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At the heart of the conflict was the question of whether the Kansas Territory would allow or outlaw slavery, and thus enter the Union as a slave state or a free state. The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 called for popular sovereignty, requiring that the decision about slavery be made by the territory's settlers (rather than outsiders) and decided by a popular vote. Existing sectional tensions surrounding slavery quickly found focus in Kansas, with the pro-slavery element arguing that every settler had the right to bring his own property, including slaves, into the territory; anti-slavery "free soil" proponents argued not only that slavery was unethical, but that permitting slavery in Kansas would allow rich slaveholders to control the land to the exclusion of non-slaveholders. Missouri, a slave state since 1821, was populated by a large number of settlers with Southern sympathies and pro-slavery attitudes, many of whom tried to influence the decision in Kansas. The conflict was fought politically as well as between civilians, where it eventually degenerated into brutal gang violence and paramilitary guerrilla warfare. The term "Bleeding Kansas" was popularized by Horace Greeley's New York Tribune.

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