Union in Crisis: The Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Republican Party

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Union in Crisis: The Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Republican Party


A Brief Compromise. The political truce following the Compromise of 1850 lasted only four years, until the battle over slavery in the territories erupted again. This time the conflict centered on the Louisiana Purchase, where the slavery question had supposedly been settled in 1821 with the Missouri Compromise, which drew a northern boundary for slavery at 36°30. Slavery reemerged as a pivotal political issue in the West in 1853, when settlers in the Kansas, Platte, and Missouri River valleys petitioned for territorial status. Unlike during the previous crises over slavery in the territories, politicians failed to strike a compromise to diffuse the conflict.

Nebraska. With thousands of land-hungry settlers retracing Meriwether Lewis and William Clarks path up the Missouri River and entrepreneurs calling for a railroad connecting San Francisco to the East, many Americans favored organizing a territory north of Indian territory, present-day Oklahoma. Responding quickly, the House of Representatives passed a bill in 1853 creating Nebraska territory, encompassing the area north of Indian territory all the way to the Canadian border. Southern senators still smarting from the admission of free California in 1850 correctly foresaw that under the Missouri Compromise slavery would be prohibited in each state carved from Nebraska Territory. They desperately wanted to avoid the addition of new free states, which would further dilute their power in Congress.

Douglass Motives. The sponsor of the Nebraska legislation was the Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas, who had several aims in mind. First, he was an expansionist Democrat, and like others in his party, he believed that the time had come to organize the populous new territory of Nebraska. Second, he was a Northern senator who hoped to gain Southern support for a presidential run in 1856. Finally, Douglas was both a director of the Illinois Central Railroad and a land speculator who dreamed of building a rail line through Nebraska connecting California with his hometown of Chicago. Before construction could begin, however, Nebraska needed some form of government. Meanwhile, Southern railroad promoters began planning another transcontinental line emanating from either New Orleans or Memphis. To facilitate this plan James Gadsden, a Southern railroad executive and U.S. minister to Mexico, purchased twenty-nine thousand miles of Mexican desert south of the Gila River in 1853 to provide an easy train route through the mountains to California.

The Battle for Kansas. Southerners led by Sen. David R. Atchison, a Democrat from Missouri, opposed the organization of additional free territory, and they pressured the expansionist-minded Douglas to amend his Nebraska bill. In response Douglas proposed dividing the area into two separate territories called Kansas and Nebraska. Second, and more problematic, he proposed to repeal the part of the Missouri Compromise that prohibited slavery north of 36°30. Douglas argued that the principle of popular sovereignty dictated that each territory should be able to decide whether to be a free or slave state. To Northern observers such a strategy had obvious intent: to create a Nebraska that would be free while the southern territory of Kansas would be opened to slavery. By seeming to endorse introducing slavery to a territory that had been free for more than thirty years, Douglas alienated thousands of Northerners, many of whom viewed the Missouri Compromise as sacrosanct. It was a political miscalculation that would cost Douglas dearly.

Anti-Nebraska Feeling. Almost overnight, people who had never publicly opposed slaverys extension became energized. Antislavery congressmen fired off an Appeal of the Independent Democrats, accusing Douglas of a gross violation of a sacred pledge and urging a popular campaign to repeal the act. The Northern public responded with enthusiasm. Abolitionists, Free Soilers, Northern Whigs, and many Northern Democrats quickly formed anti-Nebraska coalitions, which wrote petitions, held meetings, and staged rallies demanding the repeal of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Abraham Lincoln, who had served one term as an Illinois congressman from 1847 to 1849, reemerged on the political stage as one of the fiercest critics of the Kansas-Nebraska bill. The monstrous injustice of slavery, Lincoln wrote, deprives our republican example of its just influence in the worldenables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites.

The South Wins Round One. Opponents of the Kansas-Nebraska Act failed to prevent its passage in Congress. Southerners in both houses backed Douglass plan, and President Franklin Piercean ardent expansionist unbothered by slavery as a moral issueinvoked every ounce of party discipline to ensure its success. The House, far less Southern-oriented than the Senate, passed the bill by a vote of 113-100.

Rise of the Republican Party. The political fallout from the Kansas-Nebraska Act was swift. First, the Whig Party in the South was all but destroyed, and it was fatally weakened in the North as well. Northern Whigs such as William Seward of New York had always hoped their party would one day absorb antislavery men from other parties, but Free Soilers and antislavery Democrats refused to become Whigs. They preferred a new party and a new name. The one that stuck was Republican, the name adopted at an anti-Nebraska rally in Ripon, Wisconsin, in May 1854. It quickly became the banner under which all anti-Nebraska forces rallied in the 1854 elections.


Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970);

William E. Gienapp, The Origins of the Republican Party, 18521856 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986).