The Civil War, 1861-1865

Author: Edward A. Pollard  | Date: 1854

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The Kansas-Nebraska Bill

THE wisest statesmen of America were convinced that the true and intelligent means of continuing the Union was to preserve the sectional equilibrium, and to keep a balance of power between North and South. That equilibrium had been violently disturbed, in 1820, at the time of the Missouri Compromise. The relative representations of the North and South in the United States Senate were then so evenly balanced that it came to be decisive of a continuance of political power in the South whether Missouri should be an addition to her ranks or to those of her adversary. The contest ended, immediately, in favor of the South; but not without involving a measure of proscription against slavery.

Another struggle for political power between the two sections occurred on the admission of Texas. The South gained another State. But the acquisition of Texas brought on the war with Mexico; and an enormous addition to Northern territory became rapidly peopled with a population allured from every quarter of the globe.

On the admission of California into the Union, the South was persuaded to let her come in with an anti-slavery Constitution for the wretched compensation of a reenactment of the fugitive-slave law, and some other paltry measures. The cry was raised that the Union was in danger. The appeals urged under this cry had the usual effect of reconciling the South to the sacrifice required of her, and embarrassed anything like resistance on the part of her representatives in Congress to the compromise measures of 1850. South Carolina threatened secession; but the other Southern States were not prepared to respond to the bold and adventurous initiative of Southern independence. But it should be stated that the other States of the South, in agreeing to what was called, in severe irony, the Compromise of 1850, declared that it was the last concession they would make to the North; that they took it as a "finality," and that the slavery question was thereafter to be excluded from the pale of Federal discussion.

In 1852 Franklin Pierce was elected President of the United States. He was a favorite of the State Rights Democracy of the South; and it was hoped that under his administration the compromise measures of 1850 would indeed be realized as a "finality," and the country be put upon a career of constitutional and peaceful rule. But a new and violent agitation was to spring up in the first session of the first Congress under his administration.

The Territory of Nebraska had applied for admission into the Union. Mr. Stephen A. Douglas, Senator from Illinois, reported from the Committee on Territories a bill which made two Territories—Nebraska and Kansas—instead of one, and which declared that the Missouri Compromise Act was superseded by the compromise measures of 1850, and had thus become inoperative. It held that the Missouri Compromise Act, "being inconsistent with the principles of nonintervention by Congress with slavery in the States and Territories as recognized by the legislation of 1850, commonly called the Compromise Measures, is hereby declared inoperative and void; it being the true intent and meaning of this act not to legislate slavery into any Territory or State, nor to exclude it therefrom, but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions, subject only to the Constitution of the United States." The bill passed both houses of Congress in 1854.

The Kansas-Nebraska Bill, involving as it did the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, was taken by the South as a sort of triumph. The latter measure, being viewed as an act of proscription against the South, was justly offensive to her; although indeed the repeal was scarcely more than a matter of principle or sentiment, as the sagacious statesmen of the South were well aware that the States of the Northwest were likely, from the force of circumstances, to be settled by Northern people, and to be thus dedicated to their institutions. But it was then supposed that the phraseology of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill was not liable to misconstruction; and that when it was declared that the people of the Territories were to determine the question of slavery, it meant, of course, that they were to do so in the act of forming a State Constitution and deciding upon other institutions of the State as well as that of slavery.

In the North, the repeal of the Missouri Compromise was the occasion of a furious excitement. Mr. Douglas was hung in effigy in some of their towns, execrated by Northern mobs, and even threatened with violence to his person. The anti-slavery sentiment of the North was rapidly developed in the excitement; a new party was organized with reference to the question of slavery in the Territories; and thus originated the famous Republican party—popularly called the Black Republican party—which was indeed identical with the Abolition party in its sentiment of hostility to slavery, and differed from it only as to the degree of indirection by which its purpose might best be accomplished. This party comprised the great mass of the intellect and wealth of the North. It was also the Protectionist party. Its leaning was in favor of strong government, and whatever there might be of aristocracy in the North belonged to it.

The new party sprung at once into an amazing power. In the Presidential convass of 1852, which had resulted in the election of Mr. Pierce, John P. Hale, who ran upon what was called the "straightout" Abolition ticket, did not receive the vote of a single State, and but 175,296 of the popular vote of the Union. But upon the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, Abolitionism, in the guise of "Republicanism, swept almost everything before it in the North and Northwest in the elections of 1854 and 1855; and in the Thirty-first Congress, Nathaniel Banks, an objectionable Abolitionist of the Massachusetts school, was elected to the speakership of the House.

In the meantime, the language of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill was the subject of no dispute. No one supposed that from this language there was to originate an afterthought on the part of Mr. Douglas, and that, by an ingenious torture of words, this measure was to be converted into one to conciliate the anti-slavery sentiment of the North, and to betray the interests of the South. This afterthought was doubtless the consequence of the rapid growth of the Black Republican party, and the conviction that the Democratic party in the North would only recover its power by some marked concession to the sectional sentiment now rapidly developing on the subject of slavery.

It should be noticed here that the doctrine of "non-intervention," which prohibited Congress from interfering with the question of slavery in the Territories, had been affirmed by a judicial decision in the Supreme Court of the United States. In the famous "Dred Scott case," a negro demanded his freedom on the ground of legal residence beyond the latitude of 36° 30’ North—the line of the Missouri Compromise. The Supreme Court pronounced that Congress had no power to make that law; that it was therefore null and void; and declared "that the Constitution recognizes the right of property in a slave, and makes no distinction between that description of property and other property owned by a citizen;" and further, that every citizen had the clear right to go into any Territory, and take with him that which the Constitution recognized as his property.

So far the rights of the South in the Territories were thought to be plain; the design of the Black Republican party to exclude slavery therefrom by the Federal authority had been pronounced unconstitutional by the highest judicial authority in the country; and the Kansas-Nebraska bill was thought to be a plain letter, which taught that slavery was the subject of exclusive legislation by States, or by Territories in the act of assuming the character of States. But the South only stood on the threshold of a new controversy—another exhibition of the ingenuity of the anti-slavery sentiment to assert itself in new methods and on new issues.


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Chicago: Edward A. Pollard, "The Kansas-Nebraska Bill," The Civil War, 1861-1865 in America, Vol.7, Pp.199-204 Original Sources, accessed December 7, 2022,

MLA: Pollard, Edward A. "The Kansas-Nebraska Bill." The Civil War, 1861-1865, in America, Vol.7, Pp.199-204, Original Sources. 7 Dec. 2022.

Harvard: Pollard, EA, 'The Kansas-Nebraska Bill' in The Civil War, 1861-1865. cited in , America, Vol.7, Pp.199-204. Original Sources, retrieved 7 December 2022, from