Willing to Die for Freedom - Part 2
A Look Back at Kansas Territory, 1854-1861
"As your lives and property are in danger, . . . I advise you one and all to enter every election district in Kansas . . . and vote at the point of the bowie knife and the revolver."
--Benjamin Stringfellow, Missouri, 1855
Many Americans believed Kansas would determine the future of slavery. Willing to risk their lives and fortunes, people on all sides of the slavery issue flocked here in the 1850s.
Why did they come? Because the Kansas-Nebraska Act changed how slavery expanded into the territories. It allowed the people living in Kansas Territory to decide whether their new state would allow slavery. This principle is known as popular sovereignty.
Kansas' territorial seal features the Latin motto, "POPULI VOCENATA." This translates to "Born by the voice of the people" or "Born of the popular will." The motto speaks directly to the concept of popular sovereignty imbedded in the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Writing a Constitution
To become a state, Kansas needed a constitution. The document voters chose would either prohibit or allow slavery. People came to Kansas especially to vote (to cast a legal ballot, they had to live here), but they couldn't agree on a constitution because of their differences on slavery.
Kansas is unique among states in its complicated territorial politics:
- Kansans voted on 4 separate constitutions.
- On one of those constitutions they voted 3 times.
- The capital moved to 5 different towns.
- At one time there were 2 separate legislatures--one free-state, one proslavery.
- It took 5 years to ratify a constitution and 2 more years for Congress to accept it.
Kansas had four different constitutional conventions because delegates couldn't write a document that satisfied both the people of the territory and the U.S. Congress. Fraudulent elections, threats of violence, and congressional disagreements all prolonged the conflict.
The concept of putting matters to a public vote is an American tradition. But in Kansas Territory, voter fraud raised questions about the honesty of most elections.
Missourians crossed the border in great numbers to vote illegally. They were successful at first, electing several proslavery officials. Voting fraud was so serious in 1854 and 1855 that Congress ordered a special commission to investigate. One incident in the committee's report involved proslavery Sheriff Samuel Jones. He entered a polling place and gave the election judges five minutes to leave or be killed.
Learn more about voting in Kansas Territory by taking our Voting Quiz.
Frémont, Free Soil, and Free Kansas!
Bleeding Kansas was a major issue in the 1856 presidential campaign. This was the first national election held since the Kansas-Nebraska Act went into effect.
Eager to find a candidate who would appeal to many, the newly formed Republican Party sought out a western explorer whose adventures had captured the popular imagination--John Charles Frémont. The famous explorer had led three major expeditions into the West between 1842 and 1846. Interestingly, all three expeditions had passed through Kansas.
Republicans wanted Kansas admitted as a free state because this might slow down the expansion of slavery. The party's catchy slogan was "Free Soil, Free Men and Frémont--and Free Kansas." Their strong stance brought warnings that if Frémont won, the South would secede from the Union.
Despite a good effort, Frémont lost the election to pro-Southern Democrat James Buchanan. Although Frémont was not successful in his quest for the presidency--he finished second with a half million votes out of a total four million--it was a respectable showing for the new Republican party. The election also laid the ground work for the party's next presidential candidate, Abraham Lincoln, who won the 1860 presidential election.
Willing to Die for Freedom is an online exhibit developed by the Kansas Museum of History to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Kansas Territory.
- Flashpoint - Kansas was the flashpoint for the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.
- Politics - Many Americans believed Kansas would determine the future of slavery.
- Violence - The territory quickly became known as Bleeding Kansas.
- Opportunity - People came here to buy cheap land and influence national politics.
- Survival - Making a home in Kansas often was difficult.
- Freedom - The name "Kansas" meant freedom to many African Americans.
- Legacy - The territorial era set the stage for both good and bad in Kansas history.
- Timeline - Outline of important events in Kansas history, with links to learn more.
- Constitutions - Kansas had four constitutions, more than any other territory.
- Voting game - Test your knowledge about who could vote legally in Kansas Territory.
Contact us at KansasMuseum@kshs.org