Gadsden Purchase of 1853: Definition, Map & Summary

Instructor: David Lobb
The addition of new territory in America was always a balancing act in the years leading up to the Civil War. The Gadsden Purchase motivated serious debate about slavery in U.S. territories and exposed deep sectional rifts. Develop an understanding of the Gadsden Purchase. Test your knowledge with a short quiz.

Completing a Continental Empire

During the 1850s the only land added to the United States was a barren stretch of some 300,000 square miles south of the Gila River in present day New Mexico and Arizona. This Gadsden Purchase of 1853, named for James Gadsden, the American Ambassador to Mexico at the time, cost the U.S. $10 million (about $260 million today).

Portrait of James Gadsden

gadsden map

Among the many transcontinental routes projected, the four most important were the northern route from Milwaukee to the Columbia River, a central route from St. Louis to San Francisco, another from Memphis to Los Angeles, and a more southerly route from New Orleans to San Diego via the Gadsden Purchase.

Connecting a Nation

In 1852 and 1853 Congress debated and dropped many likely proposals. For various reasons, including terrain, climate, and sectional interest, Secretary of War Jefferson Davis favored the southern route and encouraged the Gadsden Purchase. Any other route, moreover, would go through Indian country, which stretched from Texas to the Canadian border.

Stephen Douglas of Illinois had a better idea: Chicago ought to be the eastern terminus. Since 1845, therefore, Douglas and others offered bills for a new territory in the lands west of Missouri and Iowa, bearing the Indian name Nebraska. In January of 1854, as chairman of the committee on territories, Senator Douglas reported yet another Nebraska bill, which became the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Unlike the other, this one included the entire unorganized portion of the Louisiana Purchase to the Canadian border. At this point, fateful connections began to transform his proposal from a railroad bill to a proslavery bill.

Stephen Douglas

Debate Over Slavery

To carry his point, Douglas needed the support of southerners, and to win that support he needed to make some concession on slavery. This he did by writing popular sovereignty into the bill with language that specified that all issues pertaining to slavery in the territories and new states be left to the people residing there. It was a clever dodge, since the Missouri Compromise would still exclude slaves until the territorial government made a decision. Southerners quickly spotted the barrier and Douglas quickly made two more concessions. He supported an amendment to repeal the Missouri Compromise insofar as it excluded slavery north of 36/30, and then agreed to organize two territories: Kansas, west of Missouri; and Nebraska, west of Iowa and Minnesota.

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