Kansas-Nebraska Act

From Academic Kids

The Kansas–Nebraska Act was an Act of Congress in 1854 organizing the remaining territory within the Louisiana Purchase for settlement before its admission to the Union. It was contrived by and passed by those legislators who favored the political standpoint of the use of popular sovereignty to decide if a territory would be open to slavery. Its passage only exacerbated the rift between the Northern and Southern states over the issue of slavery and added fuel to the fire that became the American Civil War.

The bill was proposed by Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and passed by the U.S. Congress on May 30, 1854, after fierce debate. It was signed into law by President Franklin Pierce, a rare northerner who supported slavery. The act divided the region into the Kansas Territory (south of the 40th parallel) and the Nebraska Territory (north of the 40th parallel). The most controversial provision was the stipulation that each territory would separately decide whether to allow slavery within its borders. This provision repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had prohibited slavery north of latitude 3630', though the compromise itself was later held to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in the Dred Scott decision of 1856.


The question of slavery

At the time of passage of the act, slavery supporters were somewhat more numerous than their opponents among the settlers in Kansas. There was no significant support for the institution of slavery in Nebraska. After the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, both pro- and anti-slavery supporters attempted to muster settlers of their own persuasion to settle in Kansas. The anti-slavery New England Emigrant Aid Company, headed by Amos Adams Lawrence, was highly successful in this project, and a nucleus of anti-slavery sentiment was established about the town of Lawrence, Kansas, which was also named after Amos Adams Lawrence himself.

Pro-slavery settlers migrated to Kansas mainly from Missouri. Their influence in territorial elections was often bolstered by resident Missourians who crossed the border into Kansas purely for the purpose of voting in such ballots. These interlopers were called border ruffians by their opponents, a term coined by Horace Greeley. The territorial capital of Lecompton, Kansas was the target of this agitation, and it consequently became such a hostile environment for Free-Soilers that they set up their own unofficial legislature at Topeka.

The hostilities between the factions reached a state of low-intensity civil war which was extremely embarrassing to the U.S. federal government, especially as the nascent Republican Party sought to capitalise on the scandal of Bleeding Kansas. Successive territorial governors attempted to maintain the peace. They were usually sympathetic to slavery, but found themselves unable to countenance the routine ballot-rigging and intimidation that was practiced far more intensively by pro-slavery settlers as they lost the race to populate the territory.

The pro-slavery territorial legislature ultimately proposed a state constitution for approval by referendum. The constitution was offered in two alternative forms, neither of which unambiguously made slavery illegal. Free-Soil settlers boycotted the legislature's referendum and organized their own which approved a free state constitution. The results of the competing referendums were sent to Washington D.C. by the territorial governor.

President Buchanan

President James Buchanan sent the Lecompton constitution to Congress for approval. The Senate approved the admission of Kansas as a state under the Lecompton constitution, despite the opposition of Senator Douglas, who believed that the Kansan referendum on the Constitution, by failing to offer the alternative of prohibiting slavery, was unfair. The measure was subsequently blocked in the House of Representatives, where Northern Congressmen refused to admit Kansas as a slave state. Senator James Hammond of South Carolina (famous for his "King Cotton" speech) characterized this resolution as the expulsion of the state, asking, "If Kansas is driven out of the Union for being a slave state, can any Southern state remain within it with honor?"


Results of the Kansas-Nebraska Act were numerous and for the most part damaging to the country. The Act caused the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850 to be virtually nullified, and caused compromising between the North and the South to be nearly impossible in the future. The Democratic Party was sectionally shattered by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, but it also gave birth to the Republicans. Ultimately, the Kansas-Nebraska Act would lead to a sectional rift in the country that would prove too deep to patch up without war.

Eventually a new anti-slavery constitution was drawn up. On January 29, 1861, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state. Nebraska was admitted to the Union as a state after the Civil War in 1867.

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