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The Law that Ripped America in Two

One hundred fifty years ago, the Kansas-Nebraska Act set the stage for America's civil war

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Abolitionist John Brown—failed businessman, sometime farmer and fulltime agent, he believed, of a God more disposed to retribution than mercy— rode into the PottawatomieValley in the new territory of Kansas on May 24, 1856, intent on imposing “a restraining fear” on his proslavery neighbors. With him were seven men, including four of his sons. An hour before midnight, Brown came to the cabin of a Tennessee emigrant named James Doyle, took him prisoner despite the pleadings of Doyle’s desperate wife, and shot him dead. After butchering Doyle and two of his sons with broadswords, the party moved on to kill two other men, leaving one with his skull crushed, a hand severed and his body in Pottawatomie Creek.

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In a sense, the five proslavery settlers were casualties not merely of Brown’s bloody-mindedness but also of a law described by historians William and Bruce Catton as possibly “the most fateful single piece of legislation in American history.” Ironically, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, passed by Congress 150 years ago this month (100 years to the week before the landmark Supreme Court decision—Brown v. Board of Education—barring school segregation), was meant to quiet the furious national argument over slavery by letting the new Western territories decide whether to accept the practice, without the intrusion of the federal government. Yet by repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had outlawed slavery everywhere in the Louisiana Purchase north of Missouri’s southern border (except for Missouri itself), the new law inflamed the emotions it was intended to calm and wrenched the country apart.

As a result of the legislation’s passage, resentments became bloody hostilities, the Democratic Party lay shattered, a new Republican Party was created and an Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln embarked on the road to the presidency. Had the law made civil war unavoidable? “I’d put it this way,” says historian George B. Forgie of the University of Texas. “Whatever the chances of avoiding disunion before Kansas-Nebraska, they fell dramatically as a result of it.”

The author of the bill—officially called “An Act to Organize the Territories of Nebraska and Kansas”—was Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois, eclipsed in history by his rival Lincoln, but for most of his lifetime a figure of far greater national consequence. Short-legged and barrelchested, with a head disproportionately large for his body, the 5-foot-4 Democrat, known to admirers as the Little Giant, was a gifted, dynamic, rough-mannered man who seemed destined to be president. Ferocious in debate (the author Harriet Beecher Stowe likened his forensic style to “a bomb . . . [that] bursts and sends red-hot nails in every direction”), he first ran for Congress at age 25 against Lincoln’s law partner, John T. Stuart. (Douglas lost by 36 votes.) Douglas biographer Robert W. Johannsen reports that Stuart once became so incensed at Douglas’ language that he “tucked him under his arm, and carried him around the Springfield markethouse. Douglas, in return, gave Stuart’s thumb such a bite that Stuart carried the scar for many years afterward.”

Douglas was equally combative in Congress. An avid backer of the Mexican War of 1846-48, he looked forward, if not to an American empire, at least to a republic spanning the continent. But his ambitions could hardly be realized by a nation at war with itself. The problem, as always, was slavery. As the boundaries of the nation moved westward, threatening the tenuous balance of power between slaveholding states and free states, Congress had struck the bargains needed to keep the Union intact without confronting the issue of slavery head-on. One accommodation had followed another, but time was not on the side of evasion. Observes historian Paul Finkelman of the University of Tulsa: “As Lincoln said in his second inaugural address, ‘all knew that this interest’—slavery— ‘was somehow the cause of the war.’ That ‘interest’ was not likely to go away peacefully. Sooner or later the American people had to come to terms with it.”

Mildly opposed to slavery in principle, Douglas regarded the issue as more a dangerous distraction than a fundamental obstacle to the Republic’s survival. White America’s destiny, in his view, was to extend its domain from the Atlantic to the Pacific, not to agonize over the dubious rights of those he considered his racial inferiors. With that perspective in mind, he had helped arrange the historic Compromise of 1850, which admitted California to the Union as a free state while placing no restrictions on slavery in the new territories of Utah and New Mexico. Voters there would decide for themselves whether or not to permit slavery, and the principle would be known as popular sovereignty. But four years later Douglas had a different agenda. Early in 1854, hoping to open the way for a railroad linking California with Illinois and the East, he wanted Congress to approve the establishment of the NebraskaTerritory in the vast wilderness west of Missouri and Iowa. Douglas had sought such approval before, but lacked the Southern votes to get it. Further bargaining would now be necessary, and the stakes this time would include the Missouri Compromise, for more than 30 years the foundation of federal policy regarding the expansion of slavery. If Nebraska were organized with the compromise in place, it would be slave-free and slave-state Missouri would be bordered on three sides by free states and territories. Missouri’s influential—and rabidly proslavery—senator, David Atchison, had a problem with that; he wanted Nebraska opened to slavery, and vowed to see it “sink in hell” if it were not.

Thus began a delicate negotiation in which Douglas, who had once described the Missouri Compromise as “a sacred thing, which no ruthless hand would ever be reckless enough to disturb,” searched for a politic way of disturbing it—something short of outright repeal. But his would-be Southern allies, fearing that any ambiguity about the compromise’s survival would discourage slaveholders from moving to Nebraska, wanted it struck down unequivocally. Douglas was reluctant, but finally agreed. “By God, sir,” he is said to have exclaimed to Kentucky senator Archibald Dixon, “you are right. I will incorporate it into my bill, though I know it will raise a hell of a storm.”

He was right about that. Even as he saw his bill through the Senate (it now called for the division of Nebraska into two territories, one of them Kansas) and an uneasy House of Representatives, vilification rained from the pulpit, the press and a Congressional vanguard of outraged Free-Soilers, as those who opposed slavery’s extension were known. At one point the Senate received a petition 250 feet long and signed by more than 3,000 New England clergymen urging the bill’s defeat “in the name of Almighty God.” Douglas detested abolitionists and sought in vain to cast the protests as the work of extremists.

There was, in fact, a growing antipathy in the North toward slavery. Moreover, observes Forgie, “the upending of a permanent deal naturally antagonizes people disadvantaged by it, and [Kansas-Nebraska] fed existing worries that the slaveholding class was bent on extending its power nationally, with the goal of ultimately destroying republican institutions. Also, the law seemed to promise the movement of blacks into areas Northern whites had assumed were to be reserved for them.”

Though Douglas later observed that he could have made his way from Boston to Chicago “by the light of my own effigy,” he was not about to be intimidated. He was, after all, a practical man, and he saw Kansas-Nebraska as a practical bill. By transferring authority over slavery from Congress to the territories themselves, he believed he was removing a threat to the Union. Nor did he think it likely that slavery would spread from the 15 states where it existed to the areas being opened for settlement. But when it came to judging public feeling on the issue, the senator was, unhappily, tone-deaf.

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