Study Guide

Kansas-Nebraska Act Historical Context

By U.S. Congress

Historical Context

What do cross-country family road trips, Milli Vanilli, and the Territories of Kansas and Nebraska have in common? The answer will shock you.

Actually, maybe "shock" is overstating it a little bit But at the very least, the answer will definitely elicit at least one raised eyebrow and a "how 'bout that." And it will provide solid dinner conversation topics for weeks to come.

But before we can get to the answer (or the dinner), we need to paint ourselves a picture of what American life looked like in the early 1850s. So let's throw on our hoop skirts, throw some pocket soup in our travel bag, and send a telegraph to our friends that we're all set to board the knowledge train.

Peacekeepers and Pacifiers

Picture a family of six on a cross-country road trip in a minivan with no TV screens, no wi-fi, and everyone's tablets, phones, and iPods are dead. Mom is singing old Britney songs, Dad is criticizing Mom's driving, the air conditioning is on the fritz, little Joey just stuck his chewing gum in Sandy's hair, and Rover had a run-in with a skunk six hours ago.

It's almost too horrible to contemplate, isn't it?

We imagine this is kind of what it felt like to be a member of Congress in 1850.

See, at the time, the United States was made up of twenty-four states: twelve that allowed slavery, and twelve that didn't. This was a balance that had been struck years before with the Missouri Compromise of 1820: there had to be an equal number of free and slave states so that one side wouldn't have more influence over national goings-on than the other.

But, like the minivan's optional third-row seating that gives each kid a window seat, the balance looked equitable on the outside but was, on the inside, brimming with suspicion, anger, loathing, and feelings of self-righteousness.

California wanted to become a state like Pinocchio wanted to be a real boy, but it wanted to be a free state. The other free states were stoked about this, but it gave the slave states all kinds of heartburn because it would upset the delicate balance of free and slave states. So California just had to chill and wait while the "real" states got to decide its fate.

Texas was all frustrated because it thought its western border should be all the way over in Santa Fe, but New Mexico said, "No, that's ours," and people in both places were super grumpy about the whole thing.

The U.S. itself, fresh from its Mexican-American war victory, had a bunch of extra land on its hands that it wasn't one hundred percent sure what to do with, especially with the whole slavery debacle making waves all over the place.

And Washington, D.C., which was supposed to be a bastion of cool-headedness and reasoned political debate and stuff, had the largest slave trade in the whole United States.

Needless to say, tensions were high.

A Senatorial Oasis

Enter the 1850 United States Senate. Like an air-conditioned rest stop in the middle of the desert with clean restrooms and hot pizza, this group was a calming force in the face of coast-to-coast chaos.

Led by Henry Clay of Kentucky, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, and Daniel Webster of Massachusetts, the Senate spent eight months trying to figure out how to, well…figure it all out.

In the end, they came up with five Acts, which mash together into one body of governmental awesomeness known as the Compromise of 1850.

Don't let the yawn-worthy title fool you; there's some amazing stuff going on in there.

First, California was allowed to enter the U.S. as a free state, making its stately debut (hey-o!) on September 9, 1850.

To appease the slave states about the whole free California thing, the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 was amended into the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and it basically now said that if a slave escaped to a free state, that state was obligated to help the slave's owner get him or her back, even though they didn't participate in the institution.

Texas didn't get its way with the whole Santa Fe thing, but it did get $10 mil from the U.S. Government to pay off its debts with Mexico.

The Territories of New Mexico and Utah were established, and slavery was outlawed in the nation's capital.

All in all, it was a pretty productive little legislative ensemble, and it led to a relative calm in America's family road trip storm…at least, until Kansas and Nebraska jumped into the fray and made the whole slavery situation explode all over again.

Not even Mom singing "Oops!... I Did It Again" could pacify the posse this time.

Blame It on the Train

To be fair, it wasn't really Kansas or Nebraska's fault that their newfound capital-T Territorial status caused such agita amongst the capital-S States of the Union.

Really, it was the transcontinental railroad that caused things to go down the way they did. That's right, it was the railroad's fault.

If blaming inanimate objects for the outbreak of the Civil War doesn't quite satisfy your intellectual need for truth, let us explain.

Back in the 1840s, all America really wanted for Christmas was a transcontinental railroad. Well, maybe that wasn't the only thing it wanted, but it was pretty high on the list.

See, in those days, the fastest way to get from New York to Los Angeles was…okay, there was no fast way to get from NY to LA. Not only were there no nonstop flights, there were no airplanes, because they hadn't been invented yet. And neither had America's awe-inspiring system of interstate freeways. The eager traveler's best bet was to either sail around the tip of South America or hoof it cross-country.

And we mean "hoof it" quite literally—horses were the only answer. Something had to change.

People wanted a way to get back and forth from the east coast to the west coast, a way that took less than a month and didn't involve either a voyage around South America or a combo platter of steamboats, small trains, and pack animals. A transcontinental railroad would make that dream a reality.

But there were obstacles.

The Little Engine That Couldn't

The first problem was that there was this vast expanse of land in between the coasts that was undeveloped and wasn't officially organized as part of the United States. "Can't build a big train if the land isn't ours," the U.S. said.

The fix was to incorporate that land and turn it into some U.S. territories. Once it was organized American land, and not just American property, the railroad could be built across it. The people who'd settled there had already been making noise about organizing and joining the Union, and several attempts had already been made to formalize that organization, so folks felt pretty confident that the territory thing would happen.

The second obstacle was that every major city in the East wanted the train to stop in it. A big debate broke out about whether the railroad should cruise along the southern half of the United States and end up somewhere like New Orleans, or whether it should make its way along a more northerly route, maybe ending up somewhere like Chicago.

Stephen Douglas, Illinois's U.S. Senator since 1847, had a long and passionate love affair with the whole railroad concept. And he really, really, really wanted the transcontinental railroad to end up in his own Windy City. Aside from the prosperity a central railroad route through Chicago would bring his people, Douglas himself owned some land in Chicago, and he saw the value of said land skyrocketing if this train thing happened in his neighborhood.

This was no secret, especially not to the Southern leaders campaigning for a southern train route. They wanted all that big money and high-value real estate for themselves. And so, still kind of smarting from the Compromise of 1850, which had left the Union with more free states than slave states and had left the question of slavery in the new territories virtually unaddressed, Team New Orleans offered Senator Douglas a deal.

No Train, No Gain

They'd support the central railroad route through Chicago, they told him, if he'd relax on the slave thing a little and let new territories decide for themselves whether they would allow or prohibit slavery. New territories didn't have to be pro-slavery, they said, but it sure would be cool if they weren't anti-slavery. And BTW, it sure would be dandy if that language could be formalized in some sort of legal document. Like, maybe the next time a territory was organized, or something.

And, hey: wasn't Stephen working on something like that right that very minute…?

And suddenly, Senator Douglas found himself in a pickle. Should he swallow his anti-slavery leanings, and those of his Northern constituency, and possibly allow new territories to allow icky slavery, just so he could bring crazy amounts of money, people, and commerce into his home state?

In other words, should he trade his ethics for money?

Well, he eventually did, brushing his critics' dirt off his shoulder by talking about something called "popular sovereignty." Sections 1 and 19 of the Kansas-Nebraska Act address the concept of popular sovereignty, saying that if either decides it wants to become a State, it "shall be received into the Union with or without slavery, as their constitution may prescribe at the time of the admission" (1.1, 19.1).

That language totally flew in the face of the Missouri Compromise, which had said slavery was an absolute no-no above the 36th parallel (except in Missouri). Abolitionists freaked out, and pro-slavery people felt like they'd won themselves a big ol' victory.

As for Douglas, he thought that Nebraska would become a free state, Kansas would become a slave state, and balance would be maintained. Eventually, he figured, everyone would calm down.

But everyone did not calm down. They did the opposite of calm down, eventually turning Kansas into a proving ground for the Civil War tumult yet to come.

Looks like Senator Douglas' plan really…went off the rails. (Ba-dum-tsss.)

Missouri Loves Company

It's the 1850s in America. Brass band music is pumping in the clubs, California's Gold Rush is in full swing, and corsets and man smocks are all the rage.

But life in the 1850s wasn't all fun, games, and golden nuggets. For a substantial portion of the nation's population, life was probably more like hard work, more hard work, and complete invisibility.

And not the kind of invisibility with cloaks and stuff, but the kind of invisibility that entailed not being able to vote, own property, earn a living wage, or marry someone outside of your race, religion, or socioeconomic group.

And though life was hard and kind of unfair for pretty much everyone outside of a small cadre of people, the hands-down "We've Got It the Worst" award goes to the slaves.

Slavery sailed into the U.S. on a boat bound for Jamestown way back in 1619. By the time President Lincoln officially sailed it back out again in 1863, millions of people had lived—and died—as American slaves.

It was a rough existence. Slaves were completely beholden to their owners and were given the same rights (and often treated with less respect) than a pair of shoes. Slaves couldn't own property, their working conditions were usually beyond terrible, they couldn't marry without permission, and they couldn't vote or do anything else to change their awful situation.

Luckily, people who could change the situation were wising up. By the time the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed, the anti-slavery movement was gaining some serious steam, and the practice had been outlawed across a good portion of the country.

Then everything went nuts when Territory Nebraska and Territory Kansas were organized and allowed to choose whether or not they wanted slavery…which was not how the Missouri Compromise and Compromise of 1850 said things were supposed to work.

Suddenly, Nebraska and Kansas were a hotbed of civil unrest.

Unrest In The Midwest

Well, not Nebraska so much. Nebraska had never been a big slave area, and when the state legislature officially abolished the practice in January of 1861, no one was surprised.

Kansas, however, was a different story.

The common assumption was that Kansas would vote to keep slavery. Maybe it would have, maybe it wouldn't, but worry over the mere thought of it drove a bunch of abolitionists to Kansas Territory to set up shop and vote "no" on slavery. These folks and their supporters became known as Free Staters, and for many, their migration to Kansas was seen as a good thing.

For others, like the pro-slavery South and Kansas' slave-owning neighbor Missouri, the Free Stater migration was certainly not a good thing. Pro-slavery Missouri residents known as "border ruffians" flooded across the Kansas border and caused all kinds of mayhem, threatening Free State sympathizers, stealing stuff, burning stuff, and committing mass voter fraud in an effort to keep Kansas in line.

As one might imagine, additional chaos ensued.

When Kansas Governor Andrew Reeder deemed those elections fraudulent and demanded new ones, these border ruffians, some of them now elected to office, told Reeder to go pound sand and called for his dismissal.

Meanwhile, Kansas' anti-slavery people had rallied. They set up their own government in response to the pro-slavery Bogus Legislature, as they were called. They got a crew together and scribbled down their own thoughts for a future state constitution; it officially abolished slavery and is known as the Topeka Constitution. It was sent off to Congress, who thanked them for playing and wished them better luck next time.

Needing And Bleeding

Then the Bogus Legislature guys tried to hurry up and get the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution they'd written approved by Congress, but that one didn't cut the mustard either.

Neither did the third attempt, the uber-progressive Leavenworth Constitution that not only outlawed slavery, it also gave limited voting rights to all kinds of minorities and – gasp – women, too.

And in the midst of all of this constitution-writing were massive displays of violence and bloodshed.

Homes and businesses were constantly being destroyed by protesters. People were assaulted and sometimes killed. Washington, D.C. sent in troops and cannons and angry politicians. By the time the abolitionist Wyandotte Constitution was drafted and finally approved in 1859, over two hundred people were dead.

This entire era was such a debacle that it became known as "Bleeding Kansas."

But despite its horrors, this scary little period in time did result in a win for the good guys: when Kansas was finally admitted to the Union in 1861, it was admitted as a free state.

And the country threw a war to celebrate.