Before beginning a discussion about the Kansas-Nebraska controversy, it is useful to point out that there were sectional and other political problems brewing. For example, one cannot ignore the role played by Stephen Douglass nor the current economic situation in the South. Because of Douglas and his incredible miscalculations about the way parties and states would react to his proposal, the entire country was thrown into chaos, both politically and socially. It is also important to mention that the times leading up to Douglas and his proposal were important in terms of the national economy. Slavery was profitable for the South as well as the North due to the promise of a transcontinental railroad was foremost on many minds, especially in the North.
This double-fold situation helped create a climate for sectional and other tensions well before the proposal regarding Kansas was even put forth. In addition to these problems, sectional tensions has been heightened after the Compromise of 1850 engaged people in even more debates about slavery. For a while, this compromise caused the North to think that it had attained a victory and led to some peace among northerners for a while the South stewed over its losses. The North, however, was reminded of the power of the federal government within the realm of slavery with the introduction of the Fugitive Slave act, which again only served to increase sectional debates and conflict.
The main purpose of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act was to open up lands that had once been Indian territory to new settlers under the banner of popular sovereignty. In proposing this, Douglas of course reopened questions about where slavery could exist. In hindsight, many of his aims were quite selfish and it is clear that he did not understand what this act might truly entail. For a politician who was aspiring to one day become president, Douglas was far more concerned with the way his decision would influence both parties to be on his side in the future election. It seemed reasonable at first, after all, he was fulfilling the “admirable” aim of expansionism, which would in turn please those who were looking forward to the development of the transcontinental railroad. On the other hand, he also needed the support of the South as these territories were incredibly important. It probably made a great deal of sense to Douglas to appeal to both parties and it is clear that he did not look ahead to see the potential heightening of sectional conflicts.
The bad decisions on the part of Douglas are not so simply defined and neither are the reactions of the parties. For instance, under the banner of popular sovereignty, Democrats were behind him because they found his presentation of the idea appealing (without thinking clearly about the ultimate result.) The Northerners who backed the idea also were influenced by their blind wish for expansion of the railroad while failing to see that this would introduce even more potent questions about slavery. Actually, with the introduction of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, no one seemed to understand the full implications if the Missouri Compromise was changed and slavery was allowed. As a final result, the influx of slave-holding settlers from Missouri clashed with the new influx of settlers from the East. These two groups of settlers who so diametrically opposed that the violence that broke out should have been foreseen.
In addition to the violence in Kansas (which eventually spread) the political situation created by the deep rifts after the Kansas-Nebraska Act were even further enhanced. The parties who had been at least somewhat cohesive found themselves split in half, with the North and Southern interests on either side. Great anger was present, especially with the people of the North and the Southern response to this anger (as well as the political climate in general) sparked outrage in several metropolitan areas and by the end, completely ripped the party system to shreds. It was this severe political disruption that eventually led the South to secede and it would not be for many years that these conflicts between North and South were resolved. Furthermore, it seems quite easy to suggest that without the controversy over the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the Civil War might never have taken place. Because of the almost instant political disruption and the debate over new lands with so many interests vying for a top position, the South’s withdraw seemed the only solution. While some could argue that there was already enough tension before this event that war would be inevitable, it is more reasonable to state that because of the political breakdown, any chances of mediation or a brokered peace would have been impossible. Although it is quite controversial to state this, given the evidence in “Out of Many” the Kansas-Nebraska act was, in many ways, the first “shot” fired before the South even ever seceded.
Other essays and articles in the History Archives related to this topic include : Overview of the Reconstruction Era • Slavery in America’s South : Implications and Effects • American History Since 1865: Major Events and Trends • The Emancipation Proclamation: Savior or Rhetoric? • Analysis, Review, and Summary of Jesse James, Last Rebel of the Civil War by T.J. Stiles