Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854

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Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854

James L. Huston

Excerpt from the Kansas Nebraska Act of 1954

That the Constitution, and all Laws of the United States which are not locally inapplica ble, shall have the same force and effect within the said Territory of Nebraska as else where within the United States, except the eighth section of the act preparatory to the admission of Missouri into the Union ... which, being inconsistent with the principle of non-intervention by Congress with slavery in the States and territories, as recognized by the legislation of eighteen hundred and fifty,..., is hereby declared inoperative and void; it being the true intent and meaning of this act not to legislate slavery into any Territory or State, nor to exclude it therefrom, but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way....

Each year Congress passes thousands of laws, but only a few truly shape the course of national life. One such law was the Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 (10 Stat. 282). This act produced terrible consequences and perhaps deserves the title of the most ill-conceived and wretched piece of congressional handiwork in the nation's history. More than any other single action, this law put the United States on the path to Civil War.

The Kansas Nebraska Act was the consequence of three forces: the spirit of Manifest Destiny, the conflict between Northern and Southern states over slavery's expansion into the Western territories acquired after the Mexican War, and the expansionist visions of Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas.


From 1846 to 1850, Congress had wrestled with the question of slavery's expansion into the Western territories and finally devised a somewhat unsatisfactory solution in the Compromise of 1850. The previous Missouri Compromise of 1820 had established a line (at 36 degrees 30 minutes) below which slavery was permitted and above which it was prohibited. The Compromise of 1850 did not extend that line to the Pacific Ocean. Instead, California was to enter as a free state and, in terms the compromise left very vague, settlers in the other territory acquired from Mexico would decide for themselves whether to establish slavery.

Senator Stephen Douglas, one of the strong men of the Democratic Party and the outstanding leader in the Great Lakes region, was an ardent expansionist who desired to turn the territories between Iowa and California into states. He sought statehood for this area partly because he wanted a transcontinental railroad to San Francisco to originate from Chicago rather than from a rival city (such as St. Louis or New Orleans). No railroad could be built unless the lands of the West were on their way toward statehood, because only then would law enforcement be brought to the region.

Douglas immediately ran into Southern opposition concerning the organization of areas beyond Iowa and Missouri into territories. Still smarting from the debates over the Compromise of 1850, Southerners wanted assurance that slave property would be looked upon as any other type of property. In 1853 Douglas tried to organize the territory of Nebraska and was bluntly told by Senator David Atchison of Missouri that the South would never support such an organization as long as the 36 degree 30 minute line of the Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery in the Nebraska region. The Missouri Compromise marked out slave property as different from ordinary property and therefore subject to different rules. For many Southerners, after the political crisis from 1846 to 1850, this discrimination (as they saw it) against slave property was no longer acceptable.


A frustrated Douglas was determined to set the land between Iowa and the Rocky Mountains on the path to eventual statehood. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories in the first session of the Thirty-Third Congress, he proposed to organize the Territory of Nebraska and let the question of slavery be settled at its eventual constitutional convention. This proposal did not satisfy Southerners. Kentucky Senator Archibold Dixon of the Whig Party offered an amendment that specifically repealed the Missouri Compromise line of 36 degrees 30 minutes. Douglas took his bill back into committee and consulted with his peers. He then came back to the Senate on January 23, 1854, with a new bill that repealed the Missouri Compromise line and divided the land into the new territory of Kansas and Nebraska.

The critical question of slavery was to be settled by the settlers themselves, by the doctrine of popular sovereignty. This concept was devised by Michigan Senator Lewis Cass in December 1847 and then picked up by the Democrats in the presidential election of 1848. The act stated that its intent was "to leave the people [of Kansas and Nebraska] perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way." Popular sovereignty became the grand touchstone of truth for Douglas thereafter, and the rest of his life (he died in April 1861) was devoted to championing its righteousness.

Douglas's new bill tore Congress into battling halves and eventually destroyed the Whig-Democrat two-party system that had ruled the nation since the 1830s. Douglas and many of the Northern Democrats adopted popular sovereignty and insisted on its validity in overcoming arguments about slavery.

In effect they agreed that the Missouri Compromise line demeaned Southerners. Southerners agreed about the injustice done to them by the Missouri Compromise but hesitated to accept popular sovereignty, for they believed that settlers could not determine the existence of slavery at any time other than when they framed their state constitutions.

Northern Whigs and many Northern Democrats exploded in wrath at the repeal of the venerable Compromise of 1820. For them, the Missouri Compromise had virtually become a part of the Constitution. What possible reason could there be to repeal the compromise lineespecially at a moment when there was no public agitation about slaveryexcept to allow Southerners to expand slavery into places where it had been prohibited? The aristrocratic slaveholders of the South were called the "Slave Power." Northern congressional leaders feared that the Slave Power had become aggressive, intending to gain more slave states, would overwhelm Congress with slave-state representatives and senators, destroy civil liberties, convert free states into slave states, enslave all workingmen regardless of color, and transform the United States from a republic into a slaveholding despotism.

The debate over the bill raged for three months. President Franklin Pierce applied pressure on Northern Democrats to accept it, and on May 22, 1854, the House passed the Kansas Nebraska Act (the Senate had passed it on March 3). Pierce signed the bill into law on May 30.


No congressional member had so badly miscalculated the consequences of his actions as had Douglas. He believed that, besides getting a transcontinental railroad terminating in Chicago, he had removed the slavery issue from national life. By putting discussion of slavery in the hands of settlers and taking it away from members of Congress, Douglas believed, as did many others, that the national agitation over slavery's expansion would cease. This prediction was proven miserably wrong. Many Northerners fiercely resisted any possibility of slavery's extension into the Louisiana Purchase area or in the states of Wisconsin and Michigan, and out of the ashes of the Whig Party soon rose the Republican Party. In the congressional elections of 1854, the Democratic Party suffered the greatest defeat in its history. At the beginning of Congress in December 1853, Northern Democrats had ninety-one members; after the elections of 1854, they had twenty-five. Only seven out of forty-four Northern Democrats who had voted for the Kansas Nebraska Act were reelected. It took the Northern Democrats twenty years to recover from this disaster.


Kansas territory became a running sore on the national political body that only inflamed hostility between North and South. Northerners who advocated a free state, known as "free soilers," streamed into Kansas Territory, only to be met by proslavery Southerners and Missourians. These Missourians were called "Border Ruffians" because they lived in Missouri but then traveled to Kansas to vote illegally in Kansas elections. By 1856 the controversy between these two factions was so intense as to be called "Bleeding Kansas." Two rival legislatures existed, one in Topeka (the free soil capital) and one in Lecompton (the proslavery capital). By fraudulent election tactics, the proslavery faction took over the territorial legislature and wrote a constitution making Kansas a slave state. This constitution was then ratified under fraudulent conditions by a vote of the settlers, with most free soilers abstaining.

Douglas considered the actions of the proslavery faction in Kansas a perversion of the doctrine of popular sovereignty, so he refused to vote for it and joined the Republicans in opposition. The Lecompton Constitution was rejected by Congress in 1858, making Southern leaders furious at Douglas. Meanwhile, all this deceitful activity designed to make Kansas a slave state convinced a majority of Northerners that a Slave Power did in fact intend to convert the United States into a slaveholding despotism. In response, the power of the Republican Party swelled. In the election of 1860, the Democratic Party, polarized by the Kansas Nebraska Act, broke into Northern and Southern fragments, enabling the Republicans to stride to victory.


With the Republicans controlling the federal government and because of their evident dislike of slavery, Southerners in the plantation states (Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas) decided to leave the Union. The stage was set for the Civil War. Other events probably would have triggered the reactions which led to secession and civil war, for the antagonism of Northern society to slavery was not simply going to vanish. But in the actual chain of events, the Kansas Nebraska Act stands out as the one that precipitated armed conflict between North and South.

See also: Compromise of 1850; Missouri Compromise.


Gara, Larry. The Presidency of Franklin Pierce. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991.

Gates, Paul Wallace. Fifty Million Acres: Conflicts over Kansas Land Policy, 18541890. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1954.

Holt, Michael F. The Political Crisis of the 1850s. New York: Hill and Wang, 1978.

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

McPherson, James M. Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction, 2d ed. New York: Knopf, 1992.

Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis, 18481861. Completed and edited by Don. E. Fehrenbacher. New York: Harper and Row, 1976.

Stephen A. Douglas

A prominent Democratic leader and U.S. senator, Stephen A. Douglas was an important figure in national politics during the period preceding the Civil War. Born in Vermont in 1813, Douglas moved to Illinois in 1833 and became involved in politics, helping to build and organize the state Democratic party. Over the next thirteen years he moved quickly through a succession of offices including state attorney-general, sec retary of state for Illinois, state supreme court justice, U.S. congressman, and U.S. senator. Douglas was a gifted legisla tor and excellent orator whose Senate speeches drew capaci ty crowds, and he soon became a leader of the northern Democrats. A proponent of territorial expansion, Douglas advocated allowing the voters of the Western territories to rule on whether or not slavery would be permitted in the Westa controversial position that was incorporated into the Kansas Nebraska Act and which eventually helped insti gate the Civil War. After the Supreme Court's 1857 Dred Scott decision, in which the court ruled slaveholders could bring their human property into any federal territory, Douglas antagonized Southern voters by arguing that settlers in the territories could indeed keep slavery out by refusing to allo cate the police protection necessary to sustain it. In 1858 Douglas held a famous series of debates with Abraham Lin coln, a Republican candidate challenging Douglas for his Senate seat, in which the two powerful thinkers and orators debated the issue of slavery before passionately partisan audiences. Although Douglas won reelection, Lincoln rose to national stature as a result of the debates and won the Republican nomination for president in 1860. Lincoln defeat ed Douglas in the election, in part because the Democratic party had split over Douglas's positions on slavery and nomi nated two candidates. Douglas pledged his support to Lin coln and the Union, but he was exhausted, discouraged, in ill health, and he died the following year.

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