Kansas-Nebraska Act

Kansas-Nebraska Act, bill that became law on May 30, 1854, by which the U.S. Congress established the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. By 1854 the organization of the vast Platte and Kansas river countries W of Iowa and Missouri was overdue. As an isolated issue territorial organization of this area was no problem. It was, however, irrevocably bound to the bitter sectional controversy over the extension of slavery into the territories and was further complicated by conflict over the location of the projected transcontinental railroad. Under no circumstances did proslavery Congressmen want a free territory (Kansas) W of Missouri. Because the West was expanding rapidly, territorial organization, despite these difficulties, could no longer be postponed. Four attempts to organize a single territory for this area had already been defeated in Congress, largely because of Southern opposition to the Missouri Compromise. Although the last of these attempts to organize the area had nearly been successful, Stephen A. Douglas, chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, decided to offer territorial legislation making concessions to the South. Douglas's motives have remained largely a matter of speculation. Various historians have emphasized Douglas's desire for the Presidency, his wish to cement the bonds of the Democratic party, his interest in expansion and railroad building, or his desire to activate the unimpressive Pierce administration. The bill he reported in Jan., 1854, contained the provision that the question of slavery should be left to the decision of the territorial settlers themselves. This was the famous principle that Douglas now called popular sovereignty, though actually it had been enunciated four years earlier in the Compromise of 1850. In its final form Douglas's bill provided for the creation of two new territories—Kansas and Nebraska—instead of one. The obvious inference—at least to Missourians—was that the first would be slave, the second free. The Kansas-Nebraska Act flatly contradicted the provisions of the Missouri Compromise (under which slavery would have been barred from both territories); indeed, an amendment was added specifically repealing that compromise. This aspect of the bill in particular enraged the antislavery forces, but after three months of bitter debate in Congress, Douglas, backed by President Pierce and the Southerners, saw it adopted. Its effects were anything but reassuring to those who had hoped for a peaceful solution. The popular sovereignty provision caused both proslavery and antislavery forces to marshal strength and exert full pressure to determine the "popular" decision in Kansas in their own favor, using groups such as the Emigrant Aid Company. The result was the tragedy of "bleeding" Kansas. Northerners and Southerners were aroused to such passions that sectional division reached a point that precluded reconciliation. A new political organization, the Republican party, was founded by opponents of the bill, and the United States was propelled toward the Civil War.

See P. O. Ray, The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise (1909, repr. 1965).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay, 1776-1854
William W. Freehling.
Oxford University Press, vol.1, 1991
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 30 "The Kansas-Nebraska Act, I: Confrontation in Missouri" and Chap. 31 "The Kansas-Nebraska Act, II: Decision in Congress"
History of Nebraska
James C. Olson; Ronald C. Naugle.
University of Nebraska Press, 1997 (3rd edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "The Kansas-Nebraska Act"
Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War
Michael A. Morrison.
University of North Carolina Press, 1997
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Of Pegasus and Bellerophon Popular Sovereignty, Stephen A. Douglas, and the Origins of the Kansas-Nebraska Act"
History of Black Americans: From the Compromise of 1850 to the End of the Civil War
Philip S. Foner.
Greenwood Press, 1983
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 11 "Kansas-Nebraska, Cuban Annexation, and the Early Republican Party"
Student's Guide to Landmark Congressional Laws on Civil Rights
Marcus D. Pohlmann; Linda Vallar Whisenhunt.
Greenwood Press, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 9 "Kansas-Nebsraska Act (1854)"
The Origins of America's Civil War
Bruce Collins.
Holmes & Meier, 1981
Librarian’s tip: "The Kansas-Nebraska Act, 1854" begins on p. 99
FREE! Parties and Slavery, 1850-1859
Theodore Clarke Smith.
Harper & Brothers, 1906
Librarian’s tip: Chap. VII "The Kansas-Nebraska Bill (1853-1854)"
FREE! The Whig Party in the South
Arthur Charles Cole.
American Historical Association, 1913
Librarian’s tip: Chap. IX "The Kansas-Nebraska Bill"
Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War
Eric Foner.
Oxford University Press, 1995
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of the Kansas-Nebraska bill begins on p. 155
The Self-Inflicted Wound: Southern Politics in the Nineteenth Century
Robert F. Durden.
University Press of Kentucky, 1985
Librarian’s tip: Discussion of the Kansas-Nebraska Act begins on p. 65
Encyclopedia of American Parties, Campaigns, and Elections
William C. Binning; Larry E. Esterly; Paul A. Sracic.
Greenwood Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: "Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854" begins on p. 243
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