The Kansas-Nebraska Act
In January 1854, Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois
proposed a bill to organize Nebraska (part of the Louisiana Purchase)
as a territory, in order to facilitate the building of a transcontinental
railroad along a northern route from Chicago to the West. Because the
Nebraska Territory lay above the 36º30' line, set by the Missouri
Compromise to disallow slavery, Nebraska would automatically become
a candidate for admission as a free state. Southerners therefore
planned to oppose the bill unless Douglas made some concessions.
To ensure passage of the bill, Douglas yielded to Southerners
who desired to void the Missouri Compromise’s 36º30'
line. He inserted in his Nebraska bill an explicit repeal of the
Missouri Compromise so that no territory would be automatically
designated non-slaveholding. As an alternative, the bill declared
that the slavery issue in the Nebraska region would be decided by
popular sovereignty, thus extending the Compromise of 1850’s concept
of popular sovereignty to territories outside New Mexico and Utah.
Douglas further divided the Nebraska Territory into two parts: Nebraska
to the west of Iowa, and Kansas to the west of Missouri. Many assumed
that this meant Kansas would be reserved for slavery and Nebraska
for free soil. With these concessions attached, the bill passed
through Congress and became law in May 1854.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act effectively nullified
the Missouri Compromise and opened up the Nebraska and Kansas territories
to popular sovereignty.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act, however, did not stave off sectional
conflict. Because Nebraska was likely to prohibit slavery, as a
territory above the 36º30' line, Kansas became a battleground for
sectional interests. Both Northern abolitionist groups and Southern
interests rushed into the territory to try to control the local
elections. In March 1855, during the first election of the territorial
legislature, thousands of pro-slavery inhabitants of Western Missouri
crossed into Kansas to tilt the vote in favor of slaveholding interests.
Because of the election fraud perpetrated by these “border ruffians,”
a pro-slavery government swept into power. This new government immediately
ousted antislavery legislators and set up a pro-slavery constitution
known as the Lecompton Constitution.
In opposition to the new legislature, abolitionist John
Brown led a massacre of five men at a pro-slavery camp, setting
off an outbreak of violence. More than 200 people died in the ensuing
months of violence, earning the territory the nickname Bleeding
Kansas. Three years later, in 1859, Brown led an even larger
antislavery revolt in Virginia, when he attempted to seize federal
arsenal at Harpers Ferry in order to arm a massive
slave uprising. His raid was unsuccessful, however, and he was caught
The Dred Scott Decision
Distraught by the violence of Bleeding Kansas, President James
Buchanan, who was elected in 1856, sought a judicial resolution
to the issue of slavery’s extension. A case he saw as potentially
providing such a resolution was that of Dred Scott, in which Scott,
a Missouri slave, sued for his freedom on the basis that his owner
had taken him to live in a free state (Illinois), and later a free
territory (Wisconsin). In March 1857, Chief Justice Roger
B. Taney delivered the majority opinion on Dred
Scott v. Sandford.
To begin his ruling, Taney stated that Scott, as a slave,
had no right to sue in federal court, and further claimed that no
black, whether slave or free, could become a citizen of the United
States. Slaves were property only, according to Taney, and would
remain property even if they resided in free territory. Furthermore,
Taney ruled that Congress could not forbid slavery in any U.S. territory
because doing so would violate the Fifth Amendment’s protection
of property, including slaves, from being taken away without due
process. This decision rendered the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional
(though the Compromise had already been effectively nullified by
the Kansas-Nebraska Act). Taney further suggested that the Compromise
of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act were unconstitutional, since
they enforced popular sovereignty, which allowed territorial governments
to prohibit slavery and therefore violated the Fifth Amendment as
interpreted by the Court. Though Buchanan initially had hoped that
the Dred Scott ruling might resolve the debates
about extending slavery, it actually aggravated sectional tensions. Northerners
harshly condemned the ruling, while Southerners celebrated it.
The Dred Scott decision ruled the Missouri Compromise
unconstitutional, and affirmed the status of slaves as simple property.
Further, the decision cast serious doubt upon the legality of the
Compromise of 1850.