The Kansas-Nebraska Act and the Rise of the Republican Party, 1854-1856

by R.D. Monroe

Railroad, circa 1850s

Abraham Lincoln emerged from his self-imposed political retirement in 1854 soon after the Kansas-Nebraska Act became law. In that act Illinois' Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas had attempted to organize the vast Nebraska territory for settlement and the passage of a transcontinental railroad. The region in question had been considered a vast desert and had consequently been consigned to the Indians. With settlement west of the Mississippi River, it became clear that the territory was not a desert, but was suitable for farming. Pressure, especially the desire for a transcontinental railroad connecting California and Oregon to the Union, grew to permit settlement whatever the cost to the Indians.

The railroad became a sectional issue, with South and North competing for its terminus. Douglas sought to make Chicago the railroad's eastern hub, and needed to organize the lands west of it in order to pave the way for such a northern route. To placate southern congressmen, he made two damaging concessions. Slavery had long been prohibited in Nebraska because it lay above the line of thirty-six degrees and thirty minutes latitude set by the Missouri Compromise. Douglas agreed to an explicit repeal of that prohibition, opening the territory to slavery. He also agreed to split the region into two territories, Kansas and Nebraska. Douglas framed the bill with the idea that the people of Nebraska and Kansas should decide for themselves whether they wished to permit slavery, a doctrine he called "popular sovereignty." He hoped that local control could remove slavery from the national political stage, where it had become a disruptive issue. In this form, the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed Congress and was signed into law by President Franklin Pierce.

Douglas' hopes for national political peace were dashed, as the repeal of the Missouri Compromise excited widespread indignation and opposition in the North. Douglas was burned in effigy across the North and shouted down when he attempted to speak before a crowd in Chicago. The act also roused Abraham Lincoln by paving the way for the extension of slavery, a prospect he had long opposed.

Lincoln laid out his objections to the Act and resurrected his political career in a brilliant speech at Peoria on October 16, 1854. In it he vigorously attacked the repeal of the Missouri Compromise line, noting that restricting slavery above that geographical boundary had been a southern concession to match northerners' accession to allowing Missouri to enter the Union as a slave state. Now that concession had been inexplicably withdrawn, and with it, the sixty year old policy of restricting the expansion of slavery. Lincoln invoked the founding fathers, specifically Thomas Jefferson, as he contended that the Sage of Monticello had originated the restriction of slavery with his Northwest Ordinance's prohibition of slavery in the Northwest Territories.Peoria in 1854

Lincoln criticized popular sovereignty, questioning how it was that this doctrine could supersede the famed Northwest Ordinance and the sacred Missouri Compromise. Congress had purchased the territory, yet under Douglas' reasoning, it had no control over the disposition of slavery there. The entire nation was interested in the slavery issue, and properly so. Lincoln dismissed arguments that climate and geography rendered slavery impossible in Kansas and Nebraska. Only an explicit statutory prohibition was a true guarantee.

Most importantly, Lincoln attacked the morality of slavery's extension and of slavery itself, while tempering this assault on the "peculiar institution" with moderate rhetoric toward the South. Douglas's contentions were perfectly acceptable if the black man (Lincoln used the archaic term "Negro") were no different than a hog. But Lincoln argued for the humanity of the slaves. They were people, not animals, and consequently possessed certain natural rights. "If the negro is a man, why then my ancient faith teaches me that `all men are created equal;' and that there can be no moral right in connection with one man's making a slave of another." Still, Lincoln attached no blame to the South for slavery, and confessed that he was not ready to accept black social and political equality. Though he strongly condemned any extension of slavery, he was still willing to tolerate even that to preserve the Union. Despite the radical nature of some of his statements, Lincoln was still a Whig, not an abolitionist.

Lincoln's speech was a success. The historian Mark Neely contended that by linking moral condemnation of slavery with appeals to the founding fathers, Lincoln legitimated the oft-criticized antislavery movement. Lincoln biographer David Donald called the effort "a remarkable address, more elevated in sentiment and rhetoric than any speech Lincoln had previously made." Because Lincoln had spoken immediately after Stephen A. Douglas, who was touring Illinois to explain and defend the Kansas-Nebraska Act, he began to be thought of as Douglas's political foe.

Lincoln was drafted to run for the state legislature in 1854, which he reluctantly agreed to do in the hope of assisting the congressional candidate for his district. He won handily, but immediately resigned to contest for a U.S. Senate seat, then decided by the Illinois General Assembly. The anti-Nebraska forces had won the General Assembly in 1854 but they were a queer political mix of Whigs, Democrats who had broken with Douglas over Kansas-Nebraska, and "Know Nothings." The latter party had formed in response to perceptions that the country was being overrun with immigrants, many of whom were Catholic in faith. Thus it was an essentially bigoted, anti-immigrant party seeking to protect old-line Protestants' prerogatives and power. The old Whig party had broken down after the 1852 election, riven by insoluble sectional tensions. These disparate political groups were united in a common distaste for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. They squabbled over the Senate appointment, and Lincoln was forced to throw his support behind the anti-Nebraska Democrat Lyman Trumbull.

Bitterly disappointed, Lincoln gravitated toward the new Republican Party, the abolitionist faction of the anti-Nebraska coalition. Lincoln sought to draw other anti-Nebraska political groups into the Republican Party, especially former Whigs, former Democrats, and Know-Nothings. On May 29, 1854, a convention of these factions met at Bloomington. They united in opposition to the extension of slavery. Lincoln gave another grand speech, the exact words of which have been lost, but fragmentary accounts suggest he urged the political fusion of those who opposed slavery's extension and the slave power.

Despite his disappointment at losing the Senate seat, Lincoln had found a new political organization comprised of like-minded activists, and become one of its leaders. He campaigned aggressively for the Republican ticket in 1856.