The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 (10 Stat. 277) created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and was drafted by Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and President Franklin Pierce. The initial purpose of the Kansas–Nebraska Act was to open up thousands of new farms and make feasible a Midwestern Transcontinental Railroad. The popular sovereignty clause of the law led pro- and anti-slavery elements to flood into Kansas with the goal of voting slavery up or down, resulting in Bleeding Kansas.
The availability of tens of millions of acres of excellent farmland in the area made it necessary to create a territorial infrastructure to allow settlement. Railroad interests were especially eager to start operations since they needed farmers as customers. Four previous attempts to pass legislation had failed. The solution was a bill proposed in January 1854 by Douglas, the Democratic Party leader in the US Senate, the chairman of the Committee on Territories, an avid promoter of railroads, an aspirant to the presidency, anda fervent believer in popular sovereignty: the policy of letting the voters, almost exclusively white males, of a territory decide whether or not slavery should exist in it.
Since the 1840s, the topic of a transcontinental railroad had been discussed. While there were debates over the specifics, especially the route to be taken, there was a public consensus that such a railroad should be built by private interests, financed by public land grants. In 1845, Douglas, serving in his first term in the US House of Representatives, had submitted an unsuccessful plan to organize the Nebraska Territory formally, as the first step in building a railroad with its eastern terminus in Chicago. Railroad proposals were debated in all subsequent sessions of Congress with cities such as Chicago, St. Louis, Quincy, Memphis, and New Orleans competing to be the jumping-off point for the construction.
Several proposals in late 1852 and early 1853 had strong support, but they failed because of disputes over whether the railroad would follow a northern or a southern route. In early 1853, the House of Representatives passed a bill 107 to 49 to organize the Nebraska Territory in the land west of Iowa and Missouri. In March, the bill moved to the Senate Committee on Territories, which was headed by Douglas. Missouri Senator David Atchison announced that he would support the Nebraska proposal only if slavery was allowed. While the bill was silent on this issue, slavery would have been prohibited, under the Missouri Compromise. Other Southern senators were not as flexible as Atchison. By a vote of 23 to 17, the Senate voted to table the motion, with every senator from the states south of Missouri voting to table.
During the Senate adjournment, the issues of the railroad and the repeal of the Missouri Compromise became entangled in Missouri politics, as Atchison campaigned for re-election against the forces of Thomas Hart Benton. Atchison was maneuvered into choosing between antagonizing the state's railroad interests or its slaveholders. Finally, Atchison took the position that he would rather see Nebraska "sink in hell" before he would allow it to be overrun by free soilers.
Representatives then generally found lodging in boarding houses when they were in the nation's capital to perform their legislative duties. Atchison shared lodgings in an F Street house, shared by the leading Southerners in Congress. Atchison himself was the Senate's president pro tempore. His housemates included Robert T. Hunter (from Virginia, chairman of the Finance Committee), James Mason (from Virginia, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee) and Andrew P. Butler (from South Carolina, chairman of the Judiciary Committee). When Congress reconvened on December 5, 1853, the group, termed the F Street Mess, along with Virginian William O. Goode, formed the nucleus that would insist on slaveholder equality in Nebraska. Douglas was aware of the group's opinions and power and knew that he needed to address its concerns.
Iowa Senator Augustus C. Dodge immediately reintroduced the same legislation to organize Nebraska that had stalled in the previous session; it was referred to Douglas's committee on December 14. Douglas, hoping to achieve the support of the Southerners, publicly announced that the same principle that had been established in the Compromise of 1850 should apply in Nebraska.
In the Compromise of 1850, Utah and New Mexico Territories had been organized without any restrictions on slavery, and many supporters of Douglas argued that the compromise had already superseded the Missouri Compromise. The two territories, however, unlike Nebraska, had not been part of the Louisiana Purchase and had never been subject to the Missouri Compromise.
Introduction of Nebraska bill
The bill was reported to the main body of the Senate on January 4, 1854. It had been modified by Douglas, who had also authored the New Mexico Territory and Utah Territory Acts, to mirror the language from the Compromise of 1850. In the bill, a vast new Nebraska Territory was created to extend from Kansas north all the way to the 49th parallel, the US–Canada border. A large portion of Nebraska Territory would soon be split off into Dakota Territory (1861), and smaller portions transferred to Colorado Territory (1861) and Idaho Territory (1863) before the balance of the land became the State of Nebraska in 1867.
Furthermore, any decisions on slavery in the new lands were to be made "when admitted as a state or states, the said territory, or any portion of the same, shall be received into the Union, with or without slavery, as their constitution may prescribe at the time of their admission." In a report accompanying the bill, Douglas's committee wrote that the Utah and New Mexico Acts
...were intended to have a far more comprehensive and enduring effect than the mere adjustment of the difficulties arising out of the recent acquisition of Mexican territory. They were designed to establish certain great principles, which would not only furnish adequate remedies for existing evils, but, in all time to come, avoid the perils of a similar agitation, by withdrawing the question of slavery from the halls of Congress and the political arena, and committing it to the arbitrament of those who were immediately interested in, and alone responsible for its consequences.
The report compared the situation in New Mexico and Utah with the situation in Nebraska. In the first instance, many had argued that slavery had previously been prohibited under Mexican law, just as it was prohibited in Nebraska under the Missouri Compromise. Just as the creation of New Mexico and Utah territories had not ruled on the validity of Mexican law on the acquired territory, the Nebraska bill was neither "affirming or repealing... the Missouri act." In other words, popular sovereignty was being established by ignoring, rather than addressing, the problem presented by the Missouri Compromise.
Douglas's attempt to finesse his way around the Missouri Compromise did not work. Kentucky Whig Archibald Dixon believed that unless the Missouri Compromise was explicitly repealed, slaveholders would be reluctant to move to the new territory until slavery was actually approved by the settlers, who would most likely oppose slavery. On January 16 Dixon surprised Douglas by introducing an amendment that would repeal the section of the Missouri Compromise that prohibited slavery above the 36°30' parallel. Douglas met privately with Dixon and in the end, despite his misgivings on Northern reaction, agreed to accept Dixon's arguments.
From a political standpoint, the Whig Party had been in decline in the South because of the effectiveness with which it had been hammered by the Democratic Party over slavery. The Southern Whigs hoped that by seizing the initiative on this issue, they would be identified as strong defenders of slavery. Many Northern Whigs broke with them in the Act. The party eventually died by the division over the issue.
A similar amendment was offered in the House by Philip Phillips of Alabama. With the encouragement of the F Street Mess" Douglas met with them and Phillips to ensure that the momentum for passing the bill remained with the Democratic Party. They arranged to meet with President Franklin Pierce to ensure that the issue would be declared a test of party loyalty within the Democratic Party.
Meeting with Pierce
Pierce had barely mentioned Nebraska in his State of the Union message the previous month and was not enthusiastic about the implications of repealing the Missouri Compromise. Close advisors Senator Lewis Cass, a proponent of popular sovereignty as far back as 1848 as an alternative to the Wilmot Proviso, and Secretary of State William L. Marcy both told Pierce that repeal would create serious political problems. The full cabinet met and only Secretary of War Jefferson Davis and Secretary of Navy James C. Dobbin supported repeal. Instead the president and cabinet submitted to Douglas an alternative plan that would have sought out a judicial ruling on the constitutionality of the Missouri Compromise. Both Pierce and Attorney General Caleb Cushing believed that the Supreme Court would find it unconstitutional.
Douglas's committee met later that night. Douglas was agreeable to the proposal, but the Atchison group was not. Determined to offer the repeal to Congress that on January 23 but reluctant to act without Pierce's commitment, Douglas arranged through Secretary of War Davis to meet with President Pierce on January 22 even though it was a Sunday, when Pierce generally refrained from conducting any business. Douglas was accompanied at the meeting by Atchison, Hunter, Phillips and John C. Breckinridge, of Kentucky.
Douglas and Atchison first met alone with Pierce before the whole group convened. Pierce was persuaded to support repeal, and at Douglas' insistence, Pierce provided a written draft, asserting that the Missouri Compromise had been made inoperative by the principles of the Compromise of 1850. Pierce later informed his cabinet, which concurred in the change of direction. The Washington Union, the communications organ for the administration, wrote on January 24 that support for the bill would be "a test of Democratic orthodoxy."
Debate in Senate
On January 23, a revised bill was introduced in the Senate that repealed the Missouri Compromise and divided the territory into two territories: Kansas and Nebraska. The division was the result of concerns expressed by settlers already in Nebraska as well as the senators from Iowa, who were concerned with the location of the territory's seat of government if such a large territory was created. Existing language to affirm the application of all other laws of the US in the new territory was supplemented by the language agreed on with Pierce: "except the eighth section of the act preparatory to the admission of Missouri into the Union, approved March 6, 1820, which was superseded by the legislation of 1850, commonly called the compromise measures, and is declared inoperative." Identical legislation was soon introduced in the House.
Historian Allan Nevins wrote that "two interconnected battles began to rage, one in Congress and one in the country at large: each fought with a pertinacity, bitterness, and rancor unknown even in Wilmot Proviso days." In Congress, the freesoilers were at a distinct disadvantage. The Democrats held large majorities in each house, and Douglas, "a ferocious fighter, the fiercest, most ruthless, and most unscrupulous that Congress had perhaps ever known" led a tightly disciplined party. It was in the nation at large that the opponents of Nebraska hoped to achieve a moral victory. The New York Times, which had earlier supported Pierce, predicted that this would be the final straw for Northern supporters of the slavery forces and would "create a deep-seated, intense, and ineradicable hatred of the institution which will crush its political power, at all hazards, and at any cost."
The day after the bill was reintroduced two Ohioans, Representative Joshua Giddings and Senator Salmon P. Chase, published a free-soil response, "Appeal of the Independent Democrats in Congress to the People of the United States:"
We arraign this bill as a gross violation of a sacred pledge; as a criminal betrayal of precious rights; as part and parcel of an atrocious plot to exclude from a vast unoccupied region immigrants from the Old World and free laborers from our own States, and convert it into a dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves.
Douglas took the appeal personally and responded in Congress, when the debate was opened on January 30 before a full House and packed gallery. Douglas biographer Robert W. Johanssen described part of the speech:
Douglas charged the authors of the "Appeal", whom he referred to throughout as the "Abolitionist confederates", with having perpetrated a "base falsehood" in their protest. He expressed his own sense of betrayal, recalling that Chase, "with a smiling face and the appearance of friendship", had appealed for a postponement of debate on the ground that he had not yet familiarized himself with the bill. "Little did I suppose at the time that I granted that act of courtesy," Douglas remarked, that Chase and his compatriots had published a document "in which they arraigned me as having been guilty of a criminal betrayal of my trust," of bad faith, and of plotting against the cause of free government. While other Senators were attending divine worship, they had been "assembled in a secret conclave", devoting the Sabbath to their own conspiratorial and deceitful purposes.
The debate would continue for four months, as many Anti-Nebraska political rallies were held across the north. Douglas remained the main advocate for the bill while Chase, William Seward, of New York, and Charles Sumner, of Massachusetts, led the opposition. The New York Tribune wrote on March 2:
- "The unanimous sentiment of the North is indignant resistance.... The whole population are full of it. The feeling in 1848 was far inferior to this in strength and universality."
The debate in the Senate concluded on March 4, 1854, when Douglas, beginning near midnight on March 3, made a five-and-a-half-hour speech. The final vote in favor of passage was 37 to 14. Free-state senators voted 14 to 12 in favor, and slave-state senators supported the bill 23 to 2.
Debate in House of Representatives
On March 21, 1854, as a delaying tactic in the House of Representatives, the legislation was referred by a vote of 110 to 95 to the Committee of the Whole, where it was the last item on the calendar. Realizing from the vote to stall that the act faced an uphill struggle, the Pierce administration made it clear to all Democrats that passage of the bill was essential to the party and would dictate how federal patronage would be handled. Davis and Cushing, from Massachusetts, along with Douglas, spearheaded the partisan efforts. By the end of April, Douglas believed that there were enough votes to pass the bill. The House leadership then began a series of roll call votes in which legislation ahead of the Kansas–Nebraska Act was called to the floor and tabled without debate.
Thomas Hart Benton was among those speaking forcefully against the measure. On April 25, in a House speech that biographer William Nisbet Chambers called "long, passionate, historical, [and] polemical," Benton attacked the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which he "had stood upon ... above thirty years, and intended to stand upon it to the end—solitary and alone, if need be; but preferring company." The speech was distributed afterwards as a pamphlet when opposition to the act moved outside the walls of Congress.
It was not until May 8 that the debate began in the House. The debate was even more intense than in the Senate. While it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that the bill would pass, the opponents went all out to fight it. Historian Michael Morrison wrote:
A filibuster led by Lewis D. Campbell, an Ohio free-soiler, nearly provoked the House into a war of more than words. Campbell, joined by other antislavery northerners, exchanged insults and invectives with southerners, neither side giving quarter. Weapons were brandished on the floor of the House. Finally, bumptiousness gave way to violence. Henry A. Edmundson, a Virginia Democrat, well oiled and well armed, had to be restrained from making a violent attack on Campbell. Only after the sergeant at arms arrested him, debate was cut off, and the House adjourned did the melee subside.
The floor debate was handled by Alexander Stephens, of Georgia, who insisted that the Missouri Compromise had never been a true compromise but had been imposed on the South. He argued that the issue was whether republican principles, "that the citizens of every distinct community or State should have the right to govern themselves in their domestic matters as they please," would be honored.
The final vote in favor of the bill was 113 to 100. Northern Democrats supported the bill 44 to 42, but all 45 northern Whigs opposed it. Southern Democrats voted in favor by 57 to 2, and southern Whigs supported it by 12 to 7. President Pierce signed the bill into law on May 30.
The immediate responses to the passing of the Kansas–Nebraska Act fell into two classes. The less common response was held by Douglas's supporters, who believed that the bill would put withdraw "the question of slavery from the halls of Congress and the political arena, committing it to the arbitration of those who were immediately interested in, and alone responsible for, its consequences." In other words, they believed that the Act would leave decisions about slavery in the hands of the people, rather than under the carefully-balanced jurisdiction of the Federal government. The far more common response was one of outrage, interpreting Douglas's actions as part of "an atrocious plot." Especially in the eyes of northerners, the Kansas–Nebraska Act was aggression and an attack on the power and beliefs of free states. The response led to calls for public action against the South, as seen in broadsides that advertised gatherings in northern states to discuss publicly what to do about the presumption of the Act.
Pro-slavery settlers came to Kansas mainly from neighboring Missouri. Their influence in territorial elections was often bolstered by resident Missourians who crossed into Kansas solely for the purpose of voting in such ballots. They formed groups such as the Blue Lodges and were dubbed border ruffians, a term coined by opponent and abolitionist Horace Greeley. Abolitionist settlers, known as "Jayhawkers," moved from the East expressly to make Kansas a free state. A clash between the opposing sides was inevitable.
Successive territorial governors, usually sympathetic to slavery, attempted to maintain the peace. The territorial capital of Lecompton, the target of much agitation, became such a hostile environment for Free-Staters that they set up their own, unofficial legislature, at Topeka.
John Brown and his sons gained notoriety in the fight against slavery by murdering five pro-slavery farmers with a broadsword in the Pottawatomie massacre. Brown also helped defend a few dozen Free-State supporters from several hundred angry pro-slavery supporters at Osawatomie.
Hostilities between the factions reached a state of low-intensity civil war, which was damaging to Pierce. The new Republican Party sought to capitalize on the scandal of Bleeding Kansas. Routine ballot-rigging and intimidation, practiced by both pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers, failed to deter the immigration of anti-slavery settlers, who eventually became the majority of the population.
Effect on Native American tribes
Prior to the organization of the Kansas–Nebraska territory in 1854, the Kansas and Nebraska Territories were consolidated as part of the Indian Territory. Throughout the 1830s, large-scale relocations of Native American tribes to the Indian Territory took place, with many Southeastern nations removed to present-day Oklahoma, a process ordered by the Indian Removal Act of 1830 known as the Trail of Tears, and many Midwestern nations removed by way of treaty to present-day Kansas. Among the latter were the Shawnee, Delaware, Kickapoo, Kaskaskia and Peoria, Ioway, and Miami. The passing of the Kansas–Nebraska Act came into direct conflict with the relocations. White American settlers from both the free-soil North and pro-slavery South flooded the Northern Indian Territory, hoping to influence the vote on slavery that would come following the admittance of Kansas and, to a lesser extent, Nebraska to the United States.
In order to avoid and/or alleviate the reservation-settlement problem, further treaty negotiations were attempted with the tribes of Kansas and Nebraska. In 1854 alone, the U.S. agreed to acquire lands in Kansas or Nebraska from several tribes including the Kickapoo, Delaware, Omaha, Shawnee, Otoe and Missouri, Miami, and Kaskaskia and Peoria. In exchange for their land cessions, the tribes largely received small reservations in the Indian Territory of Oklahoma or Kansas in some cases.
For the nations that remained in Kansas beyond 1854, the Kansas–Nebraska Act introduced a host of other problems. In 1855, white "squatters" built the city of Leavenworth on the Delaware reservation without the consent of either the Delaware or the US government. When Commissioner of Indian Affairs George Manypenny ordered for military support in removing the squatters, both the military and the squatters refused to comply, undermining both Federal authority and the treaties in place with the Delaware. In addition to the violations of treaty agreements, other promises made were not being kept. Construction and infrastructure improvement projects dedicated in nearly every treaty, for example, took a great deal longer than expected. Beyond that, however, the most damaging violation by White American settlers was the mistreatment of Native Americans and their properties. Personal maltreatment, stolen property, and deforestation have all been cited. Furthermore, the squatters' premature and illegal settlement of the Kansas Territory jeopardized the value of the land and, with it, the future of the Indian tribes living on them. Because treaties were land cessions and purchases, the value of the land handed over to the Federal government was critical to the payment received by a given Native nation. Deforestation, destruction of property, and other general injuries to the land lowered the value of the territories that were ceded by the Kansas Territory tribes.
Manypenny's 1856 "Report on Indian Affairs" explained the devastating effect of diseases White settlers brought to Kansas on Indian populations. Without providing statistics, Indian Affairs Superintendent to the area Colonel Alfred Cumming reported at least more deaths than births in most tribes in the area. While noting intemperance, or alcoholism, as a leading cause of death, Cumming specifically cited cholera, smallpox, and measles, none of which the Native Americans were able to treat. The disastrous epidemics exemplified the Osage people, who lost an estimated 1300 lives to scurvy, measles, smallpox, and scrofula between 1852 and 1856, contributing, in part, to the massive decline in population, from 8000 in 1850 to just 3500 in 1860. The Osage had already encountered epidemics associated with relocation and white settlement. The initial removal acts in the 1830s brought both White American settlers and foreign Native American tribes to the Great Plains and into contact with the Osage people. Between 1829 and 1843, influenza, cholera, and smallpox killed an estimated 1242 Osage Indians, resulting in a population recession of roughly 20 percent between 1830 and 1850.
Though their role has been largely minimized or excluded in many historical accounts, Native Americans were also subjected to a great deal of violence during Bleeding Kansas. It has been argued that the widespread absence of Indian involvement in Bleeding Kansas and the settlement of Kansas as a whole from historical texts are caused by racism, an insistence that Native Americans are "half-civilized" and have "done nothing for the world," Furthermore, it has also been argued that the dismissal of Native Americans, as civilized societies, removed White settlers from responsibility for their transgressions against Indian tribes in Kansas throughout Bleeding Kansas.
The Kansas–Nebraska Act divided the nation and pointed it toward civil war. The Act itself virtually nullified the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The turmoil over the act split both the Democratic and Whig parties and gave rise to the Republican Party, which split the United States into two major political camps, the Republican North and the Democratic South.
Senator Stephen A. Douglas and former Illinois Representative Abraham Lincoln aired their disagreement over the Kansas–Nebraska Act in seven public speeches during September and October 1854. Lincoln gave his most comprehensive argument against slavery and the provisions of the act in Peoria, Illinois, on October 16, the Peoria Speech. He and Douglas both spoke to the large audience, Douglas first and Lincoln in response, two hours later. Lincoln's three-hour speech presented thorough moral, legal, and economic arguments against slavery and raised Lincoln's political profile for the first time. The speeches set the stage for the Lincoln-Douglas debates four years later, when Lincoln was running for Douglas's Senate seat.
A new anti-slavery state constitution, known as the Wyandotte Constitution, was eventually drawn up. On January 29, 1861, five weeks before Lincoln's inauguration, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state. On March 1, 1867, Nebraska was admitted to the Union. By then, the 1861–1865 Civil War had been fought, and slavery itself had been outlawed throughout the United States by the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution.
- Nicole Etcheson, Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era (2006) ch 1
- Robert W. Johansson, Stephen A. Douglas (Oxford UP, 1973) pp. 374–400
- Potter pp. 146–149
- Potter pp. 150–152
- Potter pp. 154–155
- Mess meant taking meals together.
- Freehling pp. 550–551. Johanssen p. 407
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- Potter p. 165. The vote occurred at 3:30 a.m. and many senators, including Houston, had retired for the night. Estimates on what the vote might have been with all still in attendance vary from 40–20 to 42–18. Nevins p. 145
- Nevins p. 154
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- Senate Reports, 33 Cong., 1 Sess., No. 15.
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|Wikisource has the text of the 1905 New International Encyclopedia article Kansas–Nebraska Bill.|
- An annotated bibliography
- Millard Fillmore on the Fugitive Slave and Kansas-Nebraska Acts: Original Letter Shapell Manuscript Foundation
- The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854: Popular Sovereignty and the Political Polarization over Slavery
- Kansas–Nebraska Act and related resources at the Library of Congress
- President Pierce's Private Correspondence on the Kansas–Nebraska Act Shapell Manuscript Foundation
- Printer-friendly transcript of the act