Kansas-Nebraska Act Debated in the House of Representatives

The bill next moved to the House of Representatives.

On March 21, 1854, as a delaying tactic, the legislation was referred by a vote of 110 to 95 to the committee of the whole where it would be the last item on the calendar. Realizing from the vote to stall that the act faced an uphill struggle, the Pierce Administration made it clear to all Democrats that passage of the bill was essential to the party and would dictate how federal patronage would be handled. Jefferson Davis and Attorney General Caleb Cushing from Massachusetts, along with Douglas, spearheaded the partisan efforts.By the end of April Douglas believed that there were enough votes to pass the bill. The House leadership then began a series of roll call votes in which legislation ahead of the Kansas-Nebraska Act was called to the floor and tabled without debate.

Thomas Hart Benton was among those speaking forcibly against the measure. On April 25, in a House speech that biographer William Nisbet Chambers called “long, passionate, historical, [and] polemical,” Benton attacked the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, which he “had stood upon ... above thirty years, and intended to stand upon it to the end -- solitary and alone, if need be; but preferring company.” The speech was distributed afterwards as a pamphlet when opposition to the act moved outside the walls of Congress.

It was not until May 8 that the debate began in the House. The debate was even more intense than in the Senate. While it seemed to be a forgone conclusion that the bill would pass, the opponents went all out to fight it. Historian Michael Morrison wrote:

Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri -- "What is the excuse for all this turmoil and mischief? We are told it is to keep the question of slavery out of Congress! Great God! It was out of Congress, completely, entirely, and forever out of Congress, unless Congress dragged it in by breaking down the sacred laws which settled it!"

A filibuster led by Lewis D. Campbell, an Ohio free-soiler, nearly provoked the House into a war of more than words. Campbell, joined by other antislavery northerners, exchanged insults and invectives with southerners, neither side giving quarter. Weapons were brandished on the floor of the House. Finally, bumptiousness gave way to violence. Henry A. Edmundson, a Virginia Democrat, well oiled and well armed, had to be restrained from making a violent attack on Campbell. Only after the sergeant at arms arrested him, debate was cut off, and the House adjourned did the melee subside.

The floor debate was handled by Alexander Stephens of Georgia. Stephens insisted that the Missouri Compromise had never been a true compromise but had been imposed on the South. He argued that the issue was whether republican principles -- "that the citizens of every distinct community or State should have the right to govern themselves in their domestic matters as they please" -- would be honored.

The final vote in favor of the bill was 113 to 100. Northern Democrats split in favor of the bill by a narrow 44 to 42 vote while all 45 northern Whigs opposed it. In the South, Democrats voted in favor by 57 to 2 and Whigs by a closer 12 to 7.[32] President Pierce signed the measure into law on May 30.

Maintain the Missouri Compromise! Stir not up agitation! Give us peace!”

— Sam Houston, Southern sympathizer