As I read the range of reactions to Kyle Rittenhouse’s acquittal on all charges a few weeks ago, two words kept replaying over and over in my head: Bleeding Kansas.
“Bleeding Kansas” was the phrase used in the 1850s to describe the political violence and turmoil that characterized the fight between pro- and anti-slavery forces in Kansas and Nebraska territory. The United States was divided over the future of slavery in the nation. While the southern slave states argued that the Constitution protected slavery’s perpetual expansion into the unincorporated territories, moderate opponents argued that slavery’s growth had to be prevented at all costs, and limited to the places where it already existed. Abolitionists wanted slavery ended everywhere in the United States.
This combustible mix of attitudes met in Kansas, where the Kansas-Nebraska Act led to a concept called popular sovereignty. Essentially, the people of the territory would vote on whether Kansas and Nebraska territories would enter the Union as slave or free states. Forces from both sides of the debate flooded the territory, and political mayhem, violence, and murder became the de facto state of affairs for most of the 1850s.
To be sure, Kyle Rittenhouse’s killing of two people in Kenosha, Wisconsin does not mean that state is on the brink of the kind of violence that rocked Kansas territory for years. But it is noteworthy and exists in the same political realm. Like Kansas territory, the violence in Kenosha was ultimately centered on the political, social, and legal rights of African Americans in this country. That we’re still having violent arguments about our status is sad, but a topic for another day. Like in the Kansas territory, self-styled vigilantes from all over the surrounding area showed up to “defend property.” Rittenhouse claimed to be in Kenosha to protect local businesses, his antecedents in Kansas to protect their claim to human property.
What’s most concerning though is that Bleeding Kansas was a prelude to the much more cataclysmic violence of the Civil War in the next decade. The nation had been warned that there were people willing to use violence to maintain and spread white supremacist society, but the war still came as a bloody shock that dragged on for four years. So no, I don’t think drawing a parallel between vigilantes like Rittenhouse and pro-slavery zealots is overwrought. In fact, I think that we’ve been much too nonchalant about facing the constant stream of white supremacist violence which consistently rears its head in shootings and attacks around the nation.
Political violence is not uncommon in the United States, so it can be easy to dismiss individual incidents of violence as horrific one-off events. But I think that we need to look carefully at the similarly combustible mix of race, politics, and violence that has characterized the American landscape since 2020. There was an insurrection earlier this year, and while there have been hundreds of arrests made, the leadership class which funded and encouraged the attack on the Capitol has generally escaped accountability so far.
Several states have passed laws specifically targeted to restrict voting rights for African Americans and other minorities to favor Republican candidates. Meanwhile, former President Trump and his acolytes continue to spread the lie that the 2020 presidential election was stolen by voter fraud, a claim with explicitly racist overtones.
The final component of our 1850s redux is the seeming inability of our national politics to grapple with the challenges at hand. All three branches of government – Congress, the Supreme Court, and the presidency – are facing some of their lowest approval ratings ever recorded. Even the concept of democracy itself seems to be suffering from a crisis of belief, as younger people question its efficacy in addressing their concerns. President Biden, far from recalling Abraham Lincoln in the moment of crisis, feels more like a Franklin Pierce or James Buchanan.
These are the conditions in which we hurtle toward 2024, where there is open acknowledgment that the results will be contested and disputed, no matter how decisive the victory. The refusal to accept a legitimate election was the final straw that led to our first Civil War. If we continue to ignore the similarities in the body politic we face, it may be the precipitating event for a second.
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