The Kansas-Nebrask Act was an 1854 bill that mandated "popular sovereignty"--allowing settlers of a territory to decide whether slavery would be allowed within a new state's borders. Proposed by Stephen A. Douglas--Abraham Lincoln's opponent in the influential Lincoln-Douglas debates--the bill overturned the Missouri Compromise's use of latitude as the boundary between slave and free territory. The conflicts that arose between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers in the aftermath of the act's passage led to the period of violence known as Bleeding Kansas, and helped paved the way for the American Civil War (1861-65).
More to Explore
People and Groups
Slavery and its legacy have shaped American history, from the Civil War to Reconstruction in the 1860s and 1870s to the struggle over civil rights a century later.
The American Civil War, fueled by the debate over slavery and states' rights, pitted North against South in the costliest conflict fought on U.S. soil.
In 1820, pro-slavery and anti-slavery factions in the U.S. Congress struck a deal known as the Missouri Compromise.
Bleeding Kansas was the period of violence during the settling of the Kansas territory.
Did You Know?
Kansas was admitted as a free state in January 1861 only weeks after eight Southern states seceded from the union.
This 1854 bill to organize western territories became part of the political whirlwind of sectionalism and railroad building, splitting two major political parties and helping to create another, as well as worsening North-South relations.
On January 4, 1854, Stephen A. Douglas, wanting to ensure a northern transcontinental railroad route that would benefit his Illinois constituents, introduced a bill to organize the territory of Nebraska in order to bring the area under civil control. But southern senators objected; the region lay north of latitude 36°30′ and so under the terms of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 would become a free state. To gain the southerners' support, Douglas proposed creating two territories in the area--Kansas and Nebraska--and repealing the Missouri Compromise line. The question of whether the territories would be slave or free would be left to the settlers under Douglas's principle of popular sovereignty. Presumably, the more northern territory would oppose slavery while the more southern one would permit it.
Although initially concerned about the political fallout, President Franklin Pierce gave Douglas and his southern allies his support. The "Appeal of the Independent Democrats," signed by such Free-Soilers as Salmon P. Chase and Charles Sumner and published in many northern newspapers, attacked Pierce, Douglas, and their supporters for breaking a sacred compact by repealing the Missouri Compromise.
The act passed Congress, but it failed in its purposes. By the time Kansas was admitted to statehood in 1861 after an internal civil war, southern states had begun to secede from the Union. The Independent Democrats and many northern Whigs abandoned their affiliations for the new antislavery Republican party, leaving southern Whigs without party links and creating an issue over which the already deeply divided Democrats would split even more. The railroad was eventually built but not along the route Douglas wanted and with funds voted by a Republican Congress during a Republican Civil War administration.
The Reader's Companion to American History. Eric Foner and John A. Garraty, Editors. Copyright © 1991 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Fact Check We strive for accuracy and fairness. But if you see something that doesn't look right, contact us!
This Day in History
War of 1812 begins, 1812
The day after the Senate followed the House of Representatives in voting to declare war against Great Britain, President James Madison signs the…
Explores the world of America's first civil rights movement through three powerful programs.
Keep up with the latest History shows, online features, special offers and more.Sign up