Analyse the importance of the Kansas-Nebraska issue.


‘Kansas-Nebraska’ refers to the attempt to organise territory in the west so as to place transcontinental railroads across the continent. These would then allow for western expansion, the integration of California and the west coast with the North, and in the future, the development of the Pacific market. The USA had participated in a supportive and financial way in the Opium Wars of the 1840s and there is evidence that Stephen Douglas, the Westerner and ‘Little Giant’ of Illinois who introduced the ‘K-N Bill’ was in part motivated by the potential of this early ‘globalisation’.

The Kansas-Nebraska controversy also stood between two eras of the slavery question in the USA. It ended the debate over the Free Soil, Calhoun, and popular sovereignty doctrines, and broke up the second-party system. At the same time, it set the Union up for division and for the emergence of ‘Bleeding Kansas’ as well as the growth of the Republican Party and the secession of the majority of the slaveholding states. Thus it was not so important in itself, but functioned as a lynchpin or catalyst of issues around it.

There is a temptation to see the issue analogically, since the area covered by the territory that had to be organised was originally Native American tribal land which had been purchased extra-constitutionally from Napoleon by Thomas Jefferson. It had then become subject, as a territory, to the Missouri Compromise. Passage of an organising bill would thus require that the Compromise be repealed.

This meant that ‘Kansas-Nebraska’ embodied the federal institutions, the difficult and brittle compromises over slavery that ran through the constitution and the history of the three decades previous to 1854, and the hopes for the organisation of a democratic government and legislature in the territory.

The problem was that white manhood suffrage made the organisation of democratic government difficult in the paranoid and irreconcilable atmosphere of the early 1850s. If Kansas, when organised as a state, became a ‘slave’ area because of an influx from the South, it would gain Electoral College votes, two senators, and an inflation of its position in the House of Representatives because of the three fifths rule. This would deeply antagonise the new Northern majority in New England, Pennsylvania and the Ohio valley, who by 1856 would come together to support the Republican Party. It would make the passage of Fugitive Slave laws, and the election of ‘Slave power’ presidents much more likely. 

On the other hand, a northern ‘free soil’ majority might have encouraged slaves to flee to the new state and essentially deprive their owners of property in exactly the way that Dred Scott sought to do later in the decade. Moreover, it would have reinforced the ‘underground railroad’ which was already gripping fevered imaginations in the light of the 1852 publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It also is worth noting that Northern Fears of a Slave Power were reflected in Southern fears that a strengthened North could elect presidents and pass constitutional amendments with no votes from the South—a situation which exactly corresponded to that which arose between 1860 and 1865.

Stephen Douglas was also personally deeply ambitious. He was just young enough not to have been lauded for the role he played in the compromise of 1850 (the glory having gone to Calhoun, Webster and Clay), and a successful resolution of the slavery issue in the territories clearly provided a route for Douglas, a Democrat balanced between North and South, to the White House. To this end, his position—popular sovereignty—represented the last, best compromise position to avoid a North-South split.

Unfortunately, Douglas miscalculated. Instead of solidifying his reputation and neutering the slavery issue, his attempt to organise the Territory split the party system in four. Northern Democrats and Northern Whigs emerged as parties that were distinct from their Southern counterparts. In the kaleidoscopic aftermath, Free Soilers and Northern Whigs eventually emerged as the Republican Party, whilst the Democrats were crippled. The vitality of the new party also undermined the insurgent narrative of the anti-immigrant ‘Know-Nothing’ party and gave discontented urban voters a chance to vote respectably against slavery rather than the Catholic Irish. This further strengthened the republicans and deprived the Democrats of an enthused, immigrant base in the North.

Worse, the Kansas-Nebraska Act encouraged a febrile competition for settlement of the first organised part of the Territory, Kansas, preparatory to Statehood. This left the future State with two legislatures and two constitutions. Fanatics such as John Brown on the anti-slavery side, flooded in. This led to a level of insurgent violence which quickly produced raids, torture and murder on both sides (giving rise eventually to such gangsters as Jesse James, a pro-Southerner who had immigrated to Kansas from Missouri only to see his brother tortured and his farm attacked in 1863 when James was acting as a guerrilla leader). Franklin Pierce saw his presidency broken on the back of this violence, and by 1856 was committing troops to the Territory. His successor, James Buchanan, was so appalled that he attempted to get the Supreme Court to ‘fix’ the issue upon his inauguration in 1857—a situation that then led directly to the disastrous Dred Scott decision.

Douglas, too, found that the issue whipped up huge personal opposition to his own re-election to the Senate in 1858, in the process elevating a somewhat obscure Illinois lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, as his challenger. When Douglas defeated Lincoln, narrowly, he was handed a poisoned chalice as the man who had ‘cared not whether slavery be voted up or down’, and a split, distrusting Democrat vote. On top of that, his compromise had antagonised everyone, Southern slaveowners wanting to expand, Northern working men, immigrants, and those agrarians who sought a stakeholding position in the West were all now anti-Douglas. The dry issue of territorial organisation had broken the party system, undermined common feeling that was already stretched to the limit, and helped create a viable sectional party committed both to expansion and abolition that did not require Southern votes. It precluded Douglas from running for the presidency in 1856, replacing him with an hopeless compromiser, and broke his eventual run in 1860 by splitting his party.


Kansas-Nebraska, therefore, was perhaps the single most important facilitator of the destruction of the Union in the 1850s, but it cannot be said to have been a cause in itself.

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