The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

On May 30, 1854, President Franklin Pierce signed into law a bill known as The Kansas-Nebraska Act. This act created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and allowed settlers in those territories to determine if they would allow slavery within their boundaries. What followed would be six years of strife that came to be known as Bleeding Kansas. How did the country get to the point where United States citizens took up arms against fellow citizens that would ultimately result in the death of over 600,000 Americans in the American Civil War?

The United States Constitution

When the country's founding fathers were drafting the Constitution, the issue of slavery was too controversial to be resolved during the Constitutional Convention. The original Constitution contained three provisions tacitly allowing slavery to continue for the next 20 years. This compromise was necessary to bring about the ratification of the Constitution by the States. They would have 20 years to resolve the difficult issue. [1]

First Compromise: When the rules for determining each State's representation in Congress were debated, Southerners wanted slaves to be counted as whole persons, but Northerners did not want slaves counted at all. The compromise became Article 1, Section 2:

"Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons."

Second Compromise: When the slave trade was debated, Southerners wanted it continued indefintely, but Northerners wanted to end the importation of slaves. The compromise became Article 1, Section 9:

"The Migration or Importation of such Persons as any of the States now existing shall think proper to admit, shall not be prohibited by the Congress prior to the Year one thousand eight hundred and eight."

Third Compromise: When the issue of runaway slaves was debated, Southerners wanted the Constitution to require that fugitive slaves be returned to their owners, whereas Northerners did not want to be forced to return escaped slaves.. The compromise became Article 4, Section 2:

"No person held to service or labour in one state, under the laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in consequence of any law or regulation therein, be discharged from such service or labour, but shall be delivered up on claim of the party to whom such service or labour may be due."

James Madison understood that without these compromises, it is unlikely that enough states would have voted to ratify the US Constitution. He later made the following observation: [2]

"The States were divided into different interests not by their difference of size, but principally from their having or not having slaves … It did not lie between the large and small States; it lay between the Northern and Southern."

The Missouri Compromise of 1820

Missouri's quest for statehood began in 1818. Territorial representatives petitioned Congress to allow them to write a State Constitution. Slaves were common in Missouri and everyone assumed that slavery would be legal in the proposed State of Missouri. The Missouri Compromise was an agreement passed in 1820 between the pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in the United States Congress, involving primarily the regulation of slavery in the western territories. It prohibited slavery in the former Louisiana Territory north of the parallel 36o 30| north except within the boundaries of the proposed state of Missouri.[3]

Representing Kentucky, United State Senator Richard Johnson made the following speech during the debates regarding the Missouri Compromise.[4]

Competent or not, the people of Missouri have the right, and they must exercise it without any restriction which is not common to all the States. If you begin to prescribe restrictions, you may pursue the course without limitation or control. You may prescribe the qualifications of electors and candidates j the powers and organization of every branch of their government, till self-government is lost, and their liberty is but an empty name.

"Still more cautious should we be about intermeddling with the right of property and self-government in Missouri. In so doing, you will jeopardize the harmony of the Union, which may possibly ultimate in a civil war."

On March 4, 1820, the day after the bill's passage, a disappointed US Senator Rufus King from New York wrote the following letter to his son:[5]

"The Missouri & Maine Bills are closed. I consider myself & associates as conquered. The slave States … have subdued us, and the only opportunity, that will occur to establish the equal rights of the Citizens of the free States, is lost … The proposed compromise is a mere tub to the whale … Besides the exclusion of slavery even here is a mere legislative Act, that may be repealed at pleasure."

In an April 21, 1820 letter to John Holmes, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the division of the country created by the Compromise Line would eventually lead to the destruction of the Union:[6]

"… but this momentous question, like a fire bell in the night, awakened and filled me with terror. I considered it at once as the knell of the Union. It is hushed indeed for the moment. but this is a reprieve only, not a final sentence. A geographical line, coinciding with a marked principle, moral and political, once conceived and held up to the angry passions of men, will never be obliterated; and every new irritation will mark it deeper and deeper."

The Compromise of 1850

Following the War with Mexico, the United States began to undergo an massive territorial expansion, and slavery once again became a contentious issue. Some Congressmen wanted slavery banned from any territories formed from the land ceded by Mexico. [7] It was during these debates that members of Congress began to talk about “popular sovereignty.” Michigan Senator Lewis Cass described these ideas in a December 1847 letter to A. O. P. Nicholson: [8]

"Leave it to the people, who will be affected by this question to adjust it upon their own responsibility, and in their own manner, and we shall render another tribute to the original principles of our government, and furnish another for its permanence and prosperity."

Once again the government of the United States would compromise on the issue of slavery. On January 29, 1850, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay introduced a series of resolutions on the floor of the United States Senate: [9]

"I hold in my hand a series of resolutions which I desire to submit to the consideration of this body. Taken together, in combination, they propose an amicable arrangement of all questions in controversy between the free and the slave States, growing out of the subject of slavery."

The Compromise came to coalesce around a plan dividing Texas at its present-day boundaries, creating territorial governments with "popular sovereignty" for New Mexico and Utah, admitting California as a free state, abolishing the slave auctions in the District of Columbia, and enacting a new fugitive slave law. The final Compromise of 1850 became a collection of bills that once again put off resolving the issue of slavery in the United States. The bills that passed included: [10]

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

Things calmed down for a couple of years until there was a bill to formally organize the Nebraska Territory consisting of lands west of Iowa and Missouri. It was December 14, 1853 and Senator Augustus C. Dodge of Iowa introduced a bill to organize the territories of Nebraska and Kansas. The bill was sent to the Committee on Territories chaired by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas. Missouri Senator David Rice Atchison conferred with Douglas to make sure he realized that Southern support was necessary to pass any bill establishing territories in the lands west of Missouri and Iowa. Again the issue was the Missouri Compromise, which forbade any slavery north of the 36o 30| latitude. Southerners refused to support any bill that did not explicitly repeal the Missouri Compromise. Northerners refused to support any bill that did not prevent slavery north of the 36o 30| latitude. [11]

Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas became the architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. As Chairman of the Committee On Territories, Senator Stephen A. Douglas issued the following report on the bill proposing to create the Nebraska Territory: [12]

"The prevailing sentiment in large portions of the Union sustains the doctrine that the Constitution of the United States secures to every citizen an inalienable right to move into any of the territories with his property, of whatever kind and description, and to hold and enjoy tho same under tho sanction of law ... When admitted as a State, the said Territory or any portion of the same, shall be received into tho Union, with or without slavery, as their constitution may prescribe at the time of their admission ... That the legislative power and authority of said Territory shall be vested in the governor and a legislative assembly."

Once again there was contentious debate about whether the Nebraska Territory would be slave or free. After reading the Committee's report, Senators Salmon P. Chase (Ohio) and Charles Sumner (Massachusetts) published an article attacking the proposed bill: [13]

"We arraign this bill as a gross violation of a sacred pledge; as a criminal betrayal of precious rights; as part and parcel of an atrocious plot to exclude from a vast unoccupied region emigrants from the Old World, and free laborers from our own States, and convert it into a dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves."

On the floor of the United States Senate, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas took it personally and denounced the attack made on him by Senators Chase and Sumner: [14]

"I have since discovered that on that very morning the National Era, the abolition organ in this city, contained an address, signed by certain abolition confederates, to the people, in which the bill is grossly misrepresented, in which the action of the committee is grossly perverted, in which our motives are arraigned and our characters calumniated."

While Douglas was speaking, Senator Chase interrupted Senator Douglas to call a point of order, to which Douglas made the following response: [15]

"Mr. President, I do not yield the floor. A senator who has violated all the rules of courtesy and propriety, who showed a consciousness of the character of the act he was doing by concealing from me all knowledge of the fact—who came to me with a smiling face, and the appearance of friendship, even after that document had been uttered—who could get up in the Senate and appeal to my courtesy in order to get time to give the document a wider circulation before its infamy could be exposed; such a senator has no right to my courtesy upon this floor."

Senator Douglas summed up the impact of the bill on whether the territories would legalize slavery or not: [16]

"So far as the question of slavery is concerned, there is nothing in the bill under consideration which does not carry out the principle of the compromise measures of 1850, by leaving the people to do as they please, subject only to the provisions of the Constitution of the United States. If that principle is wrong, the bill is wrong. If that principle is right, the bill is right."

The opposition to the bill roase to the occasion. On February 3, 1854, Ohio Senator Salmon P. Chase said the following from the floor of the United States Senate: [17]

"The storm bursts forth in fury. Warring winds rush into conflict ... Now we find ourselves in the midst of an agitation, the end and issue of which no man can foresee ... It is Slavery that renews the strife. It is Slavery that again wants room. It is Slavery with its insatiate demand for more slave territory and more slave States."

"And what does Slavery ask for now? Why, sir, it demands that a time-honored and sacred compact shall be rescinded—a compact which has endured through a whole generation—a compact which has been universally regarded as inviolable, North and South—a compact, the constitutionality of which few have doubted, and by which all have consented to abide."

On February 6, 1854, Ohio Senator Benjamin F. Wade said the following from the floor of the United States Senate: [18]

"The Missouri compromise has been regarded ... not much less important or sacred than that of the Constitution itself ... The deleterious effects of this attempt to repeal that compromise will be felt, not only now, but long after the present generation are in their graves ... Do you not see that you are about to bring slavery and freedom face to face, to grapple for the victory, and that one or the other must die?"

"I tell you, sir, if you precipitate such a conflict as that, it will not be liberty that will die in the nineteenth century. No. sir, that will not be the party that must finally knock under. This is a progressive age; and if you will make this fight you must be ready fur tho consequences. I regret it I am an advocate for the continuance of this Union; but, as I have already said, I do not believe this Union can survive ten years the act of perfidy that will repudiate the great compromise of 1820."

On February 21, 1854, Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner said the following from the floor of the United States Senate: [19]

"Mr. President, this bill is proposed as a measure of peace. In this way, you vainly think to withdraw the subject of Slavery from National politics. This is a mistake. Peace depends on mutual confidence. It can never rest secure on broken faith and injustice."

"Pass this bill, and it will be in vain that you say the Slavery question is settled. Sir, nothing can be settled which is not right. Nothing can be settled which is adverse to Freedom. God, nature, and all the holy sentiments of the heart, repudiate any sick false seeming settlement."

"The true danger to this Union proceeds, not from any abandonment of the “peculiar institution” of the South; but from the abandonment of the spirit in which the Union was formed;—not from any warfare, within the limits of the Constitution, upon Slavery; but from warfare, like that waged by this very bill, upon Freedom."


It was 3:30 A.M. on March 4, 1854 before the Senate finally voted on the bill. It passed by a vote of 37-14. A number of Senators had left to go to bed and therefore did not vote. Free state Senators voted 14 to 12 in favor while slave state Senators overwhelmingly supported the bill 23 to 2. When the bill stalled in the House of Representatives, President Franklin Pierce made it clear that the bill had his full support. The final vote in favor of the bill was 113 to 100. Northern Democrats split in favor of the bill by a narrow 44 to 42 vote, while all 45 northern Whigs opposed it. In the South, Democrats voted in favor by 57 to 2 and Whigs by a closer 12 to 7. President Pierce signed the bill into law on May 30. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, and allowed settlers in those territories to determine if they would allow slavery within their boundaries.

In a March 9, 1854 letter to Lyman B. Walker, a respected New Hampshire attorney, President Franklin Pierce wrote aabout the bill recently passed by Congress: [20]

"The Nebraska Bill is of course the absorbing question now, as it is in the Country. To my mind it is demonstrably right and patriotic. I sustain it not on the ground, that there is a political necessity in the case, but because the principles it involves command the approbation of my conscience & my judgment."

Although there are many who doubt this, Missouri Senator David Rice Atchison is supposed to have said the following after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 in a speech at Atchison, Kansas Territory on September, 20, 1854: [21]

"Gentlemen, you make a damned fuss about Douglas, but Douglas don't deserve the credit of this Nebraska bill. I told Douglas to introduce it. I originated it. I got Pierce committed to it, and all the glory belongs to me."

When the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 established the Territory of Kansas, there were only about 800 white settlers inside the territory. Now that popular sovereignty would be used to decide whether new territories would be slave or free, both sides began to mobilize. In less than a year, the number of white settlers would grow to more than 8,000. But sharing a border with Kansas, settlers from Missouri would outnumber settlers from all other states combined. With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the nation soon discovered it would no longer be able to put off the issue of slavery. Bleeding Kansas would become a key focal point for the entire country as it struggled to come to grips with the issue of slavery. [22]

By August 1855, things had heated up in Kansas Territory and was being noticed by the nation. Abraham Lincoln wrote the following in an August 24th letter to his good friend, Joshua F. Speed: [23]

"I look upon [the Kansas-Nebraska Act] not as a law, but as violence from the beginning. It was conceived in violence, passed in violence, is maintained in violence, and is being executed in violence … That Kansas will form a slave constitution, and with it ask to be admitted into the Union, I take to be already a settled question."

But it was far from being settled.


  1. Ellis, Founding Brothers, p. 82.
  2. Ellis, Founding Brothers, p. 91-93.
  3. Woodburn, The Missouri Compromise, p. 255.
  4. Annals of Congress, 16th Congress, 1st Session, p. 355.
  5. King, Life and Correspondence, Vol. 6, p. 289.
  6. Jefferson, Letter to John Holmes,
  7. Etcheson, Bleeding Kansas, p. 12.
  8. Johannsen, Stephen A. Douglas, p. 227.
  9. Clay, Address In Senate, p. 3.
  10. Flint, Life of Stephen A. Douglas, p. 45-52.
  11. Etcheson, Bleeding Kansas, p. 10-11; Redfield, The Nebraska Question, p. 36.
  12. Redfield, The Nebraska Question, p. 36.
  13. Redfield, The Nebraska Question, p. 37.
  14. Redfield, The Nebraska Question, p. 38.
  15. Redfield, The Nebraska Question, p. 38.
  16. Redfield, The Nebraska Question, p. 43.
  17. Redfield, The Nebraska Question, p. 47-48.
  18. Redfield, The Nebraska Question, p. 62, 68.
  19. Redfield, The Nebraska Question, p. 117-118.
  20. Pierce, Letter to Lyman B. Walker,
  21. Ray, The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise, p. 233.
  22. Etcheson, Bleeding Kansas, p. 29.
  23. Lincoln, Speeches & Letters, p. 37; Miller, Lincoln and His World, p. 118.


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