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The Kansas-Nebraska Act

The Kansas-Nebraska act repeal of the ban on slavery in Northern territories galvanized angry opposition.  All over the North "anti-Nebraska" rallies took place in the summer of 1854, leading to the formation of the Republican party that year.
Source:  "The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom" by James McPherson

       For the settlement of the territorial question three solutions were prominently urged. First, there was the Wilmot proviso, associated with the Free-Soilers and the Republican party: the doctrine that slavery in all national territory ought to be definitely prohibited by Congress. Second, at the other extreme there was the doctrine of the Southern Democracy that it was the duty of the Federal government to extend positive protection to slavery in the territories-i.e. not merely to permit it, but to maintain and protect it. This solution was soon to be powerfully supported by both the President and the Supreme Court of the United States. Third, there was the "popular sovereignty" program associated with the policy of Douglas and the anti-Buchanan Democrats. Briefly, its purport was that slavery should be neither positively established nor arbitrarily prohibited in any territory by national action, but that the issue should be settled on the broad American principle of local self-determination by leaving the people of each territory free to deal with the matter as the majority by conventional political processes should decide."
        It is to the last-mentioned program that attention must now turn. In the slavery legislation of 1850 the principle of popular sovereignty had been applied to the Mexican acquisition; and now under Pierce a more famous instance of its application was to be seen in Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska bill of 1854. So truculent was the controversy waged concerning this piece of legislation that it is hard to penetrate the mists of vituperation and to isolate the causes and essential elements of the situation. A reappraisal of the much maligned Douglas will be of assistance in understanding the problem. Few men have presented so notable an example of rapid rise to political leadership. Born in Vermont, he struggled for some years as a lawyer in Illinois, became active in promoting the Democratic organization of his state, and served in the legislature simultaneously with Lincoln. For two years he was a member of the supreme court of Illinois; and the title "Judge Douglas" lasted through life. After serving briefly but brilliantly in the House of Representatives, he held the office of senator from Illinois during the critical years from 1847 to 1861, by which time he was the foremost Democrat of the North. His forthrightness, vigor, and aggressiveness, his force as a debater and talent as political strategist, had made a deep impression; and the breadth of his national vision bad given him a peculiar distinction in an age when the sectionalism of many of the nation's leaders was all too evident.
        Western problems and territorial issues bad been a specialty of Douglas, who had since 1847 been chairman of the committee on territories of the United States Senate after having held a similar chairmanship in the House, Questions of territorial organization, involving far-reaching phases of the westward movement, necessarily awaited his action in the formulation and recommendation of policies. It has already been noted that his part in the Compromise of 1850 was as vital as that of Clay himself; in 1854 no man was more thoroughly conversant than he with the whole background of territorial politics. By this time the territorial organization of the vast "Platte country" was overdue.
        Speaking for his committee, Douglas reported a bill for the territorial organization of the Platte country on January 4, 1854. Most of its provisions were conventional, but those concerning slavery attracted attention. Douglas declared that his bill was in tune with "certain great principles I " which had already been enacted into law in 1850- "Your committee,' be said, "deem it fortunate . . . that the controversy then resulted ill the adoption of the compromise measures, which the two great political Parties . - - have affirmed . . . and proclaimed . . . as a final settlement of the Controversy and an end of the agitation." Briefly, these Principles, as he stated them, were that the people, through their representatives in the Legislature, should decide as to slavery in the territories with the right of appeal on matters of constitutionality to the Supreme Court of the United States.
        Historians have long argued over Douglas's motives in introducing this measure, which seemed indirectly to repeal the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery in the Nebraska region and thus reopened the sectional conflict. Some critics have maintained that Douglas bad a material interest in the promotion of slavery, since his first wife bad inherited a plantation with 150 slaves. More frequently it has been argued that Douglas was angling for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1856 and hoped to win Southern support. Refuting these charges, friendly historians have suggested instead that Douglas wished to assist Senator David R. Atchison in his campaign for re-election in Missouri, that be desired to promote the building of a transcontinental railroad with eastern termini at Chicago and St. Louis, or that he hoped to give the floundering Democratic party a fresh issue upon which it could appeal to the voters.-, Recently the argument has been settled by the discovery of a contemporary letter in which Douglas himself explained his motives. His purpose in introducing the Kansas-Nebraska bill, Douglas declared, was to remove the "barbarian wall" of Indian tribes checking further settlement in the central plains and "to authorize and encourage a continuous line of settlements to the Pacific Ocean." His central idea of continental expansion included railroad development. As he explained:

How are we to develop [sic], cherish and protect our immense interests and possessions in the Pacific, with a vast wilderness fifteen hundred miles in breadth filled with hostile savages, and cutting off direct communication. The Indian barrier must be removed. The tide of emigration and civilization must be permitted to roll onward until it rushes through the passes of the mountains, and spreads over the plains, and mingles with the waters of the Pacific. Continuous lines Of settlements with civil, political and religious institutions ,II under the protection of law, are imperiously demanded by the highest national considerations. These are essential, but they are not sufficient. . . . We must therefore have Rail Roads and Telegraphs from the Atlantic to the Pacific, through our own territory. Not one line only, but many lines, for the valley of the Mississippi will require as many Rail Roads to the Pacific as to the Atlantic, and will not venture to limit the number.

        Intent upon opening the West to further development, Douglas wished to ignore or by-pass the slavery question. Knowing that he had no chance whatever of getting a territorial bill adopted without Southern votes, he presented a deliberately ambiguous measure which did not explicitly exclude slavery from the area, but which almost certainly would have left the Missouri Compromise prohibition in effect during the territorial stage of its development. Personally hostile to slavery, Douglas did not think the South's peculiar institution could ever extend into the great plains; consequently he believed that his token concession to the South in no sense endangered liberty. "It is to be hoped," he argued, "that the necessity and importance of the measure are manifest to the whole country, and that so far as the slavery question is concerned, all will be willing to sanction and affirm the principles established by the Compromise measures of 1850."
        But once the measure was presented to the Senate, it became the object of intense political pressure. Excited Free Soilers attempted to add amendments reaffirming the Missouri Compromise ban on slavery. Angered by these maneuvers, Southerners informed Douglas that slavery must be permitted in the Nebraska country during the territorial phase Of its organization. Reluctantly yielding to this latter pressure, Douglas on January 10 brought forward an additional section of his bill, which, he asserted, had previously been omitted through "clerical error"; it provided "that all questions pertaining to slavery in the Territories, and in the new States to be formed therefrom, are to be left to the people residing therein, through their appropriate representatives." Though this provision plainly implied the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, proslavery leaders were still not satisfied, and Douglas was obliged to add a further amendment declaring the Missouri Compromise "inoperative and void."
        At the same time his bill was modified in another important fashion by dividing the area under consideration into the two separate territories of Kansas and Nebraska. Thus the final version of the Kansas-Nebraska bill was not Douglas's alone; it was, as Roy F. Nichols has said, "the work of many hands and the fruit of much strategic planning."  Assisted by relentless pressure from the Pierce administration, the bill, after months of riotous debate, was passed; the fateful measure became law on May 30,1854.
        It was at once apparent that this legislation had let loose the dogs of war. While Southerners at first showed either indifference or resentment toward the act as one that offered them insufficient protection, they soon came enthusiastically to endorse it as "a measure . . . just in regards to the rights of the South, and . . . reasonable in its operation and effect." In the North Douglas's bill furiously aroused antislavery sentiment, and free-soil men in both parties took steps to have the action of Congress repudiated. Chase of Ohio, a puritan 'in politics who had labored in the Liberty party of 1840 and with the Free-Soilers Of '48, now headed a movement to capture the Democratic party for the cause of antislavery. In his "Appeal to the Independent Democrats" he denounced Douglas's action as a violation of a solemn pledge, predicted its dire effect upon immigration to the West, warned the country that freedom and union were in peril, and besought all Christians to rise in protest against this "enormous crime." The vocabulary of abuse was exhausted in the attacks upon Douglas: "never before has a public man been so hunted and hounded."  As he himself declared, he could have traveled from Boston to Chicago by the light of his burning effigies. Even in his home state he was vigorously condemned. Both in Chicago and in downstate Illinois be encountered abuse and insult when he tried to defend his course, but he managed to strike home with his argument that it was the extremists on both sides, not himself, who were responsible for the storm of sectionalism.
        In keeping with the prevailing tendency toward political realignment, and as a direct result of the Kansas-Nebraska act, a new political party now came into being. Wilmot-proviso sentiment caused various diverse elements here and there to fuse into organizations which sometimes bore the awkward designation of "anti-Nebraska" parties, but which soon carne to be known as the "Republican" party. There has been some dispute as to the exact time and place where the party was "born." Coalition movements of a similar sort were afoot in many parts of the country at about the same time, and such a dispute is of little importance. The name ,Republican" was adopted at a mass meeting on July 6, 1854, at Jackson, Michigan; prior to this, however, while the repeal of the Missouri compromise was pending in Congress, a similar mass meeting at Ripon, Wisconsin, had resolved that in the event of such repeal old party organizations would be discarded and a new party would be built "on the sole issue of the non-extension of slavery." Elsewhere in the country local conventions followed suit; and by late summer of 1854 the new party movement was well under way. Made up of old-line Whigs, many of whom, such as Bates of Missouri and Browning of Illinois, preserved the Southern conservative tradition, together with radical antislavery men such as Sumner and Julian, Knownothings, and free-soil Democrats such as Trumbull and Chase, the new party combined many diverse ingredients; the force that cemented them (at the outset) was common opposition to the further extension of slavery in the territories.
        The outcome of Douglas's policy had been the opposite of his intentions. So far from allaying sectional conflict and uniting his party, he had reopened the strife which he himself had designated the "fearful struggle of I85o"; he had split the historic Democratic party; he had supplied the occasion for the entrance of a wholly sectional party onto the scene; and he had driven many Northern Democrats into the ranks of this sectional group.
Source:  "The Civil War and Reconstruction" by Randall and Donald

This Page last updated 04/20/05


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