As the country expanded westward, it became necessary to organize the new area into territories and eventually into states. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was the major Congressional action of the 1850s that attempted to do this all-important task.
The Missouri Compromise of 1820 had established a slave state-free state method of admitting states into the Union, thereby maintaining balance in the nation. In 1854, Democratic SenatorStephen A. Douglas of Illinois proposed a different method for the admission of the territories of Kansas and Nebraska into the Union. It was to have serious unintended consequences for Kansas and the country. The country was also to be introduced to one of the sparks that lit the flame of the Civil War, John Brown.
Across the Great American plains there were tens of millions of acres of excellent farmland that required territorial infrastructure in order to be settled. Railroad interests were clamoring for settlement so that the resulting farmers and businessmen could become their customers. Four previous attempts to pass legislation had been stymied by Southern interests because the territory was north of the arbitrary line that prohibited slavery as stipulated in the Missouri Compromise of 1820.
Douglas came up with a new idea that allowed the settlers in the new territories to determine for themselves whether to allow slavery or not. His plan called for the use of popular sovereignty. The Illinois Senator used the Compromise of 1850 as a benchmark for his new bill. In it the Utah and New Mexico Territories had been organized without any restrictions on slavery.
Douglas’ supporters pointed out that the 1850 bills had already repealed the portion of the Missouri Compromise that established the line of slavery. Opponents of the bill said that Utah and New Mexico did not come under the Missouri Compromise because that law only pertained to territories in the former Louisiana Purchase.
In his 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.”
Pro-slavery Whig politicians, anxious to retain some influence in the South, put forward amendments to repeal the part of the Missouri Compromise that set the line above which slavery was not allowed.After meeting with President Franklin Pierce and receiving his grudging support, Douglas introduced a revised bill in the senate that repealed the Missouri Compromise and divided the territory into two territories, Kansas and Nebraska.
A filibuster led by Lewis D. Campbell, an Ohio free-soiler, nearly provoked the House into a war of more than words. Campbell, joined by other antislavery northerners, exchanged insults and invectives with southerners, neither side giving quarter. Weapons were brandished on the floor of the House. Finally, bumptiousness gave way to violence. Henry A. Edmundson, a Virginia Democrat, well oiled and well armed, had to be restrained from making a violent attack on Campbell. Only after the sergeant at arms arrested him, debate was cut off, and the House adjourned did the melee subside.
The debate in the senate concluded on March 4, 1854, when Stephen Douglas, beginning near midnight on March 3, made a five-and-a-half-hour speech. 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 bill passed the House by a final vote in favor of the bill of 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.
No sooner was the bill signed than pro-slavery settlers and free soilers began to pour into Kansas. Pro-slavery settlers came to Kansas mainly from neighboring Missouri. Their influence in territorial elections was often bolstered by resident Missourians who crossed into Kansas solely for the purpose of voting in such ballots. They formed groups such as the Blue Lodges and were dubbed border ruffians, a term coined by opponent and abolitionist Horace Greeley.
Abolitionist settlers, known as “Jayhawkers” moved from the East with express purpose of making Kansas a free state. A clash between the opposing sides was inevitable.
Successive territorial governors, usually sympathetic to slavery, attempted unsuccessfully to maintain the peace. The territorial capital of Lecompton, Kansas, the target of much agitation, became such a hostile environment for Free-Staters that they set up their own unofficial legislature at Topeka.
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John Brown and his sons entered this powder keg of Bleeding Kansas in mid 1855. It soon became clear to Brown that pro-slavery forces would do anything to assure that the future of Kansas was pro-slavery.
Brown and his sons gained notoriety in the fight against slavery by murdering five pro-slavery farmers in the Pottawatomie Massacre with a broadsword. Brown also helped defend a few dozen Free-State supporters from several hundred angry pro-slavery supporters at the town of Osawatomie.
The violence in Kansas took on all of the aspects of a low-grade war. On May 21, 1856, a group of Border Ruffians entered the Free-State stronghold of Lawrence, where they burned the Free State Hotel, destroyed two newspaper offices and their printing presses, and ransacked homes and stores.
Eventually, enough free soil settlers settled in Kansas to swing the new state into the free state column. Eventually, a new anti-slavery state constitution was drawn up. On January 29, 1861, Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state. Nebraska was admitted to the Union as a (free) state after the Civil War in 1867. With this, the violence was reduced but never eliminated. During the Civil War it was reignited, particularly along the Kansas-Missouri, in guerrilla violence.