In 1854, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois proposed a bill to organize the territory of Nebraska, a large area that would become Kansas, Nebraska, Montana and the Dakota. Known as the Kansas-Nebraska law, the controversial bill raised the possibility that slavery could be extended to territories where it had been banned. His stint intensified the bitter slavery debate in the United States, which would explode later in the Civil War.
Stephen Douglas and the Westward Expansion
The discovery of gold in California in 1849 and California’s subsequent request to become a state sparked a fierce battle in Congress. California having banned slavery, its admission to the Union would upset the fragile balance between slave and free states. By the end of 1850, Senator Henry Clay (with the help of Douglas) had persuaded Congress to accept the compromise of 1850. Under its terms, California had entered the Union as a Free State, while that the territories of Utah, New Mexico, Nevada and Arizona (all acquired during the Mexican-American War) were left to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery within their own borders.
Douglas hoped this idea of ”popular sovereignty” would resolve the growing debate over the future of slavery in the United States and allow the country to expand westward with few obstacles. But the Compromise of 1850 (especially the strict new Fugitive Slave Law it contained) galvanized the abolitionist movement and fueled growing debate over whether the institution of slavery should be allowed. to expand with the nation.
Introduction of the Kansas-Nebraska law in 1854
Known as the “Little Giant,” Douglas was one of the country’s most prominent politicians in 1854 and was seen as a likely future president. It was also a great accelerator of the planned transcontinental railroad, which would provide faster and more reliable transportation across the country. Douglas wanted the railroad to be built along a northern route that would pass through Chicago as well as a large area of land known as the Nebraska Territory, which had been included in the Louisiana Purchase. .
Southern slavers and their allies in Congress opposed Douglas’ original bill to organize the territory of Nebraska. In 1821, the Missouri Compromise had banned slavery throughout the remainder of Louisiana’s purchase lands north of the 36 ° 30 ‘parallel, and the two proposed territories were north of that line.
Douglas needed proslavery votes to pass his “Nebraska Bill,” as it was called at the time. To get them, he added an amendment that repealed the Missouri Compromise and created two new territories, Kansas and Nebraska. The settlers of each territory would vote on whether or not to allow slavery, according to the principle of popular sovereignty.
WATCH: Kansas-Nebraska Act
Opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska law
Despite fierce opposition from abolitionists and the Free Soilers, as those who opposed the extension of slavery to new territories know, the Senate passed the Nebraska bill. President Franklin Pierce signed it on May 30, 1854.
In the months leading up to the passage of the bill, most Native American groups living on the land in question signed treaties ceding their lands to the U.S. government, and all were eventually forced to move south into settlements. reservations in what is now Oklahoma.
In the North, where abolitionist sentiment was growing, many condemned Douglas for overturning the Missouri Compromise and paving the way for the expansion of slavery into the Territories, rather than its ultimate extinction.
There was no doubt that Nebraska would be a free state, but the fate of its southern neighbor, Kansas, became a hot topic of debate. Pro and anti-slavery activists have flocked to the new Kansas territory, with each side seeking to turn popular sovereignty to its advantage. As the two sides exchanged outbursts of violence and intimidation, “Bleeding Kansas” would make national headlines, further igniting sectoral tensions over the future of slavery.
The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska law also had a profound political impact. Debate over the bill divided the Whig Party, which eventually dissolved, and divided the Douglas Democratic Party along sectoral lines. In one of the most heated moments of the debate, prosclave Senator Preston Brooks of South Carolina resorted to beating anti-slavery Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with his cane on Senate floor in 1856.
Opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska law inspired the formation of the Republican Party, which became the main anti-slavery political party in the country. It also drew Abraham Lincoln, a former congressman with a term from Illinois, into the political arena. In 1858, Lincoln’s eloquent argument against the extension of slavery would be set out in a now famous series of debates with Douglas, as Lincoln unsuccessfully challenged the “little giant” for his seat in the Senate.
Lincoln’s victory in the 1860 presidential election marked a decisive defeat not only for Douglas – who presented himself as the northern representative of the Divided Democrats – but for his belief that popular sovereignty could prevent national politics from emerging. dissolve in a regional conflict for slavery. In fact, the Kansas-Nebraska law served to further divide the nation and was a crucial step on the road to civil war.
Ross Drake, “The Law That Tore America in Two”. Smithsonian, May 2004.
Eric Foner, The fiery trial: Abraham Lincoln and American slavery (WW Norton, 2010)
Kansas-Nebraska Law – May 30, 1854. United States Senate.
Zach Garrison, Kansas-Nebraska Act. Civil War on the Western Frontier: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. Kansas City Public Library.