Stephen Douglas’s faith that democratic self-government on the American frontier would create a spontaneous order of lawful and virtuous communities, especially in the face of divisive issues like slavery, was disastrously misplaced and played a significant role in starting the Civil War.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act passed 165 years ago this past spring, and as cannons roared on Capitol Hill to celebrate its passing, over the next four years cannons and rifles popped across the Kansas prairies in a bloody frontier war in its wake. Few congressional actions have led to disastrous consequences like those caused by the Act and its passage marked a significant worsening of sectional tensions on the road to civil war. Yet Kansas-Nebraska also remains one of the most idealistic laws ever passed by Congress, disastrously so. Its assumptions about popular sovereignty and the framework for workable self-government, much of it trumpeted by the law’s creator Stephen Douglas, were brutally exposed in the open spaces of the West. “Bleeding Kansas” revealed the high costs of disordered liberty.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act began at the junction of railroads and slavery. A bill organizing the last remaining unorganized territory comprising the Louisiana Purchase was inevitable by 1854. In fact, what was more remarkable was that it took until 1854. Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois agitated for its organization for a decade, as had railroad interests in Chicago (with which he had intimate political and financial connections) and other cities anxious to develop those lands and begin building a line to the Pacific. In fact, an organizational bill barely failed in Congress in 1852, and everyone knew it was coming back, especially with President Franklin Pierce’s interest in purchasing Mexican territory to allow a southern pacific railroad. Not yet imagining more than one transcontinental line, Midwesterners feared Pierce’s Gadsden Purchase would end their dream of being the Pacific railroad terminus. The Pierce Administration began preparing as well, by sending railroad surveyors and Indian commissioners into the territory to begin preliminary steps toward territorial status. Thus, when Senator Douglas offered another organizational bill in January 1854, no one was surprised.

How Senator Douglas proposed to organize the territory in relation to the prickly problem of slavery was unknown. Slavery posed difficulties here, in what was loosely called the Nebraska or “Platte” territory, because it lay north of the famous 36-30 line set by the 1820 Missouri Compromise – no territory or future state north of that line could have slavery. But since 1820 other states and territories (those lands acquired by the Mexican Cession in the far west) entered the Union via the 1850 Compromise’s principle of “popular sovereignty” – settlers would be able via peaceful collaboration and the ballot box to shape their own laws, structures, and institutions.

The principle was not new in American politics. It lay at the heart of Democratic Party orthodoxy handed down from Jefferson and Jackson to their antebellum party progeny, that the American common man was fit to govern himself. As one historian described it,

[P]opular sovereignty was very much a product of the Jacksonian era, for it reflected the democratic anarchy that exalted unrestrained individual initiative over privilege and institutions. Jacksonian intellectuals turned to mass democracy as a means of sweeping away the vestiges of traditional authority because they believed that the common man in his natural, untutored state was a direct recipient of the divine message.

The 1848 Democratic presidential nominee Lewis Cass called popular sovereignty “an inalienable right of the people, consecrated by the blood of our fathers, and hallowed by the effection[sic] of their sons.” Douglas took up Cass’s mantle in the 1850s, becoming identified with the principle. “[W]henever you put a limitation on the right of any people to decide what laws they want, you have destroyed the fundamental principle of self-government,” he declared. Douglas called it “the great fundamental principle that the people are the source of all power.” Popular sovereignty represented boundless confidence in citizens’ ability to shape and define their own lives without restriction.[1]

Thus by 1854, the United States had two territorial policies in place: 36-30 barring slavery forever in what remained of Jefferson’s Purchase, and popular sovereignty in territories of the Mexican Cession. Both systems had their advocates. Northern Whigs and many Northern Democrats supported maintaining the old 36-30 line as a promise of future “free states” and looked upon the 1820 compromise as holy writ. Southern Democrats and many Southern Whigs considered the 1820 act an unconstitutional insult to Southern institutions and pressed for its removal. Instead, they looked with greater hope toward the 1850 popular sovereignty principle as giving them “equal rights” in the territories. Douglas faced the dilemma of attracting votes for Nebraska organization in the face of two territorial systems each with strong sectional support.

Initially, Douglas structured his Nebraska Bill without mentioning repeal of the Missouri Compromise line, asserting only that the territory would be organized via the 1850 popular sovereignty principle. But this was not enough, since lack of explicit repeal would combine both the 1820 and 1850 acts; slaveholders could not bring slaves into a territory until a pro-slavery state constitution was adopted. But if no slaves were allowed into a territory because of 36-30, it would never become a slave state. Kentucky Whig Senator Archibald Dixon then inserted an amendment into the Nebraska Bill explicitly repealing the 36-30 line. Southern Democrats, not wanting to appear less hostile to the 36-30 line than their Whig opponents and unenthusiastic about helping Chicago acquire the Pacific railroad, also pressured Douglas for repeal of the Missouri line. It soon became clear that the Nebraska bill would fail if Southern members of Congress remained unsatisfied. Douglas had to make a deal.

Douglas now introduced a new organizational bill, named the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, that repealed the 36-30 line outright as inconsistent with the 1850 Compromise measures, introduced popular sovereignty into the territory, and divided up lands west of Missouri and Iowa into two new territories: a larger Nebraska to the north (bordering almost entirely on free state Iowa and the free territories of Minnesota and Oregon), and a smaller Kansas to the south (bordering entirely on slave state Missouri, the Indian reserve eventually to become Oklahoma, and the popular sovereignty territories of Utah and New Mexico). Although settlement patterns and railroad development helped determine this division, many antislavery northerners interpreted it as an attempt to create a Kansas slave state. The last three slave states admitted to the Union were Arkansas (1836), Florida (1845), and Texas (1845). Over that same period four free states had been admitted – Michigan (1837), Iowa (1846), Wisconsin (1848), and California (1850) – and two more territories would become free states before decade’s end, Minnesota (1858) and Oregon (1859). Antislavery northerners would not accept entry of another slave state into the Union or acquiesce to overturning the 1820 Missouri Compromise, and a bitter congressional fight broke out.

At this point, President Pierce began to play a role, since Douglas had not yet confided with him. Pierce had not originally supported repeal of the 36-30 line, although privately he thought it unconstitutional and doomed to be overturned by the courts. “The President had not advised [repeal], directly or indirectly,” Sidney Webster, Pierce’s private secretary, remembered. Pierce thought it politically wiser to write popular sovereignty into the organizational bills but refer all slavery questions which arose thereafter to the Supreme Court, a track Pierce’s successor James Buchanan attempted in 1857. With southerners pushing repeal and Pierce reticent, Douglas had no choice but to solicit the president’s support for his new Kansas-Nebraska Bill.[2]

Pierce never conducted public business on Sundays, so an emergency meeting was scheduled. War Secretary Jefferson Davis arranged that he, along with Douglas, and a group of five southern senators and congressmen met with the President in the White House library. Pierce treated the entourage coldly and warned them, “Gentlemen, you are entering a serious undertaking, and the ground should be well surveyed before the first step is taken.” After a long discussion, he reluctantly backed Douglas’ bill, made Kansas-Nebraska an administration measure, and insisted that all Democrats support passage. Both houses of Congress approved the bill and Pierce signed it into law in May 1854.[3]

Pierce receives tremendous criticism from historians for backing Kansas-Nebraska, but it is important to remember the political context. The vulnerable Douglas needed the President’s support for the bill else it would fail, and the President needed votes to pass a host of other bills dear to his administration over the next three years, including the Gadsden Treaty which had just arrived on his desk. These two men were also united by one salient fact: the 1852 Democratic platform, upon which Pierce was elected, promised to uphold the 1850 popular sovereignty principle. The Kansas-Nebraska Act reflected Jeffersonian ideals on self-government – ideals Pierce shared – and brought consistency to American territorial policy, rather than the patchwork quilt policy of 1850-1854. If Pierce opposed the bill, he would have spurned the project of the most powerful Democrat in the United States next to himself and invited a Senate showdown between Northern Democrats, Western Democrats like Douglas, and Southern Democrats caught in between. Sidney Webster explained the dilemma: “If the Senate stood by Douglas on the Kansas issue, and the Administration had thrown its influence for the dozen Whigs and Free Soilers in the Senate resisting the Douglas plan, Pierce would have ruptured the Democratic party then and there, and thereby elected Fremont in 1856.” Considering the political realities facing him, Pierce had little choice.[4]

The blame lay with Stephen Douglas in not foreseeing the Act’s violent fallout or its theoretical shortcomings. Upon passage, a guerilla war fired up in Kansas, coming to a peak in the “Bleeding Kansas” year of 1856. Corruption, ballot fraud and illegal voting, bullying and threats at the polls, and stolen elections typified territorial politics in these years. Most infamous, the Brown family hacked five pro-slavery Missouri farmers to death with swords, in what became known popularly as the Pottawatomie Massacre. One hundred and fifty-seven-people people were killed in the Kansas Territory from 1854-61, one third of whom fell due to political and slavery disputes, the rest in land squabbles and crime.[5]

While the number appears tiny compared to the hysterical journalistic coverage given Kansas, largely driven by Republican newspapers like the New York Times aiming to derail the Pierce and Buchanan Administrations, the episode also exposes the problematics of popular sovereignty. Popular sovereignty, the mechanism of democratic self-government, succeeds when it approximates the limits of human nature and ensures the presence of firm, authoritative, and guiding institutions to regulate the passions and encourage men toward virtuous ends. As instituted in Kansas, however, it represented an abiding faith in men’s ability to govern themselves in all circumstances “in their own way.” Interference or intervention equated to tyranny.

Douglas’s advocacy of popular sovereignty took on the color of ideology, with all the obsessive theoretical rigidity that term implies: “I still stand on the great principle of popular sovereignty, which declares the right of all people to be left perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way. I will follow that principle wherever its logical consequences may take me and I will endeavor to defend it against assault from any and all quarters.” This idealistic vision of frontier democracy, that men of differing origins and regions, divergent religious faiths, competing economic interests and desires for property, clashing political ideas and convictions on slavery, collected together on distant prairies with little Federal oversight, military presence, close transportation or communication links, or established institutions, could sit down peacefully and resolve their differences, belied the history of human experience. Only the most wild-eyed visionary with an inflated sense of innate human goodness could believe that people in that context would fashion their own institutions calmly, democratically, and without violence or fraud.[6]

Douglas doubled down in 1858, this time in conflict with President James Buchanan over the Kansas Lecompton constitution. Despite fraud and voting irregularities marring the territory’s constitutional process, Buchanan felt obligated to accept a pro-slavery Kansas Constitution because the process was technically legal, the territory had been riled with violence for too long, the controversy unhealthily dominated national politics to the eclipse of all else, and Kansas free state supporters constituted a majority of the population. They would eliminate slavery in short order anyway, no matter what restrictions the constitution placed on amendments. He was willing to get Kansas into the Union, even with an imperfect document.

Douglas, however, vehemently opposed acceptance and worked to kill the constitution, as “a gross outrage upon the very principles on which the American Revolution was fought.” He believed it did not represent the principle of self-government written into the 1854 Act, despite its violent failure on the Kansas prairie over the previous four years. Only an idealized democratic process could create an authentic constitution: “Sir, it matters not whether it can be changed or cannot be changed, so far as the principle involved is concerned. It matters not whether this constitution is to be the permanent fundamental law of Kansas, or is to last only a day, or a month, or a year; because, if it is not their act and deed you have no right to force it upon them for a single day.” This vehemence, that admitted legitimacy only to those institutions democratically chosen in a pure and faultless process, sank Kansas into civil war. President Buchanan warned as much back in 1850 when he counseled Democrats privately that the logic of popular sovereignty ideology in the Compromise, with its unreasonable expectations of human behavior, invited violence on the frontier.[7]

Stephen Douglas’s faith that democratic self-government on the American frontier would create a spontaneous order of lawful and virtuous communities, especially in the face of divisive issues like slavery, was disastrously misplaced and played a significant role in starting the Civil War. Bleeding Kansas exposed the chasm between idealistic democratic theory and the realities democratic practice. On the plains, settlers needed the visible hand of institutions and law to organize their affairs, but instead, with only the invisible hand of optimistic Jacksonian democracy, descended into spontaneous disorder.

[1] Eric T. Dean, Jr., “Stephen A. Douglas and Popular Sovereignty,” Historian, 57, 3 (1995): 747; Willard Carl Klunder, “Lewis Cass and Slavery Expansion: ‘The Father of Popular Sovereignty and Ideological Infanticide,” Civil War History, 32, 4 (1986): 305-306.

[2] Sidney Webster. Franklin Pierce and His Administration. (New York, 1892) 60.

[3] Henry Barrett Learned, “The Relation of Phillip Phillips to the Repeal of the Missouri Compromise in 1854,” Mississippi Valley Historical Review, 8 (4), 1922, 314-315.

[4] Webster, Pierce, 62; Peter Wallner, Franklin Pierce: Martyr for the Union (Concord, NH, 2009) 96-98; for more on Pierce’s political thought, see my “Franklin Pierce, Political Protest, and the Dilemmas of Democracy,” Imaginative Conservative, January 9, 1019, https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2019/01/franklin-pierce-political-protest-dilemmas-democracy-michael-j-connolly.html.

[5] Dale E. Watts, “How Bloody was Bleeding Kansas? Political Killings in the Kansas Territory, 1854-1861,” Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, 18, 2 (1995): 123.

[6] Erik S. Schmeller, “Propagandists for a Free State Kansas: New York Times’ Correspondents and Bleeding Kansas, 1856,” Heritage of the Great Plains, 23, 3 (1990): 7-14; Dean, “Douglas,” 748;

[7] Congressional Globe, 35th Congress, Appendix, 196-199, 319; Buchanan believed that popular sovereignty took the slavery controversy out of the states and dumped it on the frontier, with predictable consequences.

The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

The featured image of Stephen Douglas is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

All comments are moderated and must be civil, concise, and constructive to the conversation. Comments that are critical of an essay may be approved, but comments containing ad hominem criticism of the author will not be published. Also, comments containing web links or block quotations are unlikely to be approved. Keep in mind that essays represent the opinions of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Imaginative Conservative or its editor or publisher.

Leave a Comment
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
Voiced by Amazon Polly