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The Kansas-Nebraska Act turned peaceful prairies into battlegrounds.

It can be argued that the Civil War actually began in 1854 when blood stained the prairie grass of the Kansas Territory. The American vs. American bloodshed started because of two words: popular sovereignty, the idea at the heart of the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act.

The crisis that enveloped Kansas had its origins in the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which banned slavery from the Louisiana Purchase above the 36 degree/30 minute line. Many Americans believed that compromise was permanent.

But when the time came to organize the Purchase lands of Kansas and Nebraska into territories, Stephen A. Douglas, a long-term Democratic senator from Illinois, introduced legislation that tossed the Missouri Compromise out the window by stipulating that settlers could exercise popular sovereignty and take a vote to determine whether the territories would be slave or free.

The concept of popular sovereignty threw the country into turmoil. Southerners, of course, backed the proposal, while Northerners felt betrayed by Douglas and feared that “slave power” was once again dominating federal legislation.

Douglas had to know he was playing with fire, so why would he want to get rid of 36/30? The senator hoped the fledgling town of Chicago would be picked as the railhead for the proposed Transcontinental Railroad. Advocating the concept of popular sovereignty was one way to get Southern support for that.

Douglas also believed that the Kansas and Nebraska territories were unsuited to grow plantation crops, and therefore slavery would never take root on the prairie. But the reality hardly mattered; the idea alone of involuntary servitude north of Missouri was enough to cause furor.

After months of debate, Douglas’ proposal became law, and lawfulness promptly disappeared in Kansas as pro- and antislavery forces quickly moved in and began battling to swing the territory to their respective sides.

“Bleeding Kansas” soon entered the country’s nomenclature as violence escalated. Both sides established capitals—proslavers at Lecompton and “Free State” supporters at Lawrence. Abolitionist organizations began to sponsor settlers into the territory, none more notorious than “Captain” John Brown. After a May 21, 1856, attack on Lawrence by proslave forces, Brown and his followers raided the proslave settlements along Pottawatomie Creek, hacking the victims up with Army surplus swords purchased by their abolitionist backers.

Federal troops finally quelled the violence, but not until after at least 50 settlers had died. Finally after four state constitutions had been put to a referendum, Kansas entered the Union as an antislavery state on January 29, 1861. The more thinly populated Nebraska Territory escaped the bloodshed of its neighbor and became a state after the war.

The impact of the Kansas-Nebraska Act did not end with statehood, however. John Brown escaped Kansas after the massacre, but he used his “fame” to continue attracting abolitionist funds and reappeared at Harpers Ferry in 1859. The pattern of sectarian violence that started in 1854 led directly to the gruesome wartime guerrilla conflict in Kansas and neighboring Missouri.

Stephen Douglas’ political career was never quite the same after 1854. His act weakened the Democratic Party and divided it into Northern and Southern wings. He remained a power in Illinois, but the controversy eventually cost him the presidency.

A fellow Illinoisan, a lawyer who had given up on politics, would have much to do with shortening Douglas’ career. That lawyer was so disgusted by the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the potential for slavery’s expansion that he decided to once again enter the political fray.

Douglas would get the chance to meet the unintended consequence of his legislation head on when he debated Abraham Lincoln in 1858 over the issue of popular sovereignty in the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates.


Originally published in the July 2009 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here