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

"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 Kansas–Nebraska 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 Kansas–Nebraska Act of 1854 would settle the growing agitation over slavery.

Articulate why Abraham Lincoln opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act and its policy of popular sovereignty.

Distinguish Lincoln's understanding of self-government from Douglas's understanding of popular sovereignty.