Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor


The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 brought territorial government to that portion of the Louisiana Purchase between the Missouri River and the divide of the Rocky Mountains and from 37º north latitude to the boundary of British America at 49º north latitude. The act created, within this huge area, the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, dividing them at 40º north latitude. In addition to what became the states of Kansas (1861) and Nebraska (1867), portions of what became Colorado were included in the Kansas and Nebraska Territories and parts of what became Wyoming, South Dakota, North Dakota, and Montana were within Nebraska Territory.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act would be crucial in the coming of the Civil War. The Missouri Compromise (1820) had banned slavery in the Louisiana Purchase north of 36º30' north latitude, except within the borders of the slave state of Missouri that was created by the Compromise. By midcentury there was growing pressure to open the trans-Missouri Indian country to settlement. The Platte Purchase, a 3,139-square-mile area adjoining the Missouri River north and northwest of modern Kansas City, had been carved, with no sectional commotion, from the nonslave area of the Louisiana Purchase and added to Missouri in 1837. In 1846 Iowa entered the Union, extending that state to the Missouri River. Two years earlier Rep. Stephen Douglas of Illinois had offered the first bill to provide territorial government for the trans-Missouri area, called "Nebraska." A Nebraska bill passed the House in 1853 but failed in the Senate, largely because of southern opposition.

In December 1853 Sen. Augustus Dodge of Iowa offered a Nebraska bill that, like the recent House measure, did not address the slavery issue. Stephen Douglas, who chaired the Senate Committee on Territories, recognized that southern opposition to the Missouri Compromise ban upon slavery threatened such legislation. In January 1854 he reported a rewritten bill that embodied the "popular sovereignty" principle, by which the people of the territory ultimately would decide if their prospective state would or would not have slavery. This concept had been basic to his legislation to organize New Mexico and Utah Territories, key parts of the Compromise of 1850. However, southern pressure for explicit repeal of the 36º30' line was soon evident, and Douglas brought in a bill by adding such a repeal. This revision also called for the establishment of two territories. The latter provision implicitly recognized that frontier Iowa and Missouri boosters had produced separate nuclei of potential settlement in the trans-Missouri country and that diverse transcontinental railroad interests would be served by the creation of two territories, Kansas and Nebraska. Despite northern outrage over the proposed repeal of the Missouri Compromise slavery ban, the Kansas-Nebraska bill passed Congress, and on May 30, 1854, received President Franklin Pierce's signature.

As historian James Malin explained, Douglas saw the Great Lakes–Mississippi Valley region as the "geographical pivot" for continental development. To Douglas, popular sovereignty was a rational policy that would facilitate the nation's spatial and economic development. But this was not a calm, deliberative time, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act brought two tremendous forces—the slavery controversy and national expansion augmented by technology—into collision. The ensuing agitation, including the conflict called "Bleeding Kansas," brought a recasting of political parties that destabilized the Republic and propelled the nation toward war.

See also WAR: Bleeding Kansas.

Harl A. Dalstrom University of Nebraska at Omaha

Malin, James C. "The Motives of Stephen A. Douglas in the Organization of Nebraska Territory: A Letter Dated December 17, 1853." Kansas Historical Quarterly 19 (1951): 321–53.

Nichols, Roy F. "The Kansas-Nebraska Act: A Century of Historiography." Mississippi Valley Historical Review 43 (1956): 167–212.

Rawley, James A. Race and Politics: "Bleeding Kansas" and the Coming of the Civil War. Philadelphia: Lippincott, Williams and Wilkins, 1969.

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