Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, hoping to lure transcontinental railroad developers away from lands acquired via the Gadsden Purchase, proposed instead to build the line farther north, so that the railway would end in Chicago and give his home region a huge economic boost. But federal law required that the vast unorganized areas in the middle of the country first be carved into official territories before any track could be laid.
To do so, Douglas rammed the Kansas-Nebraska Act through Congress in 1854 to create two new territories—Kansas in the South and Nebraska in the North. According to the Missouri Compromise of 1820, both territories would have to be free because they were north of the 36˚ 30' line. But Douglas, aware that Southern legislatures would never approve two new free territories, declared instead that popular sovereignty would determine whether Kansas and Nebraska would be free or slave. In doing so, he hoped to strengthen his bid for the presidency in 1856 by winning support from Southern Democrats.
Because popular sovereignty had worked in the Compromise of 1850, Douglas assumed that the doctrine would work in the unorganized territories as well. Privately, he believed that slavery would never take hold in Kansas and Nebraska because the terrain was unsuitable for producing cotton. Popular sovereignty, then, was merely a carrot to appease the South. Douglas thus figured the act would please both the abolitionists in the North and slave owners in the South, bring development to Chicago, and increase his chances for the party’s nomination in 1856 without really changing anything.
But Douglas’s plan backfired. Southerners—Democrats and Whigs alike—jumped at the opportunity to open Northern territories to slavery, but Northerners recoiled, outraged that the Missouri Compromise had been violated. Riots and protests against the Kansas-Nebraska Act erupted in Northern cities.
What Douglas had failed to realize was that most Northerners regarded the Missouri Compromise to be almost sacred. The publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the brutal enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act had by this time awakened hundreds of thousands in the North to the horrors of slavery. Even those who benefited from Southern slavery, such as textile manufacturers, did not wish to see slavery expand further west or north. The Kansas-Nebraska Act succeeded only in shifting Northern public opinion even further away from reconciliation with the South.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act also caused the collapse of both the Whig and Democratic parties. The parties split according to section: to pass the act through Congress, Southern Whigs voted with Southern Democrats against their Northern counterparts for the first time in history. The Whigs were never able to reunite after this catastrophic divide. The Democrats survived, but Northern Democrats lost over half their seats in Congress that year.
After the Kansas-Nebraska Act, thousands of people moved into the territory. Most of them were simply westward-moving farmers in search of better land, but others swarmed there in an attempt to tip the balance in the impending decision about Kansas’s free/slave status. Thousands of proslavery Missourians crossed the state line into Kansas when they learned that popular sovereignty would determine the fate of slavery. They grabbed as much land as they could and established dozens of small towns. These “border ruffians” also rigged unfair elections, sometimes recruiting friends and family in Missouri to cross over into Kansas and cast illegal ballots. Others voted multiple times or threatened honest locals to vote for slavery. Afraid that Kansas would become the next slave state, Northern abolitionists flocked there too and established their own Free-Soil towns. Both factions even went so far as to establish their own territorial capitals.
Inevitably, the two groups clashed. In one incident, a hotheaded band of proslavery settlers burned the Free-Soil town of Lawrence, Kansas. In retaliation, the deranged John Brown and his own antislavery band killed five border ruffians in the Pottawatomie Massacre. Neither Brown nor any of his followers were ever tried for their crimes. Within a few months, Kansas was plagued by marauding violent factions. This rampant lawlessness and bloodshed earned the territory the nickname “Bleeding Kansas.”
Blood was also spilled over Kansas on the Senate floor when Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner brutally with his cane. Brooks had grown so incensed over the antislavery speech Sumner had delivered the previous week that he decided to take vengeance on his own. The beating nearly killed Sumner, who was forced to leave the Senate for several years to receive medical treatment. Brooks was hailed as a hero in the South but vilified in the North.
Americans were still divided over the Kansas issue as the election of 1856 approached, so parties nominated Kansas-neutral candidates in the hopes of overcoming the growing sectionalism. The Whig Party had by this time dissolved into Northern and Southern factions and was unable to agree on a candidate. Northern Whigs instead united with Free-Soil Party members and Unionist Democrats to form the new Republican Party and nominate adventurer John C. Frémont. Democrats, on the other hand, rallied behind the relatively unknown James Buchanan. Whereas Frémont ran on a platform expressly opposed to the westward expansion of slavery, Buchanan campaigned for popular sovereignty. The nativist Know-Nothing Party also entered ex-president Millard Fillmore in the race, campaigning on a platform to stem the influx of Irish and German immigrants. In the end, Buchanan defeated his rivals soundly.