What Was the Kansas-Nebraska Act?

The Kansas-Nebraska Act Video

Territory Expansion

By the mid-1800s, the United States was engaged in a dangerous dance of compromising between free-state and slave-state interests. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was one such compromise in a long line of half measures that aimed to avoid open conflict – but may have only made war more likely. Dissatisfaction with its terms caused violent conflict in Kansas, warning of the inferno that would erupt during the Civil War.

The proximate cause of the mayhem that eventually engulfed Kansas was the open question of whether or not to allow slavery in newly gained American territories west of the Mississippi River – some of them gained through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, others through victory in the Mexican-American War which ended in 1848. Missouri, the second state in the Louisiana Territory to apply for statehood, found itself in the whirlwind of power struggles between slave states and free states, which then had equal numbers of U.S. senators. The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had preserved that equality by bringing Missouri into the country as a slave state and Maine as a free state, but also banning slavery north of the line of latitude at 36 degrees, 30 minutes, with Missouri being an exception. Further compromise went before Congress for debate when the U.S. won the Mexican-American War, and in the final settlement took a large swathe of territory from Mexico – some of which was above and the rest of which was below the Missouri-Compromise line. The result was the so-called Compromise of 1850, which gave California statehood as a free state but left the choice of free or slave in New Mexico up to the locals.

Meanwhile, expanding settlement across American western territories via railroads had become a priority – and those politicians realized that westward railroad expansion required one or more states to be formed out of the land between Missouri and California, would inevitably have to decide how to appease slave and free interests in the process, because every time a state entered the Union, the balance of power between those interests was threatened. One such politician was Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois. In devising a solution to incorporate this large territory into the country so railroads could expand, Douglas faced strong Southern opposition in the Senate to any of the territory being free – even though the Missouri Compromise legally outlawed slavery north of a particular line of latitude that ran right through it.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act

To overcome this hurdle, Douglas proposed creating two new territories from the large strip of land – the Kansas and Nebraska Territories – and throwing the decision on slave or free status in these territories onto the residents, through popular sovereignty. The tricky part was, Douglas’s proposal also required repealing the Missouri Compromise. Senator Archibald Dixon of Kentucky took the lead in putting an amendment into Douglas’s bill, mandating such a repeal. Faced between a potentially destructive war of words on slavery’s legality and a near-term political victory, Douglas chose the latter option, caving to Dixon’s condition. The Kansas-Nebraska Act passed the Senate in March 1854, subsequently passed the House of Representatives several weeks later, and was signed into law by President Franklin Pierce in May of that year.

In Nebraska, settled mainly by freeholding Midwesterners, slavery was a non-issue. Not so in Kansas, which was the next-door western neighbor of Missouri, a slave state. As news of the Kansas-Nebraska Act spread, the powerful pro-slavery faction in Missouri weaponized migration, sending its supporters into Kansas to tip the scales in the vote as to whether the territory would be slave or free – spurred on by the fact that, thanks to the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, slavery was at that moment legal in Kansas. In return, there arrived a similar influx of Northern-abolitionist settlers, with John Brown prominent among them. Violent civil conflict was the result. In May 1856, an armed band of slaveholders, led by a pro-slave county sheriff, attacked the freeholder city of Lawrence, Kansas – founded by abolitionist settlers from Massachusetts. The city’s Free State Hotel was destroyed. Brown and his entourage were quick to fight back, murdering five pro-slavery settlers close to Pottawatomie Creek just a few days later. This dividing struggle for the soul of Kansas, subsequently known as “Bleeding Kansas,” afflicted the territory for four years, with an eventual death toll of more than 50 Americans.

The conflict that arose from the outset over Douglas’s bill revitalized a faction of American politicians who had been strict opponents of slavery’s expansion into western territories. As the Kansas-Nebraska Act went through Congress, these politicians formed themselves into the Republican Party in Wisconsin in March 1854. One of their supporters, former Illinois representative Abraham Lincoln, came out of voluntary political exile in anger at the deal Douglas had struck. On October 4th, 1854 at the Illinois State Fair, a day after Douglas had addressed a crowd at the same venue, Lincoln gave his first public address against the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He followed this up with an in-depth speech of over three hours at Peoria on October 16th, launching into a point-by-point examination of the Act’s illegality, citing the precedent of the federal government having already banned slavery in a U.S. territory through the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. He also attacked slavery’s lack of moral justification, saying that, “If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that ‘all men are created equal;’ and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man’s making a slave of another.”

Lincoln and Douglas would square off against each other in some shape or form over slavery continuously for the next four years. Their increasingly contentious rivalry spurred national discussion on the issue and signified the fraying threads just barely holding the nation together. Meanwhile, the growing national rift over slavery played out in a parallel fashion in Kansas, where in February 1860 the Territorial Legislature finally passed a bill outlawing slavery – but over the governor’s veto. Kansas entered the Union on January 29th, 1861 as a free state, just as the United States was about to enter the Civil War.

Ok, now that we’ve covered the conflicts surrounding the Kansas-Nebraska Act, let’s go over a review question before we go.

Review Question

Which of the following was not a cause of the conflict known as “Bleeding Kansas?”

a. The Missouri Compromise had allowed Missouri to declare itself a slave state, even though it was north of the Missouri Compromise line of latitude.

b. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which required popular sovereignty to decide slave or free status in the Kansas and Nebraska Territories.

c. An influx of pro-slavery and abolitionist partisans into Kansas following publication of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

d. Abraham Lincoln’s term as an Illinois representative in Congress from 1847 to 1849, during which term he had opposed the Mexican-American War.

The correct answer is D.


Thanks for watching, and happy studying!


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by Mometrix Test Preparation | This Page Last Updated: February 8, 2024