Article Written: April 11, 2006

Kansas-Nebraska Act
The Question of Slavery Leads to 'Bleeding Kansas'

By Phil Allard

The issue: Should Congress approve the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which would create the territories of Kansas and Nebraska and allow them to determine for themselves through the principle of "popular sovereignty" whether to ultimately enter the Union as free or slaveholding states? Or should the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which bars slavery in the North, be upheld?

  • Arguments for the Kansas-Nebraska Act: The Kansas-Nebraska Act is not about slavery; it is simply about allowing the people of the territory to exercise their inherent right of popular sovereignty in determining the future of their territory. The terms of the Missouri Compromise are no longer applicable; they were effectively overridden with the Compromise of 1850, which opened the territories of Utah and New Mexico to settlement by slaveowners as well as those who did not own slaves.
  • Arguments against the Kansas-Nebraska Act: The bill opens up the way for Kansas to become a slave state, in violation of the Missouri Compromise. Federal law—the Missouri Compromise—should take precedence over the principle of popular sovereignty, for which there is no established precedent. Permitting slavery in Kansas would restrict the settlement of the land, because people would not want to live in a territory or state where slavery is permitted.
Kansas-Nebraska Act Polemics (map)

John F. Smith/Library of Congress

This map illustrates the polemics behind the Kansas-Nebraska Act. On the "God's Blessing LIBERTY" tree, which roots in the Bible (see above), the branches are labelled (from the top of the tree): Immortality, Light, Joy, Peace, Hope, Honor, Faith, Truth, Charity, Virtue, Patience, Justice, Happiness, Morality...Love of Country, Contentment, Equal Rights, Free Speech.... The "God's Curse SLAVERY" tree has as its branches: Hades, War, Murder, (Mason-Dixon Line), Rebellion, Treason, Secession, Sedition, Superstition, Ignorance, Avarice. Other labels, pointing to the "Curse" tree, include: Dred Scott Decision, Kansas Nebraska Bill, Fugitive Slave Law, Compromise of 1850, Missouri Compromises.


The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska. However, it also led to violence in Kansas, called "Bleeding Kansas," and heightened tension between the North and the South over slavery, which directly contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. The question of slavery had roiled the nation for years; there was a delicate balance of slave and free states, and the entry of each new state became an opportunity for each side to try to change the balance in its favor. The Kansas-Nebraska act gave Kansas and Nebraska the right, through "popular sovereignty," to determine whether they would ultimately enter the Union as free or slaveholding states. As a result, a new battleground between pro- and antislavery forces was created.

Prior to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the slavery issue had been addressed—although not completely resolved—through several compromises. In 1820, the balance between free and slave states was upheld when Maine was admitted as a free state and Missouri as a slave state. The so-called Missouri Compromise also mandated that slavery would not be permitted in new territories above the 36 30' parallel of latitude. Under the Compromise of 1850, California was admitted as a free state, while both slaveholding and nonslaveholding settlers could settle in Utah and New Mexico territories west of Texas (which had been admitted as a slave state in 1845). The Kansas-Nebraska Act essentially overturned the Missouri Compromise, since both territories were above the 36 30' parallel.

Senator Stephen A. Douglas (D, Illinois), who sponsored and defended the Kansas-Nebraska Act in Congress, argued that letting each territory decide for itself whether to allow slavery would help ease tensions in the nation over the issue of slavery. "The bill will triumph and impart peace to the country and stability to the Union," he declared.

Douglas's prediction could not have been more wrong. The Kansas-Nebraska bill heightened sectional discord over slavery, and sparked violence as both pro-slavery and antislavery settlers converged on Kansas. It was widely expected that Nebraska, which was farther north, would opt against slavery, so much of the attention focused on Kansas. Since Kansas was closer to the South, Northerners feared that it would choose to become a slave state, while many Southerners assumed that it should become a slave state to maintain the balance of slaveholding and free states.

While many who went to Kansas simply wanted to settle in the new territory, others were there specifically to affect whether it became a free or slaveholding state. From the North came abolitionists, who opposed slavery on moral grounds, and Free Soilers, who were opposed to slavery because they did not want to compete with large plantations or simply did not want any black people in the area. Southern pro-slavery forces also rushed to Kansas. And thousands of people—such as armed pro-slavery activists from neighboring Missouri, called "Border Ruffians"—also crossed into Kansas merely to vote (illegally) in elections to select national and territorial legislators. Those pro- and antislavery forces met in violent clashes, referred to as Bleeding Kansas (also called "Bloody Kansas").

Southern forces initially triumphed in Kansas, and elected a pro-slavery government in 1855. Antislavery forces responded by setting up their own government. Violence escalated, and a virtual state of civil war existed in Kansas.

However, by the late 1850s, antislavery settlers outnumbered those who favored slavery. Furthermore, by late January 1861, several Southern states had seceded from the Union; with those Southern representatives no longer in Congress, significant opposition to Kansas becoming a free state was removed, and Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state that month. Nebraska, which remained largely unsettled until after passage of the Homestead Act of 1862, granting free land to settlers, was admitted as a free state in 1867.

In the past, compromise over the issue of slavery had kept the Union together. But with the Kansas-Nebraska Act, those tensions would ignite, leading to the start of the Civil War. How could an act simply creating two new territories have had such a far-reaching impact? Should the territories be allowed to decide for themselves decide whether slavery would be allowed? Or should the terms of the Missouri Compromise be upheld?

Advocates of the Kansas-Nebraska Act contended that popular sovereignty was the inherent right of all Americans. By choosing for themselves whether slavery would be permitted in the area, the people of Kansas would simply be exercising their civil rights, supporters asserted. Moreover, advocates of the bill pointed out that Congress had not forced the territorial governments of Utah or New Mexico to either ban or legalize slavery a decade earlier. Congress had essentially already approved the idea of popular sovereignty for new territories, supporters asserted.

Opponents of the Kansas-Nebraska bill, on the other hand, said that it would pave the way for slavery in Kansas, and pointed out that slavery would have been outlawed in those new territories under the Missouri Compromise. Free Soilers also opposed the act because they feared that Southerners would come to the area and drive them out of their small homesteads by setting up bigger plantations. Dissenters also maintained that the idea of popular sovereignty should not supersede the laws of the central government; the federal territories should be regulated by the federal government, they said.

The Compromises that Kept the Peace

In 1803, the U.S. bought a huge parcel of land from France, the Louisiana Purchase, which almost doubled the country's area. Measuring more than two million square miles, the Louisiana Territory extended from the Mississippi River to the Rocky Mountains and from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border. It included the lands that would later become Kansas and Nebraska. At the time, the slave states and the free states had roughly the same population, and the number of free and slave states was equal (11 free and 11 slave). But issues soon arose in Congress concerning the fate of slavery in the newly purchased lands. The admission of a new state would give either the free North or the slaveholding South an advantage in congressional representation.

The matter became urgent in 1818, when slaveholding Missourians applied for statehood. Northerners sought to prevent Missouri from becoming a slaveholding state. A compromise became possible the following year when Maine also applied for statehood. The solution that Congress came up with was the Missouri Compromise, which admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state. It also established a dividing line through the Louisiana Territory at 36 30' latitude: Slavery was permitted in new territories south of the line, but prohibited to the north of it. That solution resolved the slavery issue until 1845, when Texas was admitted to the U.S. as a slave state.

Another slavery-related compromise was reached with the Compromise of 1850. That measure admitted California as a free state while allowing slavery to persist by popular choice in Utah and New Mexico, which had been acquired from Mexico after the Mexican-American War (1846-48). The Compromise of 1850 brought a temporary calm to a country where things had nearly come to a boil. [See Mexican-American War]

Strict abolitionists had opposed the Compromise of 1850, but a great majority of Americans agreed with it because it seemed to be a way to save the Union from dissolution. Both the 1820 and 1850 compromises were seen as being an equitable way of keeping the North and the South balanced, and they prevented the dispute over slavery from leading to war. However, the peace was precarious at best, as proven by the events that were to commence in 1854.

The Passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act

The 1850s were a time when many Americans were espousing the nation's "Manifest Destiny" to expand from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. To do so, however, meant settling western territory that was largely occupied by Indians. The Indians had been removed to the west from their ancestral land in the east as part of the Indian Removal Act of 1830; Indians and settlers near Indian lands had been coming into increasing conflict as the population grew and sought more land. In 1834, President Andrew Jackson (D, 1829-37) had designated western land, including parts of the future territories of Kansas and Nebraska, as "Indian country." [See Manifest Destiny, Indian Removal Act]

Douglas was an outspoken advocate of Manifest Destiny. He also supported the creation of a transcontinental railroad to link east and west, with its eastern terminal in Chicago, the capital of his home state. At the time, two routes were being considered for the railroad: a northern route with a Chicago terminal, and a southern route with a terminal in St. Louis, Missouri. Douglas recognized that in order for a railway to be built through the north, the remaining unorganized lands in the Louisiana Purchase would have to be settled. (The entire area was generally referred to as the "Nebraska Territory," from the Indian name for the Platt River, Nebrathka, which meant "flat water.")

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was actually the fifth attempt over the course of a decade to settle those lands. The previous four attempts had failed because of disagreement over the question of slavery. As chairman of the Committee on Territories, Douglas offered a compromise solution. He proposed dividing the area into two territories: Kansas and Nebraska. The territories themselves would decide by popular sovereignty if they were to be free or slaveholding. However, since that area was north of the 36 30' parallel, his proposed legislation could potentially introduce slavery to areas where it was not permitted beforehand.

Historians contend that Douglas was motivated by a desire to gain support of the Southern slaveholding states and get the votes he needed to ensure that the railroad would take the northern route. According to historians, while the South assumed that Kansas would become a slave state, Douglas believed that the people of Kansas would never choose slavery; therefore he viewed the bill as an easy way to gain favor with the South.

After months of debate, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, and became law on May 30, 1854. While Southerners welcomed it, believing that Kansas would ultimately enter as a slave state, Northerners argued that the under the Missouri Compromise, slavery should be outlawed in both Nebraska and Kansas. [See Transcript of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (primary document)]

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was a pivotal event in U.S. history. It was a major cause of the Civil War, and mobilized the antislavery forces more dramatically than ever before. It also rearranged the political landscape of the times. The act brought about the decline of the Democratic Party, which had supported it, brought an end to the divided Whig party and led to the formation of the new Republican Party, which adopted the view that slavery was the "great moral evil of the day." It also propelled a relatively obscure lawyer and former one-term congressman—Abraham Lincoln—into the limelight as he fought the bill vigorously. But one of the most immediate outcomes of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was Bleeding Kansas.

'Bleeding Kansas'

In the 1850s, antislavery sentiment was rising in the North due to a number of factors. For one, Northerners were growing increasingly angry at the enforcement of fugitive slave laws, which helped facilitate the recapture of runaway slaves and their return to their owners. The Fugitive Slave Bill of 1850 made federal and local officials who did not arrest an alleged runaway slave liable to a fine of $1,000. According to the bill, law-enforcement officials everywhere in the U.S., including the North, now had a duty to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave. The bill also called for six months in prison for any person who aided a runaway; anyone who captured a fugitive slave was given payment.

Northern sentiment against slavery was further inflamed by the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin two years later. Stowe humanized her characters, making slavery more personal for abolitionists. The book ended up selling 300,000 copies in its first year.

By the time the Kansas-Nebraska bill was passed, many previously unconcerned Americans were committed to the antislavery cause. However, they were met by fierce Southern opposition to the threat to what they saw as a vital institution in the South. In characterizing the tense situation, Missouri Representative Thomas Hart Benton (D) remarked, "We are treading upon a volcano that is liable at any moment to burst forth and overwhelm the nation."

Benton's concerns were borne out in the wake of the act's passage, as pro-slavery and antislavery settlers rushed to Kansas. While many went to Kansas simply to settle in a new territory, many others went with the intent of influencing whether Kansas became slaveholding or free. An estimated 1,600 Missourians crossed into Kansas to vote in an election for a delegate to Congress on November 29, 1854; pro-slavery Democrat John Whitfield was elected.

Several thousand armed Southerners again crossed over into to Kansas to vote in an election for the territorial legislature on March 30, 1855. Pro-slavery forces prevailed in the election, although voting was determined to be widely fraudulent, with thousands of people who were not registered voters casting ballots. The resulting pro-slavery legislature enacted laws under which anyone who assisted fugitives or even spoke or wrote against slaveholding, could be sentenced to 10 years hard labor, or even put to death.

Refusing to accept the pro-slavery government, the Free Soilers set up their own legislature in Topeka, Kansas. Democratic President Franklin Pierce (1853-57), who had strong Southern support although he was from the North, recognized only the pro-slavery legislature. He believed that the U.S. Constitution safeguarded slavery.

Violence continued to escalate in Kansas. One of the most notable disturbances was "The Sack of Lawrence," which was a free-state stronghold in Douglas County, Kansas.

On May 21, 1856, a group of pro-slavery men entered Lawrence. Douglas County Sheriff Samuel Jones, who led the group, said he had a warrant to serve from a U.S. First District Court grand jury. The grand jury had issued an indictment of Lawrence Free-Soilers in which it found that Lawrence newspapers had published articles of "seditious" character, and that the Free State Hotel in Lawrence had been constructed "with a view to military occupation and defence." The grand jury's indictment called for steps to be taken "whereby this nuisance may be removed." Jones and his men destroyed the Free State Hotel and the anti-slavery publishing office that housed two printing presses, and general looting and vandalism also occurred. [See An Account of Violence in Lawrence, Kansas, During 'Bleeding Kansas' (primary document), Grand Jury Indictment of Free-Soilers in Lawrence, Kansas (primary document)]

Following the Sack of Lawrence, Northern abolitionist John Brown formed a vigilante group that made a counterattack at Pottawatomie Creek on May 24. Brown's men forced five pro-slavery men from their homes and killed them, hacking at least three of them to death with swords. [See John Brown: Radical Abolitionist (sidebar)]

Violence over the Kansas situation was not limited to Kansas itself. In May 1856, the Massachusetts abolitionist senator Charles Sumner delivered a blistering two-day speech called "The Crime Against Kansas." In his speech, he accused pro-slavery senators of having a pact with that "harlot, Slavery." In response to the speech, Congressman Preston Brooks (D, South Carolina)—the relative of a man Sumner had criticized in his speech— attacked Sumner at his Senate desk and beat him unconscious with a cane. Sumner would not be healthy enough to return to the Senate for three years. [See Senator Sumner's 'The Crime Against Kansas' (Excerpts) (primary document), Representative Brooks Discusses His Attack on Senator Sumner (primary document)]

By late 1856, new territorial Governor John Geary had largely restored order, although sporadic violence would continue for another two years. In October 1857, another election for territorial legislators was held, and the voting was strictly monitored. After it was determined that thousands of votes cast by pro-slavery supporters were fraudulent, those ballots were discarded. Free-state candidates ended up winning a majority in the Kansas House and Senate.

The following month, the pro-slavery legislature, which had moved to the city of Lecompton, sought to introduce a pro-slavery constitution, which became known as the Lecompton Constitution. The constitution declared, "The right of property is before and higher than any constitutional sanction, and the right of the owner of a slave to such slave and its increase is the same and as inviolable as the right of the owner of any property whatever." Antislavery forces boycotted the vote on the pro-slavery constitution. While Pierce expressed his approval of the document, Kansans voted against it. (Between 1855 and 1858, three constitutions were proposed and rejected. The other two would have prohibited slavery.)

In 1859, an antislavery constitution—the Wyandotte Constitution—was drafted, and the document was approved easily by Kansas voters. Pro-slavery forces in the Senate sought to block Kansas's admission as a free state, but much of that opposition was removed when several Southern states seceded in December 1860 and January 1861. On January 29, Kansas gained statehood. [See Civil War: Secession of the Southern States]

The Case for the Kansas-Nebraska Act

Advocates of the Kansas-Nebraska Act pointed out that the bill did not necessarily condone slavery. The act merely left it up to the people of the territories to decide for themselves, without federal interference, supporters asserted. In making the case for the act in the Senate in January 1854, Douglas declared that the intention of the bill was "neither to legislate slavery into these Territories nor out of them, but to leave the people do as they please, under the provisions and subject to the limitations of the Constitution of the United States. [See Senator Douglas Argues that the Kansas-Nebraska Act Is Consistent with the Compromise of 1850 (Excerpts) (primary document)]

Many who believed in states' rights pointed out that the issue of "popular sovereignty"—described by President James Buchanan (D, 1857-61) as "a principle as ancient as free government itself"—was integral to the U.S. Constitution. Not allowing the people to decide would be a violation of their civil rights as Americans, advocates contended. "If there is any one principle dearer and more sacred than all others in free governments, it is that which asserts the exclusive right of a free people to form and adopt their own fundamental law, and to manage and regulate their own internal affairs and institutions," the bill's champion, Douglas, proclaimed. He argued that popular sovereignty should not be thought of as controversial because it was rooted in the fundamental concept of American self-government.

In his inaugural address of 1857, Buchanan compared the exercise of popular sovereignty to the election of the nation's president. He stated: [See President Buchanan's Inaugural Address (primary document)]

We have recently passed through a Presidential contest in which the passions of our fellow-citizens were excited to the highest degree by questions of deep and vital importance; but when the people proclaimed their will the tempest at once subsided and all was calm. The voice of the majority, speaking in the manner prescribed by the Constitution, was heard, and instant submission followed.... What a happy conception, then, was it for Congress this simple rule, that the will of the majority shall govern, to the settlement of the question of domestic slavery in the Territories.

Along those lines of popular sovereignty, advocates of the bill asserted, the only role Congress had was in authorizing the creation of a territory. Once an area was made a territory, it was up to the people to determine its future, advocates argued. "When Congress has organized a territory—created and set in motion the machinery of its government—its duties have been performed and its legitimate powers exhausted," declared an editorial in the January 13, 1854, Detroit, Michigan, Free Press (a Democratic newspaper). "Thenceforth, the people are their own rulers in respect to all their domestic affairs; and interference from any other power is anti-democratic and arbitrary."

Moreover, advocates asserted, the principle of popular sovereignty had recently been sanctioned by Northerners and Southerners alike in the Compromise of 1850, when Congress had opened the territories of Utah and New Mexico both to slaveholding and nonslaveholding settlers. To not do the same with Kansas and Nebraska, proponents maintained, would be inconsistent—not to mention hypocritical. Furthermore, Douglas argued that the principles of the Missouri Compromise had been abandoned even earlier, in 1848 after the House defeated a measure that would have extended the no-slavery limitation all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

Advocates of the bill also asserted that it made Southerners welcome in the new territories. As the country continued to expand westward, it was only natural that people might want to stake claims in new territories, particularly since these lands should belong to citizens of the entire nation, they said. However, if a territory were to be federally proclaimed as a free territory, advocates claimed, Southerners would be kept out because they could not bring their slaves. "If some Southern gentleman wishes to take the old woman who nursed him in childhood and whom he called 'Mammy' into one of these new territories for the betterment of the fortunes of his whole family—why, in the name of God, should anybody prevent it?" asked Senator George Badger (Whig, North Carolina).

The Case Against the Kansas-Nebraska Act

Many critics objected to the Kansas-Nebraska Act because they were against the advancement of slavery. In fact, many argued, the bill had been introduced with the sole purpose of furthering the spread of slavery. "Not in any common lust for power did this uncommon tragedy have its origin," Sumner declared in his "Crime Against Kansas" speech. "It is the rape of a virgin Territory, compelling it to the hateful embrace of Slavery; and it may be clearly traced to a depraved longing for a new slave State, the hideous offspring of such a crime, in the hope of adding to the power of slavery in the National Government."

Many opponents also asserted that the principle of "popular sovereignty" should never take precedence over federal law. Critics assailed the fact that the Kansas-Nebraska Act overrode the Missouri Compromise, which barred slavery in the North. The New York Tribune in a January 10, 1854, editorial strongly criticized the act, which it said "basely and treacherously assailed" the Missouri Compromise, "a solemn compact made between North and South."

Some argued further that there was no precedent for the idea of popular sovereignty. "I confess I am surprised to find this brought forward, and stated with so much confidence, as an established principle of government....I was not aware that any such principle was considered a settled principle of the territorial policy of this country," Senator Edward Everett (Whig, Massachusetts) said of the principle. "Why, sir, from the first enactment in 1789, down to the bill before us, there is no such principle in our legislation." Therefore, Everett concluded, "it would be perfectly competent even now for congress to pass any law that they pleased on the subject in the Territories under this bill."

Some opponents of the bill disagreed with it not because they were concerned about the slaves, but because they did not want black people of any kind—slave or free—in the area. Many of those opponents called themselves Free Soilers, and their reason for opposing the bill was avoiding competition with Southern slaveholders. Northerners who aspired to own land in the west feared that they would not be able to compete economically with slave labor. Kansas should be kept open for homesteading, not for large plantations, they argued.

Lincoln also warned that permitting the spread of slavery would restrict the settlement of the land, although for different reasons than those of the Free Soilers. People would not want to live in a state that permitted slavery, he contended. According to Lincoln: [See Abraham Lincoln Expresses Opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act (Excerpts) (primary document)]

The whole nation is interested that the best use shall be made of these territories. We want them for the homes of free white people. This they cannot be, to any considerable extent, if slavery shall be planted within them. Slave States are places for poor white people to remove FROM; not to remove TO. New free States are the places for poor people to go to and better their condition. For this use, the nation needs these territories.

Finally, many of the bill's opponents claimed that its sponsor, Douglas, was simply attempting to gain favor with the South in order to win support for a presidential run in 1856 or 1860; he likely could not win without Southern support. Douglas was putting his personal ambitions ahead of the country's well-being, they argued.

The Impact of the Kansas-Nebraska Act

Many consider the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 to be one of the pivotal events of the decade, sowing the seeds that would lead to the Civil War. The act signaled to Southerners that they could expand westward in large enough numbers to continue their slave system, as long as they had enough votes to pass legislation. The bill outraged abolitionists to the point where they organized and worked tirelessly for the discontinuation of the practice.

Prior to the passage of the bill, abolitionist Frederick Douglass had warned that the bill was "an open invitation to a fierce and bitter strife." Indeed, the bill precipitated civil war in Kansas, as pro-slavery and antislavery forces clashed for control of the state.

However, the bill that allowed the issue of slavery to be decided through popular sovereignty would also help lead to slavery's eventual demise. Unlike in the wake of the Compromise of 1850, passions over slavery did not cool following the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The violence that occurred in Kansas over the next four years served to inflame animosity between North and South; tension that ignited the Civil War. As a result of the South's defeat in the Civil War in 1865, slavery was abolished once and for all.

Discussion Questions & Activities

1) Why did Senator Stephen A. Douglas and others want to settle the unorganized lands of the Louisiana Purchase? What obstacles stood in their way?

2) While critics argued that the Kansas-Nebraska Act violated the Missouri Compromise of 1820, supporters said that it was consistent with the Compromise of 1850. Which compromise do you think should have been the final consideration in determining whether the Kansas-Nebraska Act was acceptable?

3) In what way did the Kansas-Nebraska Act contribute to the outbreak of the Civil War? Do you think the war still would have occurred if the Kansas-Nebraska Act had not been passed? Explain.

4) After widely fraudulent voting resulted in the election of a pro-slavery territorial legislature in 1855, those opposed to slavery set up their own government. President Franklin Pierce (D, 1853-57) recognized only the pro-slavery government. Do you agree with him, or do you think he should have recognized the antislavery government instead?

5) Imagine that you are a senator in 1854: Write a speech in which you try to convince your fellow senators to either vote in favor of or against the Kansas-Nebraska Act.


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