Kansas-Nebraska Act Debated in Senate

On January 23, a revised bill was introduced in the Senate.

In addition to the changes regarding repeal of the Missouri Compromise, Nebraska was now divided into two territories, Kansas and Nebraska, with the division coming at the thirty-seventh parallel. The division was the result of concerns expressed by settlers already in Nebraska as well as the Senators from Iowa who were concerned with the location of the territory's seat of government if such a large territory was created. Existing language which affirmed the application of all other laws of the United States in the new territory was supplemented by the language agreed on with President Pierce that read, “except the eighth section of the act preparatory to the admission of Missouri into the Union, approved March 6, 1820, which was superseded by the legislation of 1850, commonly called the compromise measures, and is declared inoperative.” Identical legislation was soon introduced in the House.

Forcing Slavery Down the Throat of a Freesoiler
An 1854 cartoon depicts a giant free soiler being held down by James Buchanan and Lewis Cass standing on the Democratic platform marked "Kansas", "Cuba" and "Central America". Franklin Pierce also holds down the giant's beard as Stephen A. Douglas shoves a black man down his throat.

Historian Allan Nevins wrote that "two interconnected battles began to rage, one in Congress and one in the country at large: each fought with a pertinacity, bitterness, and rancor unknown even in Wilmot Proviso days." In Congress, the freesoilers were at a distinct disadvantage. The Democrats held large majorities in each house, and Stephen Douglas, "a ferocious fighter, the fiercest, most ruthless, and most unscrupulous that Congress had perhaps ever known" led a tightly disciplined party. It was in the nation at large that the opponents of Nebraska hoped to achieve a moral victory. The New York Times, which had earlier supported President Pierce, predicted that this would be the final straw for northern supporters of the slavery forces and would "create a deep-seated, intense, and ineradicable hatred of the institution which will crush its political power, at all hazards, and at any cost."

The day after the bill was reintroduced, two Ohioans, Representaive Joshua Giddings and Senator Salmon P. Chase, published a free soil response titled, “Appeal of the Independent Democrats in Congress to the People of the United States.” The Appeal stated:

We arraign this bill as a gross violation of a sacred pledge; as a criminal betrayal of precious rights; as part and parcel of an atrocious plot to exclude from a vast unoccupied region immigrants from the Old World and free laborers from our own States, and convert it into a dreary region of despotism,inhabited by masters and slaves.

Douglas took the Appeal personally and responded in Congress when the debate was opened on January 30 before a full house and packed gallery. Douglas biographer Robert W. Johanssen described part of the speech:

Douglas charged the authors of the "Appeal", whom he referred to throughout as the "Abolitionist confederates," with having perpetrated a "base falsehood" in their protest. He expressed his own sense of betrayal, recalling that Chase, "with a smiling face and the appearance of friendship," had appealed for a postponement of debate on the ground that he had not yet familiarized himself with the bill. "Little did I suppose at the time that I granted that act of courtesy," Douglas remarked, that Chase and his compatriots had published a document "in which they arraigned me as having been guilty of a criminal betrayal of my trust," of bad faith, and of plotting against the cause of free government. While other Senators were attending divine worship, they had been "assembled in a secret conclave," devoting the Sabbath to their own conspiratorial and deceitful purposes.

The debate would continue for four months. Douglas remained the main advocate for the bill while Chase, William Seward of New York, and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts led the opposition. The New York Tribune wrote on March 2 that, "The unanimous sentiment of the North is indignant resistance. ... The whole population are full of it. The feeling in 1848 was far inferior to this in strength and universality."

Sam Houston from Texas was one of the few southern opponents of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. In the debate he urged, “Maintain the Missouri Compromise! Stir not up agitation! Give us peace!”

Alexander Stephens from Georgia -- “Nebraska is through the House. I took the reins in my hand, applied the whip and spur, and brought the 'wagon' out at eleven o'clock P.M. Glory enough for one day.”

The debate in the Senate concluded on March 4, 1854 when Stephen Douglas, beginning near midnight on March 3, made a five and a half hour speech. The final vote in favor of passage was 37 to 14. Free state senators voted 14 to 12 in favor while slave state senators overwhelmingly supported the bill, 23 to 2.

The bill for organizing the territories of Kansas and Nebraska, which Douglas reported in January 1854 and which in amended form was signed by the president on the 30th of May, reopened the whole slavery dispute -- wantonly, his enemies charged, for the purpose of securing Southern support, -- and caused great popular excitement, as it repealed the Missouri Compromise, and declared the people of "any state or territory" "free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to the Constitution of the United States." The passage of this Kansas-Nebraska Bill, one of the most momentous in its consequences ever passed by the Federal Congress, was largely a personal triumph for Douglas, who showed marvellous energy, adroitness and resourcefulness, and a genius for leadership.