In 1854, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, soon to go down in history as Abraham Lincoln’s most famous political opponent, introduced the Kansas- Nebraska Act into Congress. The act proposed the following:
- That the unorganized territory north of the 37th parallel and west of the Missouri River be divided into two sections, one called Nebraska, the other called Kansas
- That the territories set up their own governments on the basis of popular sovereignty
- That once the territories are organized, Congress proceed with plans for a transcontinental railroad
“Popular sovereignty” meant that the people who settled Kansas and Nebraska could decide for themselves how their governments would work. As every- one in Congress knew, the real meaning of this proposal was that the territories would decide for themselves whether they would be slaveholding or free states. This provision of the act violated the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had banned slavery in the territory north of Missouri’s southern border (excluding Missouri itself).
Nicknamed the “Little Giant” for his combination of short physical stature and forceful personality, Douglas was a native of Vermont who had settled in Illinois and been elected to Congress in 1842. He championed the issues of westward expansion and states’ rights. In Douglas’s view, the federal government had no right to interfere in the issue of whether a territory or state should be slaveholding or free; the people of that state or territory should decide for themselves.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act became law in 1854. Douglas had hoped it would be received as a compromise, since he knew that the new territory would likely end up half slaveholding (Kansas) and half free (Nebraska). He was dismayed to discover that it only divided Congress and the nation further. People argued against the repeal of the Missouri Compromise on various grounds. Some were abolitionists on principle and wanted to stop the spread of slavery. Some argued that if slavery were allowed in the territories, white people would no longer migrate westward in search of jobs; businesses would never pay wages when they could force slaves to work for nothing. For the same reason, white workers who had already settled in the West would be forced out.
Both abolitionist and proslavery groups urged people to move into the territories. Both sides knew that if they could gain a majority in the population of Kansas and Nebraska, the votes on the slavery issue would be decided in their favor. The issue was moot in Nebraska Territory; it was far enough north that it was settled, as Douglas had foreseen, by northerners who had no desire to own slaves. Southerners did not travel far enough north to create a powerful voice in Nebraska politics, and an antislavery legislature was elected without fuss.
Kansas, however, proved to be a battleground. Although few southerners seriously intended to extend slavery into a territory whose climate would not support cotton or rice cultivation, southern politicians were determined to enlarge their political base and to acquire more senators and representatives who would vote their way in Congress.
The election that would choose the Kansas legislature was to be held in March, 1855. Just before the election, 5,000 proslavery Missouri voters marched into Kansas. These “Border Ruffians” had no right to vote there, since they were not residents of the territory, but they were armed and violent, ready to kill anyone at the polling places who tried to prevent them from voting. With these illegal Missouri votes, a proslavery legislature was elected. This legislature immediately passed laws making it a crime to criticize slavery, banning newspapers that wrote antislavery editorials, and even forbidding preachers to speak against slavery from the pulpit. These flagrant violations of their constitutional rights to free speech and a free press infuriated the people of Kansas, who immediately elected their own antislavery legislature, representing the Free State Party. Kansas now had two governments. It was only a matter of time before the two sides would have to confront one another and settle which was to run the territory.
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