1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act Leads to Bloodshed
The controversy over slavery was tearing America apart in the 1850s and complicating the application of two territories—Kansas and Nebraska—that wanted to enter the Union. Rather than tackle the slavery issue directly, Congress instead passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 with a “popular sovereignty” provision, which said that settlers in those two territories could decide for themselves whether to allow slavery.
This angered abolitionists, because the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had specified that slavery would not be allowed in territories north of the 36 degrees, 30 minutes latitudinal line (as both Kansas and Nebraska were). The slave states rejoiced in the repeal of the Missouri Compromise’s restriction on the spread of slavery. On May 30, 1854, President Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law.
As a consequence, the Kansas Territory became a battleground to determine if Kansas would enter the Union as a free or slave state. Each side attempted to flood the territory with residents who would vote according to their preference on the slavery question. New England abolitionists settled there to further their cause, while the pro-slavery forces relied upon Missourians who slipped across the border to establish a temporary presence during voting. The violence between the two sides led to the nickname “Bleeding Kansas,” and was a precursor to what the entire nation would soon suffer.
On the night of May 24, 1856, an obscure 55-year-old abolitionist named John Brown and a small band of followers committed the Pottawatomie Massacre in Kansas, killing five pro-slavery men and increasing tension and hostility in the area. John Brown became a fanatical leader of the anti-slavery movement, culminating in the raid on Harper’s Ferry that shocked the nation and was seen by many as a warning of what was to come. Some saw Brown’s fanaticism as the inevitable result of the violence in Kansas. Upon his execution on Dec. 2, 1859, John Brown was condemned by some as a terrorist, and hailed by others as a martyr in the cause of freedom.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act was a failure. It did not ease tensions between pro- and anti-slavery forces—it only led to bloodshed, and seven years later the catastrophe it was supposed to prevent happened anyway, when the Civil War erupted in 1861.
The following two newspaper editorials, both printed on the day the Kansas-Nebraska Act became law, show how far apart the North and South were on the issue of the spread of slavery—and specifically the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The first editorial, by a Southern newspaper, applauds the Act’s repeal of the Missouri Compromise’s restriction on slavery, referring to “the odious enactment of 1820.” By contrast the second editorial, by a Northern newspaper, laments the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, calling it “a solemn compact, which, for more than a third of a century, has consecrated by common consent, that vast territory to freedom.”
This editorial was published by the Georgia Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) on May 30, 1854:
The long agony is over. The Nebraska-Kansas bill passed the House on Monday the 22nd inst., by a majority of thirteen votes, and will doubtless receive the speedy concurrence of the Senate. Men not habitually conversant with the press of the North, can form no idea of the intense excitement which has prevailed north of the Potomac, from the instant when the measure was first proposed, up to the period of its final passage. While we of the South have remained almost passive, the Northern masses have been agitated by a popular fury to which the excitement attendant upon the Compromise measures of 1850, was as a zephyr to a hurricane. Those Northern Representatives who have gallantly upheld the bill, have been subjected to every species of insult, and insolence, and Mr. Douglas, its author and ablest advocate, has been put under the ban of excommunication from a thousand Puritan pulpits, and laden with blasphemous curses innumerable, from a chain of canting conventicles reaching from Maine to Wisconsin. The Colleges of the North have sounded with anathemas against the bill, Professors of Divinity have threatened to take up their muskets immediately upon its passage, the press has teemed with publications of the most incendiary character, the masses themselves have responded to the call, and, in short, throughout the entire North, the hostility to the bill has manifested itself in outbursts of the most excited character. Nevertheless, the bill has passed. There was still enough of courage and patriotism at the North to resist the tide of fanaticism. After a most protracted debate, marked by exhibitions of the most unruly violence, there were found a sufficient number of Northern men to stand firm to the right and ensure its passage. All honor to them for it. All honor to the forty-one [correction: 44—ed.] Northern Democrats who upheld the bill, and let the whole South cry shame upon the Northern Whig party, which could furnish not one who was willing to do her justice.
The excitement at the North will for a time be convulsive. The Congregational prayer meetings will tremble with passion. The Bacons, the Beechers, and the Sillimans will utter prolonged howls of baffled rage. The Times and the Tribune will contain column after column of impotent fury. The people themselves will for a time be moody and discontented. But the storm is too violent to be of long duration. The thunder will be loud, the lightning vivid, and the whole sky black, but the elements will soon grow weary of the strife—the tempest will subside—and a clearer, purer, and fresher atmosphere will be the consequence of the storm. The same species of fury attended the annexation of Texas—the veto of the National Bank—the Compromise of 1850—and other measures of great public interest. But after all, we see that the country is still tolerably well to do, and likely to do better. The sober second thought of the North will come in due time—the good sense of the people will reassert itself—and ultimately, they will not only acquiesce in the great Constitutional principle on which the bill is founded, but they will even delight to honor the very men whom they now burn in effigy and consecrate to political damnation.
We congratulate the South upon the passage of the bill. Not that we have gained any really practical or tangible advantage, but that we have been enabled to repeal the odious enactment of 1820, and to reassert the true spirit and meaning of the Constitution.
It has retarded other legislation for an unusual period, and we are glad that it is at last out of the way. Congress will now have time to look into the Soule correspondence, and provide for the speedy acquisition of Cuba. The quicker, the better!
This editorial was published by the Daily Atlas (Boston, Massachusetts) on the front page of its May 30, 1854, issue:
The Duty of the Free States
The passage of the Nebraska bill, in the face of the general evidences of the strongest popular opposition, the abrogation of a solemn compact, which, for more than a third of a century, has consecrated by common consent, that vast territory to freedom, can be regarded in no other light than as a flagrant breach of the public faith and a high-handed defiance of the manifest wishes of the people. It has been called for by no section of the country. The South have not asked for it. The North have overwhelmingly demonstrated their opposition. Yet the voice of the people has not been heeded. Their plainly expressed wishes have been disregarded, and this great wrong has been consummated. The House of Representatives, if left to their own free action, would have rejected, by a decided majority, this obnoxious measure, and would have rightfully reflected the wishes and views of the country. But they—or rather a controlling portion—have been tampered with, intimidated and corrupted. The one-man power of the White House has defied and insulted the popular will, and has seduced forty-four of the people’s Representatives and fifteen Senators [correction: 14 free state senators voted in favor of the Act—ed.], into a betrayal of their trust. The faithful minority in both Houses of Congress, who represent the views and wishes of an overwhelming majority of the people, relaxed no effort on their part to prevent, so long as prevention seemed even possible, this breach of the public faith. They have been overborne, and it now becomes the imperative duty of the free States to meet the emergency which has been forced upon them, as becomes freemen. The rights of the free States have been wantonly violated. A sacred compact, forced upon the North by the slave States, and most reluctantly submitted to by them, has been perfidiously annulled. Northern interests have been betrayed by false and corrupted Senators and Representatives. Northern feelings have been, without provocation, without cause and without excuse, disregarded and insulted. No alternative has been left but to submit to the outrage and the wrong that is sought to be perpetrated, or to assert our manhood by courageous, vigorous, and it may yet be, by a successful resistance, to this attempted introduction of slavery into territory that has been consecrated to freedom by a solemn covenant for more than a third of a century. The final passage of the law now makes it the imperative duty of the free States to prevent its adoption from being made available for the spread of human servitude.
In order to secure freedom to these territories, two ways are yet open, which not all the corruption of government, nor all the treachery of Northern dough-faces, nor all the grasping perfidy of the dishonored and faithless Southern agitators can close, if Northern freemen prove but true to themselves, to their country and to freedom, in the pending struggle. The first is, an earnest, resolute, persistent determination to secure the repeal of this violation of a solemn compact; the other is free emigration to both territories.
…Let but the free States do their duty, and meet the issue forced upon them by this wanton violation of good faith—this unprovoked attack—and this triumph of the slave power shall yet prove a barren victory.
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