The U.S. Constitution and Slavery
When delegates to the Constitutional Convention assembled in Philadelphia in 1787, one of the more daunting tasks that they faced was resolving sectional differences between the North and South centered on the issue of slavery. After weeks of debate proved futile, the delegates negotiated a series of compromises that enabled them to proceed with their primary assignment of forming “a more perfect Union” between the separate states. In the short term, the compromises regarding the status of slavery established in the Constitution facilitated the creation of the new republic (at the expense of blacks held in bondage), but they also sowed the seeds of turmoil that began coming to fruition as the nation expanded west in the coming decades.
The Northwest Ordinance
At the same time, delegates to the Constitutional Convention set about creating plans for a new government, and representatives to the Congress of the existing government established under the Articles of Confederation were meeting in New York. On July 13, 1787, the Confederation Congress enacted “An Ordinance for the government of the Territory of the United States northwest of the River Ohio,” that stipulated “There shall be neither slavery nor involuntary servitude in the said territory. . . ” That legislation, more commonly known as the Northwest Ordinance, had the effect of establishing the Ohio River as the border separating free and slaves states between the Appalachian Mountains and the Mississippi River. For the next three decades, that boundary forestalled major sectional disputes over slavery.
The Louisiana Purchase
Circumstances changed in 1803 when Napoleon Bonaparte sold President Thomas Jefferson 828,000 square miles of land west of the Mississippi River. In hindsight, the Louisiana Purchase may be seen as a logical progression of the American Westward Movement, but at the time, it created new challenges for the Federal government. In addition to land ownership issues regarding the native inhabitants, Congress eventually was forced to address the subject of slavery in the new territory.
The Missouri Compromise
In 1818, the residents of Missouri petitioned Congress for statehood. An estimated 8,000 to 10,000 slaves lived in the territory at that time. Southerners expected Missouri to be admitted as a slave state, but New York Congressman James Tallmadge introduced an amendment to the Missouri statehood measure that would have gradually ended slavery in the new state. The Tallmadge Amendment initiated a year of acrimonious debate in both houses of Congress. Legislators finally reached a compromise in 1820, admitting Maine as a free state and Missouri as a slave state. Wishing to avoid similar conflicts in the future, Congress also prohibited slavery in the remainder of the former Louisiana Territory, north of the southern border of Missouri (36°30′ north latitude).
The Mexican-American War and The Wilmot Proviso
Although not a perfect solution in the minds of all parties (especially abolitionists), the Missouri Compromise muffled the debate over the extension of slavery in the United States for more than three decades. Things changed in 1846 when the U.S. initiated a war with Mexico that was destined to expand greatly American territorial possessions in the West. Only three months after the war began, Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot inserted a “proviso” into an appropriations bill sponsored by President James K. Polk that was designed to end hostilities by acquiring Mexican territory. Wilmot’s proviso stipulated that, in any land acquired from Mexico, “neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall ever exist in any part of said territory, except for crime . . . .” Although variations of Wilmot’s Proviso were introduced several times in Congress during the next few years, they were never enacted, yet the measure did succeed in fomenting sectional animosities over the issue of the extension of slavery.
The Compromise of 1850
The source of the discord transformed from abstract to concrete in 1848 when Mexico ceded vast tracts of land to the United States, including most of Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado, as well as all of present-day California, Nevada, and Utah. The debate over the future of slavery in those territories widened the schism between Northern and Southern views. As the nation inched toward disunion, Kentucky Senator Henry Clay introduced a series of measures, collectively known as the Compromise of 1850, aimed at resolving the mounting sectional strife. Perhaps the most consequential of Clay’s conciliatory recommendations was a proposal to implement popular sovereignty to determine the future of slavery in the Southwest. First espoused by Michigan Senator Lewis Cass, the concept of popular sovereignty espoused letting the residents of the territories decide for themselves the status of slavery in the area where they lived.
For several months, Congress, the press, and the public at large engaged in heated debates over Clay’s proposals. Finally, Congressional leaders were able to cobble together enough support from the various factions involved, for all of the separate measures to be enacted between September 9 and September 20, 1850. Moderates across the country celebrated the legislation, believing that the Union had been saved. President Fillmore proclaimed a “final settlement” to the sectional differences that plagued the nation. Extremists on both sides of the debate were not so easily convinced. Free Soil Senator Salmon P. Chase of Ohio could have been speaking for both sides when he guardedly observed “the question of slavery in the territories has been avoided. It has not been settled.”
The Kansas-Nebraska Act
Chase was correct. At the same time that the nation was struggling with the slavery issue, settlers and entrepreneurs were clamoring to occupy the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase. “Kansas Fever” was rampant. Before the area could be settled, however, it needed to be organized as a territory so that the government could displace the native population, survey the area, and implement regulations for land ownership.
Congress considered petitions to establish a territory west of the Missouri River as early as 1851 but took no action on the proposals. On December 13, 1852, Representative Willard P. Hall, from Missouri, introduced a bill to organize the Territory of Platte, but his request was not acted upon. William A. Richardson, of Illinois, submitted another bill on February 2, 1853, proposing the establishment of the Territory of Nebraska, encompassing the same area as Representative Hall’s proposal. The House passed Richardson’s bill on February 10 and sent it to the Senate. Illinois Stephen A. Douglas, chairman of the Committee on Territories, introduced the bill in the upper chamber on February 17, but Southern senators, led by David Atchison of Missouri, refused to support the measure if slavery was banned from the territory as required by the Missouri Compromise. In May, the Senate voted to table the bill.
On December 14, 1853, Augustus C. Dodge of Iowa introduced a bill in the Senate proposing the organization of the Territory of Nebraska, covering the same area as the previous House measures. Like its predecessors, Dodge’s motion did not mention the issue of slavery in the new territory. The Senate referred Dodge’s proposal to the Committee on Territories, which Senator Douglas still chaired. The bill that the committee sent back to the Senate on January 4, 1854, included a historic and fateful addition. The amended bill addressed the slavery issue by incorporating the concept of popular sovereignty that was used in the Compromise of 1850. The revision, dramatic as it was, did not mollify Archibald Dixon of Kentucky and other Southern senators who were demanding the repeal of the Missouri Compromise as a condition of organizing the new territory.
Eager to see the new territory established, Douglas had the bill returned to the committee so he could orchestrate a way to appease his southern colleagues. On January 23, 1854, the committee submitted a substitute bill, calling for the organization of two territories separated at the 40th parallel: Nebraska to the North and Kansas to the South. The new measure also stipulated that the section of the Missouri Compromise prohibiting slavery in the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase was “inoperative and void” because it had been “superseded” by the popular sovereignty provisions of the Compromise of 1850. Douglas conveniently, albeit erroneously, maintained that the Compromise of 1850 also applied to the Louisiana Purchase.
The revised bill was debated in the Senate for nearly six weeks. William Seward of New York and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, two unabashed abolitionists, led the opposition to the bill. Beyond their moral objections to extending slavery into the new territories, Seward and Sumner argued that Douglas and his followers had no authority to renege on the Missouri Compromise. The abolition of slavery above the southern border of Missouri, they argued, was the condition to which the South agreed in return for admitting Missouri as a slave state. Sumner’s denunciation of the bill and its southern supporters, particularly South Carolina Senator Andrew Butler, was so vitriolic that Brook’s nephew, Representative Preston Brooks, attacked Sumner on the Senate floor with a cane and beat him into unconsciousness. Not surprisingly, Seward became a martyr in the North, and Brooks was hailed as a hero in the South.
On March 4, 1854, the Senate voted to accept the Kansas-Nebraska Act as submitted by Douglas by a vote of 37 to 14. The House took up consideration of the Senate bill on May 8. After two weeks of angry debate, the lower chamber approved the measure on May 22, by a vote of 113 to 100. Officially entitled “An Act to Organize the Territories of Nebraska and Kansas,” President Franklin Pierce signed the bill into law on May 30, 1854. Alluding to Douglas’s presidential ambitions and small stature, Representative William Cullom, a Tennessee Whig, sarcastically suggested that the legislation should have been entitled “A bill to make great men out of small ones and to sacrifice the public peace and prosperity upon the altar of political ambition.”
Whatever his aspirations or motivations, Douglas believed that the implementation of popular sovereignty would bring the sectional dispute over the extension of slavery to a halt. Instead, the Kansas-Nebraska Act kindled the opposite reaction. Political bickering turned into bloodshed in Kansas as ruffians on both sides of the issue hastened to the new territory in an attempt to influence the vote over slavery. Violence in “Bleeding Kansas” peaked in 1856 when abolitionist John Brown murdered five settlers during the Pottawatomie Creek Massacre, in retaliation for the sacking of the free-soil settlement at Lawrence.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act also accelerated a complete realignment of the political landscape in the United States. The Democratic Party lost most of its support among Northerners and evolved to become the face of pro-slavery forces in the South. Only seven of forty-four Northern Democrats who voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act were reelected when their Congressional terms expired. The Whig Party ceased to exist in the South and began crumbling in the North, to the extent that an amalgam of disaffected Democrats, abolitionists, and Free Soilers coalesced as the new Republican Party. The two-party system that emerged from the turmoil caused by the Kansas-Nebraska Act was one that was divided almost exclusively along sectional lines.
Perhaps the most noteworthy and unforeseen effect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was the reawakening of the political aspirations of a modestly known former congressman from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln. In September and October, Lincoln delivered three speeches in the Prairie State expressing his objections to the legislation, all in direct response to Senator Douglas’s defense of the measure. The speeches served as forerunners to the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. They also enhanced Lincoln’s reputation among Republicans, ultimately enabling him to ascend to the presidency in 1861, inching the nation closer to war.