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John Brown and “Bleeding Kansas”

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 4, 2012

John Brown and “Bleeding Kansas”

The Free State Party had made the town of Lawrence its headquarters. In May of 1856, hundreds of Border Ruffians marched on Lawrence and sacked the town. When this news reached the ears of the fiery abolitionist John Brown, he decided he had waited more than long enough to take action against the slavers.

John Brown was born in Connecticut and had lived in Ohio and upstate New York before becoming a prominent abolitionist in Pennsylvania. He had worked with the Underground Railroad, and all his life had treated blacks as equals. When the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, Brown foresaw that Kansas might become a battleground. He had always believed that only an armed uprising of abolitionists and slaves would bring about emancipation.

On May 23, 1856, Brown led a small group of abolitionists to Pottawatomie Creek, a center of proslavery advocates. Brown and his small army kidnapped five of them and hacked their bodies to pieces. The Pottawatomie Massacre outraged southerners and gave the territory the nickname “Bleeding Kansas.” In the Senate, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts delivered a scathing speech blaming the violence on the slavers who had insisted on overturning the Missouri Compromise. Two days later, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina retaliated, accosting Sumner in the Senate chamber and attempting to beat him to death with a cane. This murderous attack polarized Americans still further; many who had been neutral were converted to fervent abolitionists, while voters in Brooks’s home district sent him gifts to show their approval.

In Kansas, the Free State Legislature broke up in July 1856, convinced that since the majority of the people were antislavery, the principle of popular sovereignty would eventually make Kansas a free territory and then a free state. This indeed happened. The voters elected abolitionists to the legislature, and Kansas drafted a free-state constitution in 1859.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

A House Divided Practice Test

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