The original intent of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was to open up the vast new territories of the West for farming. By creating a governmental infrastructure the Congress hoped that it would make a transcontinental railroad feasible. These two goals were laudable but in the writing of the bill the idea of popular sovereignty was written in the act.
What was popular sovereignty? It was the concept that allowed the voters of the moment to decide if Kansas and Nebraska would enter the Union as free states or slave states. It was to set up the conditions for a border war between supporters of slavery and Free Soilers.
Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois who wrote the bill hoped that the formula of “popular sovereignty” would ease national tensions over the issue of human bondage and that he would not have to take a side on the issue. Instead, it ignited a spark that eventually led to civil war.
Douglas was the Democratic party leader in the United States Senate, the chairman of the Committee on Territories, an avid promoter of railroads, an aspirant to the presidency, and, above all, a fervent believer in popular sovereignty.
Douglas was an early supporter of a transcontinental railroad, especially one that had its terminus in Chicago, Illinois. A bill to organize the Nebraska Territory passed the House and went to the Senate. It was taken up by the Senate’s Committee on Territories which was chaired by Douglas.
Missouri Sen. David Atchison announced that he would support the Nebraska proposal only if slaveholders were not banned from the new territory. The Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery north of the Missouri state line. Other Southern senators were not as flexible as Atchison. By a vote of 23 to 17, the senate voted to kill the motion by tabling it with every senator from states south of Missouri voting for the tabling.
During the senate adjournment a group of senators, including Atchison, formed the nucleus that would insist on slaveholder equality in Nebraska. Aware of their opinions and power, Douglas knew that he needed to address their concerns in order to move forward with the bill.
By the time that the bill was reported out of committee it had changed dramatically. In the new bill the territory of Nebraska was extended north all the way to the 49th parallel, and any decisions on slavery were to be made “when admitted as a state or states, the said territory, or any portion of the same, shall be received into the Union, with or without slavery, as their constitution may prescribe at the time of their admission.”
But the bill still presented problems for the Southern senators. Without the explicit repeal of the Missouri Compromise, slaveholders would be reluctant to move to the new territory until slavery was actually approved by the settlers, settlers who would most likely hold free-soil views.
On January 23 a revised bill was introduced in the Senate that repealed the Missouri Compromise and divided the territory into two territories, Kansas and Nebraska. The division was the result of concerns expressed by settlers already in Nebraska as well as the senators from Iowa who were concerned with the location of the territory’s seat of government if such a large territory was created.
The reformulated bill stirred up a hornet’s nest of debate in both Houses of Congress. The Democrats held large majorities in each house, and Stephen Douglas, “a ferocious fighter, the fiercest, most ruthless, and most unscrupulous that Congress had perhaps ever known” led a tightly disciplined party. The Free Soilers were at a distinct disadvantage.
The debate would continue for four months. Douglas remained the main advocate for the bill while Salmon P. Chase of Ohio, William Seward of New York and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts led the opposition. In the end the bill passed. The final vote in favor of passage was 37 to 14. Free state senators voted 14 to 12 in favor while slave state senators overwhelmingly supported the bill 23 to 2.
The debate then moved to the House. The opponents of the bill used a delaying tactic. The legislation was referred by a vote of 110 to 95 to the Committee of the Whole, where it was the last item on the calendar. Realizing from the vote to stall that the act faced an uphill struggle, the Pierce administration made it clear to all Democrats that passage of the bill was essential to the party and would dictate how federal patronage would be handled.
The debate raged through April and into May. In the end, it passed by a 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 12 to 7. President Pierce signed the bill into law on May 30.
The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act would set of a border war between the pro-slavery supporters, dubbed border ruffians by opponents, and the anti-slavery “Jayhawkers“. Both groups sent settlers into Kansas in order to vote for their particular beliefs. Violence was inevitable.