Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854 Creates Furor

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Concessions to the South enabled passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act but resulted in outrage that led to political realignments and the formation of the Republican Party.

Congressional passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in March 1854 set into motion a national furor that would alter the political landscape and dash any hopes the bill’s author, Stephen A. Douglass of Illinois, had for being nominated to the presidency by a united Democratic Party. In late 1859, Douglas admitted that the Kansas-Nebraska Act, “revolutionized political parties…and formed the issues upon which the Democratic and Republican parties are now arrayed against each other.” Far from “imparting peace to the country and stability to the Union,” as Douglas wrote in 1854, the Act brought anger and discord.

Formation of the Kansas-Nebraska Act

The Kansas-Nebraska Act was forwarded out of the Senate Committee on Territories, chaired by Douglas, in early January 1854. Organization of the territory had been advocated by leaders in Iowa and Missouri, notably former Senator Thomas Benton. The Platte Country featured fertile land and timber for homes, enticing land hungry settlers.

Douglas may also have been motivated by the proposed transcontinental railroad. Although the South favored a southern route advocated by Jefferson Davis, a member of the Franklin Pierce cabinet, Douglas was keenly aware that a central route would benefit southern Illinois. Further, Douglas had land holdings in Chicago which would increase in value with a line connecting the city to the central route. He would need southern support to achieve this goal.

The Act resolved to open up the Kansas-Nebraska lands as two distinct territories. The slavery question would be decided by popular sovereignty, Douglas’ signature issue. Southern support, however, was lukewarm until Douglas agreed to include the Dixon Amendment, crafted by Senator Archie Dixon of Kentucky, that would effectively repeal the 1820 Missouri Compromise. The Badger Amendment, offered by North Carolina’s George Badger, ensured that no prior laws restricting slavery would be revived upon the repeal of the Missouri Compromise. The Act passed both house of Congress and was signed into law by President Pierce after receiving assurances from Jefferson Davis that the South supported the measure.

Reaction and Results

Members of the Whig Party deplored the Act and Douglas’ role in fashioning it. The “Little Giant” was subjected to intense criticism and scorn. William Cullom, a Tennessee Whig, suggested that the title of the bill should be amended to read: “A bill to make great men out of small ones and to sacrifice the public peace and prosperity upon the altar of political ambition.” That Douglas hoped to be the 1856 Democratic candidate was no secret. Douglas’ defense had always been that, “the Democratic Party is committed in the most solemn manner to the principle of Congressional non-interference with slavery in the States and Territories.” (February, 1854)

The Kansas-Nebraska Act led to “Bleeding Kansas,” a period of open warfare and bloodshed in Kansas between pro and anti-slavery parties that was only mitigated when federal troops intervened to restore order. The Act split political allegiances as Anti-Nebraska Democrats sought a new home in the emerging Republican Party, a movement that gathered disenchanted Whigs, Free Soilers, and “Known Nothings”. By 1856, the Republican Party offered its first national candidate, John C. Fremont, frontier hero of “Bear Flag Republic” fame.

Stephen Douglas continued to champion popular sovereignty even after the 1857 Dred Scott Decision made his position untenable. It was his undoing at the party convention in Charleston 1860 and remained his final solution in January 1861 when last minute emergency negotiations in the Congress failed to keep the Union intact.