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[Detail] The Night Before Christmas by Clement C. Moore.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

Settlement of the Kansas and Nebraska territories was important to establishing a transcontinental railroad and promoting western development. Slave states, however, opposed the admission of free territories while free states objected to the establishment of slavery in these areas. Senator Stephen Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 attempted to appease both sides of the debate by allowing the people living in the areas to decide the slavery issue at the polls.

A search on the terms, Kansas and Nebraska, yields evidence of the race that ensued between abolitionist and proslavery forces to populate the territories when the bill became law in May 1854.

The emigrant guide, Kanzas and Nebraska (1854), notes that it was created to promote “the great enterprise of settling Kanzas at once . . . to open a nobler field for effort than any public undertaking which has called upon our energies for many years,” (page iv).

The arrival of armed bands from the neighboring slave state of Missouri countered the arrival of abolitionist recruits and quickly divided the territory into two clear factions. In the first election in Kansas in March 1855, popular sovereignty was stifled by voting irregularities when residents from Missouri voted illegally, helping to produce twice as many votes as there were registered voters. The Border Ruffian Code in Kansas (1856) provides an example of the laws “notoriously forced upon the people of that Territory, at the hands of invading ruffians from Missouri, using the persuasive arguments of the Bowie-Knife and Revolver,” (page 1).

Between 1855 and 1857, the territory produced three constitutional drafts (one barring slavery and two supporting it) that were ultimately rejected by voters. In 1859, a fourth constitution barring slavery was finally ratified and Kansas was admitted as the thirty-fourth state in the Union two years later (but only after Southern states had seceded).

  • Why do you think that abolitionist and proslavery forces were so invested in the issue of slavery in the territories?
  • Do you think that it was a wise idea to use popular sovereignty as a way to determine whether a territory should permit or abolish slavery?
  • What do you think that these groups considered to be at stake in the Kansas and Nebraska territories?
  • How did the situation in Kansas and Nebraska reflect larger, national problems?