The Kansas-Nebraska Act and popular sovereignty

2. Explain the Kansas – Nebraska Act. What was the purpose of the Act? What problems did it solve? What problems did it create? How did it impact the tensions over slavery? Explain.

Write in your own word. Do not just write facts. Explain it in your own ways.

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The Kansas-Nebraska Act and popular sovereignty


In 1854, an uproar regarding the question of slavery in the territories challenged the relative calm after the  Compromise of 1850(Opens in a new window) . The pressure on this question came primarily from northern farmers, who wanted the federal government to survey the land west of Iowa and Missouri and put it up for sale. Promoters of a transcontinental railroad also pushed for this westward expansion.

Furthermore, many in the South were growing resentful of the  Missouri Compromise , which established the 36° 30′ parallel as the geographical boundary of slavery. Slaveholders entrenched themselves in defense of their “way of life,” which depended on the ownership of slaves, while also claiming that prohibiting slavery’s expansion ran counter to basic American property rights. They now contended that the question should be decided by popular sovereignty, or allowing the white residents of a territory to decide whether it should permit slavery when it applied for statehood.

Meanwhile, some antislavery northerners wanted the West reserved for poor whites to seek opportunity. Abolitionists, too, were becoming more vocal in their support for the complete end of slavery.

Democratic leaders sought to bind these disparate ideologies together. Illinois Democratic senator Stephen Douglas believed he had found a solution—the Kansas-Nebraska bill—that would promote party unity and also appease Southerners who detested the Missouri Compromise line. The act created two territories: Kansas, directly west of Missouri; and Nebraska, west of Iowa. The act applied the principle of popular sovereignty. Since both territories fell above the 36° 30′ line, the proposed bill would repeal the Missouri Compromise of 1820.



A map showing the outcome of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. After the act passed Congress, the territories of Kansas and Nebraska were allowed to decide whether they wanted slavery.










After heated debates—many members carried a concealed revolver or a knife to the sessions—Congress narrowly passed the act.


Party realignment

The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which allowed residents of Kansas to determine whether the state would be slave or free, sparked a  violent struggle  between proslavery and antislavery factions, both of whom flooded into the territory hoping to gain enough votes for their side to triumph. It also spurred a major party realignment.

Since the 1830s, the two main political parties in the United States had been the Democratic Party and the Whig Party. The parties disagreed mainly about economic policy. Whigs advocated for accelerated economic growth, often endorsing federal government projects to achieve that goal. Democrats wanted the federal government to play a smaller role in regulating the economy. Whigs tended to be wealthier; they were prominent planters in the South and wealthy urban northerners–in other words, the beneficiaries of the  market revolution . Democrats presented themselves as defenders of the common people against the elite.

The issue of slavery began to crack the foundations of the Second Party System in the 1840s. The Kansas-Nebraska Act divided the Democratic Party along sectional lines, as half of the northern Democrats in the House voted against it. In 1848, the newly-formed Free Soil Party nominated former president Martin Van Buren and ran on an antislavery platform of “Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men.”

The Democrats divided along sectional lines as a result of the bill, and the Whig party, in decline in the early 1850s, found its political power slipping further. Most important, the Kansas-Nebraska Act gave rise to the Republican Party, a new political party that attracted northern Whigs, Democrats who shunned the Kansas-Nebraska Act, members of the Free-Soil Party, and assorted abolitionists.

As a result, the Republican Party became a solidly northern political organization, creating a new binary party system reflecting sectional fault lines along the question of slavery.


Border ruffians


In 1854, the  Kansas-Nebraska Act(Opens in a new window)  reopened the question of extending slavery to new states north of the  Missouri Compromise  line established in 1820. The Act stipulated that the settlers of the Kansas territory would vote on whether to permit slavery.

Pro- and antislavery activists quickly flooded Kansas with the intention of influencing the vote on slavery. Proslavery Missourians who crossed the border to vote in Kansas became known as border ruffians. Border ruffians helped to secure a proslavery legislature in Kansas, which drafted a proslavery constitution known as the Lecompton Constitution. Meanwhile, anti-slavery activists established an extralegal regime of their own based in Topeka.

john brown

john brown

John Brown in Kansas


In 1856, clashes between antislavery Free-Soilers, or people that opposed the expansion of slavery, and border ruffians came to a head. A man named John Brown, along with his four sons and a small group of followers, heard the news that an antislavery activist had been attacked in Lawrence, Kansas.

Brown, a strict Calvinist and staunch abolitionist, once remarked that “God had raised him up on purpose to break the jaws of the wicked.”^11start superscript, 1, end superscript Brown and his posse went to the homes of proslavery settlers near Pottawatomie Creek, announcing they were the “Northern Army.” They burst into the cabin of proslavery Tennessean James Doyle and abducted him and two of his sons. Brown and his sons then brutally executed the Doyles and two other nearby proslavery settlers. None of the people Brown and his followers executed owned slaves or were involved in the incident at Lawrence.

Brown’s actions precipitated a new wave of violence; Kansas soon became known as “Bleeding Kansas.”


The caning of Charles Sumner


The controversy over Kansas also prompted the caning of Senator Charles Sumner in Congress in 1856. Sumner gave an infamous speech on Bleeding Kansas, entitled “Crime against Kansas.” In the speech, Sumner insulted proslavery legislators, namely Senator Andrew Butler, by comparing slavery to prostitution: “Of course [Butler] has chosen a mistress to whom he has made his vows, and who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight. I mean the harlot Slavery.”^22squared

Because Butler was aged, it was his second cousin, Senator Preston Brooks, who sought vengeance for Sumner’s insult to his family. He cornered Sumner on the Senate floor and beat him viciously with a cane, which left Sumner physically and mentally incapacitated for a long period of time. Many pro-slavery advocates in the South rejoiced over Brooks’s defense of slavery, southern society, and family honor, and sent him hundreds of canes to replace the one he had broken assaulting Sumner.


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Print depicting Preston Brooks attacking Charles Sumner, 1856.  Image  courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


John Brown at Harper’s Ferry


In 1859, John Brown led another attack. He planned to raid the federal armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, where he aimed to steal weapons and arm enslaved people for an insurrection. The raid was put down by proslavery militiamen and US Marines commanded by General Robert E. Lee, who would go on to become the commander of the Confederate Army. Brown was captured, convicted of treason, and hanged.

Two years later, the country erupted into Civil War. A famous marching song from the early 1850s called “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” incorporated Brown’s legacy into new lyrics to the army tune. The Union soldiers declared: “”John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave. His soul is marching on!” During the war, soldiers added new verses, with lyrics that even promised to hang the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.

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