The Kansas-Nebraska Act: Drawing Borders

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

I know that I promised more posts on violence as a method of social and racial control, but digging into the topic I increasingly felt out of my depth. It will bear more reading that I have yet to do and until I do so I do not feel competent to continue with the subject. Violence, in a similar context, will return soon enough. To get there from here, let’s return to Illinois’ Stephen Douglas, rising in the Senate on Monday, January 23, 1854. Douglas stood to present the latest, and ultimately the final, version of his long-sought bill organizing the Indian country as the Nebraska territory.

Douglas must have been glad to have it all over but the shouting. Just the previous Monday, he had a bill he hoped would appease the proslavery power brokers of the F Street mess. They rejected it. He tried to disguise a new concession to slavery with a clerical error. Along the way he drew fire from his own party and from the opposition for still not giving enough. Douglas gave ground again and then settled the related issue of widely spread, rival communities by splitting the Nebraska territory-to-come into Kansas and Nebraska. He called in heavy artillery in the form of Jefferson Davis and F Street’s own David Rice Atchison to go up to the White House and twist Franklin Pierce’s arm until he agreed, in writing, to support the bill. Not only had Douglas given all he could, he probably gave more than he thought possible. The Little Giant wanted Nebraska that badly. His racial beliefs, his political destiny, his railroad interests, his pocketbook, and the tide of history all aligned for it.

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

Archibald Dixon (Whig-KY)

So Douglas stood up and reported the bill that came out of this ordeal. Speaking for his Committee on Territories, but really for himself and F Street, Douglas told the Senate:

We have prepared our amendments in the form of a substitute to come in lieu of that which we have already reported. We have also incorporated into it one or two other amendments, which make the provisions of the bill upon other and more delicate questions more clear and specific, so as to avoid all conflict of opinions.

The final bill adjusted the territorial boundaries, from Missouri’s southern line at the famous 36°30′ North latitude, up to 38° North. That kept the act from dividing the Cherokee reservation in modern Oklahoma, which had concerned Texas’ Sam Houston. Now the border would run between the Cherokee reservation and the Osage reservation. The bill also excluded from the territories it organized any land that the Indians still had title to until they agreed to give it up. Kansas would have these boundaries:

That all that part of the Territory of the United States included within the following limits, except such portions thereof as are hereinafter expressly exempted from the operations of this act, to wit, beginning at a point on the western boundary of the State of Missouri, where the thirty-seventh parallel of north latitude crosses the same; thence west on said parallel to the eastern boundary of New Mexico; thence north on said boundary to latitude thirty-eight; thence following said boundary westward to the east boundary of the Territory of Utah, on the summit of the Rocky Mountains; thence northward on said summit to the fortieth parallel of latitude, thence east on said parallel to the western boundary of the State of Missouri; thence south with the western boundary of said State to the place of beginning

The United States after the Kansas-Nebraska Act. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

The United States after the Kansas-Nebraska Act. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

Not a huge change, all in all, but the northern boundary made up for it. The original bill, first submitted in the 33rd Congress by Iowa’s Augustus Caesar Dodge, drew its northern line at 43°30′. The modern border between Nebraska and South Dakota runs some distance south of that. Kentucky’s Archibald Dixon pushed for an amendment that expanded the territory all the way to Canada in addition to its large concessions toward slavery. Douglas gave him his vastly expanded Nebraska:

all that part of the territory of the United States included within the following limits, except such portions thereof as are hereinafter expressly exempted from the operations of this act, to wit: beginning at a point in the Missouri River where the fortieth parallel of north latitude crosses the same; then west on said parallel to the east boundary of the Territory of Utah, the summit of the Rocky Mountains; thence on said summit northwest to the forty-ninth parallel of north latitude; thence east on said parallel to the western boundary of the territory of Minnesota; thence southward on said boundary to the Missouri River; thence down the main channel of said river to the place of beginning, be, and the same is hereby, created into a temporary government by the name of the Territory Nebraska

The lines on the map mattered a great deal. But so did what Douglas would permit within them: the potential for slavery.

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