America’s Long Journey: Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

It should have been simple. Probably Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois persuaded himself that it would be simple. He reckoned without the lunacy of the times, or perhaps he persuaded himself that he could overcome it.

Senator Douglas was a national leader of the Democracy (the Democratic Party). He was Chairman of the Senate’s Committee on Territories. He was a believer in railroads and in popular sovereignty – and he was particularly a believer in the political future of Stephen A. Douglas. As an ardent nationalist, he was anxious to see a trans-continental railroad constructed. As a Midwesterner with Midwestern constituents, he wanted it built along the central route, rather than via Louisiana or Minnesota. As a charismatic politician, he was hoping to reach the presidency. Kansas-Nebraska was supposed to accomplish all these goals.

For railroads to be profitable, they need customers, and for there to be customers there has to be political organization. Nebraska Territory — the future states of Kansas and Nebraska — contained tens of millions of acres of excellent farmland, and farmers were a railroad’s best customers. So he proposed to organize the Nebraska Territory. And had it not been for the political fortunes of pro-slavery Missouri Senator David Atchison, perhaps it would have been as simple as it should have been. But Atchison, campaigning for re-election and standing with the state’s slaveholders, said he would rather see Nebraska Territory “sink in hell” than become free states, and thereby blew on the fuse that was already burning.

Southerners were powerful in Congress. Atchison was the senate’s president pro tempore. Southerners chaired the Finance, Foreign Affairs and Judiciary Committees. Douglas could not afford to disregard their opinions. He announced that Nebraska should be organized the same way that Utah and New Mexico Territory had been treated in the Compromise of 1850, that is, without restrictions on slavery.

The bill was reported to the Senate on January 4, 1854, with new language that said that the territory “shall be received into the Union, with or without slavery, as their constitution may prescribe at the time of their admission.” That wasn’t enough for slavery advocates. They worried that slaveholders would be slow to bring their property to the new territory without prior approval by the settlers – and they worried that a majority of the settlers would be free-soil men, which is exactly how it turned out. The Southern solution? Explicitly repeal the prohibition of slavery above the compromise line of 36°30′.

Douglas and certain Southerners strong-armed President Franklin Pierce into making the issue a test of Democratic party loyalty (meaning, how one voted would determine how much federal patronage one got to disburse), and on January 23 a revised bill proposed to repeal the Missouri Compromise and divide the territory into two territories, Kansas and Nebraska. Once Kansas-Nebraska became a party measure, its success was assured, since the Democrats held large majorities in each house of Congress. But the debate continued for four months, with Democrat Salmon P. Chase of Ohio joining with Whigs William Seward of New York and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts in leading the opposition. Senate approval (37 to 14) came on March 4, 1854.

Outside of Congress, as the New York Tribune wrote on March 2, “The unanimous sentiment of the North is indignant resistance.” Opponents denounced the law as a triumph of the slave power. In response, anti-slavery Democrats, anti-slavery Whigs and some others formed the Republican Party, aiming to stop the expansion of slavery.

In the House, Kansas-Nebraska won (113 to 100), with the votes of 44 Northern Democrats (out of 86), no Northern Whigs (out of 45), 57 Southern Democrats (out of 59), and 12 Southern Whig votes (out of 19). The issue split both the Democratic and Whig parties and gave rise to the Republican Party. And, in partial compensation for so much evil done, it brought Abraham Lincoln back into politics, and, after his three-hour analysis of the moral, legal and economic arguments against slavery delivered in Peoria, Illinois, on October 16, for the first time made him conspicuous on the national stage, serving as a forerunner of the effects of the Lincoln-Douglas Senatorial campaign debates four years later.

The Missouri Compromise had quelled sectional strife for more than thirty years. Kansas-Nebraska nullified the compromise, and led directly, and within seven years, to civil war.

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