Fraud, Violence, and ‘Rigged’ Elections: A Warning from Bleeding Kansas

Fraud, Violence, and ‘Rigged’ Elections: A Warning from Bleeding Kansas

Democracy is fragile. One whiff of dishonesty, real or imagined, can undermine our dedication to democratic procedures. Even the wildest accusations about an opponent’s unethical or illegal behavior can help us justify rewriting the rules, or ignoring them altogether, in the name of victory. Allegations of electoral trickery are not uncommon in American politics, but they have cast a dark shadow over the ferocious presidential contest of 2016. Talk of voter fraud and rigged elections has proliferated in both the primary and general campaigns and will probably echo long after November. Still, the United States has weathered similar storms before: the “Corrupt Bargain” which allegedly ripped victory from Andrew Jackson’s hands in 1824; the disputed 1876 election, which raised fears of renewed civil war; and Bush v. Gore in 2000.

Outside of presidential politics, America’s record of peaceful, democratic decision-making gets even spottier. Just ask Kansas. In the mid-to-late 1850s, political strife in Kansas Territory captivated national attention and hastened the coming of the Civil War. From a bird’s-eye view, “Bleeding Kansas” represented a titanic struggle between two civilizations, with the fate of the republic hanging in the balance. The authors of an “Appeal to the South” warned that if abolitionists won, they would continue their “war upon the institutions of the South…until slavery shall cease to exist in any of the States, or the Union is dissolved.”[1] William H. Seward, a leading antislavery senator, agreed that the stakes were enormous. Either Kansas would be a free state, or slaveholders would win “at the cost of the sacrifice of all the existing liberties of the American people.”[2] Up close, however, the conflict looked grittier.

Within Kansas, the issues were equally substantial but the action unfolded as a series of sometimes violent clashes over voter qualifications, the validity of election returns, and the legitimacy of the territorial government. It was not supposed to be this way. Organized in 1854 under the principle of popular sovereignty, whereby local white voters would establish their own “domestic institutions” – and decide the fate of slavery – Kansas was meant to be a model of democracy. Popular dissatisfaction with a dysfunctional Congress made popular sovereignty appealing. Convinced that gridlocked antislavery and proslavery legislators could never compromise on the issue of slavery’s expansion, popular sovereignty’s supporters insisted that territorial voters choose for themselves. In practice, however, Kansas revealed democracy’s Achilles heel: if both sides are not willing to accept defeat, the system breaks down. And in Kansas, just as in Washington, D.C., slavery seemed too important to be left up to the whim of a majority.

A nineteenth-century etching entitled “Voting in Kickapoo,” from Albert D. Richardson, Beyond the Mississippi: From the Great River to the Great Ocean (Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1869; GoogleBooks), 101.

The trouble began in the winter of 1854 to 1855, when Kansas held a pair of elections to select a delegate to Congress and a territorial legislature. Hearing that hordes of Yankees were en route to Kansas, and fearful of being surrounded on three sides by antislavery neighbors, proslavery Missourians resolved to control the outcome by any means necessary. Declaring that northern migrants had no more right to rule the territory than they did, Missourians crossed into Kansas just before both elections and voted by the thousands. One later testified that, while en route to Kansas, he met three hundred like-minded men whose travel expenses had been paid by slaveholders determined to protect their western flank. They planned to vote at least fifteen hundred times.[3] Many proslavery partisans voted early and often; in the March 1855 election for delegates to the territorial legislature, more than 6,000 ballots were cast in a territory which had only 2,905 legal voters. An overwhelming majority – 5,427 – were for proslavery candidates.[4]

People on both sides denounced their foes. Northern migrants reported armed voter intimidation, theft of ballot boxes, and thousands of ballots cast by Missouri “Border Ruffians” who had no intention of staying in Kansas. Well-armed Missourians surrounded an antislavery candidate, grabbed him by the collar, and mocked him as a “damned abolitionist.”[5] But Missourians insisted that their lives, property, and security were at risk and declared that settlers just arrived from Massachusetts had no more valid right to vote than they did.

Border ruffians with swords
“Two Unidentified Border Ruffians with Swords,” ca. 1854-1860. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Given that many of the earliest bona fide migrants to Kansas were from Missouri, proslavery candidates might have won both elections honestly. But their partisans’ unwillingness to risk defeat unleashed a cycle of protest, deceit, and violence that plagued Kansas for years and undermined many inhabitants’ faith in local governance. Rejecting the proslavery territorial government as a sham, antislavery residents established a rival (and federally unsanctioned) government in Topeka and applied for admission into the Union as a free state. By 1856, guerrilla warfare raged across much of the territory, claiming dozens of lives, including Frederick Brown, a son of soon-to-be-infamous abolitionist John Brown. The bloodletting spilled over into Congress when Preston Brooks (D-SC) assaulted Charles Sumner (R-MA) for a speech denouncing efforts to force slavery into Kansas. Outside observers recognized that the escalation of blame and retaliation threatened the whole country. The nation’s proslavery and antislavery factions, wrote one concerned bystander, grew “more repulsive every year….Kansas, in fact, is already the literal battle-ground of this unquenchable contest, where streams of blood have flowed on both sides.”[6]

In our own superheated political climate, Bleeding Kansas might seem disturbingly familiar. Born out of disillusionment and desperation, the struggle in Kansas Territory bred a self-righteous refusal to accept the legitimacy of political rivals – and ultimately released a wave of violence. Whether they fought to protect property, preserve racial privilege, or promote an ideology, participants justified fraud, intimidation, and murder by demonizing their foes. History offers few clear-cut lessons, but it is apparent that democracy cannot thrive amid violence, hectoring, and intolerance. It is precisely when our confidence in “politics as usual” has been shaken that we must shun the temptation to take shortcuts to victory. It is precisely in the high-stakes elections, the ones we are most loath to lose, that we must reaffirm our dedication to democracy as a process. When the process breaks down, everyone loses.


[1] W.H. Russell et al., “Kansas Matters – Appeal to the South,” DeBow’s Review 20, no. 5 (May 1856), 636.

[2] Congressional Globe, 34 Cong., 1 Sess., appendix, p. 405 (April 9, 1856).

[3] E.P. Vaughn testimony in U.S. House of Representatives, Report of the Special Committee Appointed to Investigate the Troubles in Kansas; With the Views of the Minority of Said Committee, Report No. 200, 34th Cong., 1st Sess. (Washington: Cornelius Wendell, Printer, 1856), 130.

[4] Nicole Etcheson, Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004), 59.

[5] John A. Wakefield testimony in Report of the Special Committee, Report No. 200, 2.

[6] Samuel Gilman to My Dear Children, August 1856, Samuel Gilman Papers, South Caroliniana Library, Columbia, SC.

Michael E. Woods

Michael E. Woods is Associate Professor of History at Marshall University. He is the author of Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border (Routledge, 2016) and Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States (Cambridge University Press, 2014), which received the 2015 James A. Rawley Award from the Southern Historical Association. He is currently at work on a book entitled Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy.

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