The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

Legislation Intended as a Compromise Backfired and Led to Civil War

Engraving of Senator Stephen Douglas
Senator Stephen Douglas.

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The Kansas-Nebraska Act was devised as a compromise over enslavement in 1854, as the nation was beginning to be torn apart in the decade before the Civil War. Power brokers on Capitol Hill hoped it would reduce tensions and perhaps provide a lasting political solution to the contentious issue.

Yet when it was passed into law in 1854, it had the opposite effect. It led to increased violence over enslavement in Kansas, and it hardened positions across the nation.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act was a major step on the road to Civil War. Opposition to it changed the political landscape across the nation. And it also had a profound effect on one particular American, Abraham Lincoln, whose political career was reinvigorated by his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Roots of the Problem

The issue of enslavement had caused a series of dilemmas for the young nation as new states joined the Union. Should enslavement be legal in new states, specifically the states that would be in the area of the Louisiana Purchase?

The issue was settled for a time by the Missouri Compromise. That piece of legislation, passed in 1820, simply took the southern border of Missouri and essentially extended it westward on the map. New states to the north of it would be "free states," and new states to the south of the line would be "pro-slavery states."

The Missouri Compromise held things in balance for a time, until a new set of problems emerged following the Mexican War. With Texas, the southwest, and California now territories of the United States, the issue of whether new states in the west would be free states or pro-slavery states became prominent.

Things seemed to be settled for a time when the Compromise of 1850 was passed. Included in that legislation were provisions bringing California into the Union as a free state and also allowing residents of New Mexico to decide whether to be a pro-slavery state or a free state.

Reasons for the Kansas-Nebraska Act

The man who devised the Kansas-Nebraska Act in early 1854, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, actually had a fairly practical goal in mind: the expansion of railroads.

Douglas, a New Englander who had transplanted himself to Illinois, had a grand vision of railroads crossing the continent, with their hub being in Chicago, in his adopted home state. The immediate problem was that the huge wilderness to the west of Iowa and Missouri would have to be organized and brought into the Union before a railroad to California could be built.

And holding everything up was the country’s perennial debate over enslavement. Douglas himself was opposed to enslavement but did not have any great conviction about the issue, perhaps because he had never actually lived in a state where it was legal.

Southerners did not want to bring in a single large state that would be free. So Douglas came up with the idea of creating two new territories, Nebraska and Kansas. And he also proposed the principle of “popular sovereignty,” under which the residents of the new territories would vote on whether enslavement would be legal in the territories.

Controversial Repeal of the Missouri Compromise

One problem with this proposal is that it contradicted the Missouri Compromise, which had been holding the country together for more than 30 years. And a southern senator, Archibald Dixon of Kentucky, demanded that a provision specifically repealing the Missouri Compromise be inserted into the bill Douglas proposed.

Douglas gave in to the demand, though he reportedly said it would “raise a hell of a storm.” He was right. The repeal of the Missouri Compromise would be seen as inflammatory by a great many people, particularly in the north.

Douglas introduced his bill in early 1854, and it passed the Senate in March. It took weeks to pass the House of Representatives, but it was finally signed into law by President Franklin Pierce on May 30, 1854. As news of its passage spread, it became clear that the bill which was supposed to be a compromise to settle tensions was actually doing the opposite. In fact, it was incendiary.

Unintended Consequences

The provision in the Kansas-Nebraska Act calling for "popular sovereignty," the idea that residents of the new territories would vote on the issue of enslavement, soon caused major problems.

Forces on both sides of the issue began arriving in Kansas, and outbreaks of violence resulted. The new territory was soon known as Bleeding Kansas, a name bestowed upon it by Horace Greeley, the influential editor of the New York Tribune.

Open violence in Kansas reached a peak in 1856 when pro-slavery forces burned the "free soil" settlement of Lawrence, Kansas. In response, the fanatical abolitionist John Brown and his followers murdered men who supported enslavement.

The bloodshed in Kansas even reached the halls of Congress, when a South Carolina Congressman, Preston Brooks, attacked abolitionist Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, beating him with a cane on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

Opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act

Opponents of the Kansas-Nebraska Act organized themselves into the new Republican Party. And one particular American, Abraham Lincoln, was prompted to re-enter politics.

Lincoln had served one unhappy term in Congress in the late 1840s and had put his political aspirations aside. But Lincoln, who had known and sparred in Illinois with Stephen Douglas before, was so offended by what Douglas had done by writing and passing the Kansas-Nebraska Act that he began speaking out at public meetings.

On October 3, 1854, Douglas appeared at the Illinois State Fair in Springfield and spoke for more than two hours defending the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Abraham Lincoln rose at the end and announced that he would speak the next day in response.

On October 4, Lincoln, who out of courtesy invited Douglas to sit on the stage with him, spoke for more than three hours denouncing Douglas and his legislation. The event brought the two rivals in Illinois back into nearly constant conflict. Four years later, of course, they would hold the famed Lincoln-Douglas debates while in the midst of a senate campaign.

And while no one in 1854 may have foreseen it, the Kansas-Nebraska Act had set the nation hurtling toward an eventual Civil War.

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Your Citation
McNamara, Robert. "The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, McNamara, Robert. (2023, April 5). The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).