Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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KANSAS-NEBRASKA BILL (IN U. S. HISTORY), the act of congress by which the territories of Kansas and Nebraska were organized in 1854. Its political importance consisted wholly in its repeal of the Missouri compromise. (See COMPROMISES, IV.)


—Before the introduction of the bill it did not seem possible for any further question to arise as to slavery in the United States. In the several states slavery was regulated by state law; in the Louisiana purchase both sections had in 1820 united to abolish slavery in the portion north of latitude 36° 30', ignoring the portion south of it; all the southern portion, outside of the Indian Territory, was covered soon afterward by the slave state of Arkansas; and in the territory afterward acquired from Mexico both sections had united in 1850 in an agreement to ignore the existence of slavery until it could be regulated by the laws of the states which should be formed therefrom in future. Every inch of the United States seemed to be thus covered by some compromise or other. (See COMPROMISES.)


—The slavery question was in this condition of equilibrium when a bill was passed by the house, Feb. 10, 1853, to organize the territory of Nebraska, covering, also, the modern state of Kansas. It lay wholly within that portion of the Louisiana purchase whose freedom had been guaranteed by the Missouri compromise, and the bill therefore said nothing about slavery, its supporters taking it for granted that the territory was already free. In the senate it was laid on the table, March 3, the affirmative including every southern senator, except those from Missouri; but their opposition to the bill came entirely from an undefined repugnance to the practical operations of the Missouri compromise, not from any idea that that compromise was no longer in force. If it had been repealed by the compromise of 1850, those most interested in the repeal do not seem to have yet discovered it in 1853.


—During the summer of 1853, following the adjournment of congress, the discussion of the new phase, which the proposed organization of Nebraska at once brought about in the slavery question, became general among southern politicians. The southern people do not seem to have taken any great interest in the matter, for it was very improbable that slave labor could be profitably employed in Nebraska, even if it were allowed. The question was wholly political. The territory in question had been worthless ever since it was bargained away to secure the admission of Missouri as a southern and slaveholding state; but now immigration was beginning to mark out the boundaries of present territories and potential states, which would, in the near future, make the south a minority in the senate, as it had always been in the house, and perhaps place it at the mercy of a united north and northwest. To prevent this result it was of importance to southern politicians, 1, that, if the Missouri compromise was to endure, Nebraska should remain unorganized, in order to check immigration and prevent the rapid formation of another northern state; 2, that, if the Missouri compromise could be voided, Nebraska should at least be open to slavery, for the same purpose as above, since it was agreed on all hands that free immigration instinctively avoided any contact with slave labor; and 3, that, if slave labor could possibly be made profitable in Nebraska, the territory should become a slave state, controlled by a class of slave owners in full sympathy with the ruling class of the southern states. The last contingency was generally recognized as highly improbable; one of the first two was the direct objective point.


—When congress met in December, 1853, the southern programme, as above stated, had been pretty accurately marked out. It was not a difficult task to secure the support of northern democrats for it. because the latter had for five years been advocating the right of the people of New Mexico to decide the status of slavery in that territory. (See POPULAR SOVEREIGNTY.) The only step backward that was necessary was to accept the application of the doctrine to all the territories, whether south or north of latitude 36° 30. The excuse for this backward step was thus stated by Douglas in his report of Jan. 4, 1854: "The Nebraska country occupies the same relative position to the slavery question as did New Mexico and Utah when those territories were organized." A wrong premise: for the difficulty in the case of New Mexico and Utah had arisen entirely from the fact that the status of slavery in them was unsettled, and could not be settled without a struggle; while in the case of Nebraska the struggle was rightfully over, and the status of slavery fixed. Congressional action was directed, in the former case, toward an amicable adjustment of the dispute, and in the latter case, toward a needless reopening of the dispute; and yet the assumed parallelism of the two cases was absolutely the only justification ever offered by Douglas and the Douglas democracy of the north for their introduction and support of the Kansas Nebraska bill. They seem to have been forced into it by their constitutional arguments in support of "squatter sovereignty"; after arguing that congress had no constitutional power to prohibit slavery in New Mexico in 1850, it seemed difficult for them, without stultifying themselves, to argue in favor of the power of congress in 1820 to prohibit slavery in Nebraska. They seem to have forgotten that the compromise of 1850 was confessedly not based upon constitutional grounds at all, but was a purely political decision, based upon expediency; that the constitutional objections to the power of congress to prohibit slavery in a territory applied equally to the power of congress to prohibit a territorial legislature from legislating for or against slavery, and so struck at the very root of the compromise of 1850 itself; and that the expediency which counseled them to refrain from meddling with the slavery question in New Mexico and Utah as imperatively counseled them to refrain from disturbing the settlement of the slavery question in Nebraska.


—Dec. 15, 1853, in the senate, A. C. Dodge, of Iowa, offered a bill to organize the territory of Nebraska, but his bill, like the one of the preceding session, made no reference to slavery. Jan. 4, 1854, it was reported with amendments by Douglas, chairman of the committee on territories. The report endeavored to make out a parallel between New Mexico and Nebraska by comparing the Mexican abolition of slavery in the former case with the act of 1820 in the latter case; it remarked that in either case the validity of the abolition of slavery was questioned by many, and that any discussion of the question would renew the excitement of 1850; and it recommended, though not directly, that the senate should organize the new territory without "either affirming or repealing the 8th section of the Missouri act, or [passing] any act declaratory of the meaning of the constitution in respect to the legal points in dispute." But the report stated the basis of the compromise of 1850 as follows: "that all questions pertaining to slavery in the territories, and in the new states to be formed therefrom, are to be left to the decision of the people residing therein, by their appropriate representatives, to be chosen by them for that purpose." This was, in the first place, incorrect, since the New Mexico and Utah acts left no such power to the territorial legislature (see POPULAR SOVEREIGNTY), and, in the second place, not pertinent, since it was an attempt to expand an act of congress, passed for a particular purpose, into a great constitutional rule which was to bind subsequent congresses. Jan. 16, Dixon, of Kentucky, gave notice of an amendment abolishing the Missouri compromise in the case of Nebraska. This was the first open signal of danger to the Missouri compromise; and on the following day Summer, of Massachusetts, gave notice of an amendment to the bill, providing that nothing contained in it should abrogate or contravene that settlement of the slavery question. Douglas at once had the bill recommitted, and, Jan. 23, he reported, in its final shape, the Kansas-Nebraska bill, which, in its ultimate and unexpected consequences, was one of the most far-reaching legislative acts in American history.


—The bill divided the territory from latitude 37° to latitude 43° 30' into two territories, the southern to be called Kansas, and the northern Nebraska; the territory between latitude 36° 30' and 37° was now left to the Indians. In the organization of both these territories it was declared to be the purpose of the act to carry out the following three "propositions and principles, established by the compromise measures of 1850": 1, that all questions as to slavery in the territories, or the states to be formed from them, were to be left to the representatives of the people residing therein; 2, that cases involving title to slaves, or personal freedom, might be appealed from the local tribunals to the supreme court; and 3, that the fugitive slave law should apply to the territories. The section which extended the constitution and laws of the United States over the territories had the following proviso: "except the 8th section of the act preparatory to the admission of Missouri into the Union, approved March 6, 1820, which, being inconsistent with the principles of non-intervention by congress with slavery in the states and territories, as recognized by the legislation of 1850, commonly called the compromise measures, is hereby declared inoperative and void; it being the true intent and meaning of this act not to legislate slavery into any territory or state, nor to exclude it therefrom, but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to the constitution of the United States." With the exception of these two novel features, the bill was the usual formal act for the organization of a territory. An amendment offered by Chase, of Ohio, allowing the people of the territory to prohibit the existence of slavery therein, if they saw fit, was voted down, 36 to 10. It is difficult to see any reason for the affirmative vote, since the Chase amendment was strictly in the line of "popular sovereignty," but it was probably due in part to a general distrust of any amendment coming from the anti-slavery element, and in part to the idea that the closing words above given, "subject only to the constitution of the United States," excluded the Chase amendment and made popular sovereignty unilateral in the territories, with authority to permit slavery, but not to prohibit it. March 3. 1854, the bill passed the senate by a vote of 37 to 14. In the affirmative were fourteen northern democrats, and twenty-three southern democrats and whigs; in the negative were eight northern antislavery senators. free-soilers or "anti-Nebraska men" (see REPUBLICAN PARTY), Bell, southern whig, Houston, southern democrat, and Hamlin, of Maine, James, of Rhode Island, and Dodge and Walker, of Wisconsin, northern democrats—The bill was not taken up in the house until May 8, and was passed May 24, by a vote of 113 to 100. The affirmative vote included forty-four northern democrats, fifty-seven southern democrats, and twelve southern whigs, the negative vote included forty-four northern democrats, two southern democrats, forty-four northern whigs. seven southern whigs, and three free-soilers. May 30, the Kansas Nebraska bill was approved by the president, and became law.


—The effects of the bill upon the parties of the time are else where referred to. (See DEMOCRATIC PARTY, V.; WHIG PARTY, III.; REPUBLICAN PARTY. I.; AMERICAN PARTY.) They may be summarized as follows: 1, it destroyed the whig party, the great mass of whose voters went over, in the south to the democratic, and in the north to the new republican party; 2, it made the democratic party almost entirely sectional, for the loss of its strong anti-slavery element in the north reduced it in the course of the next few years to a hopeless minority there; 3, it crystallized all the northern elements opposed to slavery into another sectional party, soon to take the name of republican; and 4, it compelled all other elements, after a hopeless effort to form a new party on a new issue, to join one or the other sectional party. Its effects on the people of the two sections were still more unfortunate: in the north, it laid the foundation for the belief, which the Dred Scott decision was soon to confirm, that the whole policy of the south was a greedy, grasping, selfish desire for the extension of slavery; in the south, by the grant of what none but the politicians had hitherto asked or expected, the abolition of the Missouri compromise, it prepared the people for the belief that the subsequent forced settlement of Kansas by means of emigrant aid societies was a treacherous evasion by the north of the terms of the Kansas-Nebraska bill. In other words, the Kansas-Nebraska bill, and still more the Dred Scott decision which followed it, placed each section in 1860, to its own thinking, impregnably upon its own peculiar ground of aggrievement: the north remembered only the violation of the compromise of 1820 by the Kansas- Nebraska bill, taking the Dred Scott decision as only an aggravation of the original offense; the south, ignoring the compromise of 1820 as obsolete by mutual agreement, complained of the north's refusal to carry out fairly the Kansas-Nebraska bill and the Dred Scott decision. (See also FUGITIVE SLAVE LAWS.) And all this unfortunate complication was due entirely to Stephen A. Douglas' over-zealous desire to settle still more firmly and securely a question which was already settled.


—On the other hand, it is but fair to give Douglas' grounds for his action, as reported by Cutts (cited below). Having shown the imperative necessity for immediate organization of the two territories, he proceeds as follows (italics as in original): "If the necessity for the organization of the territories did in fact exist, it was right that they should be organized upon sound constitutional principles; and if the compromise measures of 1850 were a safe rule of action upon that subject, as the country in the presidential election, and both of the political parties in their national conventions in 1852, had affirmed, then it was the duty of those to whom the power had been intrusted to frame the bills in accordance with those principles. There was another reason which had its due weight in the repeal of the Missouri restriction. The jealousies of the two great sections of the Union, north and south, had been fiercely excited by the slavery agitation. The southern states would never consent to the opening of those territories to settlement, so long as they were excluded by act of congress from moving there and holding their slaves; and they had the power to prevent the opening of the country forever, inasmuch as it had been forever excluded by treaties with the Indians, which could not be changed or repealed except by a two-thirds vote in the senate. But the south were willing to consent to remove the Indian restrictions, provided the north would at the same time remove the Missouri restriction, and thus throw the country open to settlement on equal terms by the people of the north and south, and leave the settlers at liberty to introduce or exclude slavery as they should think proper." All this is certainly of very great force, but only as a statement of the problem which was to be solved mainly by Douglas and the northern democracy, and not, as Douglas evidently takes it, as a justification of the particular solution which was adopted. (See, further, DRED SCOTT CASE, SLAVERY, SECESSION, UNITED STATES.)


—See Congressional Globe, 33d Congress, 1st Session, 221; Greelcy's Political Text Book, 79; Claskey's Political Text Book, 346; 3 Spencer's United States, 504; Cutts' Treatise on Party Questions, 91; 2 Stephens' War Between the States, 241; Buchanan's Administration, 26; Botts' Great Rebellion, 147; Benton's Examination of the Dred Scott Decision, 156; Harris' Political Conflict, 155; 1 Draper's Civil War, 417; 1 Greeley's American Conflict, 224; New Englander, May, 1861; Giddings' Rebellion, 364; 2 Wilson's Rise and Fall of the Slave Power, 378; Cairnes' Slare Power. 115; Schuckers' Life of Chase, 134; authorities under KANSAS, and other articles above referred to; Theodore Parker's Speeches, 297. The act is in 10 Stat at Large, 277.


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