The Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Republican Party


In 1855 and 1856, pro- and antislavery activists flooded Kansas with the intention of influencing the popular-sovereignty rule of the territories. Proslavery Missourians who crossed the border to vote in Kansas became known as border ruffians; these gained the advantage by winning the territorial elections, most likely through voter fraud and illegal vote counting. (By some estimates, up to 60 percent of the votes cast in Kansas were fraudulent.) Once in power, the proslavery legislature, meeting at Lecompton, Kansas, drafted a proslavery constitution known as the Lecompton Constitution. It was supported by President Buchanan, but opposed by Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois.

The Lecompton Constitution

Kansas was home to no fewer than four state constitutions in its early years. Its first constitution, the Topeka Constitution, would have made Kansas a free-soil state. A proslavery legislature, however, created the 1857 Lecompton Constitution to enshrine the institution of slavery in the new Kansas-Nebraska territories. In January 1858, Kansas voters defeated the proposed Lecompton Constitution, excerpted below, with an overwhelming margin of 10,226 to 138.

SECTION 1. The right of property is before and higher than any constitutional sanction, and the right of the owner of a slave to such slave and its increase is the same and as inviolable as the right of the owner of any property whatever.
SEC. 2. The Legislature shall have no power to pass laws for the emancipation of slaves without the consent of the owners, or without paying the owners previous to their emancipation a full equivalent in money for the slaves so emancipated. They shall have no power to prevent immigrants to the State from bringing with them such persons as are deemed slaves by the laws of any one of the United States or Territories, so long as any person of the same age or description shall be continued in slavery by the laws of this State: Provided, That such person or slave be the bona fide property of such immigrants.

How are slaves defined in the 1857 Kansas constitution? How does this constitution safeguard the rights of slaveholders?

The majority in Kansas, however, were Free-Soilers who seethed at the border ruffians’ co-opting of the democratic process (Figure). Many had come from New England to ensure a numerical advantage over the border ruffians. The New England Emigrant Aid Society, a northern antislavery group, helped fund these efforts to halt the expansion of slavery into Kansas and beyond.

A poster reads “The Day of Our Enslavement!!—To-day, September 15, 1855, is the day on which the iniquitous enactment of the illegitimate, illegal and fraudulent Legislature has declared commences the prostration of the right of speech and the curtailment of the liberty of the press. To-day commences an era in Kansas which, unless the sturdy voice of the people, backed, if necessary, by ‘strong arms and the sure eye,’ shall teach the tyrants who attempt to enthrall us, the lesson which our fathers taught the kingly tyrants of old, shall prostrate us in the dust, and make us the slave of an oligarchy worse than the veriest despotism on earth. / To-day commences the operation of a law which declares: ‘SEC.12, If any free person, by speaking or by writing, assert or maintain that persons have not the right to hold slaves in this Territory, or shall introduce into this Territory, print, publish, write, circulate or cause to be introduced into this Territory, written, printed, published or circulated in this Territory any book, paper, magazine, pamphlet or circular, containing any denial of the right of persons to hold slaves in this Territory, such person shall be deemed guilty of felony and punished by imprisonment at hard labor for a term of not less than two years.’ / Now we do assert and declare, despite all the bolts and bars of the iniquitous Legislature of Kansas, ‘that persons have not the right to hold slaves in this Territory,’ and we will emblazon it upon our banner in letters so large and in language so plain that the infatuated invaders who elected the Kansas Legislature, as well as that corrupt and ignorant Legislature itself, may understand it, so that, if they cannot read they may spell it out, and meditate and deliberate upon it; and we hold that the man who fails to utter this self-evident truth, on account of the insolent enactment alluded to, is a poltroon and a slave—worse than the black slaves of our persecutors and oppressors. / The Constitution of the United States—the great Magna Carta of American liberties—guarantees to every citizen the liberty of speech and the freedom of the press. And this is the first time in the history of America that a body claiming legislative powers has dared to attempt to wrest them from the people. And it is not only the right, but bounden duty of every freeman to spurn with contempt and trample underfoot any enactment which thus basely violates the rights of freemen. For our part we do, and shall continue to, utter this truth so long as we have the power of utterance, and nothing but the brute force of an overbearing tyranny can prevent us. / Will any citizen—any free American—brook the insult of an insolent gag law, the work of a legislature enacted by bullying ruffians who invaded Kansas with arms, and whose drunken revelry and insults to our peaceable, unoffending and comparatively unarmed citizens were a disgrace to manhood, and a burlesque upon popular Republican government? If they do, they are slaves already, and with them freedom is but a mockery.”
This full-page editorial ran in the Free-Soiler Kansas Tribune on September 15, 1855, the day Kansas’ Act to Punish Offences against Slave Property of 1855 went into effect. This law made it punishable by death to aid or abet a fugitive slave, and it called for punishment of no less than two years for anyone who might: “print, publish, write, circulate, or cause to be introduced into this Territory . . . [any materials] . . . containing any denial of the right of persons to hold slaves in this Territory.”

Go to the Kansas Historical Society’s Kansapedia to read the four different state constitutions that Kansas had during its early years as a United States Territory. What can you deduce about the authors of each constitution?

In 1856, clashes between antislavery Free-Soilers and border ruffians came to a head in Lawrence, Kansas. The town had been founded by the New England Emigrant Aid Society, which funded antislavery settlement in the territory and were determined that Kansas should be a free-soil state. Proslavery emigrants from Missouri were equally determined that no “abolitionist tyrants” or “negro thieves” would control the territory. In the spring of 1856, several of Lawrence’s leading antislavery citizens were indicted for treason, and federal marshal Israel Donaldson called for a posse to help make arrests. He did not have trouble finding volunteers from Missouri. When the posse, which included Douglas County sheriff Samuel Jones, arrived outside Lawrence, the antislavery town’s “committee of safety” agreed on a policy of nonresistance. Most of those who were indicted fled. Donaldson arrested two men without incident and dismissed the posse.

However, Jones, who had been shot during an earlier confrontation in the town, did not leave. On May 21, falsely claiming that he had a court order to do so, Jones took command of the posse and rode into town armed with rifles, revolvers, cutlasses and bowie knives. At the head of the procession, two flags flew: an American flag and a flag with a crouching tiger. Other banners followed, bearing the words “Southern rights” and “The Superiority of the White Race.” In the rear were five artillery pieces, which were dragged to the center of town. The posse smashed the presses of the two newspapers, Herald of Freedom and the Kansas Free State, and burned down the deserted Free State Hotel (Figure). When the posse finally left, Lawrence residents found themselves unharmed but terrified.

The next morning, a man named John Brown and his sons, who were on their way to provide Lawrence with reinforcements, heard the news of the attack. Brown, a strict, God-fearing Calvinist and staunch abolitionist, once remarked that “God had raised him up on purpose to break the jaws of the wicked.” Disappointed that the citizens of Lawrence did not resist the “slave hounds” of Missouri, Brown opted not to go to Lawrence, but to the homes of proslavery settlers near Pottawatomie Creek in Kansas. The group of seven, including Brown’s four sons, arrived on May 24, 1856, and announced they were the “Northern Army” that had come to serve justice. They burst into the cabin of proslavery Tennessean James Doyle and marched him and two of his sons off, sparing the youngest at the desperate request of Doyle’s wife, Mahala. One hundred yards down the road, Owen and Salmon Brown hacked their captives to death with broadswords and John Brown shot a bullet into Doyle’s forehead. Before the night was done, the Browns visited two more cabins and brutally executed two other proslavery settlers. None of those executed owned any slaves or had had anything to do with the raid on Lawrence.

Brown’s actions precipitated a new wave of violence. All told, the guerilla warfare between proslavery “border ruffians” and antislavery forces, which would continue and even escalate during the Civil War, resulted in over 150 deaths and significant property loss. The events in Kansas served as an extreme reply to Douglas’s proposition of popular sovereignty. As the violent clashes increased, Kansas became known as “Bleeding Kansas.” Antislavery advocates’ use of force carved out a new direction for some who opposed slavery. Distancing themselves from William Lloyd Garrison and other pacifists, Brown and fellow abolitionists believed the time had come to fight slavery with violence.

An illustration shows the aftermath of the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas, by border ruffians. Several men and dogs stand outside the ruins of the Free State Hotel.
This undated image shows the aftermath of the sacking of Lawrence, Kansas, by border ruffians. Shown are the ruins of the Free State Hotel.

The violent hostilities associated with Bleeding Kansas were not limited to Kansas itself. It was the controversy over Kansas that prompted the caning of Charles Sumner, introduced at the beginning of this chapter with the political cartoon Southern Chivalry: Argument versus Club’s (). Note the title of the cartoon; it lampoons the southern ideal of chivalry, the code of behavior that Preston Brooks believed he was following in his attack on Sumner. In Sumner’s “Crime against Kansas” speech he went much further than politics, filling his verbal attack with allusions to sexuality by singling out fellow senator Andrew Butler from South Carolina, a zealous supporter of slavery and Brooks’s uncle. Sumner insulted Butler by comparing slavery to prostitution, declaring, “Of course he [Butler] 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.” Because Butler was aged, it was his nephew, Brooks, who sought satisfaction for Sumner’s attack on his family and southern honor. Brooks did not challenge Sumner to a duel; by choosing to beat him with a cane instead, he made it clear that he did not consider Sumner a gentleman. Many in the South rejoiced over Brooks’s defense of slavery, southern society, and family honor, sending him hundreds of canes to replace the one he had broken assaulting Sumner. The attack by Brooks left Sumner incapacitated physically and mentally for a long period of time. Despite his injuries, the people of Massachusetts reelected him.

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