The Kansas-Nebraska Act: Slavery

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas’ final version of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, formerly just the Nebraska Act, began much the same as his earlier version had. The land covered grew to reach Canada, shrank a bit on its southern end, and he split the territory in two. The language F Street repudiated lived on in section one, establishing Nebraska Territory. The territory, excluding Indian lands not ceded to the United States, would

be, and the same is hereby, created into a temporary government by the name of the Territory Nebraska; and when admitted as a State or States, the said Territory or any portion of the same, shall be received into the Union with without slavery, as their constitution may prescribe at the time of the admission

Section nineteen copied that language, previously used for Utah and New Mexico in 1850, precisely for Kansas. That alone would have displeased many northerners, since it implied that lands reserved to freedom by the Missouri Compromise could have slavery instead. Both Utah and New Mexico did eventually institute slave codes under the aegis of that language. But it had not satisfied F Street, Phillip Phillips, or Archibald Dixon. Douglas’ later concessions came elsewhere, in section fourteen for Nebraska and section thirty-two for Kansas, both with the following language:

A contemporary map of the territories. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

A contemporary map of the territories. (Via Wikimedia Commons)

That the Constitution, and all Laws of the United States which are not locally inapplicable, shall have the same force and effect within the said Territory of Nebraska as elsewhere within the United States, except the eighth section of the act preparatory to the admission of Missouri into the Union approved March sixth, eighteen hundred and twenty, which, being inconsistent with the principle of non-intervention by Congress with slaves in the States and Territories, as recognized by the legislation of eighteen hundred and fifty, commonly called the Compromise Measures, is hereby declared inoperative and void; it being the true intent and meaning of this act not to legislate slavery into any Territory or State, nor to exclude it therefrom, but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form an regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to the Constitution of the United States: Provided, That nothing herein contained shall be construed to revive or put in force any law or regulation which may have existed prior to the act of sixth March, eighteen hundred and twenty, either protecting, establishing, prohibiting, or abolishing slavery.

As before, Douglas tried to sell the country on the idea that Congress had, apparently without proslavery men, antislavery men, or Stephen Douglas himself noticing at the time, adopted a new national policy on slavery in the territories four years earlier. Yes, the Little Giant would strike down the sacred Missouri Compromise. But the nation could not blame him, as it had and toasted just that in 1850. That Congress had long reserved to itself the power to include or banish slavery from the territories, a precedent going all the way back to the Northwest Ordinance no longer mattered. Nor did the fact that as late as the year before even proslavery radicals saw the Missouri Compromise as inviolate and in 1850 they put forward extending it as a suitable way to settle the fate of the Mexican Cession.

To satisfy anxious Missouri slaveholders, even of popular sovereignty failed to deliver them a slaveholding Kansas, sections eight and nine for Nebraska and twenty-seven and twenty-eight for Kansas applied the Fugitive Slave Act to the territories:

A cartoon condemning the Democrats for forcing slavery down a free soiler's throat.

A cartoon condemning the Democrats for forcing slavery, in the person of a black man, down a free soiler’s throat.

That the provisions of the act entitled “An act respecting fugitives from justice, and persons escaping from, the service of their masters,” approved February twelfth, seventeen hundred and ninety-three, and the provisions of the act entitled “An act to amend, and supplementary to, the aforesaid act,” approved September eighteenth, eighteen hundred and fifty, be, and the same are hereby, declared to extend to and be in full force within the limits of the said Territory of Kansas.

In the end, Douglas’ bill did not simply create an opening in the Missouri Compromise for slavery to slip through. It did not create some kind of plausible deniability for the Little Giant or other northern politicians to support the bill and say they did it without endorsing slavery. Under the ministrations of Phillip Phillips and F Street, the Kansas-Nebraska Act repudiated the Missouri Compromise in very nearly the most extreme way possible. Only by mandating slavery for the territories or expanding the bill’s remit to include the territories of Minnesota, Oregon, and Washington could it have done more.

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