May 30, 1854
In 1854 Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois presented a bill destined to be one of the most consequential pieces of legislation in our national history. Ostensibly a bill “to organize the Territory of Nebraska,” an area covering the present-day states of Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, and the Dakotas, contemporaries called it “the Nebraska bill.” Today, we know it as the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.
By the 1850s there were urgent demands to organize the western territories. Land acquired from Mexico in 1848, the California gold rush of 1849, and the relentless trend toward westward expansion pushed farmers, ranchers, and prospectors toward the Pacific. The Mississippi River had long served as highway to north-south traffic, but western lands needed a river of steel, not of water—a transcontinental railroad to link the eastern states to the Pacific. But what route would that railroad take?
Stephen Douglas, one of the railway’s chief promoters, wanted a northern route via Chicago, but that would take the rail lines through the unorganized Nebraska territory, which lay north of the 1820 Missouri Compromise line where slavery was prohibited. Others, particularly slaveholders and their allies, preferred a southern route, perhaps through the new state of Texas. To pass his “Nebraska bill,” Douglas needed a compromise.
On January 4, 1854, Douglas introduced a bill designed to tread middle ground. He proposed organizing the vast territory “with or without slavery, as their constitutions may prescribe.” Known as “popular sovereignty,” this policy contradicted the Missouri Compromise and left open the question of slavery, but that was not enough to satisfy a group of powerful southern senators led by Missouri’s David Atchison. They wanted to explicitly repeal the 1820 line. Douglas viewed the railroad as the “onward march of civilization,” and so he agreed to their demands. “I will incorporate it into my bill,” he told Atchison, “though I know it will raise a hell of a storm.” From that moment on, the debate over the Nebraska bill was no longer a discussion of railway lines. It was all about slavery.
Douglas introduced his revised bill—and the storm began. Ohio senator Salmon Chase denounced the bill as “a gross violation of a sacred pledge.” In a published broadside, Charles Sumner’s antislavery coalition attacked Douglas, arguing that his bill would make the new territories “a dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves.” The fierce drama climaxed in the early morning hours of March 4. “You must provide for continuous lines of settlement from the Mississippi Valley to the Pacific Ocean,” Douglas pleaded in a final address. Do not “fetter the limbs of [this] young giant.” At 5:00 in the morning, the Senate voted 37-14 to pass the Nebraska bill. It became law on May 30, 1854.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise, created two new territories, and allowed for popular sovereignty. It also produced a violent uprising known as “Bleeding Kansas,” as proslavery and antislavery activists flooded into the territories to sway the vote. Political turmoil followed, destroying the remnants of the old Whig coalition and leading to the creation of the new Republican Party. Stephen Douglas had touted his bill as a peaceful settlement of national issues, but what it produced was a prelude to civil war.