious social issue. In the 1850s and 1860s the events which transpired in the Kansas territory echoed throughout America and signified the beginning of the bleakest moment in the country’s history; the American Civil War. Kansas showed the first signs of physical violence between Northern and Southern Americans. Furthermore it was Kansas’ admission into the Union that would upset the balance of power within Congress, thus emphasising the enormity of the short term significance of the settlement in Kansas.

The American Congress became more and more divided by the power struggle between the North and the South over the major issue of the age, this was the significant problem of slavery. ‘From morning to night, day after day, and week after week, nothing can get a hearing that will not afford an opportunity to lug in something about Negro slavery…’1. This rift in politics was particularly problematic when it came to deciding whether Kansas should become a ‘Slave State’ or a ‘Free State’. Senator Douglas proposed the Kansas-Nebraska Bill in 1854; this proposed that the slave status of Kansas would be decided by popular sovereignty, therefore revoking the Missouri Compromise of 1820. This greatly angered Northerners, creating ‘a hell of a storm’. In fact many believe that ‘No single act of slave power ever spread greater consternation, produced more lasting results upon the popular mind, or did so much to arouse the North.’ 2 This shows the first signs of tensions that were becoming more apparent between the Northern and Southern Congressmen.

These initial tensions began to increase and soon this conflict between the North and the South spread beyond the point of mere heated debates and soon, rather inevitably, developed into acts of physical violence. This violence would soon seep out of congress and into Kansas. Violence in congress was apparent in the case of ‘Bleeding Sumner’. In this instant Southern Congressman Preston Brooks brutally beat Northern senator Sumner because of his ideas concerning anti-slavery. ‘Bleeding Sumner’ showed Sumner as the victim of a brutal southern attack. The actions of Preston Brooks were not just the attack of one man upon another but moreover symbolised an attack on the whole of the civilised North, at the hands of the primitive South. The South claimed that the attack was, “Good in conception, better in execution, and best of all in consequences”3, saying that the North need to be “lashed into submission.” The North, in contrast saw the attack as proof that, “The South cannot tolerate free speech anywhere, and would stifle it in Washington with the bludgeon and the bowie-knife, as they are now trying to stifle it in Kansas by massacre, rapine, and murder.”4

This further divided the North and South as the North viewed the attack as vindictive and rather typical of the Southern slave movement, whilst the Southern belief that slavery was an issue worth fighting for was only strengthened by the attack. The repercussions of the aforementioned events meant that matters within Kansas were no longer merely contained to politics but had now leaked out of Congress to become a social matter on a national scale; causing extreme tensions in America during the 1850s and 1860s. Due to this it is fair to suggest that the ‘Bleeding Sumner’ incident was further confirmation of the immutable split that was occurring between the North and South. However, there is no doubt that these tensions were initially sparked by the events that were unravelling within Kansas, due to the issues which had arisen over settlement.

The tensions caused by the settlement of Kansas created not only national tensions, but also issues localised to the area of Kansas itself. Kansas became victim to mass migration as both pro-slavery and anti-slavery groups poured into the territory to participate in elections, to determine the slavery status that the territory would encompass. Douglas’ Kansas Nebraska Bill had been forwarded in the hope that popular sovereignty would determine the Government of state in a fair manner, an attitude purely based on the belief that the elections ‘…would not be destroyed or subverted by any intrusive or malign influence’5. However, after the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, pro-slavery and anti-slavery supporters rushed in to settle in Kansas so as to affect the outcome of the first election held there after the law went into effect. Pro-slavery settlers carried the election. However, when these elections had taken place there were only 2000 registered voters in Kansas and yet 5000 people voted during these elections. As a result the Northerners cried foul and the elections did not pass. However, the rejection of the bill was not the only cause of conflict within Kansas. People from both the North and South flooded into Kansas to pass the Bill in their favour. This was hugely significant as it meant that the population of Kansas became divided between Northern and Southern settlers, thus creating tensions on a social scale. Northern and Southern settlers came into the territory and with them they brought their own conflicting beliefs and ideals. As a consequence the population boomed and this influx of populates, from both North and South, resulted in hostility, violence and … inevitably… war. Once again this shows the explicit significance of the settlement of Kansas and the tensions that would forever shadow the events that unfolded within Kansas.

Political tensions became ever more significant after the bill was rejected and two opposing constitutions formed. The anti-slavery settlers set up their government in Topeka whilst the pro-slavery settlers set up government in Lecompton, the territorial capital. These two opposing government increased regional tension to the point of breaking. The opposing governances brought in their own constitutions which brought in great conflict and prefigured the secession of the South and the inevitable American civil war. The short term significance of the settlement in Kansas during the 1850s and 1860s was essentially down to the passing of the Kansas-Nebraska bill. That bill brought all the hostility that followed it, the splitting of governance and the bloody wars were effectively a result of the poor establishment of an effective bill that many Northerners had tried to prevent. ‘Whatever apologies may be offered for the toleration of slavery in the States, none can be offered for its extension in the Territories where it does not exist. Let us all protest loudly, by whatever was may seem suitable against this enormous crime.’6 Had the Independent Democrats succeeded in preventing the bill and found a new method of dealing with Kansas they may have been successful in, at least, preventing the violence within Kansas and possibly even preventing the Civil war that followed. However, this was far from achieved. Douglas’ bill, that aimed to create a fair state, merely divided America further and created enormous tensions both politically and socially over the settlement of Kansas.

An event of serious significance caused by the settlement within Kansas was the bloodshed that came from the splitting of the governances and the conflict within the territory, the major bloodshed took place between 1854 and 1857, this was known as ‘Bleeding Kansas’. This was of such high significance as it showed that the American people were willing to kill for their cause. Bleeding Kansas was, in effect, a mirror image of the American Civil War that was to soon follow, only on a smaller scale. The violence and hatred that was displayed within Kansas ruined both the economy and what little hope there had been for political unification. Kansas was torn apart by the fierce fighting that took place within its borders. This war was a perfect example of how the people of America were more far more concerned with fighting for either the North or South and far less concerned with the issues of slavery. Kansas held great significance not for the freedom of slaves but for the control of advantageous territory, ‘…Kansas is the future seat of empire; she will yet give tone and law to the entire West; and they who are fighting there, in behalf of humanity and justice, do not fight for themselves alone but for a large posterity.’ 7 This is proof that Kansas held greater significance than many realised, it was not simply a state to be claimed for the cause. Instead it was to be the deciding factor determining which side could get a foothold from which to grasp control and bring either anti-slavery or slaver to the whole of America.

Thus proving how truly divided America had become. The South, who became renowned for being the more violent of the two sides, applauded those who crossed into Kansas from the South and who took the lives of many, these people were known as ‘Border Ruffians’ and were notorious for sacking the free-state town of Lawrence. In retaliation, John Brown, a radical abolitionist, carried out an attempted slave revolt in Virginia, on October 16th, 1859. The raid was a failure as Brown failed to create a slave uprising and was subsequently hanged for treason. The raid became ‘a cause for celebre’ in both the North and the South, with Brown vilified by Southerners as a bloodthirsty fanatic, but celebrated by Northern abolitionists as a martyr to the cause of freedom. ‘In the North the murders committed by Brown and his followers were ignored by most and lauded by a few.’8 National reaction showed the significance of the violence within Kansas and showed how attitudes were changing towards violence as the Civil War became increasingly unavoidable. This was an attitude that was carried across the country and, once again, shows the enormous significance of the settlement within Kansas.

The settlement of Kansas was becoming increasingly significant politically as, with the war raging both with the territory of Kansas and within Congress, one of the most considerable parties collapsed. ‘The Whig collapse has often been seen as a direct result of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which set Southern against Northern Whigs.’9 From the downfall of the Whig party emerged the Republican Party who would become the major party within America. Their support came from many Northerners who were discontented with the actions within Kansas. It was this discontent for Southern actions within Kansas that won major Republican support. This, therefore, shows the great significance of the settlement within Congress. Furthermore, the divisions within Kansas had created a political system where a party could win support from the North by simply opposing the South. As a result of Northern support the Republican Party grew stronger and became the dominant party within Congress, the party was bolstered by tensions and the warfare within Kansas. From the Republican Party emerged Lincoln who proved to be the leader they needed to unite the party. Under Lincoln the Republican promised those of the North that they could, ‘…be sure that the glorious Principles of Popery, Fourierism, Free Love, woman’s rights, the Marine Law & above all the Equality of our Coloured brethren shall be maintained…’10

Everyone recognised Lincoln as monumental figure who was, without doubt, the man to lead the Republicans. Even opposing parties saw Lincoln as their obvious leader. ‘Lincoln would represent better than any other individual the paradoxical political stance of his party. He was moderate enough to carry ever northern state in 1860, but radical enough for his election to signal the commencement of the secession movement.’11 Lincoln’s election to president was hugely significant as he, without any Southern support, had still managed to win. This signified the splitting of the Union as clearly the nation was no longer united under one political system. Lincoln’s election to President brought attention to the failure of the Union and was considered an insult to the South, it is for this reason that it was a major influence of the American Civil War. However, his election was more due to his high profile and, more significantly, it was due to the events that were unfolding within Kansas. As it was these afflictions towards the Northern people and slaves that were taking place within Kansas that gained the Republican Party and Lincoln such fierce support from North America. It is therefore, safe to say that the events in Kansas were highly significant when it came to the fall of the Union, the rise of Republicans and the election of Lincoln to President.

The events that unfolded in Kansas were, without any doubt, enormously significant within American history. The settlement, or rather lack of settlement, of Kansas was extraordinarily significant both socially and politically. The Unions inability to create an effective means of implicating Kansas as a free or slave state led to the mass influx of outsiders into the area which flared the hatred of the Northerners and Southerners. Furthermore, it showed signs of America becoming sectionalised as two opposing constitutions were formed within the territory. The events also highlighted the fragility of the Union and consequently led to the collapse of it. Above all the events within Kansas were highly significant for foretelling what would soon unfold across America.