Kansas–Nebraska Act

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This 1856 map shows slave states (gray), free states (pink), U.S. territories (green), and Kansas in center (white).

The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 (10 Stat. 277) created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, opening new lands for settlement, and had the effect of repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820 by allowing white male settlers in those territories to determine through popular sovereignty whether they would allow slavery within each territory. The act was designed by Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. The initial purpose of the Kansas–Nebraska Act was to open up many 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.[1]


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 Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. He was the Democratic party leader in the United States Senate, the chairman of the Committee on Territories, an avid promoter of railroads, an aspirant to the presidency, and, above all, a fervent believer in popular sovereignty: the policy of letting the residents of a territory decide whether or not they would permit slavery to exist.[2]

Since early in 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 United States House of Representatives, had submitted an unsuccessful plan to formally organize the Nebraska Territory 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.[3]

Several proposals in late 1852 and early 1853 had strong support, but in the end 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 by a 107-to-49 vote that organized the Nebraska Territory in land west of Iowa and Missouri. In March the bill moved to the Senate Committee on Territories, which was then headed by Sen. Douglas. Missouri Sen. David Atchison announced that he would support the Nebraska proposal only if slaveholders were not banned from the new territory. While the bill was silent on this issue, slavery would have been prohibited under the terms of the Missouri Compromise. Other Southern senators were not as flexible as Atchison. By a vote of 23 to 17, the senate voted to kill the motion by laying it on the table with every senator from states south of Missouri voting for the tabling.[4]

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 railroad interests and antagonizing the state 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.[5]

In this era, congressmen generally found lodging in boarding houses when they were in the nation's capital performing 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, this group, termed the "F Street Mess[6]", along with Virginian William O. Goode, formed the nucleus that would insist on slaveholder equality in Nebraska. Douglas was aware of their opinions and power, and knew that he needed to address their concerns.[7]

Iowa Sen. 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 Territory had been organized without any restrictions on slavery, and many supporters of Douglas argued that this compromise had already superseded the Missouri Compromise.[8] These territories, however, unlike Nebraska, had not been part of the Louisiana Purchase and had never been subject to the Missouri Compromise.

Congressional action[edit]

Introduction of the Nebraska bill[edit]

Stephen A. Douglas – "The great principle of self government is at stake, and surely the people of this country are never going to decide that the principle upon which our whole republican system rests is vicious and wrong."[9]

The bill was reported to the main body of the Senate on January 4, 1854. The bill 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 U.S.–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."[10] 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.[11]

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.[11]

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, settlers who would most likely hold free-soil views. On January 16 Dixon surprised Douglas by introducing an amendment that would repeal the section of the Missouri Compromise prohibiting 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.[12] From a political standpoint, the Whig Party had been in decline in the South because of the effectiveness with which the Democrats had hammered Whigs over slavery issues. The Southern Whigs hoped that by seizing the initiative on this issue that they would be identified as strong defenders of slavery. Many northern Whigs broke with Southern Whigs on this legislation, which eventually caused the death of the Whig Party.[13]

Charles Sumner on Douglas – "Alas! too often those principles which give consistency, individuality, and form to the Northern character, which render it staunch, strong, and seaworthy, which bind it together as with iron, are drawn out, one by one, like the bolts of the ill-fitted vessel, and from the miserable, loosened fragments is formed that human anomaly—a Northern man with Southern principles. Sir, no such man can speak for the North."[14]

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. Toward this end, 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.[15]

Meeting with President Pierce[edit]

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 Sen. 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. On Saturday, January 22, 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.[16]

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 Monday but reluctant to act without Pierce's commitment, Douglas arranged through Secretary of War Davis to meet with President Pierce on Sunday even though Pierce generally refrained from conducting any business on a Sunday. Douglas was accompanied at the meeting by Atchison, Hunter, Phillips and John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky.[17]

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.[18] 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".[19]

Debate in the Senate[edit]

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 which affirmed the application of all other laws of the U.S. in the new territory was supplemented by the language agreed on with Pres. Pierce that read, "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.[20]

Forcing Slavery Down the Throat of a Freesoiler
An 1854 cartoon depicts a giant free soiler being held down by James Buchanan and Lewis Cass standing on the Democratic platform marked "Kansas", "Cuba" and "Central America" (referring to accusations that southerners wanted to annex areas in Latin America to expand slavery). Franklin Pierce also holds down the giant's beard as Stephen A. Douglas shoves a black man down his throat.

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 Stephen 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 Pres. 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."[21]

The day after the bill was reintroduced two Ohioans, Rep. Joshua Giddings and Sen. Salmon P. Chase, published a free soil response titled, "Appeal of the Independent Democrats in congress to the People of the United States." The appeal stated:

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.[22]

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.[23]

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 that,

"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."[24]
Sam Houston from Texas was one of the few southern opponents of the Kansas–Nebraska Act. In the debate he urged, "Maintain the Missouri Compromise! Stir not up agitation! Give us peace!"[25]
Alexander Stephens from Georgia – "Nebraska is through the House. I took the reins in my hand, applied the whip and spur, and brought the 'wagon' out at eleven o'clock P.M. Glory enough for one day."[26]

The debate in the senate concluded on March 4, 1854, when Stephen 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.[27] Free state senators voted 14 to 12 in favor while slave state senators overwhelmingly supported the bill 23 to 2.[28]

Debate in the House of Representatives[edit]

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. Jefferson Davis and Attorney General Caleb Cushing from Massachusetts, along with Douglas, spearheaded the partisan efforts.[29] 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.[30]

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.[31]

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.[32] Historian Michael Morrison wrote:

Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri – "What is the excuse for all this turmoil and mischief? We are told it is to keep the question of slavery out of Congress! Great God! It was out of Congress, completely, entirely, and forever out of Congress, unless Congress dragged it in by breaking down the sacred laws which settled it!"[26]

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.[33]

The floor debate was handled by Alexander Stephens of Georgia, the future Vice-President of the Confederacy. Stephens 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.[34]

The final vote in favor of the bill was 113 to 100.[35] Northern Democrats split in favor of the bill by a narrow 44 to 42 vote, while all 45 northern Whigs opposed it. In the South, Democrats voted in favor by 57 to 2 and Whigs by a closer 12 to 7.[36] President Pierce signed the bill into law on May 30.

Bleeding Kansas[edit]

1855 first edition of Colton's map of Nebraska and Kansas Territories
Main article: Bleeding Kansas

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 with express purpose of making Kansas a free state. A clash between the opposing sides was inevitable.[37]

Successive territorial governors, usually sympathetic to slavery, attempted unsuccessfully to maintain the peace. The territorial capital of Lecompton, Kansas, the target of much agitation, became such a hostile environment for Free-Staters that they set up their own unofficial legislature at Topeka.[38]

John Brown and his sons gained notoriety in the fight against slavery by murdering five pro-slavery farmers in the Pottawatomie massacre with a broadsword. Brown also helped defend a few dozen Free-State supporters from several hundred angry pro-slavery supporters at the town of Osawatomie.[39]

Hostilities between the factions reached a state of low-intensity civil war, which was damaging to President Pierce. The nascent Republican Party sought to capitalize on the scandal of "Bleeding Kansas". Routine ballot-rigging and intimidation practiced by both pro- and anti-slavery settlers failed to deter the immigration of anti-slavery settlers, who won a demographic victory in the race to populate the state.[40]


The Kansas–Nebraska Act divided the nation and pointed it toward civil war.[41] 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, North (Republican) and South (Democratic).

Sen. Stephen A. Douglas and former Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln aired their disagreement over the Kansas–Nebraska Act in seven public speeches during September and October 1854.[42] Lincoln gave his most comprehensive argument against slavery and the provisions of the act in Peoria, Illinois, on October 16, the Peoria Speech.[43] 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. These speeches set the stage for the Lincoln-Douglas debates four years later, when Lincoln was running for Douglas's senate seat.[44]

Eventually, a new anti-slavery state constitution was drawn up, called the Wyandotte Constitution. On January 29, 1861, 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.


  1. ^ Nicole Etcheson, Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era (2006) ch 1
  2. ^ Robert W. Johansson, Stephen A. Douglas (Oxford UP, 1973) pp. 374–400
  3. ^ Potter pp. 146–149
  4. ^ Potter pp. 150–152
  5. ^ Potter pp. 154–155
  6. ^ "Mess" in the sense of taking meals together
  7. ^ Freehling pp. 550–551. Johanssen p. 407
  8. ^ Johannsen pp. 402–403
  9. ^ Holt p. 145
  10. ^ Johanssen pp. 405
  11. ^ a b Johanssen p. 406
  12. ^ Nevins pp. 95–96
  13. ^ Cooper p. 350
  14. ^ Nevins p. 139
  15. ^ Johanssen pp. 412–413. Cooper pp. 350–351
  16. ^ Potter p. 161. Johanssen pp. 413–414
  17. ^ Potter p. 161. Johanssen p. 414
  18. ^ Johanssen pp. 414–415
  19. ^ Foner p. 156
  20. ^ Johanssen pp. 415–417
  21. ^ Nevins p. 111
  22. ^ Nevins pp. 111–112. Johanssen p. 418
  23. ^ Johanssen p. 420
  24. ^ Nevins p. 121
  25. ^ Nevins p. 144
  26. ^ a b Nevins p. 156
  27. ^ http://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/33-1/s52
  28. ^ 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
  29. ^ Nevins p. 154
  30. ^ Potter p. 166
  31. ^ Chambers p. 401
  32. ^ Nevins pp. 154–155
  33. ^ Morrison p. 154
  34. ^ Nevins p. 155
  35. ^ http://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/33-1/h309
  36. ^ Nevins pp. 156–157
  37. ^ Nicole Etcheson, Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era (2006)
  38. ^ Thomas Goodrich, War to the Knife: Bleeding Kansas, 1854–1861 (2004)
  39. ^ James C. Malin, John Brown and the legend of fifty-six (1942)
  40. ^ Sara Paretsky, Bleeding Kansas (2008)
  41. ^ Tom Huntington "Civil War Chronicles: Abolitionist John Doy", American Heritage, Spring 2009.
  42. ^ The Lincoln Institute (2002–2008). "1854 – Abraham Lincoln and Freedom". Retrieved 2008-08-25. 
  43. ^ Lehrman, Lewis E. "Abraham Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point". Retrieved 2008-08-25. 
  44. ^ The Lincoln Institute; Lewis E. Lehrman (2002–2008). "Preface by Lewis Lehrman, Abraham Lincoln and Freedom". Retrieved 2008-08-25. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Chambers, William Nisbet. Old Bullion Benton: Senator From the New West (1956)
  • Childers, Christopher. "Interpreting Popular Sovereignty: A Historiographical Essay", Civil War History Volume 57, Number 1, March 2011 pp. 48–70 in Project MUSE
  • Etcheson, Nicole. Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era (2006)
  • Foner, Eric. Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War. (1970) ISBN 0-19-509497-2
  • Freehling, William W. The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776–1854. (1990) ISBN 0-19-505814-3
  • Holt, Michael. The Political Crisis of the 1850s (1978)
  • Huston, James L. Stephen A. Douglas and the dilemmas of democratic equality (2007)
  • Johannsen. Robert W. Stephen A. Douglas (1973) ISBN 0-19-501620-3
  • Morrison, Michael. Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War (1997) online edition
  • Nevins, Allan. Ordeal of the Union: A House Dividing 1852–1857. (1947) ΙSBN 0-684-10424-5
  • Nichols, Roy F. "The Kansas–Nebraska Act: A Century of Historiography." Mississippi Valley Historical Review 43 (September 1956): 187–212. Online at JSTOR
  • Potter, David M. The Impending Crisis, 1848–1861 (1976), Pulitzer prize winning scholarly history.
  • SenGupta, Gunja. "Bleeding Kansas: A Review Essay." Kansas History 24 (Winter 2001/2002): 318–341. online
  • Wolff, Gerald W., The Kansas–Nebraska Bill: Party, Section, and the Coming of the Civil War, (Revisionist Press, 1977), 385 pp.
  • Wunder, John R. and Joann M Ross, eds. The Nebraska-Kansas Act of 1854 (2008), essays by scholars

External links[edit]