3 minute read

Kansas-Nebraska Act

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (10 Stat. 277) was a significant piece of legislation because it dealt with several controversial issues, including SLAVERY, western expansion, and the construction of a transcontinental railroad.

Slavery was a widely debated divisive issue for many years preceding the Civil War and there were several attempts at conciliation. The first of these was the MISSOURI COMPROMISE OF 1820 (3 Stat. 545), which decided the slavery question in regard to the creation of two new states, Missouri and Maine. The compromise declared that Maine was to be admitted as a free state, while Missouri was allowed to enter the Union with no restrictions regarding slavery. Subsequently, however, Missouri entered as a slave state. The compromise also prohibited the extension of slavery north of the 36°30′ latitude which established the southern border of Missouri.

The COMPROMISE OF 1850 (9 Stat. 452) settled another controversy concerning slavery and instituted the doctrine of popular sovereignty, which permitted the residents of the area to decide the question. When Texas and other new territories were acquired as a result of the Mexican War in 1848, and California sought admission to the Union in 1849, the question again arose concerning the slave status of the new areas. The Compromise of 1850 provided that California be admitted as a free state and that the citizens of the new territories of New Mexico and Utah decide whether their states favored or opposed slavery, pursuant to the doctrine of popular sovereignty.

In 1854, the Kansas and Nebraska territories were the next areas subjected to a dispute over slavery. Senator STEPHEN A. DOUGLAS of Illinois drafted a bill calling for the creation of two states, Kansas and Nebraska, areas he felt were vital to the construction of a railroad to the Pacific coast. The question of slavery in these states would be decided by popular sovereignty. The reasons for Douglas's excessive concern are speculative but include his support of western expansion and his belief that the popular sovereignty doctrine would cause the least dispute; his hope that his business interests would profit by the construction of a transcontinental railroad with a Chicago terminus and a route through the new territories; and his desire to gain favor in the South to garner support for his future presidential aspirations.

In order for the Kansas-Nebraska Act to be effective, it was necessary to repeal the Missouri Compromise and its boundary restrictions on the territorial extension of slavery. The new act was opposed by antislavery forces and subject to bitter dispute in Congress. President FRANKLIN PIERCE and a faction of Southern congressmen supported the bill and influenced its passage.

The provisions of the Kansas-Nebraska Act did not lead to the peaceful settlement of the issue as intended. In Kansas, the antislavery and proslavery proponents disagreed violently, undermining the effectiveness of the popular sovereignty doctrine. Two opposing governments were established, and acts of destruction and violence ensued, including an assault on the antislavery town of Lawrence. In retaliation, abolitionist JOHN BROWN and his followers killed five settlers who advocated slavery. The phrase Bleeding Kansas was derived from this violence.

The Lecompton Constitution of 1857 was drafted based upon the results of a Kansas election

Map of the continental United States labelled The Land Division of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, 1854.

that offered the voters the choice of limited or unlimited slavery. This angered the abolitionists, who refused to vote. President JAMES BUCHANAN approved the Lecompton Constitution and encouraged its acceptance by Congress, but Douglas and his supporters vehemently opposed the admission of Kansas as a slave state. Another election was held in 1858, and the people of Kansas voted against the Lecompton document; three years later, Kansas entered the Union as a free state.


Etcheson, Nicole. 2004. Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era. Lawrence: Univ. Press of Kansas.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Jokes to Robert Marion La Follette