Archive for Sunday, May 30, 2004

1854 law altered course of nation

Historians celebrate 150th anniversary of Kansas-Nebraska Act

May 30, 2004


Take out your pencils and a clean sheet of notebook paper.

Today being the 150th anniversary of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, here's a pop history quiz.

Pretend the act died in Congress instead of being signed by President Franklin Pierce on May 30, 1854. With that in mind, answer these three questions:

  • When was slavery abolished in the United States?
  • What party has won six of the last nine presidential elections?
  • Whose picture is on the $5 bill?

The answer to all three questions: Who knows?

The law got Abraham Lincoln back into politics, led to the formation of the Republican Party and sparked what some historians consider the real first battles of the Civil War.

"It would be hard to find another single piece of legislation in all of American history that had greater consequences for the country -- both good and bad -- than the Kansas-Nebraska Act," said historian James McPherson of Princeton University.

To a 21st-century reader, the act appears fairly innocuous. It created the two territories out of land acquired through the Louisiana Purchase, and provided that residents of each would decide whether slavery would be allowed there.

But it had the effect of repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prohibited slavery in new territories -- creating worries that the southern "Slave Power" wanted to expand slavery nationwide.

A coalition of anti-slavery Democrats, breakaway Whigs and Free Soil Party members responded by forming the Republican Party. In 1860, the fledgling Republicans gained the White House.

Some of the major events sparked directly or indirectly by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act:May 30, 1854: The Kansas-Nebraska Act is passed, creating the two territories and allowing residents of each to decide whether to allow slavery.Oct. 16, 1854: Abraham Lincoln, a former Illinois congressman, blasts the act in a speech that revitalizes his political career.May 24, 1856: Abolitionist John Brown, who moved to Kansas about a year earlier, leads a party that kills five proslavery settlers at Pottawatomie Creek.Jan. 12, 1857: The proslavery party meets at Lecompton, changing its name from the Law and Order Party to the National Democratic Party.Feb. 12, 1857: The proslavery territorial legislature passes a bill providing for a constitutional convention.Nov. 7, 1857: The Lecompton convention approves a proposed state constitution, with only the matter of slavery to be submitted to voters. It fails, as do the next two attempts to pass a proslavery constitution.May 19, 1858: Proslavery forces gun down 11 Free Staters in a Linn County ravine. The incident becomes known as the "Marais des Cygnes Massacre."Oct. 16, 1959: John Brown leads an ill-fated attack on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, Va., with the intent of arming slaves for a revolt.Dec. 2, 1859: One month after being convicted of treason by a Virginia jury, John Brown is hanged. He becomes a martyr to many abolitionists, further inflaming passions between the North and South, and the song "John Brown's Body" is later used for the "Battle Hymn of the Republic."Feb. 23, 1860: Over the veto of Gov. Samuel Medary, the territorial Legislature passes a bill abolishing slavery in Kansas.Nov. 6, 1860: Abraham Lincoln is elected president.Jan. 29, 1961: Kansas enters the Union as the 34th state.April 12, 1861: Secessionists fire on Fort Sumter, S.C. The Civil War begins.

Lincoln's rise

In Illinois, the act's passage had fallen "like a thunderclap" on Lincoln, a former Whig congressman who had taken himself out of politics five years earlier.

"He was so outraged by the act that he got back in," McPherson said.

On Oct. 16, 1854, Lincoln vented that outrage in a speech at Peoria, Ill. He argued that Congress, not a popular vote in the territories, should determine the slavery issue in Kansas and Nebraska.

"If there is any thing which it is the duty of the whole people to never entrust to any hands but their own, that thing is the preservation and perpetuity of their own liberties and institutions," he said.

The speech revitalized Lincoln politically. Six years later, with the Democratic Party split along sectional lines over slavery, Lincoln was elected in a three-way race.

Lincoln's predecessor, Democrat James Buchanan, angered northern Democrats when he proposed the adoption of a proslavery Kansas constitution, authored in 1857 by a convention in which Free Staters refused to take part.

Proslavery constitutions were rejected three times in Kansas before one that prohibited slavery was passed in 1859. Kansas entered the Union as a free state in January 1861 -- less than three months before the first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, S.C.

Continuing debates

Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, a Democrat, said the historical debate echoed in modern ones about how illegal immigrants are to be treated. Sebelius recently signed a bill that will grant some immigrants a break on tuition at public universities and colleges.

Sebelius said other anniversaries this year -- the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the 200th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark expedition -- show Kansas' historical significance.

"Part of measuring the past is looking at the progress that needs to be made in the future," Sebelius said. "None of these journeys are finished."

Nebraska's passage to statehood was slower -- it wasn't admitted until 1867 -- and smoother, with the most contentious topic being the location of the state capital.

Things were different in "Bleeding Kansas," where pro- and anti-slavery residents fought to establish control of the territorial legislature and the state constitutional convention.

McPherson is among those historians who consider that the true start of the Civil War -- although he said that perspective was unlikely to be reflected in elementary and secondary textbooks.

"At that level, it's hard for kids to understand subtle and complex issues that go on over several years," he said.

John Brown legacy

Perhaps the best-known of the Free Staters was John Brown, who moved to Kansas in 1855 to join his sons. In May 1856, he led a group that killed five pro-slavery settlers at Pottawatomie Creek in retaliation for an earlier attack on the Free State stronghold of Lawrence.

That and other actions made him popular in anti-slavery circles, and he spent the next few years in New England raising money for abolitionist causes.

But it was Brown's actions on Oct. 16, 1859, that served as his most lasting legacy -- and pushed an already divided nation closer to war.

He led a raid on a federal army at Harper's Ferry, Va., hoping to arm slaves for a rebellion. Arrested and convicted of treason, he was hanged on Dec. 2 -- and became an instant martyr to the abolitionist cause.

The proslavery forces were often aided -- at times, largely made up of -- residents of Missouri, one of the few slave states that remained with the Union during the Civil War.

The raids of the "border ruffians" and subsequent Civil War actions -- most famously the sacking of Lawrence in 1863 by William Quantrill's guerrillas -- created tensions between Kansas and Missouri that, for some, still linger.

Not for nothing do Kansas University and the University of Missouri call their sports rivalry the "Border War." Log into a fan Web site for either school, and eventually you'll see a Kansas supporter hurl the epithet "slaver" at a Missouri fan.

"It picks up more around the anniversary of Quantrill's raid, or whenever Missouri plays Kansas in any major sport," said Nick Witthaus, administrator of the pro-Missouri "Most of it's good-natured, but I guess there are some people who still would like to fight the Civil War."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.