May is the anniversary of two critical events in the history of American race relations. May 17, 2004, marked the fiftieth anniversary of the Supreme Court's decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which struck down racially segregated public schools as unconstitutional. Political rallies, academic meetings, newspaper and magazine features across the country have celebrated the significance of Brown.
Not as well known, much less remembered, is the Kansas-Nebraska Act, signed into law 150 years ago, on May 30, 1854, by President Franklin Pierce. Historian David Potter has commented that no event has "swung American history away from its charted course so suddenly or so sharply as the Kansas-Nebraska Act." The Kansas-Nebraska Act brought anti-slavery and pro-slavery forces into a thundering political clash, paving the road for Abraham Lincoln's presidency, and seeding the ominous clouds of civil war.
To know the story of the Kansas-Nebraska Act is to better understand the problem of race in America and the difficult struggle for equal civil rights. The history of the Kansas-Nebraska Act teaches us what is most important in America. We are reminded of the promises and challenges of the American experiment in freedom, and we see why the noble aims of Brown v. Board have not yet been achieved.
Kansas-Nebraska began as a railroad measure. Bound up in the 19th century spirit of "Manifest Destiny" was a widespread desire to connect the American West and East with one or more railroad lines. From New Orleans to Vicksburg to St. Louis, cities and states lobbied fiercely to be the eastern terminal of a rail line to the Pacific, with the promise of population and economic growth, not to mention the government subsidies that would follow the tracks. Even men with reputations of being strict constitutionalists opposed to government funding of internal improvements, such as South Carolina's John C. Calhoun, were willing to put aside their constitutional scruples with the prospect of landing a railroad in their region.
One of the most prominent and persistent railroad advocates was Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, who was intent on seeing a rail run from the west coast to Chicago. One problem Douglas faced in securing a line from Chicago was that most of the territory west of Illinois—land the U.S. had acquired from France in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803—lacked any kind of territorial organization. As one railroad advocate lamented, "Why, everybody is talking about a railroad to the Pacific. In the name of God, how is the railroad to be made if you will never let people live on the lands through which the road passes?" Thus was born Douglas's bill to organize the territories of Kansas and Nebraska.
Key members of Congress, such as Dave Atchison of Missouri, agreed to support the bill, but only if slave-owners were allowed to settle in the newly organized territory, bringing their slaves with them. Douglas's original bill said nothing about slavery, but both the Kansas and Nebraska territories lay north of the 36Â°, 30' line, above which slavery had been prohibited since the 1820 Missouri Compromise.
Here was the rub. In order to attract support from southern slave states, without which his Kansas-Nebraska bill could not pass, Douglas had to find a way to lift the old congressional ban on slavery. The answer was clear, and clearly it would be difficult: Douglas would amend his bill to expressly repeal the Missouri Compromise's prohibition against slavery in the territories, replacing it with the doctrine of "popular sovereignty." "It will raise a hell of a storm," predicted Douglas. But even this seasoned politician had no idea how powerful the forces were that he was about to unleash.
Before Douglas's bill received a vote in either house of Congress, six "Independent Democrats" published an attack on Douglas in the Washington weekly paper, National Era. The Kansas-Nebraska bill, they wrote, represented a "gross violation of a sacred pledge" to keep the territories north of 36Â°, 30' free of slavery. It was part of an "atrocious plot" to turn free land into "a dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves." After the January 24, 1854, issue of National Era, the Kansas-Nebraska bill was no longer about railroads, but slavery.
The following months witnessed the most intense debates in the history of the U.S. Congress, igniting the tempers of free soil and slave advocates, each viewing the other as mortal enemies. Douglas's bill finally passed in late May. The Missouri Compromise, with its congressional prohibition against the spread of slavery, was repealed. Two years later, "Bleeding Kansas" would demonstrate that Kansas-Nebraska had done anything but settle the fight over slavery. Further, no railroad would be laid until the sons of the North and South were done butchering one another in places like Antietam, Shiloh, and Gettysburg. Of the many unintended consequences of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, perhaps the most important was the effect it had on the soul of a dejected Illinois lawyer-politician, who would forever change the history of the country he so dearly loved.
In 1854, Abraham Lincoln was a political failure. He had served in the Illinois state legislature as well as one term in the U.S. House of Representatives, but his political career was marked with unsuccessful bids for nominations and lost elections.
The passage of Kansas-Nebraska propelled Lincoln back into national politics. He saw more clearly than anyone the moral transformation and corruption of the American mind, as slavery was coming to be viewed more as a positive good than a necessary evil. From 1854 until his assassination in 1865, human equality was front and center in Lincoln's politics, forming the heart of his opposition to slavery as he attempted to remind his fellow citizens of the principles of freedom.
Douglas's "popular sovereignty," which informed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, meant that slavery would no longer be prohibited by Congress; rather, inhabitants of a territory could keep slavery in, or keep it out, as they pleased. Douglas never tired of saying that he "don't care if slavery is voted up or down." For Lincoln, the ambiguity over slavery pointed to the fundamental, philosophic problem of morality: Either right and wrong are fixed absolutes, or they are relative to time, opinion, or power. There was no middle ground between the view that slavery was a moral wrong to be contained and placed in the course of ultimate extinction, and slavery as a moral right to be championed and allowed to spread. Either all human beings share a common nature and are therefore equal in their natural rights, or not; slavery must be right or it must be wrong. And "if slavery is not wrong," said Lincoln, "nothing is wrong."
As Lincoln explained, "popular sovereignty" or self-government is right, so long as it is equated with what Madison called the "social compact"—a nation of men voluntarily governing themselves in recognition of and for the protection of the equal natural rights of each. But "popular sovereignty" had no just application to slavery; divorced from the principle of human equality, "popular sovereignty" becomes tyranny. "When the white man governs himself, that is self-government; but when he governs himself and also governs another manâ€¦that is despotism." Drawing upon the principles of the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln argued, "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."
Forgetting that the principle of equal natural rights precedes and legitimizes self-government—that government neither creates nor legitimizes rights—America was becoming a house divided against itself over the question of slavery. This was the theme Lincoln sounded in his widely published "House Divided" speech in 1858, which not only described the growing split in America, but also drove the opposed sides further apart. At the Gettysburg cemetery five years later, Lincoln would interpret the Civil War as a test, whether America, or any nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, could long endure.
For his unwavering insistence on the wrongness of slavery, and his call for Congress to reinstate the terms of the Missouri Compromise and restrict the spread of slavery, Lincoln was twice elected to the highest office in America. He would preside over the bloodiest conflict in American history, a conflict caused in large part by his own refusal to let Americans ignore all that was at stake in the fight over slavery. On Good Friday, April 14, 1865—four years to the day after the surrender of Fort Sumter—the Great Emancipator gave the last full measure of devotion, his life cut short by the bullet of an assassin.
From the moment of Lincoln's death there has been widespread denial that the Civil War had much to do with slavery. Historians, political scientists, economists, and partisans locate the source of conflict with states rights, national power, or economic disputes over tariffs, banks, and money policies. These narratives continue to be repeated in high school and college textbooks today.
But while these subjects were, without question, disputed before and after the Civil War, they do not explain why brothers, cousins, and fellow citizens took up killing one another. They ignore the question of justice that has always been the spring for the most critical moments in American politics. The Kansas-Nebraska Act and surrounding historical events reveal how the problems of slavery and race became tied to questions of justice in mid-19th-century America.
Chronologically, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 falls precisely midpoint between the crisis of California statehood and the crisis of the Democratic party, both of which turned on the question of slavery. In 1848, six years prior to Kansas-Nebraska, gold was discovered in California. The rush to the West was unprecedented. By the time Congress convened in 1849, the people of California had skipped over the usual process of territorial organization and were asking for entry into the Union, complete with their own proposed state constitution. The trouble was that Californians wanted to be admitted as a free state, prohibiting slavery within their jurisdiction. This the South would not accept.
It was not that southerners were clamoring to take their slaves to the Golden State—common opinion held that slavery could never flourish in the climes of California. What most incensed Southerners was the moral condemnation of slavery implied by California's constitutional prohibition of it. As Lincoln commented later, "there California stood, kept out of the Union, because she would not let slavery into her borders."
Southerners made open threats of secession and disunion unless slavery was granted the moral equivalency of freedom and allowed a legal foothold in California. Ohio's Columbus Delano thundered in response, "We will establish a cordon of free states that shall surround you; and then we will light up the fires of liberty on every side until they melt your present chains and render all your people free." In this environment of uncompromising passions, California had to wait two years for statehood.
In 1850 California was finally admitted to the Union, but not until the North made a number of concessions to slavery. These included a new and tougher fugitive slave law, under the terms of which a fee of $10 would be paid to a commissioner if he declared an alleged runaway slave to be the property of a pleading slave owner; only $5 would be paid if the alleged slave was found to be a free man.
Six years after Kansas-Nebraska became law, another event revealed the importance of slavery and the impending crisis of the Union. In April 1860, the Democratic Party held its national convention in Charleston, South Carolina. At one of the longest and certainly the most vicious of American party conventions, Democrats were split between those who supported Stephen Douglas and his doctrine of "popular sovereignty"—which included the right of a territory to exclude slavery is they so chose—and those who championed the position announced by the Supreme Court in the 1857 case, Dred Scott v. Sandford.
Dred Scott held that all blacks, slave and free alike, were ineligible for American citizenship. Further, the court opined, slave owners possessed a constitutional right in their slave property, and therefore it was unconstitutional for either Congress or the people of a territory to prohibit slavery from federally owned lands. Beginning with his debates against Douglas in the fall of 1858, no one had done more than Lincoln to highlight the opposition between Douglas's "popular sovereignty" and Dred Scott: Either the people of a territory had a right to vote slavery up or down, or a slave owner had a right to take his slave property into any territory he pleased, regardless of what the people there favored.
The Democratic Party—the only truly national political organization on the eve of the Civil War—could not reconcile these differences. The climax of the meeting came with the speech of Alabama's William Yancey. Ignoring all questions of tariffs, banks, and internal improvements, Yancey spoke to a whooping and excited crowd, telling them that the fundamental error of northern Democrats was their acceptance of the view that slavery was evil. Had northern Democrats defended slavery as a good and benign institution all along, he explained, the party would be united; because they had not, the blame for the Democratic schism lay with the North, not the South.
Twelve years earlier, during the 1848 Democratic convention, Yancey had led a failed movement for southern delegates to walk out of the convention unless the party adopted a platform declaring that neither Congress nor a territorial legislature could exclude slavery from a territory. In the 1860 convention, however, he would prove to be successful. When the convention failed to nominate a presidential candidate, delegates from the entire lower South walked out of the convention, with Yancey and his fellow Alabamans leading the way. There was no cause for the disruption of the convention other than slavery. This was the first real act of secession: As historian Don Fehrenbacher has noted, any Democrat who would not accept Stephen Douglas as the Democratic nominee for president, would never accept Abraham Lincoln as the Republican President of the United States.
The two wings of Democrats ended up holding separate conventions in 1860, nominating two Democratic candidates for the presidency, Stephen Douglas and John Breckinridge. The split among Democrats, which can be traced back to Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, made victory for Abraham Lincoln a virtual certainty.
Immediately after Lincoln's election in November of 1860, southerners began a movement for secession from the Union. In Apostles of Disunion, historian Charles Dew reviews the speeches of "secession commissioners" as they traveled throughout the South during the secession winter of 1860-61, trying to persuade fellow southerners to leave the union. In this critical moment, with nothing less than the future of the United States and constitutional government at stake, the arguments advanced to justify secession had little to do with states' rights or the old squabbles over tariffs and banks. The turning of the tide toward disunion and civil war rested squarely on the question of race and slavery, and the moving force within the South was a powerful fear that blacks would come to be viewed as the equals of whites.
As Judge William Harris from Mississippi argued before the Georgia legislature, blacks were "an ignorant, inferior, barbarian race, incapable of self government, and not... entitled to be associated with the white man." Perhaps the greatest fear, warned Georgian Henry Benning before the Virginia secession convention, was that "our women will suffer horrors we cannot contemplate in imagination." Other secession commissioners were even more direct. Leroy Pope Walker, Alabama's commissioner dispatched to Tennessee, and later the first Confederate secretary of war, predicted that if the South did not secede immediately, everything it valued would be lost: "First our property," then "our liberties," and finally the greatest Southern treasure of all, "the sacred purity of our daughters." The wives and daughters of the South would be lost to "pollution and violation to gratify the lust of half-civilized Africans."
This is the ugly truth of the American South on the eve of the Civil War. Abraham Lincoln understood the powerful grip racism had on American public opinion, which is why he calculated his rhetoric to move that opinion, subtly and gently, back to the idea that all men are created equal. It is why, on the eve of the Civil War, Lincoln wrote to Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens that "the only substantial difference between us" is that "you think slavery is right and ought to be extended; while we think it wrong and ought to be restricted." No one reading the literature of the antebellum period can honestly deny that slavery and race were at the heart of the Southern resolve to make war on the union rather than accept Lincoln's election.
Critics of America often point to the existence of slavery during the first four score and seven years of our nation's history as evidence of our moral depravity and hypocrisy. Of course, slavery was not unique to America. What was unique in America was that for the first time in human history a nation of slave owners declared their independence and founded a new nation upon the only moral principle by which slavery can be condemned as wrong: human equality.
Throughout history and in most places on earth, slavery was not a problem; it was normal, part of tradition. But in America, where morality and justice were illuminated by the universal principle of human equality, slavery became a massive problem. In America, a public, political fight broke out over slavery, with principled, irrefutable arguments being made about its injustice.
Unlike the monarchies and imperial powers of the world, however, America had already achieved a large measure of government by consent; America could not settle internal disputes with royal decrees. One of the great paradoxes of slavery in America was the fact that if slavery, the ultimate denial of government by consent, was to be abolished, it had to be done through the consent of the governed. It is the essence of American tragedy that the principle of freedom could not triumph over the principle of slavery through speeches and papers. Instead, it required muskets and cannons. Nonetheless, it is through speeches and papers that we can learn why in the American Civil War, might was in the service of right.
Indeed, the Civil War itself is perhaps the greatest testament to the goodness of America: so important a problem was it, that free white citizens were willing to fight and die to rid blacks of slavery and save the Union founded in opposition to it. At their best, white Americans of the Civil War understood that the fate of the black man was intrinsically tied to their own fate; that there was no compromise between universal freedom and universal slavery; that the rights of white men could not be secured if they failed to secure the rights of the blacks among them. These were irresistible conclusions drawn from human equality, what Lincoln called the father of all moral principle in us.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 challenged that principle and brought into stark relief the consequences of abandoning it—turning the question of one man enslaving another into a matter of mere personal interest and power—in a way few events in American history have done. A century later, in 1954, the United States Supreme Court attempted to vindicate the principle of equality by striking down racially segregated public schools. But it did so not on the basis of equal rights or colorblind law, but rather on the tenuous findings of modern social science. Combined with later developments in American law, Brown v. Board of Education has, unfortunately, been used to justify a regime of race-based preferences and race-based quotas. In principle these policies are identical to the policy of slavery: they both identify the rights of citizens with the color of skin.
At Gettysburg, Lincoln urged his fellow Americans that, "it is for us the living...to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced," that it is "for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us." That work will not be complete until the American mind, and American law, rests firmly on the proposition that all men are created equal.