May 30th 1854: Kansas-Nebraska Act passed

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The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 (source: http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=28)

 

On this day in 1854, the US President Franklin Pierce signed the Kansas-Nebraska Act into law. This controversial law was designed to settle the question of whether the remaining unorganised land gained from the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 would enter the Union as slave or free states. Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois – who would gain later fame for his Senate race against Abraham Lincoln in 1858 which gave rise to the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates – was the architect of the law. It provided that the slavery question would be settled by the principle of popular sovereignty – the settlers themselves would determine slavery’s fate. The act therefore repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which many Americans considered a ‘sacred pledge’, by allowing slavery above the line established by the compromise. Douglas pushed the law as he wanted to secure a Transcontinental Railroad which would have its Eastern terminus in Chicago, and did not think slavery would be able to take root in the less fertile land of the West. He failed to foresee the problems over popular sovereignty that would arise, such as how and when to determine the slavery question.

 

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Stephen Douglas, architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (1813 – 1861)

 

The bill passed Congress after a sharply sectional vote, with most Northerners voting against it and most Southerners for it, before it was approved by Pierce. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was immediately controversial, contributing to the collapse of the Whig party, the birth of the Republican party, the entrance of Abraham Lincoln into politics, the rise of fear of the ‘Slave Power’ conspiracy in the North and the rush of settlers to Kansas which resulted in the bloody warfare of ‘Bleeding Kansas’ between pro-slavery and anti-slavery settlers. Due to these sectional animosities stirred by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, it is considered a pivotal moment on the road to the Civil War.

 

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Republican cartoon from the 1856 election depicting the violence during Bleeding Kansas as Missourians crossed the border into Kansas to cast fraudulent pro-slavery ballots. Note the way Douglas on the far left is scalping a freesoil settler – evoking imagery of the supposed savagery of Native Americans (source: http://loc.harpweek.com/LCPoliticalCartoons/IndexDisplayCartoonLarge.asp?SourceIndex=Topics&IndexText=Kansas&UniqueID=14&Year=1856)

 

“This will raise one hell of a storm”
– Douglas’s prescient comment after deciding his Kansas-Nebraska Act would repeal the Missouri Compromise

March 28th 1854: Britain and France declare war on Russia

 

On this day in 1854 in a pivotal moment of the Crimean War, Britain and France declared war on Russia. This conflict originated in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars when Europe tried to rebuild and ensure future stability. One of the concerns was the crumbling Ottoman-Turkish empire, known as the ‘sick man of Europe’. The Russians planned to carve up the European part of Turkey, but Turkey objected and eventually declared war. The war was also prompted by debates over the rights of Christians in the Holy Land, which was under Ottoman control. Britain and France, each with their own interests in the preservation of the Ottoman regime, also joined the war when Russian troops failed to withdraw from the Russo-Turkish border. The allies decided to land in the Crimea to assault the Russian naval base at Sevastopol in order to gain the Black Sea.

 

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Lithograph by William Simpson showing the conditions of sick and wounded during Crimean War. Florence Nightingale became famous for her nursing work during this war (source: Wikipedia)

 

The siege took far longer than expected, and made Crimea the primary front of the war. The Crimean war was characterised by poor military leadership on both sides and a failure to adapt tactics to modern weaponry. The Battle of Balaclava in October saw the infamous British ‘Charge of the Light Brigade’, a frontal assault against Russian artillery. Eventually Sevastopol fell, the Russians were defeated, and the war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Paris in March 1856.

 

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Map of the Black Sea area during the Crimean War (source: http://www.emersonkent.com/map_archive/crimean_war_1853.htm; credit: University of Texas at Austin. From Cambridge Modern History Atlas, 1912)

 

 

On the 160th anniversary of this event, the Crimean War has never seen so significant. Once considered an oddity, a blip, the war no-one remembers from history class, now it is all anyone can talk about. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which until recently was an autonomous region of Ukraine, has sparked international tensions reminiscent of the Cold War era. The United Nations has recently declared illegal the vote Crimea took in favour of joining Russia, fuelling claims that the election results are suspicious, especially as Russia had troops stationed in the area. Russia has received international condemnation for the action, with many states claiming they have violated international law by invading a sovereign state. The G8 leaders have become the G7, suspending the summit which was planned to take place in Russia and shunning their once peer. The whole situation carries disturbing memories of the Cold War, with the Western and Eastern blocs watching each other warily as each expands their sphere of influence. The Crimea crisis is still developing, and it is a prime example of when understanding of the history is key to understanding the present.