- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2004

The Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed in May 1854, remains one of the most controversial pieces of legislation ever enacted by the U.S. Congress. Whereas the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had outlawed slavery north of latitude 36 degrees in the former Louisiana Purchase, except for Missouri, the Kansas-Nebraska Act effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise and permitted the creation of new slave states.

Under the principle of “popular sovereignty” expounded by Sen. Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, the Kansas-Nebraska Act affirmed that all questions relating to slavery in the new territories and states should be left “to the people residing therein.”

The act thus canceled the Missouri Compromise, opening the door to the legalization of slavery in the Louisiana Territory.

“Bleeding Kansas,” published on the 150th anniversary of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, examines the motives of the settlers and tells of the violence the act inspired. A professor of history at the University of Texas at El Paso, Miss Etcheson tells her story in great detail.

Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act made the settlement of Kansas a national issue. Organizations such as the New England Emigrant Aid Co. were created to promote movement by settlers from the North. Pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers raced to Kansas to register land claims and draft a constitution. To reach Kansas, they fought their way across Missouri, then clustered in communities that often reflected each group’s stand on slavery.

Pro-slavery forces swept the first elections in 1855, aided by Missourians who crossed into Kansas, seized polling places and cast illegal votes. Anti-slavery groups refused to accept the results of the election and held their own. As a result, Kansas soon had rival administrations, each claiming to be the legal government of the territory.

President Franklin Pierce supported the pro-slavery groups that had won the first election. The army went in to re-establish order and supervise a new election, which was again carried by pro-slavery forces amid new charges of corruption. Congress refused to admit Kansas under this latest constitution, and the issue remained unresolved until after the Civil War had broken out, when Kansas was admitted as a free state.

The political struggle of 1855 morphed into the violence of “bleeding Kansas.” Settlers on both sides, the author writes, “framed their conflict in terms of rights and liberty even as they shot, burned, and terrorized.”

Kansas was the scene of two of the more notable atrocities of the period leading up to the Civil War: the sacking of the town of Lawrence by pro-slavery ruffians in 1856 and a series of bloody murders by John Brown and his anti-slavery followers that same year. Brown’s victims, Miss Etcheson writes, bore the marks of death by sword, “displaying the gashes and severed fingers, arms, and hands that resulted when victims … threw up their arms to protect themselves.”

It is hardly surprising that when the Civil War came, the guerrilla warfare in Kansas and Missouri was notable for its brutality.

Miss Etcheson notes that few blacks were players in the Kansas drama. Free blacks who migrated to Kansas in the late 1850s rarely found a warm welcome, even in anti-slavery communities. She concludes that the Kansas violence had less to do with slavery than with differing perceptions of personal liberty in the contending white communities. Free-state settlers, for instance, were convinced that “their rights and liberties were being trampled by a government determined to impose slavery upon them.”

The main effect of the violence in Kansas was to inflame tensions between the North and the South as the election of 1860 approached. When the Democratic Party split at its national convention in Charleston, S.C., the election of a Republican president was all but assured. And with the election of Abraham Lincoln, civil war was all but assured.

John M. Taylor is the author of numerous books on the Civil War period, including “William Henry Seward: Lincoln’s Right Hand.”

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