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 The act therefore repealed the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which many Americans considered a ‘sacred pledge’, by allowing slavery above the line established by the compromise.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.
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.
“This will raise one hell of a storm”
– Douglas’s prescient comment after deciding his Kansas-Nebraska Act would repeal the Missouri Compromise