Kansas-Nebraska Act

So many people have the belief that Nebraska and Kansas are two boring states in the middle of the continental United States and that they didn’t really have much of an historical impact on the nation as a whole.  I’m a reluctant convert to the exploration of the history of my home state because I used to share a similar opinion with the rest of America about Nebraska.

Nebraska and Kansas actually have played important roles in the history of the U.S.  In fact, a very pivotal, controversial role that has nearly been forgotten in our neglect of American history.

Napoleon Bonaparte had then recently sold the Louisiana Territory to the United States.  The lion’s share of the land encompassed the Great Plains.  To the delight of mostly caucasian settlers, the new territory offered farming and ranching opportunities.  The

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

availability of this land legally required basic territorial infrastructure to enable settlement and lawful order for the citizenry.

Railroad interests were among the strongest proponents of settlement. Four attempts to create territorial jurisdictions in this area failed to pass congressional muster. Meantime, Democratic Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas proposed a fifth bill in January 1854. Senator Douglas was the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories.  Douglas was an avid believer in popular sovereignty.  That is the policy of allowing the residents of a territory to decide whether or not to permit slavery to be practiced in their jurisdictions.

A sticky dispute was seeded by an earlier law passed in 1820 that intended to alleviate the slavery situation in the Louisiana Territory.  It was called the “Missouri Compromise”. It stated that Louisiana Territorial land north of 36° 30′ north latitude was to be free of slavery except Missouri.

KansasNebraska-documentAs the nation grew westward, the territories attracted independent minded people who opposed slavery because of economic opposition to competition from slaves. Enter Senator Stephen Douglas. He had personal reasons to see the area develop. He had invested heavily in western real estate. He was also a resident of Chicago which was cheerleading the development of a central route for the proposed transcontinental railroad. Douglas also had Presidential dreams, so frequent mention on the national agenda could potentially aid his Presidential bid.

The bill that Senator Douglas introduced was to divide the existing Nebraska territory into two territories. Kansas and Nebraska Territories. The question of slavery that had supposedly been decided in the Missouri compromise was called into question by  Douglas’ proposal that the slavery question be decided by popular soveriegnty.  Effectively, if passed, the Kansas-Nebraska Act would repeal the Missouri Compromise.

This proposal was hugely unpopular with both pro and anti-slavery proponents.  The South pushed for a formal amedment to repeal the popular soveriegnty provisions of the Missouri Compromise. However, a few Northern Democrats agreed with Douglas and urged popular sovereignty inclusion in the Kansas-Nebraska Act.  The bitter legal debate came to an end on May 30, 1854 in a narrow win for Senator Douglas.  Immediately upon passage, President Franklin Pierce signed the bill into law.

Aside from creating two territories for the United States, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was a legal earthquake in the nation’s political makeup.  There was a total realignment of the political parties. Democrats lost northern influence and became the party of the south. The Whig Party died in the South and was severely weakened in the North because of Whig opposition to the Act. The brand new Republican Party emerged as a strong force that attracted Anti-Nebraska Whigs and Democrats.

In addition, President Franklin Pierce’s reelection crashed to a halt with the election of the Republican’s first candidate, Abraham Lincoln.  Importantly the slavery question in the territories was reignited.  The preludes to the American Civil War erupted, including the tragic “bleeding Kansas” squabbles between militia from Missouri and citizens of Kansas Territory. Thus began the most turbulent era of domestic American history.


The Blue Jay of Happiness notes that Omaha is the county seat of Douglas County, Nebraska which was named after Senator Douglas.

About swabby429

An eclectic guy who likes to observe the world around him and comment about those observations.
This entry was posted in Controversy, History, Hometown, Politics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Kansas-Nebraska Act

  1. Pingback: Happy Wyoming Admission Day | bluejayblog

  2. Will Carlson says:

    Great, informative post. Can’t make much sense of the Civil Wat without understanding the 1850’s. I have several posts also covering Lincoln, Douglas and this era you might like to check out.

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