"Come on, then, gentlemen of the slave states. Since there is no escaping your challenge, we accept it in the name of freedom. We will engage in competition for the virgin soil of Kansas, and God give the victory to the side which is stronger in numbers, as it is in right." — Senator William Seward, on the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, May 1854
Stephen Douglas' success in getting the Kansas-Nebraska bill through Congress is perhaps the greatest Pyrhhic victory in American legislative history. It undid the Compromise of 1850, the sectional truce Douglas had played the key role in arranging, by reopening the question of slavery in the territories. It undermined the second party system, so-called. The Whigs, already split between Cotton and Conscience factions, lost most of their support in the North when they proved unable to defeat the bill. They fared even worse in the South where Democratic support for Kansas-Nebraska settled in their favor the competition over which party was the stronger friend of slavery. As the Democrats gained strength in the South, they lost ground in the North as the new American (aka Know-Nothing) and Republican parties succeeded in painting northern Democrats as cats paws for southern policies. This significantly weakened Douglas' own political position as his loss of the popular vote to Abraham Lincoln in the 1858 Illinois senatorial contest demonstrated. (He was returned to the Senate because the Democrats had a majority in the state legislature.)
Kansas-Nebraska, in effect, reversed a bipartisan policy that, ever since the Missouri Compromise, had sought ways to keep the issue of slavery in the territories out of national politics. In 1820 the Missouri Compromise provided that all territories north of the southern boundary of Missouri, with the exception of Missouri itself, were to be closed to slavery. The goal, beyond resolving the status of Missouri, was to create an automatic mechanism for determining whether a given territory would be free or slave so that the issue would no longer arise in Congress. The Compromise worked as intended for a quarter of a century. Territories were admitted to statehood two by two so that the number of slave and free states remained more or less equal. The War with Mexico, along with the agreement with Great Britain over Oregon, brought the issue once again to the fore. The huge acquisition of land from Mexico meant the Compromise line no longer neatly bisected the western territories. The acceptance of British claims to what became British Columbia further inflamed Northerners by reducing the amount of land above the line. Led by David Wilmot of Pennsylvania, northern politicians promised to attach a proviso to any measure dealing with the land seized from Mexico. This Wilmot Proviso excluded slavery from all the land ceded by Mexico.
Provided that, as an express and fundamental condition to the acquisition of any territory from the Republic of Mexico by the United States, by virtue of any treaty which may be negotiated between them, and to the use by the Executive of the moneys herein appropriated, neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory, except for crime, whereof the party shall first be duly convicted.
Southerners, led by John C. Calhoun, claimed that any restriction on the rights of Southerners to bring their slave property into any portion of the territories, including the Missouri Compromise, was unconstitutional. [Calhoun's "Southern Address" of 1849, along with a list of the signers, is available at Furman University.] His argument rested upon the rights of property. The federal government, the Address maintained, had no power to discriminate among types of property. Instead it must protect all equally. Therefore it lacked any power to prevent any slaveholder from taking his property into any territory.
. . .we hold that the Federal Government has no right to extend or restrict slavery, no more than to establish or abolish it; nor has it any right whatever to distinguish between the domestic institutions of one State, or section, and another, in order to favor one and discourage the other. As the federal representative of each and all the States, it is bound to deal out, within the sphere of its powers, equal and exact justice and favor to all. To act otherwise, to undertake to discriminate between the domestic institutions of one and another, would be to act in total subversion of the end for which it was established--to be the common protection and guardian of all. Entertaining these opinions, we ask not, as the North alleges we do, for the extension of slavery. That would make a discrimination in our favor, as unjust and unconstitutional as the discrimination they ask against us in their favor. It is not for them, nor for the Federal Government to determine, whether our domestic institution is good or bad; or whether it should be repressed or preserved. It belongs to us, and us only, to decide such questions. What then we do insist on, is, not to extend slavery, but that we shall not be prohibited from immigrating with our property, into the Territories of the United States, because we are slaveholders; or, in other words, that we shall not on that account be disfranchised of a privilege possessed by all others, citizens and foreigners, without discrimination as to character, profession, or color. All, whether savage, barbarian, or civilized, may freely enter and remain, we only being excluded.
The Compromise of 1850 settled this dispute, if only temporarily. It admitted California as a free state, although part of it lay below the Missouri Compromise line. It dealt with the remaining questions over the admission of Texas. It outlawed the slave trade in the District of Columbia, long a demand of anti-slavery activists in the North. It established a new Fugitive Slave law which required state and national officials to cooperate in the recovery and return of escaped slaves. And it bypassed the central issue of slavery in the conquered territory (other than California) by leaving the question to be resolved by the settlers at the time of application for statehood. Since much of this land was known as the Great American Desert, the expectation was that this would be in the distant future. The formula adopted, in other words, continued by other means the policy of putting the question of slavery in the territories off the national agenda.
The Compromise of 1850 was unpopular in both North and South. It had taken all of Douglas' very considerable parliamentary skills to cobble together separate majorities for each of its provisions. There was no majority for the whole. Where the Compromise of 1850 left the Missouri Compromise line was unclear. The 1850 measures were silent on the subject other than to note that the newly conquered lands did not fall under its formula. Some argued that the Compromise of 1850 superceded the Missouri Compromise and that the line no longer separated slave and free territories. Others claimed that the line still was in force with respect to the Louisiana Purchase lands.
There is a very useful interactive map at Teaching American History.
If the Southwest seemed unlikely to attract settlers in large numbers any time soon, that was not true of the Louisiana Purchase lands. This was especially the case with the vast Nebraska territory which, in the beginning of 1854 stretched from north of what would become Oklahoma to Canada. All of it, under the terms of the Missouri Compromise, was to be closed to slavery. The Kansas-Nebraska measure divided the territory into two parts -- Kansas, due west of Missouri, and Nebraska. It noted that the Missouri Compromise line no longer applied since it had been repealed by the Compromise of 1850, a claim which outraged Northern opinion. It then used the same formula as the 1850 Compromise to resolve the issue of slavery. Stephen Douglas, chair of the Senate Committee on Territories and author of the bill, called this Popular Sovereignty. This doctrine held that the citizens of the territory would decide for themselves whether or not to admit slavery. Officially they would make this choice when applying for statehood. As a practical matter, it would come earlier, with the meeting of the territorial legislature that would have the power to pass laws regulating the "peculiar institution." Applied to Kansas-Nebraska, that is, Popular Sovereignty would have the opposite effect that it had in the New Mexico and Utah Territories. Instead of postponing the question of slavery, it made it immediate.
Kansas-Nebraska set off a race, as Seward proclaimed, between pro-slavery and free soil partisans. Whichever side could get enough people to win the first territorial election would gain an enormous advantage. As Abraham Lincoln pointed out in an October 1854 speech, an "important objection to this application of the right of self-government is that it enables the first FEW, to deprive the succeeding MANY, of a free exercise of the right of self-government. The first few may get slavery IN, and the subsequent many cannot easily get it OUT."
In the event, the first territorial election, marred by gross fraud, did go to the pro-slavery side. Free Soilers refused to accept this election, but the Pierce administration did despite the fact that more votes were cast than there were people in Kansas. Free Soilers then organized their own election which the pro-slavery side boycotted and which the administration in Washington treated as without legal validity. Several historians, including Kenneth Stamp, point out that the Pierce administration could have thrown out both elections and called for a new, federal-supervised one. Pierce, however, followed the advice of southern pro-slavery zealots.
In the face of such obvious pro-slavery bias, the victors in this second defective election set up their own territorial government. Both territorial governments set about making laws, recording deeds, and writing constitutions. Violence flared episodically and reached a climax of sorts in the "sack" of the free soil capital at Lawrence and the retaliatory Pottawatomie Massacre led by John Brown in May of 1856. At the same time, the U.S. Senate was considering the free soil constitution submitted by the Lawrence territorial government. In the course of the debate, Charles Sumner, Republican Senator from Massachusetts, delivered his "The Crime Against Kansas" (full text at Furman) address in which he excoriated pro-slavery advocates, especially Andrew Butler, Democrat of South Carolina. This led one of Butler's relatives, Congressman Preston Brooks, to assault Sumner from behind while the senator worked at his desk. At left is the most famous depiction of the event, Winslow Homer's "Argument of the Chivalry." Click on it for a larger version.
As menacing as the violence was, the reaction to it on both sides was even more troubling. Many in the North refused to believe that John Brown had butchered innocent people in cold blood. Many in the South hailed Brooks as a hero. For their part Republicans distributed as many as a million copies of Sumner's speech as Republican leaders found that Brooks' attack induced thousands to join the new party.
By so polarizing the sections the Kansas-Nebraska Act may well have made civil war inevitable. At the very least, it hastened the final rupture.