The Great Plains area west of Missouri and Iowa was a refuge for thousands of Indians, but white settlers learned that these vast expanses offered opportunities for farming and ranching. The natives had no effective champions and would again be forced to give way to the whites' encroachment.
Under the provisions of the Missouri Compromise (1820), the lands of the Louisiana Purchase north of 36° 30' north latitude were to be free of slavery (except for Missouri itself). While this compromise created a solution to the problem in 1820, it was not a template for dealing with such problems forever. As the nation expanded, the new territories tended to attract rugged individuals who opposed slavery. Their opposition was generally not the abstract opposition of the abolitionists but an economic opposition to competition from slave labor.
Stephen A. Douglas, the Democratic senator from Illinois and chairman of the Committee on Territories, introduced a bill in early 1854, dealing with the unorganized lands. Douglas was anxious to see the region developed. Part of his motivation was personal gain — he was a heavy speculator in western lands and also, as a resident of Chicago, supportive of the development of the central route for a transcontinental railroad. Further, an exposure on the national stage might be helpful to his considerable presidential ambitions.
Douglas’ bill succeeded in luring Southern politicians with the following provisions:
The Nebraska Territory was to be divided into two units — Kansas and Nebraska
The question of slavery, which had seemingly been answered, was to be decided by "popular sovereignty"—allowing the territorial legislatures to decide.
The effect of this proposal was to repeal the Missouri Compromise, a prospect that enraged antislavery forces and most Northerners. Not content, the Southern leaders insisted on a formal amendment which specifically repealed the slavery provisions of the compromise.
While some northern Democrats joined Douglas in support of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, others were appalled. Senator Salmon P. Chase wrote an appeal to independent-minded Democrats, urging them to oppose passage:
Nothing is more certain in history than the fact that Missouri could not have been admitted as a slave State had not certain members from the free States been reconciled to the measure by the incorporation of this prohibition into the act of admission. Nothing is more certain than that this prohibition has been regarded and accepted by the whole country as a solemn compact against the extension of slavery into any part of the territory acquired from France lying north of 36° 30', and not included in the new State of Missouri.
Douglas was no more conciliatory in his attitude towards Salmon and others that he felt were willing to risk the union by holding rigidly to a position of principle. He particularly resented the implication that the disturbed attitude of the South was of their own making:
Now, sir, let us pause and consider for a moment. The first time
that the principles of the Missouri Compromise were ever
abandoned, the first time they were ever rejected by Congress, was
by the defeat of that provision in the House of Representatives in
1848. By whom was that defeat effected? By northern votes with
free soil proclivities. It was the defeat of that Missouri
Compromise that reopened the slavery agitation with all its fury.
It was the defeat of that Missouri Compromise that created the
tremendous struggle of 1850. It was the defeat of that Missouri
Compromise that created the necessity for making a new compromise
in 1850. Had we been faithful to the principles of the Missouri
Compromise in 1848, this question would not have arisen. Who was
it that was faithless? I undertake to say it was the very men who
now insist that the Missouri Compromise was a solemn compact, and
should never be violated or departed from.
A bitter debate culminated in May 1854 in a narrow victory for Douglas and the South. President Franklin Pierce signed the measure immediately.
The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act exerted a tremendous impact, which included:
The reopening of the slavery question in the territories with almost immediate tragic results in “Bleeding Kansas”
The president's hope for reelection dashed
The complete realignment of the major political parties
The Democrats lost influence in the North and were to become the regional proslavery party of the South
The Whig Party, which had opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, died in the South and was weakened in the North
A new Republican Party emerged as an immediate political force, drawing in anti-Nebraska Whigs and Democrats.