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Kansas-Nebraska Act Raises Slavery Issue Once Again


Franklin Pierce in portrait by George Peter Alexander Healy

Franklin Pierce in portrait by George Peter Alexander Healy

From VOA Learning English, welcome to The Making of a Nation, our weekly program of American history for people learning American English. I’m Steve Ember.

The 1850s were an increasingly tense time in the United States. Most of the population lived east of the Mississippi River. But more and more people were moving west. As western areas became populated they became official territories, and then new states. The settlement of these areas once again raised the issue of slavery.

A law passed in 1820, called the Missouri Compromise, extended a line across the map of the United States. Slavery was legal in areas south of the line. North of the line, slavery was illegal, except in the state of Missouri.

Thirty years later, another political compromise made slavery a local issue instead of a national one. The Compromise of 1850 said people in the western territories could decide for themselves whether slavery would be legal or illegal.

Then, in 1854, Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas proposed another measure. His legislation would also affect slavery. It aimed to make the wild, western area known as Nebraska an official territory.

“This is the Great Plains. This is open territory. There were Indian tribes settled out there.”

Nicole Etcheson is an historian. She says white settlers could not move to Nebraska because a government did not yet exist there. They wanted the U.S. Congress to open the area to settlers. Investors wanted Congress to act, too, so Nebraska could support a railroad.


Nebraska lies north of the line drawn by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. As a result, slavery would be banned in the territory. But slavery was permitted in the state next to Nebraska: Missouri.

Slave-holders in Missouri did not want Nebraska to become a free territory. They were afraid their slaves would flee to it. They felt threatened by the free states and territories around them.

So Senator Douglas proposed that the large Nebraska area be split in two. The northern part would be known as the Nebraska territory. The southern part, next to Missouri, would be known as the Kansas territory.

The senator said that settlers in both territories had the right to decide whether their lands would accept slavery. He argued that the Compromise of 1850 had given the same right to people in two other territories -- New Mexico and Utah. And he claimed that same right was meant for the people of all future territories.

Douglas noted that in the past, the federal government sought to divide free states from slave states by making a line across a map. He said dividing up land was not the answer. He said the people in a state or territory had the right to decide for themselves. This right was known as “popular sovereignty.”

Historian Nicole Etcheson says popular sovereignty required faith in the American political process.

“Stephen Douglas argued that the foundation of American political philosophy is that the people get to decide, voters get to decide issues, and there was no reason they couldn’t decide the slavery issue just like any other political issue.”

Douglas argued that the Compromise of 1850 took the place of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. The new Kansas-Nebraska Act, he said, simply recognized the fact that the Missouri Compromise was dead.

A number of anti-slavery senators denounced the Kansas-Nebraska bill. They said it was part of a southern plan to spread slavery wherever possible. They also said Stephen Douglas was using the measure for political purposes. They said he wanted to be president, and was hoping to influence voters in southern states.

Opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska bill was extremely strong in the northern states. In city after city, large public gatherings were held. Businessmen organized many of the meetings. They were angry at Douglas because he had re-opened the dispute about slavery. They feared that the dispute would hurt the nation’s economy.

Northern religious leaders also united against the bill. Thousands signed protests and sent them to Congress. Douglas criticized the clergymen. He said they should stay out of politics.

In the southern United States, the Kansas-Nebraska Act caused little excitement. Most southerners were not interested in it. They believed the measure might help the cause of slavery. But they also believed it might lead to trouble.

President Franklin Pierce did not like the bill. He feared it would re-open the bitter, national debate about slavery.

However, most members of the U.S. Senate supported the Kansas-Nebraska bill. It passed easily in the Senate. The bill had less support in the House of Representatives. The vote there was close, but the measure passed.

President Pierce finally agreed to sign it into law. In exchange, congressional leaders promised to approve several presidential appointments.

Supporters of the Kansas-Nebraska Act celebrated its passage. They fired cannons as the city of Washington was waking to a new day.

Two senators who opposed the bill heard the noise as they walked down the steps of the capitol building. One of them said: "They celebrate a victory now. But the echoes they awake will never rest until slavery itself is dead."

The new law gave the people of Kansas and Nebraska the right to decide if slavery would be legal or illegal. The vote would depend on who settled in the territories. It was not likely that people who owned slaves would settle in Nebraska. However, there was a good chance slave owners would settle in Kansas.

Groups in the South organized quickly to help pro-slavery settlers move to Kansas.

At the same time, groups in the North helped free-state settlers move to Kansas. Historian Nicole Etcheson says some of these settlers were abolitionists who believed slavery was wrong. But many were simply white farmers looking for new lands to settle. Ms. Etcheson says these farmers did not care about slavery, but they did not want to live near blacks or compete with slave labor.

“It’s that third group of Midwesterners who become crucial because when they get out there to Kansas and they can’t get a fair vote, they become radicalized against slavery.”

In Washington, President Pierce appointed Andrew Reeder as governor of the Kansas territory. Pro-slavery settlers urged Reeder to hold immediate elections for a territorial legislature. They believed they were in the majority. They wanted a vote before too many free-state settlers moved in.

Governor Reeder rejected the demands. He decided to hold an election, but only for a territorial representative to the national Congress. On Election Day, hundreds of men from Missouri crossed the border into Kansas. They voted illegally, and the pro-slavery candidate won.

The same thing happened when Kansas finally held an election for a legislature. Once again, men from Missouri crossed the border into Kansas. Many of them carried guns. They forced election officials to count their illegal votes. As a result, almost every pro-slavery candidate was elected to the new legislature.

Nicole Etcheson says many American elections in the 1800s had examples of violence, bad behavior, and wrongdoing. But the pro-slavery Missourians were extreme.

“It was obvious, obvious that there was egregious fraud in the elections in Kansas territory.”

She says population counts at the time showed fewer than 3,000 voters in Kansas territory. But pro-slavery candidates received up to 6,000 votes!

The governor ordered an investigation. The investigation showed evidence of wrongdoing in six areas. New elections were held in those areas. This time, when only legal votes were counted, many of the pro-slavery candidates were defeated. Yet there were still enough pro-slavery candidates to hold a majority.

Andrew Reeder understood he was governing a bitterly divided territory. He wanted to warn President Pierce about what was happening.

So Reeder went to Washington. He met with Pierce almost every day for two weeks. He described how pro-slavery groups in Missouri were interfering in Kansas. He said if the state of Missouri refused to deal with the troublemakers, then the national government must deal with them. He asked the president to do something.

Pierce agreed that Kansas was a serious problem. He seemed ready to act. Reeder returned home and opened the first meeting of the territorial legislature. The pro-slavery majority quickly voted to move to a town close to the Missouri border. It also approved several pro-slavery measures.

Governor Reeder vetoed these bills. But the legislature rejected his veto and passed the new laws.

The Kansas legislature also sent a message to President Pierce. It wanted him to remove Reeder as governor. Political pressure was strong, and the president agreed. He named a new governor, Wilson Shannon. Shannon supported the pro-slavery laws of the legislature. He also said Kansas should become a slave state, like Missouri.

Kansas settlers who had voted against slavery became extremely angry. Soon, the situation became violent.

The events known as “Bleeding Kansas” will be our story next week.

I’m Steve Ember, inviting you to join us next time for The Making of a Nation — American history from VOA Learning English.

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