The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 the U.S. Civil War

On the surface, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was a simple proposal, democratic even. It would take the vast Nebraska Territory, carve it into two separate entities—Kansas and Nebraska—and let the settlers decide the fate of slavery in each through popular sovereignty.

Instead, the Act plunged the U.S. into turmoil that would lead the country to a Civil War within a few years.

Slavery had been a contested issue from the earliest years of U.S. history. A number of Northern states that had initially allowed slavery began banning the practice throughout the late 1700s and early 1800s. With the Missouri Compromise in 1820, the border between slave and non-slave states was drawn, with the sections becoming known as the North and the South. The former didn’t allow for slavery, while the latter did.

As the century progressed, the idea of Manifest Destiny, a national desire to expand the country westward, became more prominent. With the expansion came important questions.

Amongst them were:

  • How to motivate people to move into the new territories?
  • What efficient transportation would connect the country East to West like the Mississippi River did North to South?
  • Would the new territories and states have slavery or not?

To the latter question, Northern abolitionists didn’t want slavery included in the new regions. Southern leaders did.

The political driver behind the Kansas—Nebraska Act initiative was a young Senator from Illinois, Stephen A. Douglas. Senator Douglas was a staunch advocate of Manifest Destiny. He also had an interest in the transportation question. Senator Douglas was one of the biggest advocates for building a transcontinental railroad through Chicago. And while the following may be conjecture, he also wanted to make a more prominent name for himself on the national stage since he likely already had aspirations to run for President, which he would do in 1860.

In the cauldron of conflicting interests and ideologies, Senator Douglas saw an opportunity to strike a compromise that would serve his objectives: organize the Nebraska Territory for settlement while securing a desirable route for the transcontinental railroad. He proposed to repeal the Missouri Compromise, divide the Nebraska Territory into two separate entities (in part to potentially keep a power balance of slave and non-slave states), and let the settlers decide the fate of slavery through popular sovereignty. This latter point was particularly controversial, as the Nebraska Territory would have banned slavery under the Missouri Compromise.

After months of debate, the Senate and House of Representatives approved the bill amidst a charged atmosphere. On May 30, 1854, President Franklin Pierce signed it into law.

Once the Act passed, settlers representing both sides of the slavery debate flooded into the newly opened territories. Kansas, in particular, became the battleground for a brutal struggle between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers. The two groups clashed in violent skirmishes, earning the territory the moniker of “Bleeding Kansas.” This way of life would continue until 1861.

The impact of the Kansas-Nebraska Act extended far beyond the borders of the frontier. It shattered the delicate equilibrium of American politics, laying bare the irreconcilable differences between North and South. In the halls of Congress, compromise gave way to confrontation. Also out of the discord came a newly formed Republican Party, which emerged as a formidable force dedicated to halting the spread of slavery. Their efforts would come to fruition as they came to power with the election of President Abraham Lincoln in 1860.