The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was one of the most crucial pieces of legislation in the United States before the Civil War. It set off events leading to the conflict over slavery.
By the early 1850s, settlers and entrepreneurs wanted to move into the area now known as Nebraska. The southern state’s representatives in congress were in no hurry to permit a Nebraska territory because the land was north of where slavery was outlawed by the Missouri Compromise of 1820.
Senator Douglas of Illinois supported the Kansas-Nebraska Act. He wanted Nebraska made into a territory and proposed a southern state inclined to support slavery. The Act allowed each territory to decide on the issue of slavery on the basis of popular sovereignty. Kansas with slavery would violate the Missouri Compromise. The long-standing Missouri Compromise would have to be repealed. Opposition was intense, but ultimately the bill passed in May 1854.
The political effect of the bill was enormous. Passage of the bill irrevocably split the Whig party, one of the two major political parties in the country at the time.
Every northern Whig had opposed the bill. Almost all southern Whigs voted for it. With the emotional issue of slavery involved, there was no way a common ground could be found. Most of the southern Whigs were swept to the Democratic Party. Northern Whigs reorganized themselves with other non-slavery interests to become the Republican Party.
This left the Democratic Party as the only remaining institution that crossed sectional lines intensifying the rift between the north and the south. The North felt that if the compromise of 1820 was ignored, the Compromise of 1850 could be ignored as well.
Source: The Kansas-Nebraska Act
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