James Horton on Bleeding Kansas
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Q: What did Kansas represent?
A: Land is very important to America. You know, people came to this New World because it offered them opportunity. And often in the 18th and the 19th century, opportunity meant land, a chance to be an independent landowner. For a white worker in New York City or Philadelphia, the possibility of being able to move to the west and be a an independent landowner was very, very important. And so one of the things you wanted to make sure is, there'd be enough land available. You didn't want that land taken up by slave holders and slaves.
You didnt' want that land taken up by even free blacks. And so in many cases, white workers and the Republican Party, which grew out of the the sentiment to maintain the free territories, were very concerned upon about having these territories free of slavery. Because being free of slavery would also mean having a very small, insignificant black population.
Kansas is an important staging ground for what some people argue is the first battles of the Civil War, because it is this battlefield on which the forces of anti-slavery and the forces of slavery meet. The "squatter's sovereignty" policy, which is advocated by Stephen A. Douglas, is a policy that says: We'll decide whether Kansas is going to be slave or free, when the people who settle in Kansas vote on this question. Well, then it becomes very important as to who settles in Kansas. And so from Missouri, the pro-slavery element are trying to get settlers who are favoring slavery, to move into Kansas. Meanwhile, from New York and New England, the anti-slavery element is trying to get people who favor anti-slavery to move into Kansas. Literally, the forces of slavery and the forces of anti-slavery meet in Kansas. And as a result, 1854, '55, '56, we have what is called "Bleeding Kansas." That is, the war between slavery and anti-slavery in the Kansas territory.
You do not necessarily have to want to see black people in Kansas in order for you to be opposed to the coming of slavery to Kansas. In fact, in many of the the midwestern states, there were real and important restrictions against the movement of free blacks into those states. Indiana outlawed free blacks in the state entirely. Ohio had very strong restrictions against free blacks moving into the state.
I think that a lot of what this question embodies is the notion of the future of America. Is the future of America going to be America as white man's country, or America as a country in which there are multiple races? One of the ways you can ensure that America is in the future white man's country is to make sure that the future of America (and everybody understood that the future of of America was was in the West; that America's future was to be found in the West), you wanted to make sure that the west was as white as possible, as free as possible from blacks, whether these blacks were slave or whether these blacks were free.
So that the Free Soil Movement, that is, the movement that the Republican Party ran its campaigns based on (part of their platform was that of free soil) meant not only keeping the territories free from slavery, but maintaining the territories for free white labor.
Benjemin Banneker Professor of American Studies and History
George Washington University
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