History, Department of


Date of this Version



Published in THE NEBRASKA-KANSAS ACT OF 1854, ed. John R. Wunder and Joann M. Ross (Lincoln: Univ. of Nebraska Press, 2008), pp, 47-66. Copyright © 2008 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Used by permission.


In commemorating the sesquicentennial of the 1854 Kansas- Nebraska Act, it is important to understand not only the events that led to and were caused by its passage but also the very organic act itself.' This piece of national legislation caused great tension in the halls of Congress before being passed and also great tension in the very territories it organized after its passing. The most shocking example of these tensions was the mini civil war, commonly known as "Bleeding Kansas," which some historians suggest represents the first battles of the much greater Civil War. Nearly seventy years of similar territorial organic acts had been passed, but none had created such results. Was the text itself somehow different or revolutionary in form? As this analysis will show, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was not a revolutionary piece of legislation. Quite to the contrary, it closely followed the precedent of previous territorial organic acts. Even the doctrine of popular sovereignty, which clearly led to the tragic consequences, was not a new principle. The context of its application to Nebraska and Kansas, however, was new. The Kansas- Nebraska Act, though a very ordinary piece of legislation, and the geopolitical context surrounding its passage created a volatile catalyst for division, contention, and ultimately the attempted disintegration of the Union.

Included in

History Commons