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There are a lot of documents out there that are written to persuade. And though it might not look like it on the surface, the Kansas-Nebraska Act is one of them.
Think about it: the Kansas-Nebraska Act, though all congressional and official-sounding and stuffy, is really just a piece of paper (okay, several pieces of paper) telling a bunch of people what to do with their land and lives. People that are far, far away from Washington, D.C.
So how does Congress know for sure that anyone is going to do what they say?
Well, for one, the people of Kansas and Nebraska had been trying to formally organize for a long time, and it's probably fair to say they weren't likely to say, "Eh, we changed our minds" once they got their way.
And second, they were going to do it because Congress said so, and Congress is the authority on these types of things.
And that authority is what we call ethos.
The mere fact that this act was written and approved by Congress, and then approved by the President of the United States, gives it all the credibility it needs to be taken seriously by the people of Kansas and Nebraska. This isn't a pathos-filled Senate speech or a logos-loving persuasive essay; the time for those things passed before this act was approved. This is all ethos: we are the United States Government and we say do this.
Now all Nebraska and Kansas had to do was follow Congress' instructions. No problem, right?
For most people, there are a lot of things that are way more fun to read than Congressional Acts. Novels, for example, graphic and otherwise. Song lyrics, essays, poems, news articles, the ingredient list on a pack of Fig Newtons…
Yep, most things are more entertaining to read than federal legislation.
But "more entertaining" doesn't always translate into "more important." And there are few things, if any, that are more important than the laws that govern our lives. In 1854, just like today, legislation wasn't written to be enjoyed. It was written to be clear, thorough, and more serious than a suit on casual Friday.
Nailed it, Kansas-Nebraska Act. From the first eighteen sections lining out Territory Nebraska, to the next eighteen sections detailing Territory Kansas, to the government-Indian relations grand finale, this act is nothing if not somber and official.
Maybe the 33rd Congress figured there was enough excitement in the new territories without them throwing anything else in the mix.
The first part of this act is all…about…Nebraska.
Geographical boundaries, responsibilities of the various branches of government, adherence to the Constitution and other federal laws, spending and infrastructure, election and voting rules: all of this and more is described in great detail in the first almost-half of this document.
The basic gist of this section is this: Everything we said about Nebraska goes for Kansas too. Except the geographical boundaries, those are different. And the capital city. That's different too. But everything else? Samesies.
Territorial relations with Native American tribes get a brief shoutout in Sections 1 and 18, but the subject is revisited in the final section of the act. Its purpose is basically to let both of the new territories know that all "treaties, laws, and other engagements" between the U.S. and Indian tribes still hold and will be observed (37.1).
You know, just in case Kansas and Nebraska started getting any funny ideas.
Everyone likes a straight shooter, right? Someone who tells it like it is, no filter, no fluff, no frills, just the honest and candid truth.
Well, if titles were people, this title would be the straight-shooting-est of all the straight shooters.
If we're wondering what this document is about, the title pretty much lines it out for us. It's an act to organize the Territories of Nebraska and Kansas.
Mind = blown, right?
Of course, even straight shooters need nicknames, and this act is no exception. While "An Act to Organize the Territories of Nebraska and Kansas" sure is descriptive, it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue. So to its friends and loved ones, this crazy cat usually just goes by "the Kansas-Nebraska Act."
And we can't really think of a more straight-shooting nickname than that.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That all that part of the territory of the United States included within the following limits, except such portions thereof as are hereinafter expressly exempted from the operations of this act, to wit: beginning at a point in the Missouri River where the fortieth parallel of north latitude crosses the same; then west on said parallel to the east boundary of the Territory of Utah, the summit of the Rocky Mountains; thence on said summit northwest to the forty-ninth parallel of north latitude; thence east on said parallel to the western boundary of the territory of Minnesota; thence southward on said boundary to the Missouri River; thence down the main channel of said river to the place of beginning, be, and the same is hereby, created into a temporary government by the name of the Territory Nebraska; and when admitted as a State or States, the said Territory or any portion of the same, shall be received into the Union with without slavery, as their constitution may prescribe at the time of the admission: Provided, That nothing in this act contained shall be construed to inhibit the government of the United States from dividing said Territory into two or more Territories, in such manner and at such time as Congress shall deem convenient and proper, or from attaching a portion of said Territory to any other State or Territory of the United States: Provided further, That nothing in this act contained shall be construed to impair the rights of person or property now pertaining the Indians in said Territory' so long as such rights shall remain unextinguished by treaty between the United States and such Indians, or include any territory which, by treaty with any Indian tribe, is not, without the consent of said tribe, to be included within the territorial line or jurisdiction of any State or Territory; but all such territory shall excepted out of the boundaries, and constitute no part of the Territory of Nebraska, until said tribe shall signify their assent to the President of the United States to be included within the said Territory of Nebraska or to affect the authority of the government of the United States make any regulations respecting such Indians, their lands, property, or other rights, by treaty, law, or otherwise, which it would have been competent to the government to make if this act had never passed. (1.1)
Every five-paragraph essay writer worth his or her salt knows that the first paragraph is crucial. It's the introduction; the set-up; the overview that lets readers know what the whole essay is about.
Turns out Congress must have missed the memo on the importance of a solid intro paragraph, because the Kansas-Nebraska Act has no such thing. It just launches right into the deets of the new Nebraska Territory, paying no mind to curious readers itching to know what this act is all about before they dive in.
Why would they do this? Were they trying to write a real cliffhanger, one that would have readers biting their fingernails, anxiously trying to guess what drama and adventure the next section might hold?
Um, probably not.
Probably, they were just doing what legislators do: make laws.
And really, when we're in the business of making laws, especially big, juicy, important laws like the Kansas-Nebraska Act, there's not a lot of time for the frivolity of a catchy introduction.
But don't worry, there's plenty of fun and excitement (um, sorta?) in each of the thirty-seven sections of this Act, even without any kind of prologue whatsoever.
To paraphrase The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, they don't need no stinkin' introduction.
And be it further enacted, That all treaties, laws, and other engagements made by the government of the United States with the Indian tribes inhabiting the territories embraced within this act, shall be faithfully and rigidly observed, notwithstanding any thing contained in this act; and that the existing agencies and superintendencies of said Indians be continued with the same powers and duties which are now prescribed by law, except that the President of the United States may, at his discretion, change the location of the office of superintendent.
Approved, May 30, 1854. (37.1-2)
Who doesn't love a great closing line? Forget about first impressions—sometimes it's the last impression that makes all the difference, right?
Maybe it's the drama, maybe it's the seriousness of the whole thing, but that whole "Approved, May 30, 1854" thing really does it for us. Seriously, someone pass us a fan. It's just too exhilarating.
But in this case, that last impression isn't all due to the closing line. It's due to Section 37 in its entirety, the only section of the Kansas-Nebraska Act written to apply to both Territory Nebraska and Territory Kansas.
And what does it say that merits such special attention and such a prominent position? Well, it tells us that the treaties, agreements, and laws that exist between the federal government and any and all Native American tribes are to remain in existence and be observed in both new territories. It also reminds us that the POTUS can change the location of the superintendent's office, but the real meat is in the "treaties" part.
Do what you will with other stuff, the federal government says, but don't go treading on our treaties.
Now there's a good closing line.
Holy long, meandering sentences, Batman.
Legalese may not technically be its own language, but sometimes it seems like it is. This doc may take a couple read-throughs to fully grasp what's going on in each section, but we think the effort is well worth it.
And of course, we're here to help you through it all.
Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 (9.8, 27.8)
Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 (9.8, 27.8)
Missouri Compromise (14.4, 32.4)
United States Congress (1.1, 14.1, 21.1, 32.1)
United States Constitution (5.1, 6.1, 9.8, 12.2, 14.4, 23.1, 24.1, 27.8, 30.2, 32.4)
37th parallel north (19.1)
38th parallel north (19.1) (also famous in Korea!)
40th parallel north (1.1, 19.1)
49th parallel north (1.1)
Fort Leavenworth (31.1)
Minnesota Territory (1.1)
Missouri (14.4, 19.1, 32.4)
Missouri River (1.1)
New Mexico Territory (19.1)
Rocky Mountains (1.1, 19.1)
Utah Territory (1.1, 9.9, 11.1, 11.2, 19.1, 27.9, 29.1, 29.2)
Pretty much every book ever on the Civil War mentions the Kansas-Nebraska Act at least once.
Abraham Lincoln: Peoria Speech, October 16, 1854
Just like with literary and philosophical references, you can find mention of Kansas-Nebraska in pretty much any historical or political treatment of the Civil War, manifest destiny, etc.
TV show: "Hell on Wheels," "Bleeding Kansas" episode aired in November 2014
Song: MC LaLa: "John Brown's Rap (It's Going Down)"
During the Mexican-American War, Brigadier General Franklin Pierce was exposed to the wonders of queso—and he liked it. (Source)
Senator Stephen Douglas' father-in-law made him the manager of a 150-slave plantation in Mississippi in his will. (Source)
Kansas' state motto is "Ad Astra Per Aspera," which means "To the Stars Through Difficulty," and we think that's pretty. (Source)
Nebraska is one of two states that doesn't utilize the winner-take-all method of allocating electoral votes during presidential elections (Maine is the other one). (Source)
Lenexa, Kansas was once known as the "Spinach Capital of the World." Tasty. (Source)
In 1937, Nebraska turned its bicameral legislative branch into a unicameral one, the only one in the country. Way to be unique, Cornhuskers. (Source)