Congress Passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

After the Compromise of 1850 proved only a temporary solution to the divisive debate on the extension of slavery into U.S. territories, Stephen A. Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act offered another temporary solution. One of the most significant political congressional acts of the nineteenth century, the new law ultimately only accelerated the movement toward civil war.

Summary of Event

When the U.S. Congress passed the Compromise of 1850, it laid aside the argument over the expansion of slavery into the territories only temporarily, even though the compromise seemed to be working successfully during the first two or three years immediately following its enactment. Several events kept the compromise in the public eye, including the seizure in the North of African Americans under the provisions of the Second Fugitive Slave Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 Law (1850), the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Stowe)[Uncle Toms Cabin (Stowe)] Stowe, Harriet Beecher in 1852, and the last of three filibustering expeditions launched from New Orleans in August, 1851, by Venezuelan Narcisco Lopez against Spanish Cuba. Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854[Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854] Congress, U.S.;Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854[Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854] Slavery;and Kansas-Nebraska Act[Kansas Nebraska Act] Nebraska;Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854[Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854] Douglas, Stephen A. [p]Douglas, Stephen A.;and Kansas-Nebraska Act[Kansas Nebraska Act] [kw]Congress Passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act (May 30, 1854) [kw]Passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Congress (May 30, 1854) [kw]Kansas-Nebraska Act, Congress Passes the (May 30, 1854) [kw]Nebraska Act, Congress Passes the Kansas- (May 30, 1854) [kw]Act, Congress Passes the Kansas-Nebraska (May 30, 1854) Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854[Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854] Congress, U.S.;Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854[Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854] Slavery;and Kansas-Nebraska Act[Kansas Nebraska Act] Nebraska;Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854[Kansas Nebraska Act of 1854] Douglas, Stephen A. [p]Douglas, Stephen A.;and Kansas-Nebraska Act[Kansas Nebraska Act] [g]United States;May 30, 1854: Congress Passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act[2990] [c]Laws, acts, and legal history;May 30, 1854: Congress Passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act[2990] [c]Civil rights and liberties;May 30, 1854: Congress Passes the Kansas-Nebraska Act[2990] Atchison, David Rice Dixon, Archibald Chase, Salmon P. [p]Chase, Salmon P.;and Kansas-Nebraska Act[Kansas Nebraska Act] Pierce, Franklin [p]Pierce, Franklin;and Kansas-Nebraska Act[Kansas NebraskaAct] Stephens, Alexander H. [p]Stephens, Alexander H.;and Kansas-Nebraska Act[Kansas Nebraska Act] Sumner, Charles [p]Sumner, Charles;and Kansas-Nebraska Act[Kansas Nebraska Act]

Many people in the United States hoped that the slavery issue would disappear, and the economic pressures of life absorbed the attention of most average citizens. Moreover, no prominent politicians had captured the public’s imagination. Noncontroversial and lackluster candidates were nominated in the presidential campaign Presidency, U.S.;election of 1852 of 1852—Franklin Pierce Pierce, Franklin [p]Pierce, Franklin;election of 1852 of New Hampshire for the Democrats and General Winfield Scott Scott, Winfield [p]Scott, Winfield;election of 1852 for the Whigs Whig Party (American);election of 1852 . The election, which Pierce won, was no more exciting than the candidates. Evidence of the desire of U.S. voters to maintain the status quo was demonstrated further in the poor showing of John P. Hale Hale, John P. of New Hampshire, the candidate of the Free-Soil Party Free-Soil Party[Free Soil Party] . With the Democrats in control and apparently committed to the Compromise of 1850, the United States seemed destined to enjoy at least another four years of relative calm.

In January, 1854, the issue of slavery in the federal territories was reopened when Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, chairman of the Committee on Territories, reported a bill to organize the Platte country west of Iowa and Missouri as the territory of Nebraska. Douglas’s main interest was in opening the West to settlement and to the construction of a transcontinental railroad. He did not wish to reopen the slavery question, and—like his soon-to-be nemesis, Abraham Lincoln—he doubted that slavery could survive on the Great Plains. However, he also realized that he needed southern votes to get his territorial bill through Congress.

In its original form, Douglas’s bill included a provision, similar to that found in the acts organizing the territories of Utah and New Mexico, that the territory itself would determine the question of its status as a slave or free state at the time of its admission. The clause dealing with slavery was intentionally ambiguous, but it probably would have left in effect—at least during the territorial stage—the provisions of the Missouri Compromise that barred slavery in the Louisiana Purchase territory north of 36°30′ north latitude. The ambiguity of the bill bothered southern political leaders, particularly the rabidly proslavery David Rice Atchison Atchison, David Rice of Missouri, who was president pro tempore of the Senate and acting vice president.

Yielding to the pressure of Senator Atchison and other southern leaders, Douglas and his committee added a section to the bill that permitted the people of the territory, acting through their representatives, to decide whether the territory should be slave or free. This “popular sovereignty” formula for dealing with the slavery question implied the repeal of the Missouri Compromise’s restriction on slavery.

However, proslavery leaders were not satisfied with the implicit abrogation of the Missouri Compromise. As Whig senator Archibald Dixon Dixon, Archibald of Kentucky pointed out, under popular sovereignty, the restriction of slavery would remain in effect until the territorial settlers acted to end it. During the interim, immigration of slaveholders into the territory would be prohibited. Proslavery leadership forced Douglas to amend the bill further so as explicitly to repeal that section of the Missouri Compromise Missouri Compromise (1820);and Kansas-Nebraska Act[Kansas Nebraska Act] prohibiting slavery north of 36°30′. In addition, the territory was divided at the fortieth parallel into the two territories of Kansas and Nebraska. Most northerners considered the Missouri Compromise to be a sacred pledge, and its repeal was quite enough to destroy the relative political calm that had been prevalent in the nation since 1850.

Much more was at work, however. The Missouri Compromise had led to the creation of the political party system, utilized by the Democrats and finally adopted by the Whigs Whig Party (American) , under which party loyalty was ensured through the disposition of party and government jobs—a system later known as patronage or the spoils system. Under that system, the tensions created by the Missouri Compromise were to be kept under control, for anyone could be controlled by the promise of employment, according to the assumptions of the new party system. The effect of the party system was to increase the size and scope of federal government operations in every election, because to get elected, candidates had to promise to award more jobs to their supporters than their opponents did. The result for the slavery interests was that the South, slowly but surely, was being placed in a permanent minority status in the Senate and House. If an antislavery president were elected, the newly powerful federal government could act directly on slavery in the South.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act, especially Douglas’s concept of popular sovereignty, offered hope to the South that the dynamic created by the spoils system could be short-circuited. If territories could decide whether or not to permit slavery, then slave interests could flood the new territories with proslavery settlers, who would then vote in favor of slavery, regardless of the attitudes of Congress or the president.

Douglas still had to guide the bill through passage in the face of widespread and violent criticism from the North. The bill was certain of passage in the Senate, although it was the object of impassioned attack by Senators Salmon P. Chase Chase, Salmon P. [p]Chase, Salmon P.;and Kansas-Nebraska Act[Kansas Nebraska Act] of Ohio and Charles Sumner Sumner, Charles [p]Sumner, Charles;and Kansas-Nebraska Act[Kansas Nebraska Act] of Massachusetts. In the House, however, the issue was doubtful, and it was there that Douglas marshaled the power of the Pierce Pierce, Franklin [p]Pierce, Franklin;and Kansas-Nebraska Act[Kansas Nebraska Act] administration to force dissident Democrats into line behind the bill.

By whip and spur, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was driven through the House by a large sectional vote of 113-100 on May 30, 1854. Nearly all southern Democrats supported the measure. All forty-five northern Whigs Whig Party (American);and Kansas-Nebraska Act[Kansas Nebraska Act] opposed it, while thirteen of nineteen southern Whigs, led by Alexander H. Stephens Stephens, Alexander H. [p]Stephens, Alexander H.;and Kansas-Nebraska Act[Kansas Nebraska Act] of Georgia, favored it. The divisiveness of the issue was represented best by the fact that of eighty-six northern Democrats, forty-two voted against it in spite of patronage and other pressures brought to bear by administration leaders. In doing so, the Democrats showed the utter futility of basing a slavery strategy on the spoils system: Ideology proved stronger than economics, and the idea that the national debate over slavery could be contained with the promise of a few jobs was mortally wounded.


The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act had momentous consequences. The act touched off the forces that eventually brought war. It reopened sectional issues and embittered sectional relations by arousing the entire North. It destroyed the Whig Party Whig Party (American);and Kansas-Nebraska Act[Kansas Nebraska Act] in the Deep South and increased southern unity and influence in the Democratic Party. It contributed greatly to the demise of the Whig Party in the North and divided the northern Democrats, inducing many of them to leave the party. Most important, it led to the formation, beginning in 1854, of the Republican Party Republican Party;and Kansas-Nebraska Act[Kansas Nebraska Act] . That party was founded in diametric opposition to the operating principles of the Democratic Party. Instead of holding that economic self-interest took precedence over ideology, the Republicans held that fundamental beliefs mattered more than temporal, material benefits in the long run. The Republicans thus made slavery—the issue that the Democrats and the Whigs refused to touch—the focal point of their campaigns.

On a personal level, Douglas gained little support in the South and lost an important part of his support in the North. Misinterpreting northern sentiment toward this initially innocent piece of legislation, Douglas had opened a political Pandora’s box. Nevertheless, the legislation reflected Douglas’s personal views accurately. He sincerely disliked slavery but thought that it should be regarded as an issue of choice by slaveholders. Therefore, the matter of human bondage was not a moral issue but simply a matter of votes. Douglas could say honestly that he opposed slavery personally, but supported the right of slaveholders to own slaves. Thus, the agony of Douglas and the struggle for Kansas had begun.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gienapp, William E. The Origins of the Republican Party, 1852-1856. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Seminal work that downplays the role of specific events in the success of the Republican Party and emphasizes the competition between the Know-Nothings and the Republicans. Focuses on the collapse of the Whigs and the nativist movements that reflected mass changes at the state levels.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Holt, Michael. The Political Crisis of the 1850’s. New York: W. W. Norton, 1978. Thorough treatment of the era that emphasizes the breakdown of the two-party system as a cause of the Civil War. Downplays economic and cultural factors.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Johannsen, Robert W. Stephen A. Douglas. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. The quintessential biography of Douglas, who introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McPherson, James W. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Era of the Civil War. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988. Broad historical narrative, emphasizing slavery and cultural differences as the causes of the Civil War.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nevins, Allen. A House Dividing, 1852-1857. Vol. 2 in Ordeal of the Union. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1947. Brilliantly written, classic interpretation of sectional differences as the cause of the Civil War. Encompassing people, events, economics, culture, and ideology. Perhaps the best starting place for an understanding of the United States in 1854.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Nichols, Roy Franklin. “The Kansas-Nebraska Act: A Century of Historiography.” Mississippi Valley Historical Review 43 (September, 1956): 187-212. Traditional guide to the historical literature and a concise account of the legislative history and consequences of the act.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Waugh, John C. On the Brink of Civil War: The Compromise of 1850 and How It Changed the Course of American History. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2003. Study of the congressional wrangling among northern abolitionists, southern secessionists, and moderates from both regions during the decade following passage of the Compromise of 1850.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wolff, Gerald. The Kansas-Nebraska Bill: Party, Section, and the Coming of the Civil War. New York: Revisionist Press, 1977. Another interpretation of the Civil War emphasizing party breakdown, but specific to the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Burr’s Conspiracy

Missouri Compromise

Compromise of 1850

Second Fugitive Slave Law

Birth of the Republican Party

Bleeding Kansas

Lincoln-Douglas Debates

Lincoln Is Elected U.S. President

Establishment of the Confederate States of America

Lincoln Is Inaugurated President

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