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Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854: Summary, Definition & Significance

Instructor: Adam Richards

Adam has a master's degree in history.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was one of the most detrimental decisions over slavery made in United States history. Learn how the outcome of the Kansas-Nebraska Act inched the country closer to a violent civil war.

Background

To those with a deep interest in United States history and the coming of the Civil War, I cannot stress enough the importance in understanding that the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was a watershed event in American history. The sectional divide in the United States between north and south that formed following the Wilmot Proviso of 1846 was slightly ameliorated by the Compromise of 1850; that is to say, tensions cooled significantly. The decisions surrounding the Kansas and Nebraska territories rekindled the fire.

In order to extend the size of the United States and provide additional land for settlers (and to also secure a transcontinental railroad line for his constituents), Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas, in 1853, moved to create the massive territory of Nebraska from the unorganized central territory.

United States Before the Kansas-Nebraska Act
Kansas-Nebraska, 1854

Southerners, led by Missouri Senator David Atchison, disapproved of the impending territory based on the fact that, per the dividing line of the Missouri Compromise, it was to be free of slavery. Southerners staged massive opposition. In order to quell the southern outcry, Douglas agreed to what became known as the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

The Components of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

Three major aspects for you to remember were achieved through the negotiation of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. First, the larger territory of Nebraska was dissected into two smaller territories; Kansas and Nebraska, respectively. Second, Senator Douglas agreed to the dissolution of the Missouri Compromise, which effectively ended the dividing line separating free state from slave state. Finally, to appease slaveholders, Douglas agreed that the new territories would determine its slavery status based on popular sovereignty. For the first time, the expansion of slavery would be determined based on a vote.

The United States with the Kansas and Nebraska Territories
Map of Kansas-Nebraska Act

Opposition Prior to Congressional Approval

The most outspoken individual against the Kansas-Nebraska Act was none other than Abraham Lincoln. In a series of three debates (known officially as the Lincoln-Douglas Debates), Lincoln blasted Stephen Douglas for his careless attitude toward the expansion of slavery. He expounded on the moral and legal arguments against slavery and built a base of opposition (what eventually became the Republican Party) against the impending legislation. Unfortunately, Lincoln and his amalgamation of abolitionists and Free-Soilers could not prevent Congressional approval. The House of Representatives voted for the Act, 113 to 100, while the Senate voted to approve the legislation, 35 to 13. The bill became law on May 30, 1854.

Immediate Consequences

Political backlash quickly ensued after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Kansas territory became the hotbed of action for the next several years. Since most Americans accepted that Nebraska was expected to become a free state, settlers flooded the Kansas territory to acquire lands and vote on the expansion of slavery. Northerners established a free-soil campaign, while settlers from Missouri, widely known as 'border ruffians,' claimed land and countered with a pro-slavery platform. Since the Kansas-Nebraska Act called for a vote on slavery, territorial legislatures acquiesced.

Unfortunately for northern settlers, during 1855 southerners managed to cast hundreds, if not thousands, of illegal ballots supporting the expansion of slavery. Southerners won handily and temporarily established Kansas as a slave territory. Suspicious northerners, coupled with Republicans, refused to accept the victory and decided to create an anti-slavery legislature in Lawrence, Kansas. Pro-slavery advocates, coupled with Democrats and President Pierce, established a base in Lecompton, Kansas. The battle lines had been drawn.

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