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When Truly Stolen Elections Changed the Course of American History

"Liberty, the Fair Maid of Kansas in the Hands of the Border Ruffians," c. 1856. Image Boston Public Library

U.S. Secretary of State William L. Marcy, Minister to the UK James Buchanan, President Franklin Pierce, and US Senators Lewis Cass and Stephen Douglas are depicted as participants in the violence committed by pro-slavery Missourians

It has become a familiar cry over the past couple of years: The election was stolen! Fraud! We were robbed!

Former President Donald Trump and his supporters allege that election fraud in several states (Georgia, Arizona, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and others) resulted in the electoral votes of those states going to Joe Biden, determining the outcome of the 2020 presidential election. The claims brought Trump supporters to Washington, D. C. on January 6, 2021, and led to the attack on the Capitol. Similar claims about the 2022 midterm elections have been made, most notably by the Republican candidate for governor in Arizona.

While the recent election fraud allegations have been rejected by the courts due to lack of supporting evidence, there was a time in American history when elections were stolen, their outcomes determined by fraudulent votes, and their results certified by the federal government.

In 1854, Congress passed, and President Franklin Pierce signed into law, the Kansas-Nebraska Act. It reversed the Missouri Compromise’s prohibition on any northern expansion of slavery. Instead, whether slavery would exist in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska would be determined by what was called “popular sovereignty,” i.e., the people of a territory would vote on whether to have slavery or not. Nebraska, located farther north and sharing a border with the free state of Iowa, was, most believed, destined to reject slavery. But the status of slavery in Kansas, to Nebraska’s south and bordering on the slaveholding state of Missouri, was uncertain. Both the North and South rushed settlers into Kansas to try to gain the majority.

The major tests of each side’s strength occurred at the ballot box. The first election was held on November 29, 1854, to select a delegate to represent the territory in Congress. The rules for voting, as determined by the territory’s Pierce-appointed governor, Andrew Reeder, had been clear. To cast a ballot, an eligible voter must actually reside in the territory of Kansas, to the exclusion of any other domicile, and have the intention of remaining permanently.

So much for the rules. On election day, hordes of proslavery Missourians crossed the border into Kansas and voted illegally. Although most were not slaveholders, they had heard plenty of speeches from their leaders inciting them to do whatever was necessary to stop the “Yankee abolitionists” from making Kansas a free state. Dubbed “border ruffians” by free-staters, these men were menacing in appearance and behavior and arrived for election day armed with knives and guns, as well as with ample supplies of barreled whiskey. They came in groups across the border a couple of days before the election and, a day or so after turned around and went back to Missouri. Crowding the polling places, they demanded to vote and threatened poll judges who refused to let them do so. Some of the judges, in fear for their lives, quit on the spot; those who remained were helpless to prevent ballot boxes from being stuffed. Worse, the ruffians used intimidation and in some cases violence to keep legitimate slavery-opposing residents of Kansas from casting their ballots.

It worked. The proslavery candidate for Congress, John Whitfield, won the November election with almost 2,300 votes, compared to only around 300 for his closest challenger. Despite the widespread and obvious fraud, Governor Reeder let the results stand. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, the victors proudly declared, established that the people would vote to decide all issues pertaining to slavery. And vote they had. A congressional investigation later determined that more than 1,700 votes had been fraudulently cast.

Four months later, on March 30, 1855, another election was held in Kansas to select a territorial legislature. This election was far more important than the earlier one, which had only chosen a delegate to represent the territory in Congress. The legislative body elected in March would write the territory’s laws, put it on a course for statehood, and have a large say in whether that would be with or without slavery. In the months since November, hundreds more settlers had arrived from New England and other northern states, most of whom opposed slavery. Free-staters were confident that, if the election were held fairly, a legislature with a majority opposing slavery would be chosen.

Once again, however, thousands of Missourians crossed the border and cast illegal ballots. A census of Kansas residents taken just a few weeks before had documented fewer than 3,000 eligible voters. Yet, more than 6,000 votes were cast and, of those, more than 5,400 were for proslavery candidates. All but a handful of the seats in the legislature went to them. As in November, many legitimate Kansas residents who opposed slavery were unable to vote, due to intimidation, threats, and violence. An appeal to Governor Reeder to toss out the results ended in a revote in only a few precincts, nowhere near enough to change the outcome. Fumed Horace Greeley in the New York Tribune, “[A] more stupendous fraud was never perpetrated since the invention of the ballot-box. The crew who will assemble under the title of the Kansas Territorial Legislature, by virtue of this outrage, will be a body of men whose acts no more respect will be due . . . than a Legislature chosen by a tribe of wander[ers] . . . .”

Although elected by fraud, the territorial legislature was recognized by President Pierce as the legitimate government of the Kansas Territory. When it met in the summer of 1855, harsh proslavery laws were passed. These not only made slavery legal in Kansas, but also imposed the death penalty for assisting a slave escape to freedom, and even made speaking or writing in opposition to slavery in Kansas a felony punishable by up to two years of imprisonment at hard labor. 

The free-staters in Kansas dubbed these “bogus laws” enacted by a “bogus legislature.” They boycotted the machinery of the territorial government, adopted a policy of repudiating its laws, drafted a constitution for Kansas to enter the Union as a free state, and set up their own shadow government. President Pierce, who called these actions “revolutionary” and potentially “treasonable,” ordered the commanders of federal forts in the territory to suppress any armed resistance to enforcement of the laws. Over the next few years, much blood was shed in Kansas on both sides. The town of Lawrence, an antislavery enclave, was attacked by a proslavery mob, abolitionist John Brown massacred proslavery men and boys at Pottawatomie Creek, and there were battles between militia groups. Some estimates of the death toll run into the hundreds.  

By 1859, settlers in Kansas opposing slavery were clearly in the majority. A new governor, Robert Walker, vowed that elections would be held fairly. When he threw out fraudulently cast votes in elections for the territorial legislature held that fall, the free-staters were finally in control. In January 1861, two months after the election of Abraham Lincoln, and after the secession of several states in the Deep South, Kansas finally entered the Union as a free state. Lincoln, a former one-term congressman from Illinois, had left politics in the late 1840s. It was his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act that caused him to reenter to political arena in the mid-1850s and put him on a path to the White House. But for the controversy, election fraud, and violence in Kansas, Lincoln may well have been just a footnote to history.