Border Ruffians vs. Free-Soilers

After the Kansas-Nebraska Act, thousands of people moved into the territory. Most of them were simply westward-moving farmers in search of better land, but others swarmed there in an attempt to tip the balance in the impending decision about Kansas’s free/slave status. Thousands of proslavery Missourians crossed the state line into Kansas when they learned that popular sovereignty would determine the fate of slavery. They grabbed as much land as they could and established dozens of small towns. These “border ruffians” also rigged unfair elections, sometimes recruiting friends and family in Missouri to cross over into Kansas and cast illegal ballots. Others voted multiple times or threatened honest locals to vote for slavery. Afraid that Kansas would become the next slave state, Northern abolitionists flocked there too and established their own Free-Soil towns. Both factions even went so far as to establish their own territorial capitals.

“Bleeding Kansas”

Inevitably, the two groups clashed. In one incident, a hotheaded band of proslavery settlers burned the Free-Soil town of Lawrence, Kansas. In retaliation, the deranged John Brown and his own antislavery band killed five border ruffians in the Pottawatomie Massacre. Neither Brown nor any of his followers were ever tried for their crimes. Within a few months, Kansas was plagued by marauding violent factions. This rampant lawlessness and bloodshed earned the territory the nickname “Bleeding Kansas.”

Charles Sumner

Blood was also spilled over Kansas on the Senate floor when Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner brutally with his cane. Brooks had grown so incensed over the antislavery speech Sumner had delivered the previous week that he decided to take vengeance on his own. The beating nearly killed Sumner, who was forced to leave the Senate for several years to receive medical treatment. Brooks was hailed as a hero in the South but vilified in the North.

The Election of 1856

Americans were still divided over the Kansas issue as the election of 1856approached, so parties nominated Kansas-neutral candidates in the hopes of overcoming the growing sectionalism. The Whig Party had by this time dissolved into Northern and Southern factions and was unable to agree on a candidate. Northern Whigs instead united with Free-Soil Party members and Unionist Democrats to form the new Republican Party and nominate adventurer John C. Frémont. Democrats, on the other hand, rallied behind the relatively unknown James Buchanan. Whereas Frémont ran on a platform expressly opposed to the westward expansion of slavery, Buchanan campaigned for popular sovereignty. The nativist Know-Nothing Party also entered ex-president Millard Fillmore in the race, campaigning on a platform to stem the influx of Irish and German immigrants. In the end, Buchanan defeated his rivals soundly.

Popular pages: The Civil War 1850–1865