Americans think of voting as a central act of democracy. They like to have confidence in the results of voting, no matter what those results are. When that confidence is shaken, there are consequences.
Such was the case in the Kansas territory in 1855, and — looking back on it — it’s easy to see it as one of the factors that drove the nation toward the Civil War.
The story starts in 1854 when Congress enacted the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The legislation enabled the people who were moving into the land west of Missouri to organize themselves into territorial governments, which was then the first step toward statehood. That had not happened before 1854 in part because of the question of slavery. Would these territories — and eventually states — allow slavery or not?
The Kansas-Nebraska Act left that question to a principle called “popular sovereignty.” That is, the territories would be whatever the locals voted for.
Anti-slavery forces, particularly those around Boston, immediately announced that they would try to settle people in Kansas to prevent the territory from becoming an area where slavery was legal. Pro-slavery forces reacted, even over-reacted, to these plans.
On March 30, 1855, a mass of Missourians sympathetic to slavery, known as the “Border Ruffians,” crossed the border
voted in the election. They made little pretense of their intentions. They wanted to make sure that the Kansas territory voted their way.
The pro-slavery forces won the election and formed the territorial government. Conflicts between the pro-slavery forces and the “free-soilers” continued with tragic consequences.
But the government in Kansas was never seen by many of its residents or by the country as a whole as legitimate. By their actions in Kansas, pro-slavery forces established a reputation of being willing to do anything, even fix an election, to get their way.
And, irony upon irony, because of this lack of legitimacy, slavery never got a foothold in the territory.
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