Today, the State of Kansas marks its 150th anniversary of statehood. Modern pop culture regards Kansas as quiet, flat, ordinary, and even boring; alternatively it’s portrayed as an idyllic land of sunflower fields. But neither depiction reflects the reality of historical Kansas.
Statehood did not come easy to Kansas. In the 1850’s, Kansas was the kindling ground that became a brush-fire that became the conflagration known as the Civil War. Kansas Territory attracted two polar opposite groups: ardent abolitionists, largely from New England; and staunch slavery supporters, many from Kentucky via Clay County, Missouri. Kansans found themselves not only geographically in the center of the nation, but on center stage politically during one of the worst periods in US history.
The path to Kansas conflict was set upon in 1820, when the United States Congress decided to link what had been several separate measures to admit Missouri (a slave state) and Maine (a free state) to the Union and to prohibit slavery in the territories north and west of Missouri. This legislative package was known as the Missouri Compromise. The idea was to maintain a balance between the slave states and the free states while stopping any further spread of slavery in the country. However, in 1854, Congress enacted the Kansas-Nebraska Act, organizing Kansas Territory and Nebraska Territory. The legislation effectively overturned the Missouri Compromise by providing that the issue of slavery in the territories would be decided by the people of those places. The result in Kansas was voter fraud and violence. The fuse to the Civil War had been lit.
Hundreds of transplanted southerners from Missouri poured into Kansas and elected a territorial legislature and other civil officers. That first territorial legislature adopted a slave code that bore remarkable similarities to that of Kentucky.
Missourians openly cast fraudulent ballots in Kansas elections and unabashedly intimidated legal residents of Kansas. These crimes were seldom investigated because, among other things, the responsible officials often were dual officeholders from Missouri. For example, the District Attorney of one Kansas county was actually the DA of Clay County (“Little Dixie”), Missouri. The sheriff in another Kansas county was the sheriff of another Missouri county.
Slaves ran away from Missouri to Kansas; free blacks were kidnapped from Kansas and taken into bondage in Missouri. As the “Free-Staters” struggled with “Border Ruffians,” the territory became known as “Bleeding Kansas.” Such historical figures as Henry Ward Beecher and John Brown rose to national attention in Kansas. The violence actually spread from Kansas to Washington, DC. On the floor of the Senate in 1856, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts delivered an angry speech called “The Crime Against Kansas” in which he verbally attacked southern senators, including Sen. Andrew Brooks of South Carolina, calling them “hirelings picked from the drunken spew and vomit of an uneasy civilization.” He accused them of “cavorting with the harlot, Slavery.” In retaliation, Sen. Brooks’ nephew, Rep. Preston Brooks, went to the Senate and beat Sumner unconscious with a cane. Sumner was unable to return to the Senate for more than three years.
In the end, the “Ruffians” failed to prevail. And by 1861, the secession of several Southern states appeared likely and Congress swiftly granted statehood to Kansas on January 29, 1861.
During the war, Kansas was one of the first states to enlist black men. The First Kansas Colored Volunteer Infantry regiment was organized in 1862, consisting mainly of runaway slanes from Missouri. The regiment acquitted itself well both before and afetr its muster into Federal service in July 1863.
A century after the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Kansas was again center-stage in an American controversy. In Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, the United States Supreme Court held that racially segregated public schools were “inherently unequal” and therefore unconstitutional. The decision changed the destiny of future generations of children as well as changing relationships and attitudes in America.
Kansas Day honors the state and its people who have been, often without appropriate recognition, at the center of American life and history. I’m proud to claim Kansas ancestry. My great-grandfather, Rev. James William Long, was born in Shawnee, Kansas, in 1866.
January 29, 2011 Saturday at 3:40 pm