Study Guide

Kansas-Nebraska Act Main Idea

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  • Main Idea

    A Detailed Guide to Opening a Can of Worms

    Sometimes it's fun to go into a situation with no preparation and fly by the seat of our pants. And sometimes, it's better to go in with a detailed itinerary.

    When it comes to formally organizing new States and Territories, it's probably better to go with the latter option.

    And that's exactly what the 33rd U.S. Congress did, putting together a seriously comprehensive and awesomely specific set of instructions for Kansas and Nebraska as they officially became United States Territories.

    This Act is that set of instructions.

    For example, the separation of powers is kind of a big deal in American government, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act spells out how it should be done in the new Territories. Executive branch, legislative branch, and judiciary – they're all covered here, and with tons of detail, too. We're talking term limits, elections, meeting durations, voting eligibility, salaries, conflicts of interest, and much, much more. It's all laid out here.

    But it doesn't stop there.

    This document lines out how to form townships and where to build schools. It talks about how to handle money and where to send meeting minutes. It covers geographical boundaries, and has rules about divisions and annexations.

    This bad boy is detailed.

    In fact, the only issue it's not all crazy detailed about is the issue of slavery. That, it says, is a matter that should be dealt with by the voters in each Territory.

    Wait—hold on, what?

    This document tells us how much people can get reimbursed for travel expenses to Legislative Assembly meetings, but it doesn't tell us whether or not people can own slaves? Seems like kind of a big thing to just gloss over like that, doesn't it? Especially since the slavery thing had already been handled—or so the nation thought—by the Missouri Compromise of 1820. According to that law, neither of the new Territories should have been able to allow slavery, even if every voter in the place wanted it.

    As one might imagine, this caused a bit of a stir.

    Eleven years, one Civil War, and hundreds of thousands of casualties later, the slavery question was finally answered with an unequivocal "not in this house" with the adoption of the 13th Amendment.

    Looks like the devil really is in the details.

    Questions About Main Idea

    1. Did Congress do the right thing by leaving the issue of slavery to the voters?
    2. How does the Kansas-Nebraska Act compare to the Compromise of 1850s establishment of the Utah and New Mexico Territories?
    3. Is there a difference between the separation of powers at the federal level and the separation of powers at the state or territorial level?
    4. Imagine you're drafting an Act to organize a U.S. Territory on another planet. What would it look like? How would it compare to the Kansas-Nebraska Act?

    Chew on This

    Congress should've given the people of Kansas and Nebraska more of a say in how their territory operated; this act doesn't give them a lot of flexibility with certain things.

    Thank goodness this thing is nice and detailed; it's good that territories and states are all set up somewhat uniformly with the same institutions and rules and stuff.

  • Brief Summary

    The Set-Up

    The United States is expanding, and in an effort to close the gap between its east coast properties and its west coast properties, it's decided to finally organize the Kansas and Nebraska Territories. Big fun is had by all as the territorial governments are set up in exacting detail while the huge question of slavery is left open to the voters.

    The Text

    Back in the 1850s, copy-paste commands were carried out by dudes with fountain pens, not savvy typists with a ctrl key.

    Too bad for the fountain pen guys, because Ctrl-C and Ctrl-V could've saved them boatloads of time when it came to the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Other than a few minor details, Sections 1-18 of this Act mirror Sections 19-36 almost word for word, except the first sections deal with the Nebraska Territory and the latter sections deal with the Kansas Territory. Section 37, the final section, is the only one written to apply to both Territories, and it's fairly succinct.

    The 33rd U.S. Congress was nothing if not consistent when it came to putting this bad chicken together. And the level of detail would give even the heartiest purveyor of minutiae something to strive for.

    If only they'd used some of that attention to detail to think through the ramifications of what they were copy-pasting.


    Washington, D.C. outsources its slavery and sovereignty baggage to the newly-formed Kansas and Nebraska Territories.

  • Questions

    1. The Kansas-Nebraska Act served to repeal the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Why is this such a big deal?
    2. What are the major differences between being a State and being a Territory? Which would you rather live in? Why?
    3. Why do you think Acts like this one include such a high level of detail about things like where schools should be located and the dollar amount of disputes that can be heard by certain courts?
    4. Discuss current political issues that raise questions concerning the concept of popular sovereignty.
    5. How does the government of a current U.S. Territory like Guam or Puerto Rico compare with the governments established in this Act?
    6. If the current POTUS had been in office in 1854, would the Kansas-Nebraska Act have played out differently? If so, what would the major differences have been and why?

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