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The Kansas Nebraska Act History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The Kansas Nebraska Act was introduced in 1854 in the same when any other legislation is introduced, because it received a majority vote in the Senate and the House of Representatives. In order to consider why it was able to achieve this majority it is important to examine what the act aimed to achieve. Both the aims and causes of the act and the reasons why it was supported are intrinsically linked in explaining why the Kansas Nebraska Act was introduced in 1854. The Kansas Nebraska Act was surrounded by controversy both during the process of its introduction and immediately after. The Kansas Nebraska Act revived the issue of slavery and its expansion which had been temporarily calmed following the compromise of 1850. It is logical to consider why the Kansas Nebraska Act was controversial after the examination of the nature of the act and why it was introduced. From this, conclusions can be drawn as to the ways in which the act was divisive and controversial.

In order to determine the reasons why the Kansas-Nabraska act was introduced it is logical to examine those who supported it and the reasons for that support.

Douglas – all aims

The obvious place to start when examining the reasons for the introduction of the Kansas-Nebraska Act is to consider its architect. Democratic Senator Douglas, from Illinois, introduced into the senate in 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act for a multitude of reasons. There is little doubt that one of Douglas’s chief aims for the bill was personal ambition[1]. “Young, dynamic, and burning with presidential ambition” Douglas sought an issue which would protect his popularity in the North West and win vital support in the south, an area which he had thus far failed to endear himself too.[2] It was also a policy he felt which would unify the sectionalising Democratic Party, the whigs had traditionally been reluctant towards development so Douglas saw the introduction of Kansas and Nebraska as a policy that the democrats could get behind[3]. Despite only being forty-one, Douglas saw himself as the new leader of the Democrats in the Senate, his ultimate ambition however clearly lay for the white house.[4] He hoped that a successful and popular piece of legislation that could unite the Democrats would lead to his presidential nomination. The Kansas-Nebraska Act aimed to add two new states to the Union, further expanding the United States of America. Douglas new that American westward expansion into the unorganised territories west of Missouri and Arkansas would aid the building of the proposed transcontinental railway. It was hoped to eventually build a railway line reaching across the width of the nation from the East Coast connecting to the isolated California on the West Coast. The railway was clearly of some interest to Douglas, it is an indisputable fact that Douglas had been deeply interested in the Pacific railroad project both personally and politically, ever since 1844.[5] He also hoped that along with the railway, a telegraph line could be set up across the nation and a postal system could be developed. It is also often forgotten that in the next session of Congress after the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, Douglas’s main activity was the sponsorship of a Pacific railroad bill.[6] Douglas, it is fair to argue, primarily hoped to introduce Kansas and Nebraska to the Union so as to boost his popularity and to allow for the construction of the transcontinental railway.

However Douglas did not stumble blindly into the issue of Kansas Nebraska without being aware that he would have to address the slavery question or fear provoking it. As with the addition of any new state to the union during the pre-civil war era the issue of whether the new state would allow slavery usually presented the most difficulties. Douglas’s plan for adding Kansas and Nabraksa to the union was to allow the states themselves vote whether or not they would be admitted to the Union as slave or free states. Douglas hoped that by employing popular sovereignty that the Kansas-Nebraska act could maintain the support of both the north and the south of the nation. Eric Foner explains how “to Douglas, popular sovereignty embodied the idea of local self-government and offered a middle ground between the extremes of the north and south.”[7] Douglas hoped that his plan for popular sovereignty would act as a compromise between north and south in order for his act to get through congress. Much evidence suggests that Douglas himself cared little about slavery. He was a Jacksonian Democrat and a much greater believer in the democratic principle of local autonomy and in unionism.[8] After the initial aims of the Kansas Nebraska Act, Douglas hoped that the act would help set a president for the future ways in which the slave status of states should be decided, he aimed to create a solution which would be a compromise between the north and south.

Pierce and cabinet

It is fair to say that the success of the Kansas Nebraska Act rested on the support of the president. Democratic president Franklin Pierce was at first sceptical over the act. Although he, like Douglas, supported the idea of Westward expansion and the Transcontinental Railway he feared that the act could be divisive. Pierce believed that the Missouri Compromise had kept peace between the north and south. The Missouri Compromise of 1920 was an agreement between pro-slavery and anti-slavery section. It prohibited the expansion of slavery into the area north of the parallel 36°30′ in the western territories except for within the boundaries of the proposed state of Missouri. President Pierce’s cabinet were also unconvinced by Douglas’s proposal. On Saturday 21st January 1854, the Pierce administration convened to discuss the act. All the cabinet were against the act with the exception of James C Dobbin of North Carolina and future President of the Confederate States of America Jefferson Davis.[9] However the following day Douglas met Pierce and persuaded him to support the act and to write a crucial statement repealing the Missouri Compromise.[10] It is certainly the case that Pierce, like Douglas, dreamed of making his mark with westward expansion. Since his inauguration Pierce had hoped to unite the sectionalising nation behind policies of Westward expansion.[11] But he was certainly aware and cautious of the sectional controversy of introducing the act. In the end he caved in to pressure from the South, a region where he had most support.[12] He hoped that the act would retain his strong support in the South whilst being largely accepted in the north. Pierce, perhaps unlike Douglas, was aware that the act was going to gain far more support in the south and be seen as pro-slavery.

S Democrats

As was to be expected the Southern Democrats were the primary supporters of the Act. Once democratic president Pierce’s support for the act was ensured, the Democrats with southern allegiances overwhelmingly followed. When the vote on the act was finally cast on the 26th May 1854 57 out of the 59 Southern Democrats voted in support of the act. They had little reason to oppose party policy, especially when it was seen as to the advantage of the South. Although the south were originally indifferent towards the bill, once Southern Democrat Senator David Atchison forced Douglas to write into the provisional bill that the states slavery status would be decided by popular sovereignty, Southern support grew. [13] To the south, popular sovereignty had two basic meaning: first, it meant that neither Congress nor a territorial legislature could exclude slavery from a territory during the territorial stage and secondly, it meant that only a state constitution adopted at the time of statehood could positively disallow slavery.[14] The Kansas Nebraska Act was seen as determining policy for the future, as much as it was for Kansas and Nebraska, therefore the pro-slavery south saw it as allowing the potential expansion of slavery. Once popular sovereignty became a feature of the act most Southern Democrats got behind the bill based on their sectional motives. As well as David Atchison, who backed the act once slavery was not banned in either state, his democrat housemates Robert M. T. Hunter, James M. Mason, Andrew P. Butler as well William O. Goode formed a powerful Southern Democrat group termed the ‘F Street Mess.'[15] Douglas recognised their power in congress and was willing to make the popular sovereignty concession to the south to get them on side. When congress reconvened on December 5, 1853, it reconvened with the support of the ‘F Street Mess, ‘ who were hugely influential to the rest of the Southern Democrats.[16] These Southern democrats were keen to seize the Kansas-Nabraska act as their own, they not only wanted to gain support in the South for being behind it but they wanted to display the dominance the pro-southern Democrats had over the party.

The Northern Democrats views on the act were a lot more split. When the Kansas-Nabraska Act went to the vote Northern Democrats voted in favour of the act by 44 votes to 42. Those who voted against the act unanimously disagreed with it for sectional reasons; they saw it as a act giving far too much concession to the south. The group of 44 Democrats who voted for the act were nearly all motivated by party loyalty. Their party loyalty was sufficient for them to support their president and the southern sect of their party in a policy which they saw as against the interest of their region. The fact that over half the Northern Democrats supported the act was proof of the strength of the Democratic Party at this time[17]. The North Democrats in support of the act did so in hope of retaining political harmony. They felt that supporting the act would increase political unity of the party. They were also all too aware that their criticism of the act would only act as a boost for the Whigs. To quite a large extent the Kansas-Nebraska Act exposed the sectional cracks in the Democratic party, but it was no way near to the extent it damaged the Whig party.

The Kansas-Nabraska Act massively exposed the sectional cracks in the Whig party. “The Kansas-Nabraska bill brought the shaky structure of the Whig party tumbling down.[18]” Those who supported the Act supported it for regional motives, not due to party loyalty. Not one single Northern Whig voted for it whereas the majority of Southern Whigs did.[19] Pro-Southern Whig, Archibald Dixon, summarised Southern Whigs aims for the act when he managed to convince Douglas to include a section in the Kansas-Nabraska Act which would repeal the Missouri Compromise which prohibited slavery above the 36°30′ parrelel.[20] The Whigs had been in decline in the South because of the effectiveness of the Democrats policies on slavery. The 33rd United States Congress that begun in 1853 contained a mere two dozen Southern Whigs, in comparison to 64 Democrats.[21] Dixon hoped that by seizing the initiative on the issue he could regain the party much support in the south. Dixon believed that without the repeal of the Missouri Compromise explicitly included in the Act slaveholders would be unwilling to move into Kansas and Nebraska until slavery was actually approved by the settlers. Without slaveholders moving into the region before the vote was to be taken it would almost certainly be a free-soil result. Dixon hoped that the introduction of the explicit repeal of the Missouri compromise into the Act would make proslavery southern support the act and want to move into the new territories in time to influence the vote on slavery. In this way Dixon hoped he could take the support of the pro-slavery south from the democrats into the hands of the whigs. [22] After the repeal was secured a majority of Southern Whigs got behind the act because of almost solely regional reasons. Although the western expansion of the US and the transcontinental railway were supported, as they were by almost every member of congress, the issue of slavery had dwarfed these initial aims. 12 out of 19 Southern Whigs voted of the Kansas Nebraska Act, for those 12 it is safe to say that the issue of the potential expansion of slavery was the main motive. 6 out of the 7 Southern Whigs who opposed it were from the upper south.[23] Every single of the 45 northern Whigs, on the 26th May 1954, voted against the act. This could not be more evidence for the sectional divisions which emerged in the Whig party largely as a result of the Kansas Nebraska Act.

Enf of part one

Northern Whigs

Although examination of the Northern Whigs feelings toward the act tell us nothing of the positive hopes of the act and why it was voted in they reflect the reasons why the act was so controversial. To the Northern Whigs, and a lot of the population of the North, the Kansas Nebraska Act was seen as concerningly pro-southern. The North repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the Compromise of 1850, which had banned the expansion of slavery into the southern unorganised territories,meant that slavery was free to expand once again. This was certainly seen as a backward step by all abolitionists, but even those who wouldn’t class themselves as abolitionist were concerned with the growing power of the South. The Kansas Nebraska Act reawakened sectional concerns in the north and south that had laid dormant since the Compromise of 1850. This sectional conflicts transferred as far as both parties in the two party system. Although the democrats showed greater unity that the whigs sectional differences were still evident. For the whigs, the Kansas Nebraska act tore them apart. Northern Whigs were outraged at the support of some of the Southern Whigs for the act, whereas Southern Whigs become more self-consciously Southern – losing concern for party unity and policies.[24]

The North – popular soveriegty

164 Opinionf of some northern democrats “Douglas had turned traitor, they said, in return for slaveholder support for the presidency. This publicity relied heavily on moral absolutes: the Missouri Compromise was not just an act of Congress; it was a sacred pledge. The repeal was not just a political maneauver; it was the result of an atrocious plot. Douglas was not, conceivably, trying to find a way to keep Nebraska free and also get it organized; he was a Judas, a benedict Arnold, selling Nebraska into slavery.”

Free SOilers

The North – Kansas Nebraska Land

144 “Settles were anxious to move in, but they could not legally buy the land until Congress organized a territory, the land was surveyed, and the government put it up for sale.

“According to the terms of the Compromise of 1820, slavery was ‘forever prohibited’ from the area to be organized.”

Know Nothings + Two Party System

The Whigs were not the only party that the controversies of the Kansas Nebraska Act tore apart. The slavery issues stirred up by the act were one of the primary reasons for the collapse of the Know Nothing Party. The Know nothings were a short lived, semi secretive, anti immigration political party. They enjoyed the peak of their success between 1854 and 1856. They were a semi-secretive, local, nature had allowed them to gain much success without having a divisive opinion on slavery. However, by their National Convention in June 1855 their success meant they were forced to take a stance on the issue of slavery. Eventually they took a stance which reaffirming the Kansas Nebraska Act – causing many Northern Know Nothings to leave the party concerned over the Southern influence over the party. Southern members also grew equally suspicious of northern members proslavery attitudes. By the middle of 1855, the party began to divide into sectional camps, a party built on unionism and xenophobia could no longer survive the sectional issues raised by Kansas Nebraska.[25] Many expected that they might triumph at the 1856 elections but their support had dropped massively by that point largely due to the issue of slavery.

The more that Southern indifference to the act become strong support, the quicker Northern opinion was aroused against it. Sectional differences overtook party loyalty. As a result the South voted almost solidly for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and although a slight majority of Northern Democratic votes ensured its passage, there was, as a result huge northern outcry against the measure lead to the formation of ‘anti-Nebraska’ coalitions in many states to fight the mid-term elections in the autumn of 1854.[26] “Within a year or two of the introduction of Douglas’s bill, an increasingly solid South faced a new North sectional party dedicated to resisting the further extension of slavery.”[27]

139-140 destruction of the two party system, interest became far to sectionalized, had begun way before Kansas Nebraska but was exacerbated by it.

142 – By 1853 the democrat party had split into three factions “the Barnburners, now led by John A Dix; the Softs, led by Marcy; and the Hard, led by ex-senator Daniel S Dickninson.”

“Antislaery congressman issued the ‘Appeal of the Independent Democrats.’ Written by two abolitionist from Ohio – Congressman Joshua Giddings and Senator Salmon P Chase – the ‘appeal’ proved to be one of the most effective pieces of political persuasion in American history. Quotes in book 414 foner

Arguably the continued growth of the Republican Party, a party who was born out of anti Kansas-Nebraska sentiment, is testimony to how much the issue continued to be divisive after 1854.

Already sectional issues?

Put in two party systemThere is plenty of historiography which debates the most significant consequences of the Kansas-nabraska Act. One which carries a lot of weight is that of Peter J Parish “big quote, maybe put in other sections” 53


  1. Holt (Political parties) 74
  2. Pairsh 52
  3. Holt 144
  4. Foner 414
  5. Potter 170
  6. Potter 170
  7. Foner 414
  8. Potter 172,173
  9. Potter 161
  10. Potter 161-162
  11. Holt 140
  12. Holt 147
  13. Parish 52
  14. Cooper 347
  15. The Road to Disunion: Volume 1: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854 – William W. Freehling. 556 (Oxford, 1991)
  16. Freehling 556
  17. Parish 53
  18. Parish 53
  19. Holt 143
  20. Cooper 350
  21. Holt 148
  22. Parish 53
  23. Billington, Ray Allen, The Protestant Crusade 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism, New York, 1938. 423
  24. Parish 53
  25. parish

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