Lesson Plans: Grades 9-12

Lesson 3: The Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854: Popular Sovereignty and the Political Polarization over Slavery

A We The People Resource


The Lesson


Stephen A. Douglas

Stephen A. Douglas. Senator Douglas of Illinois was a proponent of letting individual new states decide on slavery within their borders. Detail from ca. 1845 tinted daguerreotype.

Credit: Image courtesy of Eastman House Photography Collections.

"It will triumph & impart peace to the country & stability to the Union." So predicted Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas regarding the policy of local "popular sovereignty." Popular sovereignty allowed the settlers of a federal territory to decide the slavery question without interference from Congress. Stephen Douglas included this policy in a bill organizing the northern section of the Louisiana Purchase once known as the Nebraska Territory but now divided into two separate territories called Kansas and Nebraska. By removing the question of slavery's expansion from federal lawmakers, and placing it before the settlers immediately affected by it, Douglas thought he could preserve the American union by avoiding a federal dispute between northern abolitionists and southern "ultras."

Though Douglas believed the settlers of a territory should decide the slavery question without input from the rest of the nation, his Illinois rival Abraham Lincoln begged to differ. He thought it only logical that the federal territories be regulated by the federal government, meaning Congress. A third view, proposed by Southern senators, argued that precisely because federal territory was owned by the nation as a whole, American citizens possessed the right to take their property—including slaves—into the territory. Lincoln disagreed. If the American people thought "the extension of slavery endangers them," he concluded that they would be irresponsible to "submit the question, and with it, the fate of their country, to a mere handful of men, bent only on temporary self-interest."

This lesson plan will examine how the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 affected the political balance between free and slave states and explore how its author, Stephen Douglas, promoted its policy of popular sovereignty in an effort to avoid a national crisis over slavery in the federal territories. This lesson will also consider Abraham Lincoln's counter-argument that both the Declaration of Independence and Constitution committed the national government to extending freedom, not slavery.

Guiding Questions

  • How did the KansasNebraska Act of 1854 attempt to reduce the growing sectionalism of the American union over the slavery controversy?
  • How could congressional neutrality towards slavery in the federal territories actually stir up sectional strife?

Learning Objectives

Upon completion of this lesson, students should be able to do the following:

  • Gain a visual understanding of how the nation had changed from 1820 to 1854 by making comparisons between interactive maps of 1820 and 1854, and analyzing the new developments on the map of 1854.
  • Explain why Stephen Douglas thought the policy of popular sovereignty in the KansasNebraska Act of 1854 would settle the growing agitation over slavery.
  • Articulate why Abraham Lincoln opposed the KansasNebraska Act and its policy of popular sovereignty.
  • Distinguish Lincoln's understanding of self-government from Douglas's understanding of popular sovereignty.


1. Stephen Douglas and Popular Sovereignty: From the Mexican War to "Bleeding Kansas"

Stephen Douglas argued that popular sovereignty was neither a new nor controversial approach to organizing federal territories, but one rooted in American self-government and recently endorsed by northerners and southerners alike in the Compromise Measures of 1850. These measures began as a way to organize the vast western territory—more than half a million square miles comprising present-day Arizona, California, western Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Utah—acquired by the United States at the close of the Mexican War in early 1848.

The Mexican War began as a border dispute between Texas, recently annexed by the United States, and Mexico, who ended up ceding land that stretched west to the Pacific Ocean and north as far as Wyoming. The war's results not only pleased northern Democrats, bent on fulfilling America's "manifest destiny" to span the North American continent, but also southern Whigs and Democrats, who saw Texas and the western territories as ripe for the rule of "King Cotton" and the spread of slavery. The acquisition of this new land only intensified the national debate over slavery, a debate that would require a complex compromise to avoid a secession of the southern slaveholding states. (For additional information on the Mexican War, see Section VIII, "Extending the Lesson," below.)

The 1850 Compromise Measures were first introduced by Kentucky Senator Henry Clay, who became famous through his work on the 1820 Missouri Compromise. But when he was unable to get the measures passed as a single law, Stephen Douglas worked to pass them as separate statutes. The 1850 Compromise:

  1. admitted California as a free state,
  2. (2) organized the Utah and New Mexico territories "with or without slavery" when eventually admitted as states,
  3. (3) drew in the western boundary of Texas in exchange for $10 million (to pay Texas' debt to Mexico),
  4. (4) abolished the slave trade, but not slavery itself, in Washington, D.C., and
  5. (5) strengthened the 1793 Fugitive Slave Act through several notorious provisions (e.g., alleged fugitive slaves were not permitted to testify in their own defense and the trial commissioner was paid $10 for a conviction and only $5 for an acquittal).

By providing territorial governments for Utah and New Mexico without banning or legalizing slavery, the seeds of popular sovereignty had been planted by a Congress seeking to lessen the sectional agitation over the future of slavery in an expanding America.

The organization of the Kansas and Nebraska territories would eventually lead to congressional support of a transcontinental railroad that would unite the frontier West with the established East. But in the short run, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 provoked a race between freeholders and slaveholders to settle the territory. The southernmost territory, which bordered the slave state of Missouri, became known as "Bleeding Kansas" for the violence that ensued in the battle to control the territory's political and economic future.

2. Abraham Lincoln: From the Repeal of the Missouri Compromise to the Birth of the Republican Party

A congressman during the Mexican War, Abraham Lincoln joined his Whig Party in calling the war "unnecessarily and unconstitutionally commenced" by Democratic President James Polk. When Lincoln completed his term in March 1849, he devoted himself to his neglected Illinois law practice. Not even the controversial Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which compelled northern citizens to help capture fugitive slaves and stirred Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom's Cabin, pulled him back into the political limelight. But when the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed four years later, Lincoln commented that its repeal of the Missouri Compromise "aroused him as he had never been before." From that point on, Lincoln directed his public life towards reversing the growing acceptance of black slavery as a morally indifferent matter at best, and a "positive good" at worst.

"On the question of liberty, as a principle," Lincoln wrote in August 1855, "we are not what we have been." The Whig Party, to which Lincoln devoted himself as a longtime follower of Henry Clay, ceased to be a national power after losing the 1852 presidential election. The nail in its coffin was the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, but this reinvigorated "free soil/free labor" movements in the North. They were anti-slavery in sentiment but not necessarily abolitionist, because the latter disdained the federal Constitution for protecting slavery in states where it already existed. A nascent Republican Party took shape in a few states, but Lincoln would wait until 1856 to join what became a national party committed to the restriction of slavery from federal territory.

In Lincoln's mind, the KansasNebraska Act of 1854 marked a crossroads in American politics: the nation must decide if the federal constitution committed them to the spread of freedom or slavery. A year later, reflecting on the nation's growing sectionalism over slavery and the inability of slave states to wean themselves off of their "peculiar institution," Lincoln would write, "I think that there is no peaceful extinction of slavery in prospect for us." Douglas's prediction that popular sovereignty would "impart peace to the country & stability to the Union" would prove tragically off the mark.

Preparation Instructions

To teach this lesson about the impact of the Kansas-Nebraska Act on national politics, four activities are provided below: (1) a web-based interactive map of America in 1854 that will be compared with an 1820 map, (2) analysis of selections from the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, (3) excerpts from an 1854 speech by Stephen A. Douglas, who endorsed popular sovereignty in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and (4) excerpts from an 1854 speech by Abraham Lincoln, who opposed popular sovereignty in the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Review the activities, then locate and bookmark the following websites and primary documents:

Students will also read brief selections from the following political documents as background for examining and discussing the Kansas-Nebraska Act:

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. The Kansas–Nebraska Act: Mapping the Slavery Controversy in 1854

By 1854 the United States had fulfilled its "manifest destiny" of occupying all of the geographical expanse from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans. The rapid settlement of the West raised to a new level of intensity the persistent question of whether or not to permit slavery to extend into the new territories.

This activity requires students to contrast the maps of 1820 and 1854 so that they can see how much the nation had grown in the thirty-four year period, and to analyze new developments in the map of 1854 in order for students to appreciate the urgency of the arguments advanced in the national debate over slavery.

Students will work with an interactive map of the United States in 1854, observing how the country had changed from 1820 to 1854.

As with the map of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 (see Lesson One of this unit, An Early Threat of Secession), two sets of questions have been provided for this map: one to be used for a comparative study of states and territories, and the other for an analytical study of changes brought about (a) since the 1820 Compromise and (b) as a result of the KansasNebraska Act of 1854. Two map analysis worksheets that have direct links to the map, provided on page 23 of the PDF, can be downloaded, printed, and distributed to students for recording their answers to the questions.

Activity 2. The Kansas–Nebraska Act: A Debate between Two Illinoisans

The KansasNebraska Act of 1854 shattered whatever peace was gained by the Compromise of 1850. In addition to organizing the U.S. Territories of Kansas and Nebraska, the act attempted to deal with the extension of slavery into this region by allowing the settlers in each territory to decide the question for themselves. U. S. Senator Stephen Douglas, who championed this policy of popular sovereignty and included it in the KansasNebraska Act, unwittingly set off a firestorm of protest among those committed to stopping the spread of slavery. One such person was former Congressman Abraham Lincoln, who strongly opposed any policy that could extend slavery into the territories.

This activity has four parts. Students will:

  1. read excerpts of two speeches, one by Douglas and the other by Lincoln
  2. answer questions about the speeches, provided in chart form available in the PDF
  3. debate the issues raised in the speeches
  4. participate in a follow-up discussion

Part 1: Read Lincoln and Douglas speeches

This activity will involve students with arguments used by Douglas to promote popular sovereignty and those used by Lincoln to counter it.

The speeches are also located in the PDF, along with the question and answer worksheets, and can be downloaded and printed for student use.

Part 2: Note salient points in both speeches

Depending on the amount of class time available for this lesson, Parts 1 and 2 can be accomplished in one of three ways:

(a) On-line assignment—Instruct students to go on-line to the websites for the speeches by Douglas and Lincoln. In the worksheets they will answer the questions for each speech.

(b) In-class assignment—Make copies of the two excerpted speeches and the worksheets, and hand them out to students to work on in class. They may work on them individually or in groups.

(c) Homework assignment—To save time, make copies of the speeches and the worksheet one class period ahead of time, and hand them out to the students for homework. Instruct the students to have the speeches read and the charts completed by the next class period.

Part 3: Debate

Begin after students have answered the questions. Divide the class into three groups:

  • Group A will represent Douglas's viewpoint;
  • Group B will represent Lincoln's viewpoint.

Both groups will meet together to compare their answers and craft the best possible argument for their side of the mini-debate. Each group appoints one or two students to advance the argument.

  • Group C will evaluate the two arguments.

While Groups A and B are working on their arguments, Group C will collaborate and make a list of the main points of each side of the argument that they will listen for during the debate. A graphic organizer for listing the main points of the speeches by Douglas and Lincoln is provided on page 10 of the PDF, and can be printed and distributed to students in Group C.

After a sufficient amount of time has been given to prepare for the debate, allow the two groups an allotted amount of time to present their arguments. After the debate is over, Group C gives the class the strong points made by each side and, if desired, declares the winner of the debate as determined by a vote taken within the group.

Part 4: Follow-up Discussion.

After the student debate is concluded, ask the students for their thoughts on the issue of this activity: namely, the dispute between Douglas and Lincoln over Congress' authority to restrict the extension of slavery. Invite the class to consider the larger issue of the inevitable struggle in a democratic republic between competing viewpoints, and about how the issues become more complex when human rights are involved. Ask them to give examples of issues today that illustrate the ongoing clash of differing opinions and values.


1. Growth and Change in the United States' Political Landscape

Have students answer the map-based questions below:

  • How had the U.S. map changed from 1820 to 1854 in terms of (a) number of additional free states and territories, (b) number of additional slave states, and (c) number of territories to be decided by popular sovereignty?
  • How did the entry of territories to be decided by popular sovereignty complicate the prior attempt to balance free and slaveholding states?
2. Lincoln Takes Issue with Douglas's Policy of Popular Sovereignty

To assess student understanding of the two opposing arguments offered in this lesson, have them write a short essay that answers the following questions:

  • Summarize Douglas's historical and political argument for popular sovereignty and Lincoln's moral and political argument against it.
  • Whose argument is more persuasive and why?
3. Thinking over the Consequences of the KansasNebraska Act

Contrary to Douglas's prediction, the KansasNebraska Act did not "impart peace to the country & stability to the Union." Ask students to respond to the following questions with short paragraph answers.

  • Suppose the KansasNebraska Act did reduce national agitation over slavery. Would that be reason enough for Congress to be neutral towards slavery in the territories?
  • Popular sovereignty, what Stephen Douglas called "the great principle of self-government," was the main idea behind the KansasNebraska Act. Whose voice was conspicuously absent in the decision over whether or not to permit slavery in the territories and why was this voice ignored?

Extending The Lesson

1. The Mexican War, 18461848

For more information about what Henry Clay called "this most unnecessary and horrible war with Mexico," see the following EDSITEment-reviewed weblinks:

2. The Compromise Measures of 1850

For the text of the Compromise of 1850, see the EDSITEment-reviewed weblink "National Archives and Records Administration: Our Documents—The Compromise of 1850." For more details, see the EDSITEment-reviewed weblink "Africans in America: The Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Act."

3. "Bleeding Kansas": The Fight to Settle a Territory and the Future of Slavery

For more details about the struggle to settle Kansas, see the EDSITEment-reviewed weblink "Africans in America: Bleeding Kansas."

4. Stephen Douglas's Rejection of the Lecompton Constitution of 1857

After Kansas and Nebraska were organized by Congress in 1854, the struggle to form a constitution for Kansas took center stage. Proponents of a free Kansas set up a territorial legislature in Topeka, while pro-slavery settlers established a government in Lecompton. Stephen Douglas reflected on the progress of popular sovereignty in the Kansas territory in 1858, the year Congress debated whether or not to accept the pro-slavery constitution devised at Lecompton. Have students read the text on (very short) pages 22 and 23 from the July 9, 1858 Speech of Senator Douglas at Chicago, Illinois, at the EDSITEment-reviewed weblink Abraham Lincoln Historical Digitization Project and answer the following questions:

  • Does Douglas favor the extension of slavery into the federal territory of Kansas?
  • Why does Douglas disagree with the attempt of President Buchanan and Congress to recognize the pro-slavery constitution produced by the Lecompton convention in Kansas? Does it have anything to do with its protection of slavery? (Note: For brief historical background on the Lecompton Constitution, which Douglas saw as a violation of popular sovereignty, have a student look up the year "1857" at the EDSITEment-reviewed HarpWeek timeline and report what it says about the Lecompton Constitution.)
  • Does Douglas believe people in the federal territories have the right to establish slavery if they want it? Why or why not?
Selected EDSITEment Websites

The Basics

Grade Level


Time Required

2-3 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > People > African American
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > AP US History
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Civil Rights
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Expansion and Reform (1801-1861)
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. > Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
  • History and Social Studies > People > Other
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Demographic Changes
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Economic Transformation
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Immigration/Migration
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Reform
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Slavery
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Debate
  • Discussion
  • Evaluating arguments
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Making inferences and drawing conclusions
  • Map Skills
  • Online research
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Using primary sources
  • Writing skills
  • Lucas Morel, Washington & Lee University (Lexington, VA)
  • Constance Murray, Grace Christian High School (Staunton, VA)


Activity Worksheets
Student Resources