Kansas Nebraska Act

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The Kansas Nebraska-act of 1854 both grew out of and contributed to the sectional crisis of the 1850s that ultimately led to war in 1861. This crisis pitted supporters of the extension of the slavery against those who sought slavery's restriction. Following the Compromise of 1850, which left extremists of North and South without grounds for anti- and proslavery agitation, most Americans proclaimed an end—"a finality"—to the conflict over the extension of slavery. Reality was somewhat more troubling. There was never a majority in Congress in 1850 that favored a comprehensive settlement of the slavery extension issue. Both the Whig and Democratic parties suffered from sharp internal differences over the meaning of the Compromise. By the 1852 presidential election, the two-party system was fragmented and weakened. The Democrats won a convincing victory in the electoral college, essentially ending the political viability of the Whig Party; but Franklin Pierce, the newly elected president, won the popular vote by only 1.6 percent of three million votes cast. More ominously, as measured against the number of eligible voters, turnout sank to its lowest level since 1836.

Pierce quickly proved himself to be an inept president, unable to resuscitate Democratic unity. In the absence of effective political leadership, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, representing the "Young America" wing of the Democratic Party, took it upon himself to reassert his party's basic political tenets and, in the bargain, reinvigorate the democracy. To that end, his Kansas Nebraska bill, which sought to organize the lands west of Iowa and Missouri, combined the ideas of westward expansion, internal improvements (including a transcontinental railroad), and popular sovereignty. Douglas, in need of Southerners' support and believing that the Compromise of 1850 embraced a policy of government nonintervention into the practice of slavery in the territories, wrote the principle of popular sovereignty into the bill. Popular sovereignty meant that people living in the territories could determine if their territory would allow the presence of slaves or whether the area would be reserved for free labor. The bill thus repealed the Missouri Compromise (1820) and its ban on slavery north of the latitude 36°30'.

Douglas was excoriated by Northerners for repealing this ban on slavery extension. Many party members believed popular sovereignty was consistent with the Democrats' commitment to nonintervention, limited government, and local self-governance. But, joined as it was to the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, popular sovereignty, in the eyes of Northern Democrats and Whigs, was not a reaffirmation of Democratic principles but a provocative and hostile initiative that increased the power of slavery.

Worse, although the people of Kansas were free to regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, the act failed to state when citizens could decide the status of slavery in their territory. This contributed to a real sense of urgency, on the part of both Northerners and Southerners, to settle the territory with "right-minded settlers" and thus seize political control of it. Subsequent to the act, widespread voting irregularities in Kansas gave way to armed conflict between free- and slave-state settlers. Rival governments were established at Topeka (free) and Lecompton (proslavery). "Bleeding Kansas" proved to a majority of Northerners and many Southerners that popular sovereignty was not an acceptable middle ground between the sectional extremes of slavery restriction and extension. Politically it destroyed the ascendancy of the Democrats in the North: in the off-year elections following the passage of the act, the party was able to save only twenty-five of ninety-one free-state seats it had won in 1852. The effect, not the intent, of the act was to upset the balance of power within the Democratic Party and thus weaken a powerful voice of nationalism in a period of growing sectional animosity. The act also contributed to the end of the Whig Party and to the rise of the Republican Party, which based its appeal on repealing the Kansas Nebraska act and halting the spread of slavery unleashed by that act. The extension of slavery proved to be a major cause of the outbreak of war in 1861.


Johannsen, Robert W. Stephen A. Douglas. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973.

Malin, James C. The Nebraska Question, 1852–1854. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1953.

Morrison, Michael A. Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the American Civil War. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997.

Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Rawley, James A. Race and Politics: "Bleeding Kansas" and the Coming of the Civil War. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1969.

Michael A. Morrison

See also:Age of Westward Expansion; Compromise of 1850.

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Kansas Nebraska Act

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