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.
Upon completion of this lesson, students should be able to do the following:
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:
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.
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 Kansas–Nebraska 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.
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:
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 Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854. Two map analysis worksheets that have direct links to the map, provided on page 2–3 of the PDF, can be downloaded, printed, and distributed to students for recording their answers to the questions.
The Kansas–Nebraska 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 Kansas–Nebraska 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:
Part 1: Read Lincoln and Douglas speeches
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:
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.
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.
Have students answer the map-based questions below:
To assess student understanding of the two opposing arguments offered in this lesson, have them write a short essay that answers the following questions:
Contrary to Douglas's prediction, the Kansas–Nebraska Act did not "impart peace to the country & stability to the Union." Ask students to respond to the following questions with short paragraph answers.
For more information about what Henry Clay called "this most unnecessary and horrible war with Mexico," see the following EDSITEment-reviewed weblinks:
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."
For more details about the struggle to settle Kansas, see the EDSITEment-reviewed weblink "Africans in America: Bleeding Kansas."
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:
2-3 class periods