The 1850s were a time of great political tension in the United States. Thanks to the efforts of Brown and other abolitionists, growing numbers of Northerners believed that slavery was wrong. Some people wanted to outlaw it, while others just wanted to prevent it from spreading beyond the Southern states where it was already allowed. But many Southerners felt threatened by Northern efforts to contain slavery. They believed that each state should decide for itself whether to allow the practice. They did not want the national government to pass laws that would interfere with their traditional way of life. This dispute grew more heated as the United States expanded westward. Both sides wanted to spread their political ideas into the new territories and states.
For many years, the representatives of the Northern and Southern states in the U.S. government had reached a series of political compromises on the issue of slavery. To resolve the question of westward expansion, for example, they established a pattern of allowing one slave state and one free state to enter the Union at the same time. In this way, the number of slave and free states remained in balance. In 1854, however, the Kansas-Nebraska Act disrupted this pattern. It allowed the people living in a territory to decide whether to join the Union as a slave state or a free state. The act was named after the next two territories scheduled to enter the Union. It soon became clear that Nebraska voters would elect to enter the United States as a slave state. But the decision of Kansas voters was uncertain.
People on both sides of the slavery issue tried to affect the outcome of the vote in Kansas. Slavery supporters from neighboring Missouri came to Kansas in large numbers. These "border ruffians," as they were called, voted illegally and used violence to intimidate their opponents. In the meantime, an-tislavery people flocked into Kansas as well. In 1856, Brown traveled to Kansas with his family and a wagon load of weapons. They settled along Pottawatomie Creek, near the abolitionist settlement of Lawrence. Brown had chosen Kansas as the place where he would make a stand against slavery.
In May 1856, a proslavery mob attacked Lawrence. They fired artillery shells into a hotel and burned down several homes. Brown vowed to take revenge for the attack on Lawrence. On May 24, he and a small band of followers attacked several proslavery settlements along Pottawatomie Creek. They captured five men who supported slavery and brutally hacked them to death in front of their wives and children. Afterward, each side followed with more violent acts of retaliation. Over the summer of 1856, more than two hundred people died in what became known as "Bleeding Kansas." Brown became the focus of a great deal of fear and hatred among Southerners.
A Civil War-era view of Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now part of West Virginia).
(Photograph by James Gardner. Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.)
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