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 The act therefore repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which many Americans considered a ‘sacred pledge’, by allowing slavery above the line established by the compromise.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

January 6th 1853: Franklin Pierce’s train accident

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Franklin Pierce (1804 – 1869)

On this day in 1853, the President-elect of the United States Franklin Pierce and his family were involved in a train accident in Massachusetts. Pierce and his wife saw their young son Benjamin decapitated before their eyes and both subsequently sank into deep depression. Benjamin was the couple’s last surviving child, the rest had died young. Pierce’s depression over his son’s death and the distance it had created between him and his wife severely affected his performance as President. The 14th President is commonly regarded as one of the worst in US history, especially due to his failure to deal effectively with the slavery issue which would, in a few years, divide the nation in two during the Civil War.

 

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Benjamin and Jane Pierce

“How I long to see you and say something to you as if you were as you always have been (until these last three dreadful weeks) near me. Oh! How precious do those days now seem, my darling boy – and how I should have praised the days passed with you had I suspected they might be so short”
– extract from one of Jane Pierce’s letters to her late son

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One of the letters Jane wrote to her late son ‘Benny’ after his death