Study Guide

Kansas-Nebraska Act

By U.S. Congress

Kansas-Nebraska Act Introduction

We've Lost That Loving Feeling

When you think of famously fraught relationships, you might think of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester. Or Heathcliff and Catherine. Or Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.

But these stormy relationships got nothing on the North and the South, circa 1853. "It's Complicated" doesn't even begin to sum up their dynamic.

Sure, they were both part of the United States—that part was all fine and dandy—but for the past several years, things had been kind of strained between them. All the idiosyncrasies they'd each found so cute about the other when the relationship was new were now starting to get annoying. Differences of opinion turned into major arguments. They were constantly fighting about money, friends, and who should do the chores around the house.

One thing was for sure: the honeymoon was over.

They did eventually break up in 1861, though they got back together in 1865 after their quarrel resulted in a big ol' Civil War, and they've been pretty solid ever since.

But we want to focus on the bad old days before the war.

Like we said, the North and South disagreed about a lot of stuff. Many predicted they'd break up long before they did. And while no one single event can be blamed for what happened in 1861, one of the final straws for that relationship was definitely the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. This piece of legislation did two things: it (a) formed and organized the Nebraska Territory and Kansas Territory, and (b) left it up to the people in each Territory to decide whether they wanted to allow slavery or not.

The North was upset because it was all, "I thought we already dealt with the slavery issue in 1820 with that whole Missouri Compromise thing."

And the South basically said, "Compromise shlompromise. If you want that spiffy new transcontinental railroad you've been flirting with to end up in the North instead of down here, you'll quit telling our new friends that they can't have slaves."

And then relationship-counselor-slash-U.S.-Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois stepped in and urged them to try a technique called "popular sovereignty." If they'd just let the people of Kansas and Nebraska vote and decide for themselves if they wanted slavery, Douglas reasoned, then the North and South could just put the whole slave issue aside and focus instead on the love of democracy that brought them together in the first place. They reluctantly agreed, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act became a thing in May of 1854.

  

Failed Couples Counseling

President Pierce, who signed it into law, thought it would help the North and South heal their relationship wounds, or at least keep them from going at each other's throats all the time.

It didn't.

Not only could the North and South not put the slavery issue aside after all, but their disagreements about it (and other things) started getting more and more violent. Kansas found itself in the national spotlight as the slavery controversy played out with more drama than even the Kardashians can supply, all over the new Territory.

It got so bad that, in 1861, South Carolina and a few of its southern colleagues decided it just wasn't worth the fight to stay together. They straight seceded from the U.S., gave the North a nice Skroob salute, and changed their name to the Confederate States of America.

The North got angry and told the South they weren't allowed to just up and leave like that, and thus the Civil War began. Towns were destroyed, families were ripped apart, and roughly 2% of the country's population died before it was all over.

Yeah. It wasn't exactly an amicable break-up.

What is Kansas-Nebraska Act About and Why Should I Care?

We're going to keep this one simple: you should care about this dauntingly Midwestern-sounding act because slavery isn't a thing anymore.

Yup, that pretty much sums it up: thanks in large (though indirect and somewhat unintentional) part to the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, our country doesn't do that whole horribly evil and morally indefensible thing of selling humans anymore.

Before this Act, there was a tenuous balance between free and slave states in the U.S. Thanks to the Missouri Compromise, slavery was forbidden north of the 36th Parallel (except for Missouri) and had been since 1820. For a time, this strategy pacified both the pro-slavery South and the abolitionist North.

But you know how they say you can please all of the people some of the time or some of the people all of the time? Yeah. Both the North and South didn't stay pacified for long.

Ye olde Kansas-Nebraska invoked what's known as "popular sovereignty" and allowed new territories and states to decide for themselves whether they wanted slavery, regardless of which parallels they were north or south of.

Nebraska did what everyone thought it would do and voted to prohibit slavery. (Get it, Cornhuskers.)

Kansas, which everyone thought would vote to allow slavery and maintain that national free/slave balance, caused heart rates everywhere to rise when it became the main stage for violent conflicts between the pro-slavery movement and the Free State movement. Its early elections were such a circus, they make Florida's 2000 election cycle chad fiasco look downright dignified.

The tensions heightened by Kansas-Nebraska boiled over into a skirmish known as the Civil War. Maybe you've heard of it/read about/have a weird uncle who's obsessed with it?

The war was a horrible and bloody affair, but when it was over, the 13th Amendment happened, which made slavery 100% illegal in the United States.

And sure—we know that there were a whole lot of other docs (looking at you, Emancipation Proclamation) that worked towards ending slavery in a real way. But the important thing about the Kansas-Nebraska Act is that it tipped the U.S. of A. into civil war. Before this act rolled onto the scene, people weren't fired up enough to enact something that earth-shaking.

But after the Kansas-Nebraska Act? Well, this little doc lit a fuse…and the resulting explosion set the stage for American slavery to join witch-burning, smallpox epidemics, and foot binding as an insanely ugly historical chapter that now only lives on in the pages of textbooks.

Kansas-Nebraska Act Resources

Websites

Getting Territorial About Kansas
Articles, pictures, and even real-life scanned copies of uber-old letters and diaries related to Kansas Territory can all be found on the creatively-named Territorial Kansas Online website. This site has it all, but don't take our word for it. Click on over and indulge yourself in this sweet treat of a site.

When All Wasn't Quiet On The Western Front
It's said that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert at something. Well, we could easily become an expert on the conflict between Kansas and Missouri from 1854 to 1865, thanks to the awe-inspiring completeness of the "Civil War on the Western Border" website. Lose yourself in rich history and add fun phrases like "border ruffians" to your lexicon today!

Everything You've Ever Wanted To Know About Kansas… And More
We love this website. First of all, it contains a plethora of information about the history, culture, and people of Kansas. Second, it's called "Kansapedia," and there's nothing we love more than a catchy, punny website name. Spend some time getting to know all about the Sunflower State here.

Nebraska's History In Bite-sized Chunks
Normally the whole online dating thing makes us a little nervous, but not when we're talking about a super-cool historical website where the content is divided by date. This website breaks down the tumultuous history of Nebraska – Territory and State – into easily-manageable chunks of time. It's like the fun-sized Snickers version of Nebraska history, and we're big fans of anything fun-sized.

The Kansas-Nebraska Song
Those with perfect pitch might not be able to focus on the words of this song because they'll likely be covering their ears in horror, but if you're okay with slightly off-pitch singing (and vertical filming), we strongly recommend checking out this synopsis of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, performed to the tune of Leona Lewis' "Bleeding Love". The props make it even more amazing.

Movie-TV-Productions

Touched By Fire: Bleeding Kansas
Watch the drama unfold as Kansas takes its bloody, chaotic steps from baby Territory to all-growns-up State in this 2005 made-for-TV movie.

The Civil War
Docu-legend Ken Burns directed and produced this nine-part docu-masterpiece all the way back in 1990 and it's still one of the highest-rated and most-acclaimed Civil War productions ever made. Wars are complex, and this ridiculously awesome series covers those complexities better than Johnny Cash covered Nine Inch Nails. Added bonus: Abraham Lincoln is played by the Law and Order guy.

C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America
What if the Confederacy had won the Civil War? And what if the British decided to make a mockumentary about it? Answer those questions – and more – by checking out this sometimes-funny, sometimes-cringe-y film.

What Happened to Abraham Lincoln's Missing Slavery Speech?
We know that Honest Abe wasn't a big slavery fan, and we know that he didn't make a secret out of it. But there was one speech he made back in 1856 that apparently is a big secret, because it wasn't recorded at all, in any way, shape, or form. Too bad for us, because it dealt specifically with his opposition to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. An article from The Daily Beast can help us get the skinny on this mystery.

Big 12 Territory: Historical Perspective Shows Benefits of Expansion
Ever wonder what Big 12 football and the Kansas-Nebraska Act have in common? Wonder no more. Columnist Dick Harmon breaks it all down for us right here.

160 Years Ago, Philly Hosted First Republican National Convention
Wax nostalgic about Philadelphia in 1856, home of the first-ever Republican National Convention. Two years after the Kansas-Nebraska Act had sent the political world up in flames, the GOP, united in its hatred of the act, nominated John Fremont for POTUS and William Dayton for Veep. Know who lost out to Dayton for that coveted right-hand-man spot? None other than Mr. Abraham Lincoln.

Video

The Kansas-Nebraska Act
Spend fifteen minutes of your day with the team from Kansas' Johnson County Library, and they will explain, with the help of pretty scenery shots and extreme facial close-ups, exactly how the Kansas-Nebraska Act led to Bleeding Kansas.

Sound Smart: Bleeding Kansas
If we've got two minutes to spare, we've got time for this succinct synopsis of Bleeding Kansas. Be on the lookout for fun animated graphics, mind-blowing beards, and plenty of historical name drops.

Kansas Nebraska Act and the Formation of the Republican Party
The Kansas-Nebraska Act is Boston College Professor of History Heather Cox Richardson's favorite American historical event, and she tells us all about it in this snippet from C-Span's Book TV. She also tells us how that piece of legislation influenced the baby steps of the Republican Party, which was born that same year.

Audio

MC LaLa – John Brown's Rap (It's Goin' Down)
The sampling of some early-2000s Jay-Z isn't even the best part of this uber-catchy tune by educational rap phenom MC LaLa.

Border Ruffian Band – "Border Ruffians"
Written from the perspective of a border ruffian, this bluegrass-esque ditty gives us a peep into the life of an 1850s pro-slavery Missourian anxious for a sympathetic neighbor. The accompanying slide show has some old-school ruffian pics that are definitely worth a look-see as well.

Images

How Much Wood Would a Wood Chopper Chop…
Dying to know what former Kansas Territory Governor Andrew Reeder looked like disguised as a wood chopper as he fled back to Pennsylvania? So were we, and we were most excited when we learned that the scene had been captured (well, more like recreated) on canvas.

It Don't Mean it's Real if it Ain't Got That Seal
Nothing says "official" like an official territorial seal, especially if it has Latin words and a Roman goddess on it. Take a peek at Kansas Territory's first real-deal seal right here.

Look At The Size of That Thing
Nebraska Territory was originally seriously huge, as we can see by this map. Kansas was a little bigger too, but Nebraska was enormous. The land of Nebraska Territory has since been divided and is now part of six different states: Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana.

Raise The Roof?
If it looks like this building doesn't have a roof in this picture, that's because it doesn't. Apparently there wasn't a floor, either. But this is where Kansas' first Legislative Assembly had to meet, after Governor Reeder thought it would be a good idea to hold their meetings far away from the politicized towns near the Missouri border. After having to sleep in tents and eat outdoors for four days, the so-called Bogus Legislature picked up stakes and moved operations back to civilization.