Key Facts & Summary:
- In the 1850s there was a consensus that a railroad linking the eastern part of the Union to the expanding west was necessary to further success of the Union
- The Kansas-Nebraska Act 1854 was passed to organise the Nebraska Territory and amended the Missouri Compromise by allowing states North of latitude 36°30′ parallel to determine their slaveholding status by popular initiative
During the 1850s the Union was growing, and there was pressure to organise the western territories. Land acquired from Mexico in 1848, the California gold rush of 1849 and the phenomenal westward expansion meant that the country was growing and people were finding new lands in the west that promised prosperity and an opportunity to start again.
The Mississippi River was instrumental in moving people westward, but there was a consensus that the country required a transcontinental railroad that would link the western part of the country to the eastern side.
In 1854, Illinois Senator Sen. Stephen Douglas presented a bill ostensibly to “organise the Territory of Nebraska” the area occupied by present-day Kansas, Nebraska, Montana, South and North Dakota.
However, there was a challenge on the path upon which the railroad going west would be laid. Senator Douglas, among the supporters of the railroad, wanted a northern route via Chicago and inevitably through the unorganised Nebraska territory, North of the 1820 Missouri Compromise line where slavery was prohibited. His counterparts in the South equally preferred a southern route through the new states of Texas.
Therefore, a compromise was required to enable the two views to realise a middle ground. Thus, in January 1854, Sen Douglas introduced a bill proposing to organise the Nebraska territory, “with or without slavery, as their constitutions may prescribe” introducing a concept known today in popular parlance as popular sovereignty.
The Act effectively repealed the Missouri Compromise and left the question of slavery to the determination of state legislatures and people. However, the Southern Senators lead by Missouri Senator David Atchison wanted an explicit repeal of the 1820 line, and Senator Douglas agreed to reflect their sentiments in the bill. Having satisfied the southern Senators, the debate on the legislation shifted from being based on the railway line to a discussion on slavery.
Ohio Senator Salmon Chase condemned the bill as a “gross violation of a sacred pledge” his antislavery remarks noting that the bill would create “a dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves.” However, the Senate passed the bill in May 1854, buying into the Senator Douglas vision of the railway line.
Besides the Act repealing the Missouri Compromise, creating to new territories, and allowing popular sovereignty, it also produced a violent uprising called the “Bleeding Kansas.” Bleeding Kansas was characterised by proslavery and antislavery activities into the territories attempting to sway the public votes to accord to their stance on slavery. Political turbulence devastated what was left of the Old Whig Party, and the Republican Party was born. The tensions of the time are often thought of as the prelude to the Civil War.
To sway the voting in Kansas, some Missouri residents crossed the border to vote in Kansas and became known as border ruffians. Border ruffians contributed to a pro-slavery legislature in Kansas which drafted a proslavery constitution referred to as the Lecompton Constitution. The Lecompton Constitution protected the institution of slavery and contained provisions that excluded free blacks from its bill of rights. Eventually, Kansas was admitted as a free state in 1861 but in the intervening period, there were skirmishes.
John Brown, in 1856, with his four sons had declared themselves as “appointed by God to confront the evil of their time.” They got wind of news that some antislavery activists were attacked at Lawrence Kansas. John and his sons went into Pottawatomie Creek attacking the residents and captured and killed James Doyle and his sons, despite the fact that they were not involved in the attacks in Lawrence.
In Congress, in the same year, Senator Charles Sumner gave a speech titled “Crime against Kansas” and in it insulted proslavery legislator Senate Andrew Butler, comparing slavery to prostitution. He stated that Butler’s position on slavery were those of a man avowed to “a mistress though ugly to others, is lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight. I mean the harlot Slavery.”
Butlers nephew Senator Preston Brooks cornered Sumner and canned him, leaving him physically and mentally incapacitated for a very long time.
In 1859, John Brown led another attack, in which he attempted to raid the federal armoury at Harper’s Ferry in Virginia. The raid was stopped by General Robert E. Lee, who went on to become the commander of the Confederate Army during the Civil War.