Dissent as Treason: The Lesson from Bleeding Kansas

We think we know about Bleeding Kansas.: the little Civil War that helped to light the spark for the big one.  The years of arson, pillage, and the coldblooded murder of civilians by both sides have been tucked away in the back corners of our minds since high school American History class. What we don’t remember is the deliberate abandonment of democracy, the rejection of the core principles of the Bill of Rights, that preceded the actual violence.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act was supposed to be all about democracy.  The Act overturned the fragile truce between North and South that had been established by the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, replacing it with a free-for-all in which the citizens of each new state could decide for themselves whether that state would be slave or free.  But even in America, democracy cannot always withstand the forces of greed, fear, and the need to maintain one’s position in the world whatever the cost.

The sudden possibility of extending slavery to Kansas, where it had previously been forbidden, seemed to Missouri slaveholders like an unexpected gift, a gift that they named the “Christmas Goose.” And as soon as the gift was received, the extension of slavery to the new state began to be seen as a matter of survival in the old, because the existence of a free Kansas on the Missouri border would have offered an immediate haven to runaway slaves. Believing that Kansas was rightfully theirs, parties of slaveholding emigrants began moving in. So, however, did groups of anti-slavery northerners, some of them funded and armed by rich anti-slavery activists.

The principle of democratic self-government was immediately overruled by the self-interest of the slaveholders. A combination of violence and massive voter fraud in the 1855 territorial elections gave control of the Kansas territorial legislature to the pro-slavery party, causing the free-state immigrants to organize their own party and elect their own, unsanctioned, legislature. The pro-slavery legislature responded by accusing the dissident legislators, and anyone else who agreed with them on the issue of slavery, of treason. There were outbreaks of violence, at first sporadic and disorganized, and armed militias began forming on both sides.

In May of 1856, a pro-slavery judge ordered the indictment of all free-state leaders and the closing of free-state newspapers. The free-state stronghold of Lawrence was attacked, and the printing presses of the newspapers destroyed. Not long afterward, the murder of unarmed pro-slavery civilians at Pottawatomie Creek by anti-slavery terrorist John Brown touched off a bloody guerrilla war, in which both sides participated in the carnage.

Meanwhile, the influx of anti-slavery settlers from the northern states was quickly overwhelming the influx from the South. In 1857, a blatantly rigged constitutional convention produced the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution. Then, although the convention delegates had pledged to submit that constitution of the voters for ratification, they refused to do so. The vastly greater numbers of anti-slavery settlers then elected a new territorial legislature controlled by the anti-slavery party, and that new legislature scheduled the ratification vote. Anti-slavery voters defeated the proposed constitution by a vote of ten thousand to two hundred. A temporary peace was established, but the violence had radicalized both sides, igniting a firestorm of outrage across the North and causing northern voters to regroup around the newly formed Republican party.

The Union may have already been beyond saving. At stake was not only an economic system, but the slaveholders’ entire conception of the world and their place in it – a worldview based on white supremacy and the permanent subjugation of blacks. But what stands out here is the initial, deliberate abandonment of the rule of law by pro-slavery authorities. The first casualties were the cherished American principles of freedom of speech and of the press, followed by the rejection of democracy itself. As we wrestle over the definition of what it means to be “American,” Bleeding Kansas stands as a reminder of the fragility of the bonds that hold us together.

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