Today Kansas may be a state largely sheltered from violence, but that wasn’t always the case. The state earned the nickname Bleeding Kansas from the violence that preceded its birth into statehood.
The Missouri Comprimise of 1820 may have guaranteed that slavery would be forever prohibited in the territory that would become Kansas – but, as anyone who has watched our government evolve over the years knows, forever might just be a couple of decades.
The compromise, aimed at giving slave states and free states equal representation in the Senate, prohibited slavery in the former Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36°30′ north latitude (Missouri’s southern boundary); outside of that, slavery would exist only within the state of Missouri.
Maine entered the Union as a free state; Missouri as a slave state – “equality” for both sides.
The Missouri Compromise was nullified by the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 – this act said that the people of the two territories could decide for themselves how they wanted to enter the Union. Both pro- and anti-slavery settlers flooded the area, hoping to settle Kansas for their side. The first election was won by the slavery supporters; the results were not accepted by the many abolitionists who felt the election was plagued with fraud.
The next election was won by the abolitionists; these results were rejected by the pro-slavery settlers, many of whom refused to vote. Two separate legislatures, each with an agenda, were established; one pro-slavery, the other vehemently opposed. The violence that soon followed earned Kansas her infamous nickname – Bleeding Kansas.
Even on Capitol Hill, the passion and fury that surrounded the great slave debate took a violent turn when Sen. Charles Sumner, a fierce abolitionist from Massachusetts, gave a speech titled “Crimes Against Kansas”. Sumner was intent on publicly chastising two of his fellow Senators who, he felt, contributed to the bloodshed in Kansas.
One of those was Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois.
As many a Chicago-style politician who followed him, Douglas was not a man afraid to sell his soul to the devil to get what he wanted. When Sen. Agustus C. Dodge of Iowa introduced a bill that would allow the settlers to decide how Kansas and Nebraska entered the Union, its first stop was the Committee of the Territories, chaired by Douglas. Hoping to secure an eastern terminal for the transcontinental railroad in Chicago, Douglas needed to gain the Southern vote. In order to guarantee the vote, he greased the wheels by proposing the Kansas-Nebraska act, which, essentially opened the North to slavery.
Andrew Pickens Butler, a South Carolina Democrat, was also scorned by Sumner’s speech. A states’ rights Senator, Butler helped Douglas pen the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act and worked to pass it through Congress.
On May 19, 1856, Sumner, a radical Republican, bravely stood in front of his peers and criticized Douglas and Butler while condemning the recently passed act – calling it a crime and a swindle. Branding Douglas as a “noise-some, squat, and nameless animal . . . not a proper model for an American senator.”
Sumner then said that Butler “touches nothing which he does not disfigure with error…he cannot open his mouth, but out flies a blunder.”
The Republican Senator was not done with Butler saying, “The Senator from South Carolina has read many books of chivalry, and believes himself a chivalrous knight, with sentiments of honor and courage. Of course he 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. For her, his tongue is always profuse in words. Let her be impeached in character, or any proposition made to shut her out from the extension of her wantonness, and no extravagance of manner or hardihood of assertion is then too great for this Senator.”
While Butler was not on the floor that day, his cousin, fellow Carolinian, Rep. Preston S. Brooks was. Three days after Sumner’s brilliant speech, Brooks stalked Sumner in the Senate’s chamber. “(Your speech) is a libel on South Carolina and on Mr. Butler who is a relative on mine,” Butler stated.
Butler then used a cane tipped in gold to beat Sumner over the head – not stopping until the cane split.
Sumner took three years to recover from his injuries and return to the Senate where he served until 1874. Brooks, under pressure, resigned his seat – but was re-elected two weeks later. He died of liver disease just five months later.
On Jan. 29, 1861, after many a bloody battle, after many a life lost, Kansas entered the Union as a free state.
OPINION: Kansas spilled blood in U.S. Senate