Abolitionists in Kansas


John Brown, radical abolitionist

John Brown, radical abolitionist

Abolitionists were people who believed that slavery was immoral and wanted to end slavery in the United States. They influenced political debates in the United States from the late 17th century through the Civil War.

The first attempts to end slavery in the British/American colonies came from Thomas Jefferson and some of his contemporaries. Despite the fact that Jefferson was a lifelong slaveholder, he included strong anti-slavery language in the original draft of the Declaration of Independence, but other delegates took it out before it was finalized. Benjamin Franklin, also a slaveholder for much of his life, became a leading member of the Pennsylvania Society for the Abolition of Slavery, the first recognized organization for abolitionists in the United States. Following the American Revolution, several Northern states abolished slavery, beginning with Vermont in 1777 and Pennsylvania in 1780. Other states with more of an economic interest in slaves, such as New York and New Jersey, also passed gradual emancipation laws, and by 1804, all the northern states had abolished it.

In 1831 William Lloyd Garrison began the publication of the Liberator, the first newspaper in the United States to take a radical stand for the abolition of slavery. Two years later the National Anti-Slavery Society was organized at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and in a short time, the members of the organization became divided to some extent as to the methods to be pursued in the efforts to secure the emancipation of the slaves. Some clung to the theory of gradual freeing of the slaves, with compensation to the slaveholders as a last resort, while others advocated the immediate and unconditional liberation of every slave, by force if necessary, and without compensating their owners. These extremists in 1835 were nicknamed “abolitionists” by those who favored slavery, and also by the conservative element in the society. Although this name was first applied in a spirit of derision, the extremists accepted it as an honor. In a short time a number of abolitionist orators, speakers of more than ordinary ability, came forward. Among these men were Wendell Phillips, Gerrit Smith, and Charles Sumner, who never lost an opportunity of presenting their views.

The society became divided in 1840 on the question of organizing a political party on anti-slavery lines. From that time each branch worked in its own way, and by the time Kansas was organized as a territory, the abolitionists — the radical wing of the original society — had become strong enough to attract attention from one end of the country to the other.

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, which organized these two territories for settlement, also allowed the residents of each state to vote on whether or not to allow slavery when the territory became a state. This approach was called popular sovereignty.

Among the pro-slavery men, there was no distinction between those who were in favor of the gradual, peaceable emancipation of the slave and those who were in favor of immediate emancipation at whatever cost. Many pro-slavery advocates regarded the Free-State men as “abolitionists” indiscriminately.

Hostile Mob Attacks Abolitionists

Hostile Mob Attacks Abolitionists

At a pro-slavery squatter meeting near Leavenworth, Kansas on June 10, 1854, a resolution was adopted declaring that “We will afford protection to no abolitionist as a settler in Kansas.” A pro-slavery meeting in Lafayette County, Missouri on December 15, 1854, denounced the steamboats plying on the Missouri River for carrying abolitionists to Kansas. As a result of this agitation, the Star of the West in the spring of 1856 was allowed to carry about 100 persons from Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina to Kansas unmolested, but on her next trip, with a number of Free-State passengers, she was held up at Lexington, Missouri, where the passengers were disarmed, and upon arriving at Weston, Missouri was not permitted to land. Other steamers encountered similar opposition.

In February 1855, Lawrence, Kansas was denounced because it was “the home of about 400 abolitionists,” and at a Law and Order meeting at Leavenworth on November 15, 1855, John Calhoun said: “You yield and you will have the most infernal government that ever cursed a land. I would rather be a painted slave over in Missouri, or a serf to the Czar of Russia, than have the abolitionists in power.”

General James H. Lane

General James H. Lane

On October 5, 1857, occurred the election for members of the Territorial Legislature, and on October 23rd the Doniphan Constitutionalist, a pro-slavery newspaper, accounted for the Free-State victory by saying that the “sneaking abolitionists were guilty of cutting loose the ferry boats at Doniphan and other places on the day of the election, by order of James H. Lane.” To this, the Lawrence Republican retorted: “Bad man, that Jim Lane, to order the boats cut loose; great inconvenience to the Missourians and the Democratic Party.”

At the beginning of the border troubles, the Platte Argus said editorially: “The abolitionists will probably not be interfered with if they settle north of the 40th parallel of north latitude, but south of that line they need not set foot.”

A pro-slavery convention at Lecompton, Kansas on December. 9, 1857, adopted resolutions denunciatory of Governors Reeder, Geary and Walker for their efforts “to reduce and prostitute the Democracy to the unholy ends of the abolitionists.”

These instances might be multiplied indefinitely, but enough has been said to show that the pro-slavery men made no distinction whatever between the radical and conservative wings of the Free-State party. If a man was opposed to slavery, though willing to let it alone where it already existed, he was just as much of an “abolitionist” as the extremist who would be satisfied with nothing less than the immediate emancipation of all slaves, without regard to constitutional guarantees or the simplest principles of equity.

The radical anti-slavery people claimed that the Civil War was an anti-slavery conflict, and maintained that this view was justified by the emancipation proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln, notwithstanding Lincoln’s previous utterance that he was not striving to abolish slavery but to preserve the Union.

15th Amendment

15th Amendment

Compiled and edited by Kathy Weiser-Alexander, updated November 2018.

Also See:

Bleeding Kansas

Free-State Kansas

Kansas-Missouri Border War Timeline

Pro-Slavery Movement in Kansas


Blackmar, Frank W.; Kansas: A Cyclopedia of State History, Standard Publishing Company, Chicago, IL 1912.



1 thought on “Abolitionists in Kansas”

  1. I could be wrong, but you seem to be in error on two points, and they are both fundamentally important.

    1) There was a huge difference between the abolitionist in Kansas an the Garrison bunch.

    Why didn’t you know that? In fact Eli Thayer wrote about it clearly and passionately, The yappers or talkers as he called them would not help – would not vote, did not do anything to stop Kansas Act, would not do anything of value to push back the invasion of Kansas.

    In fact the abolitionist party — Garrison and so forth said it was their DUTY — their DUTY to dis band the United State immediately Their religious and political DUTY

    2 Abolitionist in the mouths and hands of the killers and invaders meant ANYONE not from the South.

    TO call someone an abolitionist was like calling them today a child rapist, a serial child rapist and child molester, IT was the worst possible thing they could call someone, and they used it all the time.

    If you don’t know that, you would easily think when Davis, Douglas, Atchison, Stringfellow were talking about Garrison and so forth. Well, they would include ANYONE ANYONE who was not eagerly pro slavery as an abolitionist. But you should know the difference.

    You should know that term abolitionist did not mean to those killing and terrorizing in Kansas, from what you mean now.

    In fact, when Lincoln spoke about why slavery had to die, or union had to die, that only one was going to survive, slavery or Union, North South East and West — he was talking to the ABOLITIONIST too. He wanted them to know and realize (and he was right) that only by saving the Union can we destroy slavery.

    Abolitionist of Garrison ilk — which is why Douglass pulled away from him — were mostly yappers, and wanted to disband the Union. Douglass agreed early on but then figured out Lincoln (and others) were right. The US Constitution, correctly applied, and not violently changed by Dred Scott, would have to be the method. We will have to Amend the Constitution (which he did). To Amend the Constitution and get enough states to back 13th Amendment, he had to defeat the South, which he also did

    Read Eli Thayer in Charles Robinson’s book, the Kansas Conflict, available free online, and realize this was common knowledge in what those doing things – fighting -knew well. Lincoln knew it well too

    I have to get time to see how Garrison and others who were so eager to destroy the Union reacted when LIncoln was right.

    There are stupid people yapping about how LIncoln was no abolitionst.

    Depends which ones. Lincoln was far more radical than any of Garrisons’s bunch. Lincoln was willing to kick ass, to fight back.

    Garrisons bunch wanted to destroy the Union — and not do a damn thing to stop the spread of slavery.

    Thayer was right. Those guys were stupid and of little help

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