Skip to content

What Was the Kansas Nebraska Act

In 1854, Senator Stephen A. Douglas and President Franklin Pierce unwittingly set the stage for such violent conflict in the Midwest that America’s newest territory would be called “Bleeding Kansas.” The Kansas-Nebraska act was intended as a way to build up the infrastructure of the Midwest and accelerate the growth of the transcontinental railroad. Instead, it was a stepping stone in the start of the Civil War.

Because the transcontinental railroad had to pass through the land that would eventually become Kansas and Nebraska, the government was eager to turn that land into a formal United States territory in order to smooth over construction. However, there was a twist; the land was north of the 36-degree 30′ latitude line. Under the terms of the Missouri Compromise, which restricted slavery to states and territories south of that latitude line, the newfound Nebraska territory would be free. Southern senators were not pleased at the thought of a new free territory entering the Union and threw as much weight as they could into obstructing the creation of this new territory, tabling the bill to create it until it explicitly wrote in language allowing slaveholders to move to Nebraska.

Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois was a supporter of the railroad, but he was also a supporter of a principal called “popular sovereignty”, which was the idea that each state’s voters should determine whether a state was slave or free, regardless of whether it was northern or southern. Douglas saw this debate as an opportunity to repeal the Missouri Compromise and replace it with popular sovereignty. He revised the bill to state that the citizens of the Nebraska territory would determine for themselves whether the state would allow slaveholders or not. The bill also eventually divided the huge Nebraska territory into two territories, Nebraska and Kansas, both because the Nebraska territory would have been too large and unwieldy and because this increased the chance that one territory would be slave-owning while the other would be free.

This time, instead of facing opposition from the South, the revised Kansas-Nebraska Act faced fierce opposition from Northern freesoilers and abolitionists, who were horrified at the thought of slavery seeping into northern territories. An Ohio senator, Lewis D. Campbell, tried to filibuster the bill, and the invective he wielded against southern slave owners nearly led to an all-out brawl in the middle of the Senate floor. However, the Kansas Nebraska act ultimately passed, with 69 out of 78 Southern senators voting in favor of it and 89 out of 131 Northerners doing the same. Douglas’ supporters came away pleased that the question of slavery was going to pass back to the states, while his opponents were furious at the perceived southern incursion against the ideals of the free states.

Far from solving the problems of the Kansas and Nebraska territories, the Kansas-Nebraska Act made tensions in the region much, much worse. While Nebraska was seen as solidly free, Kansas’ status was up for grabs, and that meant that interested parties on both sides were doing everything in their power to stuff the ballot boxes. During territorial elections, pro-slavery Missourians would cross the border into Kansas for the express purpose of voting for the pro-slavery candidates, while abolitionists from the East would travel to the Kansas territory in order to vote for the anti-slavery candidates.

The tensions became so powerful that Kansas eventually erupted into its own miniature prelude to the Civil War as Missourians and abolitionists alike began to send in weapons along with voters. Missourians went so far as to loot Lawrence, a bastion of the abolitionists, and fiery abolitionist John Brown responded by arranging the murder of five prominent pro-slavery agitators. The area erupted into civil war and partisan violence as the Missourians and abolitionists clashed.

Ultimately, it became clear that the people of Kansas desired it to be a free state, and while the Missourians kept fighting, the violence deescalated until Kansas was finally admitted to the United States as a free state in 1861. However, the country had received its first taste of the war that was to come.