Study Guide

Kansas-Nebraska Act Themes

By U.S. Congress

  • Slavery

    Here in the United States, we decided a long time ago that slavery is a massively evil violation of people's rights.

    But "a long time ago" wasn't always a long time ago, and when the Kansas-Nebraska Act was enacted, "a long time ago" hadn't even happened yet in most of the country.

    In America circa 1853, slavery was prohibited in California and above the 36th parallel (except Missouri), but was still permitted in all of the southern states. 1854 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act changed that, repealing the Missouri Compromise that had been in effect since 1820 by allowing the new territories of Nebraska and Kansas to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery.

    Questions About Slavery

    1. What were the North's arguments against slavery? What were the South's arguments in support of it?
    2. How and why did slavery bring about the birth of the Republican Party?
    3. What is the Dred Scott case, and how did its ruling further exacerbate the tensions raised by the Kansas-Nebraska Act?
    4. Compare the Free State Movement of the mid-19th century with the Civil Rights Movement of the mid-20th century. What are their similarities? What are their differences?

    Chew on This

    Popular sovereignty is what democracy is all about, and this Act was right to leave decisions about slavery to the voters.

    Congress should've just smacked down slavery once and for all when they created the Nebraska and Kansas Territories instead of being all vague about it and letting it lead to so much violence.

  • Prejudice

    Discrimination is something that happens every day, all over the world. It's not cool, and there are millions of people out there dedicating their lives to its eradication. But if we think it's a new phenomenon, or even that it's worse now than it was, we need to spend some time in 1850s America.

    In 1850s America, people weren't talking about the wage gap, institutionalized racism, or hate crimes. In fact, in 1850s America, a lot of people weren't talking at all because they didn't have a voice.

    Basically, if we were to somehow be transplanted to Kansas or Nebraska during the 1850s, our 21st-century social consciences would probably sustain some serious shock. While the Kansas-Nebraska Act doesn't overtly fan any discriminatory flames, it's evident just by taking note of the language it uses how different the guiding mentality was when it was written.

    Questions About Prejudice

    1. Why were Native American tribes so skeptical of signing treaties with the U.S. Government?
    2. Why were rights often limited to white property-owning males? What was the justification?
    3. How would Kansas' Leavenworth Constitution have changed the provisions set out in the Kansas-Nebraska Act if it had been adopted? How about the Lecompton Constitution?

    Chew on This

    The Kansas-Nebraska Act wasn't intended to be discriminatory; that's just the way things were back then.

    The Kansas-Nebraska Act's exclusion of certain groups from the political process was totally intentional and more than just a "sign of the times."

  • Sovereignty

    Fun to say but less fun to spell, "sovereignty" is a concept that is central to the American political system.

    So what is it?

    Basically, it's governing power. In theory, the United States Government is responsible for dealing with all the federal issues – national security, currency issues, trade, the settling of certain disputes, and a few others – and the states are responsible for everything else, except for Native American stuff. Tribes are responsible there.

    Of course, theory and reality are often two different things, and the responsibilities carried by the federal government have grown substantially since the Constitution was first written. The Civil War was responsible for a decent-sized chunk of that expansion, resulting like it did in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Constitutional Amendments being ratified.

    But before the Civil War and all those Amendments, questions of sovereignty within new American territories were addressed in the Congressional acts that formed them, and Kansas-Nebraska was no exception.

    Questions About Sovereignty

    1. What is the point of state sovereignty when we already have a federal government?
    2. How has tribal sovereignty changed throughout America's history?
    3. What questions about sovereignty were brought up by the secession of several southern states in 1861? Do you feel secession is likely to be an issue again anytime soon?
    4. When does federal law supersede state law, and when is it the other way around? What are some examples?

    Chew on This

    Things would be much easier if we just let the federal government take care of everything; conflict between states is pointless and causes unnecessary friction.

    Things would be much easier if we just let each state control what goes on in its borders; the federal government is way too involved with things outside its scope of responsibility.

  • Philosophical Viewpoints: American Democracy

    The United States is unique for a number of reasons, from our super varied climates and landscapes to our one-of-a-kind national history to our undying love for truly horrible reality TV shows.

    But the one thing that makes us the uniquest of all the uniques is that our country was founded by a bunch of doomsday preppers.

    No, not Doomsday Preppers, the reality TV show. (See? We really do love reality TV.)

    We're talking 1776-style doomsday preppers who believed that, if they didn't set up the future United States correctly, it could turn into another England, where laws could be changed by whichever member of royalty was in power and entire groups of people could be persecuted because of things like their religious beliefs or their ancestry.

    So what did they do? They prepped against the doom by establishing a balanced government where power and responsibility are separated into three distinct branches: the executive branch (the POTUS and entourage), the legislative branch (the House and Senate and their squad), and the judicial branch (the Supreme Court and its posse).

    The point was to make sure that no one branch would ever have too much power over the goings-on in the country. We call this the separation of powers.

    Maybe today, this fear of dictators and despots rushing into the country and turning it into some horrible authoritarian cesspool of unfreedom seems a little extreme. But maybe the reason that it seems so extreme is because our statespeople had the foresight to separate, balance, and limit government everywhere they set it up, making it a lot harder for wannabe tyrants to get their tyranny on.

    Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints: American Democracy

    1. What does each branch of a state's government do? Is there any overlap?
    2. How does the American model of the separation of powers compare with that of other democracies around the world? Pick one or two and get specific on the differences.
    3. If you had to pick one branch of the 1854 Kansas or Nebraska territorial governments to work for, which would you choose and why?
    4. What is "legislating from the bench?" Do you think it's a good thing or a bad thing? Why? Would the authors of the U.S. Constitution agree with you?

    Chew on This

    There was no need to get so down in the weeds with how each branch of government should operate; Kansas and Nebraska would've done fine creating their own anti-tyrannical system with just a rough outline.

    Thank goodness this act was so detailed about each branch of the territorial governments; this definitely helped prevent the new territories from turning into undemocratic dictatorships.

  • Rules and Order

    The Kansas-Nebraska Act is, for all intents and purposes, a chore chart, minus the glitter, gold stars, and that whole "chart" aspect.

    See, the federal government, like a lot of parents, has a set of expectations for its kids—er, states and territories. The expectations themselves might be a little different—like, instead of "keep your room clean," the federal government is more likely to say, "keep your elections clean"—but the premise is the same: the feds say what needs to be done, and the territories need to do it.

    The U.S. Government wasn't necessarily trying to be a helicopter parent here, but they did want to make sure the new territories were set up to succeed. What does that mean? It means that Kansas and Nebraska were (a) aware of the expectations the federal government had for them, (b) given enough information and resources to complete their chores, and (c) clear on which decisions they could make on their own and which decisions required that they ask a grown-up (a.k.a. the federal government) for assistance.

    And, says the federal government, if they're really good and finish everything on the chore chart, maybe Kansas and Nebraska can go out and become real States someday.

    Real States. Talk about the ultimate dangling carrot.

    Questions About Rules and Order

    1. In your opinion, what are the two most important "chores" the federal government assigns the new territories? Why?
    2. What does a population need to do to become a U.S. territory? What does a territory need to do to become a state?
    3. Why do new territories need to be so much like the federal government anyway? Can't they be their own territory and do things the way they want? Not *everyone* has to be exactly like the federal government, right?
    4. Are there any chores that are different for Nebraska than they are for Kansas? If so, what are they and why are they different?

    Chew on This

    New territories need to be shaped and molded by the federal government so they don't grow up to be fascist, tyrannical hoodlums.

    The Kansas-Nebraska Act didn't give the new territories nearly enough freedom to develop their own unique personalities and lifestyles.

  • Manifest Destiny

    "Manifest destiny" is a belief that became popular during the 1840s, and it basically said that America's westward expansion across the continent was inevitable and justified because Americans are awesome. This is how a lot of people explained the whys behind Oregon Territory, California, the whole Indian removal escapade, and pretty much the entire Mexican-American War.

    Sure, American expansion caused all kinds of chaos and despair for Native Americans and played a major role in inciting the upcoming Civil War, but look how much stuff the United States got out of it: the Rockies, the Cascades, Yellowstone, the Badlands, a ton of farmland, a transcontinental railroad…

    That's a lot of stuff.

    Of course, there were debates about the ethics of it all even back then. Among the theory's critics were big names like Ulysses Grant and Abraham Lincoln; among its supporters were folks like James Polk and Andrew Jackson.

    But regardless of where a person stood on the issue, the nation did continue to grow. The Nebraska and Kansas territories included a boatload of land that had been seized after the U.S. won the Mexican-American War. And so, thanks to that war and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the United States was able to officially organize and incorporate all of the land that now makes up the continental 48.

    The United States now had a lot more room to feel its growing pains.

    Questions About Manifest Destiny

    1. Some people thought that manifest destiny should expand beyond the borders of the country's Pacific and Atlantic shorelines. How did that work out?
    2. Put your 21st-century self in 1840s America. Would you support westward expansion? Why or why not?
    3. Compare and contrast the theories of manifest destiny, imperialism, and colonialism. How are they different? How are they similar?
    4. What were the major arguments for and against America's westward expansion?

    Chew on This

    Manifest destiny was just an excuse people used to take a bunch of land that didn't belong to them.

    Manifest destiny played a crucial role in the development of the United States, and we shouldn't lose sight of the benefits it brought.