Remembering Days When Congress Was a Violent Place

In the months before the opening of the Thirty-fourth Congress in December 1855, Americans North, South, and West predicted tough times ahead. A “popular sovereignty” clause in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which had been passed in May 1854, allowed for settlers in those territories to decide their state’s slavery status for themselves, dividing the nation into two warring factions. Kansas devolved into violent, bloody confrontations over the question, flooding a watchful national audience with graphic images of slave-state and free-state settlers in open combat. The partisan press increased the struggle’s impact by peddling conspiracy theories about a brutal Slave Power or ruthless Northern aggressors trying to seize control of the nation.

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