One hundred and sixty years ago today, Congress passed Stephen Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act establishing popular sovereignty as the deciding factor on the issue of slavery. It was another attempt in a string of attempts to settle a long standing dividing issue that plagued the country since it’s foundation. Instead, it sparked a string of violent acts that would only escalate tensions brought on by the “peculiar institution.”
Since the days of colonization, Americans seemed to have a natural inclination to expand west. A lot of this was brought on by personal motivation for various reasons. However, since the days of the Country’s founding, lawmakers sought to address the issue of slavery as more and more Americans fulfilled their “Manifest Destiny.” In 1787, the Confederation Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance. In this organization of territories north and west of the Ohio River, Congress officially banned slavery in the new territories, except in the case of convicted criminals. However, it would not be the last time Congress too on the issue in relation to slavery’s expansion.
In 1820, not long after the Country’s inception, Congress attempted to quarrel a brewing sectional controversy revolving around the statehood of Missouri. Missouri’s inclusion in the Union as a free state or a slave state would upset the balance of power between the two sections of the country. Henry Clay, “The Great Compromiser,” worked out a three part compromise to ease tensions. The Missouri Compromise dictated that Missouri would enter the Union as a slave state while Maine, after breaking away from Massachusetts, would be introduced as a free state. Lastly, the rest of the Louisiana Territory would be divided by the infamous 36-30 parallel. Slavery could exist North of that line. This eased the sectional controversies over this issue, for awhile.
Thirty years later, after the Gold Rush of 1849 caused California’s population to swell, the state applied for entrance to the Union as a free state. This served to escalate tension brought on after the acquisition of land from the Mexican-American War. Some argued the 36-30 parallel line extended to the Pacific while pro-slavery advocates were quick to point out that the line only applied to the Louisiana Territory. Henry Clay introduced another compromise. The Compromise if 1850 mandated that California enter as a free state while the rest of the territories acquired in the late war would decide the fate of slavery in their territories using popular sovereignty. The compromise also dictated that the slave trade would be outlawed in Washington D.C. and that a stricter fugitive slave law would be enacted. Although the Compromise of 1850 did not actually solve the dividing issue, it did prevent Civil War from eruption ten years before it did. Talks of secession died down, and Congressman stopped pulling guns on each other in Congress….for awhile.
Then in 1854, tensions escalated yet again. Territories north of the 36-30 line of the Louisiana Territory were off limits to slavery. Numerous attempts to bring some of those territories into statehood were repeatedly stifled by Southern Congressmen wishing to preserve the status quo. Stephen Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act was an attempt to politically maneuver around that issue. The act overrode the Missouri Compromise and allowed slavery to spread by popular sovereignty. This action had harsh consequences. Pro-slavery and Anti-slavery groups moved into the area to swell the votes for each side.
As Border Ruffians (pro-slave) and Jayhawkers (abolitionist settlers) settled the territories, two governments began to form. Anti-slavery groups wrote the first Kansas Constitution in 1855 and established a government in Topeka. This opposed the pro-slavery government established in Lecompton, which had “won” the election making Kansas a slave state. The two governments in existence, outlawed one another with President Pierce recognizing the pro-slavery government. Violence quickly erupted throughout the territory and even homesteaders found themselves in a literal battleground. David Atchison rallied southern slave sentiment by accusing Northerners of being “negro thieves” and “abolitionist tyrants.” He encouraged Missourians to defend slavery with the “bayonet and blood” and to “kill every God-damned abolitionist in the district.” This is despite the fact that the majority of people moving to Kansas from the North were actually Free Soilers. It wasn’t long until shootings began, eventually leading to the attack at Lawrence followed by the retaliatory Pottawatomie Creek massacre. This violence bled over into Congress; who can forget Preston Brooks attacking Charles Sumner in what would be called “The Great Caning?”
Bearing these events in mind, I often wonder about how “Bleeding Kansas” is taught in school. In general I think it is usually a build up to the firing at Fort Sumter; the event most consider to be the beginning of the Civil War. It is a comfortable point of no return. I know many teachers, including myself, who usually teach leading up to Ft. Sumter, and then test over issues leading to the Civil War. Afterwards, they teach Civil War (Ft. Sumter and beyond…) through Reconstruction before assessing the students again. I wonder if beginning at Ft. Sumter is the right move. With so many people that insist the Civil War does not simply end but spills into Reconstruction, I wonder why the same cannot be said about “Bleeding Kansas.” In Kansas, these people fought in a civil war for over a decade over the same exact issue that lead to the American Civil War. There is little divide between those events, and the ones that lead us up to the precipice of war. You have the same sectional crisis and violence among competing governments and their supporters. All of these are factors that mark the Civil War as well. After revisiting this issue, I think I might end next year’s unit after the Compromise of 1850 and start my Civil War unit in 1854, when the violence starts. I think this might add greater continuity to the lessons. What do you think?