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Kansas-Nebraska Act

Kansas-Nebraska Act

Kansas Territory was officially established on May 30, 1854, when President Franklin Pierce signed into law the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Congressional debate on the act continued discussion of the question of whether or not slavery would be allowed to expand into newly opened territories. The act provided that each territory would decide the issue through the constitution under which it would enter the union. Kansas Territory, because of its proximity to Missouri, a slave state, became a political and literal battleground for proslavery and antislavery forces. Contested elections, armed conflict, and recruitment of support from settlers with sympathies to the North and the South contributed to the label “Bleeding Kansas.” The battle for Kansas was also waged in the halls of Congress, the national press, and elsewhere in the country where people gathered to discuss or debate the issues of the day. 

The Kansas-Nebraska Act set in motion a plan that was supposed to decide the Kansas question through a peaceful, democratic process. The nation was ready to expand into the vast interior that had previously been reserved, for the most part, for American Indian peoples. At mid-century, however, the era’s two great themes, westward expansion and sectionalism, were frequently at odds, and a new plan to facilitate American growth seemed necessary. The principle of “popular sovereignty,” some believed, offered the solution. First introduced as a method for dealing with the issue of slavery’s expansion in the West after the Mexican War (Compromise of 1850), the popular sovereignty approach was incorporated into the Kansas-Nebraska bill in 1854. Just let the people decide, said Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois and other supporters of popular sovereignty. The act they passed decreed that “when admitted” the new state or states “shall be received into the union with or without slavery, as their constitution may prescribe at the time of their admission.”

Many, including Presidents Franklin Pierce and James Buchanan, appeared to believe this approach would work. They assumed Nebraska would enter the Union as a free state and Kansas, which shared its eastern border with the slave state of Missouri, would be proslavery. However, timing and geography made Kansas the battleground for a clash between two increasingly antagonistic forces—those who opposed slavery and those who favored it, or at least held pro-Southern views on the subject.

Soon after its creation, settlers from both the South, including Missouri, and the North came to Kansas. Many from the South supported slavery or for political reasons wanted Kansas counted among the states that favored slavery. Those from the North generally opposed slavery in Kansas. Election fraud, intimidation, and some violence resulted, when the two sides began to contest the territory. Because partisans inside and outside Kansas exaggerated the clash of arms for their own political advantage, the territory gained a violent reputation. The turmoil in Kansas contributed to the growing tension between the North and the South, which eventually led to the outbreak of the Civil War.

Territorial era primary sources from the Kansas Historical Society are available online in the Bleeding Kansas portion of Kansas Memory and on a cooperative web site (Territorial Kansas Online) with the Kansas Collection, University of Kansas.

Entry: Kansas-Nebraska Act

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: April 2010

Date Modified: May 2015

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.