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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“He was a Northern man who was Southern in his views on race,” explains Finkelman. “He said he didn’t care whether slavery was voted up or down, but most Northerners did care. He may have been the only person in America who didn’t. Many Northerners, and Lincoln is a great example, thought the Missouri Compromise was just a notch below the Constitution as a fundamental part of the American political framework. They saw it as putting slavery on the road to extinction, and that was for them a sacred goal. Kansas-Nebraska betrayed this.” And so, the battle lines were drawn.

Douglas seemed unfazed at first, confident he could undo the damage. He soon discovered otherwise. Speaking in Chicago on behalf of his party to kick off the 1854 Congressional election campaign in Illinois—though he wasn’t on the ballot himself—Douglas was interrupted by “an uproar of shouts, groans and hisses,” reports Johannsen. “Missiles” were thrown, and “to the delight of the crowd, Douglas lost his temper, denouncing the assemblage as a mob and replying to their taunts by shaking his fist, which only intensified the din. . . . ” Douglas put up with the heckling for more than two hours, then angrily strode from the platform. “It is now Sunday morning,” he was said to have shouted back at his tormentors (though some historians doubt that he did). “I’ll go to church, and you may go to hell!”

The ensuing election confirmed the devastating impact of Douglas’ bill on his Democratic party. Opponents of the Kansas-Nebraska Act carried both houses of the Illinois legislature, which at that time still elected U.S. senators, and free-state Democrats lost 66 of their 91 seats in the House of Representatives. Suddenly, the Democrats found themselves a Southern party, one that would be able after 1856 to elect only one president in the remainder of the century.

Meanwhile, Abraham Lincoln, a former one-term congressman nearly five years out of office, had joined the fray. Stumping for Richard Yates, a candidate for Congress in the 1854 election, Lincoln tore into Kansas-Nebraska, calling it “covert real zeal for the spread of slavery.” In so doing, he was directly challenging Douglas, setting the stage for the crucial debates between them four years later that would make Lincoln a national figure. “I was losing interest in politics,” he wrote in a letter in 1859, “when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused me again.” Lincoln was capable of raising the slavery debate to a level at which Douglas seems profoundly disadvantaged, in retrospect (as he wasn’t then), by his obvious disdain for blacks, slave or free. “I care more for the great principle of self-government,” Douglas would one day declare, “. . . than I do for all the negroes in Christendom.” According to his biographer William Lee Miller, Lincoln quoted Douglas as saying that in all contests between the Negro and the crocodile, Douglas was for the Negro, but that in all questions between the Negro and the white man, he was for the white man.

While Douglas viewed popular sovereignty as a bedrock democratic value, Lincoln saw its application to slavery as a callous statement of moral indifference. And he equated revoking the Missouri Compromise with repudiating the Declaration of Independence itself. “Near eighty years ago,” he observed, “we began by declaring that all men are created equal; but now . . . we have run down to the other declaration, that for some men to enslave others is a ‘sacred right of self-government.’”

Though Lincoln’s feelings about what he called “the monstrous injustice of slavery” were sincere, he was no abolitionist, and he felt bound to accept slavery where it existed. He was, like Douglas, a practical man, with whom the Union always came first. He endorsed the spirit of compromise on which it depended, and which he believed Kansas-Nebraska subverted. “And what shall we have in lieu of [this spirit]?” he asked. “The South flushed with triumph and tempted to excesses; the North, betrayed, as they believe, brooding on wrong and burning for revenge. One side will provoke; the other resent. The one will taunt, the other defy; one aggresses, the other retaliates.”

That is precisely what happened. “Any plausible explanation of the failure to find another sectional compromise in 1860-61 would have to include the fact that [trust in such agreements] took a deadly hit with Kansas-Nebraska,” says Forgie. “Why would anyone sign on to a compromise again?” And once awakened, the South’s hope that Kansas might become the 16th slave state took on a tenacious life of its own. When the North proved equally determined to keep Kansas free, the territory turned into a battlefield.

Events quickly took an ominous turn. When New England abolitionists formed the Emigrant Aid Company to seed Kansas with antislavery settlers, proslavery Missourians sensed an invasion. “We are threatened,” an acquaintance complained in a letter to Senator Atchison, “with being made the unwilling receptacle of the filth, scum and offscourings of the East . . . to preach abolition and dig underground Railroads.”

In fact, most emigrants did not go to Kansas to preach anything, much less to dig. As likely to be antiblack as they were antislavery, they went for land, not a cause. Likewise, most proslavery settlers had neither slaves nor the prospect of having any. Yet these distinctions didn’t much matter. Kansas became part of the larger American drama, and the few thousand settlers who made their home in the territory found themselves surrogates, reluctant or not, of the inexorable issues that threatened the Union. “Kansas,” says Forgie, “much like Korea or Berlin in the Cold War, readily took form as the arena in which a battle was being waged for much larger stakes. Which section’s institutions would shape the future of the continent?”

What happened in Kansas has been called a bushwhackers’ war, and it began with a bushwhacked election. Defending themselves against what they saw as Yankee fanatics and slave stealers, thousands of Missourians, led by Senator Atchison himself, crossed the border into Kansas in March 1855 to elect, illegally, a proslavery territorial legislature. “There are eleven hundred coming over from PlatteCounty to vote,” Atchison shouted at one point, “and if that ain’t enough we can send five thousand—enough to kill every God-damned abolitionist in the territory!” When the new legislature promptly expelled its few antislavery members, the disenfranchised Free-Soilers set up their own shadow government.


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