The Kansas-Nebraska Act
Copyright © 2005-6, 2021, Henry J. Sage

Link to the full text of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed may 30, 1854

The Kansas-Nebraska Act has been called the greatest single step on the road to Civil War, and in fact it led to a period of virtual open warfare in the Kansas Territory, known at the time as “Bleeding Kansas.” The uproar over the Nebraska Act, as it was called, found its way to the halls of Congress, where a senator from Massachusetts, Charles Sumner, was beaten senseless with a cane by a southern congressman over issues relating to Kansas.

The Rise of Stephen A. Douglas, the “Little Giant.”

U.S. Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois was the dominant political figure of the 1850s and chaired the important Committee on Territories of the Senate. A successful politician from his early twenties, he was known throughout his life as Judge Douglas because douglashe had been elected to the Illinois Supreme Court at the age of 27. He served in the House of Representatives from Illinois from 1843 to 1847 and in the United States Senate from 1847 until his death in 1861. Following in the wake of powerful legislators like Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and others, he became one of the most powerful political figures in Washington. Today Douglas's statue stands in a prominent location on the grounds of the Illinois state capitol in Springfield along with those of Abraham Lincoln and Senator Everett M. Dirksen.

An ambitious politician, Douglas had his eye on the White House throughout the 1850s and was the Democratic candidate for the presidency in 1860. His first major action in the decade of debate leading up to the Civil War was to shepherd the 1850 Compromise through Congress after Clay and Webster were unsuccessful. The debates over that important legislation had gone on for months, but the act failed to get passed because there were too many parts to which individual legislators could object. Douglas solved the problem by breaking the act down into five separate parts, each one of which was eventually passed separately.

Senator Douglas saw the needs of the nation in a broad perspective. He advocated territorial expansion and popular sovereignty. He opposed slavery but did not find it morally repugnant. Generally, he did not think it was necessary for the nation to expend its energy on the slavery issue. Both parties endorsed the Compromise of 1850 in the 1852 campaign, but the Whig party was disintegrating, and proslavery southerners were coming to dominate the Democratic party.

In 1854, Senator Douglas, anxious to expand American settlement and commerce across the northern plains while promoting his own presidential ambitions, pushed an act through Congress organizing the territories of Kansas and Nebraska on the basis of popular sovereignty. To do so the bill had to include a repeal of the long-standing Missouri compromise. This repeal of the Compromise, along with publication of the“Ostend Manifesto” urging the United States acquisition of Cuba, convinced an increasing number of Northerners that Pierce's Democratic administration was dominated by pro-southern sympathizers, if not conspirators.

The Kansas-Nebraska area had a growing population, and Douglas, who favored expansion across the continent, hoped to speed construction of a transcontinental railroad through the territory as a first step in creating a path to California. By 1854 entrepreneurs were already thinking in terms of a transcontinental railroad, and Douglas wanted the eastern terminus to be in or near his home state of Illinois. Just as the Erie Canal and earlier rail lines had turned New York City into a great American emporium, Douglas foresaw the same sort of prosperity coming to Chicago in his home state once the transcontinental railroad was complete.

Southerners balked because they wanted the railroad farther south, and they feared that Nebraska would become a free state. Those areas were north of the Missouri Compromise line and had been off-limits to slavery since 1820, but Douglas proposed to apply popular sovereignty to them in an effort to get southern votes and avoid another controversy over territories.

Douglas's rationale for his support of the bill had numerous aspects. For starters, he believed strongly in the principle of self-government for the states. It is worth remembering here that until the amendments passed following the Civil War altered the relationship between the federal government and the states, the states still recalled the time when they consider themselves to be sovereign, independent nations as they were under the Articles of Confederation.

Second, and perhaps less honorable, Senator Douglas needed Southern support for the 1856 presidential election. Furthermore, he believed that geography itself would limit the extension of slavery by natural means, without federal government intervention. He strongly supported development of a transcontinental railroad, and he hoped that the terminus would be in Eastern Illinois. The bottom line of Douglas's position was most likely that he was a strong supporter of the principle of Manifest Destiny.

The Whig party, unable to decide what position to take on the Kansas-Nebraska Act, disintegrated. The Democratic party suffered mass defections in the North. In the congressional elections of 1854, coalitions of “anti-Nebraska” candidates swept the North, and the Democrats became virtually the only political party in the South. In the midst of this uproar, President Pierce made an effort to buy, or seize, Cuba from Spain, but northern anger at any further extension of slavery forced the president to drop the idea.
Despite all the controversy, the bill finally passed, and the nation took a giant step toward disunion, as it allowed for slavery in all new territories. The act turned out to be a victory for the South. As a result, the Democrats lost most of their support in the north, and they became a southern party.

Northern Democrats published a document, the “Appeal of the Independent Democrats,” which called the act a “gross violation of a sacred pledge.” According to Horace Greeley, the Kansas Nebraska act created more abolitionists than William Lloyd Garrison had achieved in 30 years. In the eighteen fifty-four elections, the Democrats lost significantly because of the “disaster” of the Kansas Nebraska act. The Democrats lost most of their seats in the North and became a southern party.

In 1854 a former slave named Anthony Burns was captured in Boston under the provisions of the fugitive slave law. Mobs attacked the prison where he was held, and federal troops arrived. The supreme court upheld the primacy of the Fugitive Slave Law, calling it constitutional, and the state personal freedom laws did not in effect nullify the federal act.

Douglas's biographers point out that although he was personally opposed to the institution of slavery, as an ambitious politician he was obliged to avoid any action which might alienate him from the South. Thus he adopted the doctrine of “popular sovereignty,” first used by Democratic presidential candidate Lewis Cass in the election of 1848. In other words, Douglas tried to have it both ways by taking a stance that would alienate neither the North nor South. In the end, that strategy failed him, as the breakup of the Democratic Party in 1860 helped elect Abraham Lincoln.

Various attempts to admit Kansas as a state failed in the 1850s, and Kansas was eventually admitted to the union in 1861 has a strong anti-slave state. But the Kansas-Nebraska Act had moved the country closer to war.
Kansas and the Rise of the Republicans

Formed in protest of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Republican party adopted a firm position opposing any further extension of slavery. Election fraud and violence in Kansas discredited the principle of popular sovereignty and strengthened Republican appeal in the North. The Republican party emerged as a coalition of former Whigs, Know-Nothings, Free-Soilers, and disenchanted, anti-slavery Democrats by emphasizing the sectional struggle and by appealing strictly to northern voters. Republicans promised to save the West as a preserve for white, small farmers.

Events in Kansas helped the Republicans. Abolitionists and proslavery forces raced into the territory to gain control of the territorial legislature. Proslavery forces won and passed laws that made it illegal even to criticize the institution of slavery. Very soon, however, those who favored free soil became the majority and set up a rival government. President Pierce recognized the proslavery legislature, while the Republicans attacked it as the tyrannical instrument of a minority. In Kansas, fighting broke out, and the Republicans used "Bleeding Kansas" to win more Northern voters.

Kansas became a testing ground for the ideal of popular sovereignty, which was at the heart of the politics of the slavery question. The Kansas Nebraska act was ambiguous about the time when the vote on slavery would be held, and who in Kansas would be permitted to vote. Both Northerners and Southerners tried to influence the situation. Groups of antislavery settlers came from New England to try to influence the vote against slavery. Proslavery Missourians crossed the border to vote in the Kansas elections. The result of the tension led to what was a near civil war in Kansas. The Franklin Pierce administration in Washington did nothing to help the situation, refusing to help restore order to the territory, although they did warn the border ruffians from Missouri to disperse. The Pottawatomie Massacre led by John Brown occurred on May 24 and 25. At last territorial governor Geary was able to obtain aid from federal troops, who dispersed the border ruffians. In all, 200 people were killed, and millions of dollars in property was destroyed.

The reaction in Congress to the situation in Kansas was sharp. Senator Sumner of Massachusetts insisted that Kansas be admitted as a free state. He gave a harsh speech called his "Crime Against Kansas" speech, a crude and offensive tirade that focused on a senator from South Carolina. Preston Brooks, a South Carolina congressman, came onto the Senate floor and thrashed Senator Sumner with a cane, injuring him severely. The senator was absent from the Senate for three years, and his vacant chair became a symbol for the antislavery forces in Congress. Kansas was finally admitted to the union as a free state in 1861.

Sage History Home | 1850s Drift Toward War Home | Nativism | 1856 Election | Updated January 17, 2022