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The divergent interests of the sections were such that the calm produced by the general acquiescence in the compromise of 1850 could not have endured indefinitely; sooner or later the slumbering antagonism must have been aroused. Nevertheless, the measure which disturbed the national quiet and led to a sudden sharp revival of the sectional struggle seems to have been at that time an undeniable political blunder. At the opening of the session of Congress in December 1853, there was no federal territory where the status of slavery was not fixed by some law bearing the character of an agreement between the sections; and the federal government and most of the state governments were in the hands of a party committed to the carrying-out of the compromise measures. In his first annual message, Pierce congratulated the country upon its calm, and added: "That this repose is to suffer no shock during my official term if I have power to avert it, those who placed me here may be assured." 

Among minor matters requiring consideration at this time was that of a territorial organization for the region known as Nebraska, comprising that part of the old Louisiana purchase west of Iowa and Missouri. It was still mainly left to Indian tribes, and had few white inhabitants, but there was a growing desire in western Missouri for a chance to settle in the territory and a need for protecting the transcontinental wagon route. Hence, Douglas, of Illinois, introduced a series of bills for that purpose, one of which passed the House in 1853, but was blocked in the Senate. Nothing in the bill nor in the language of any of its supporters indicated the idea that the prohibition of slavery in Nebraska by the Missouri Compromise was affected. There was, therefore, nothing to connect the proposed measure with any danger to the political calm.

January 4, 1854, Douglas reported to the Senate from the committee on territories a new Nebraska bill that added to the formal sections a proviso permitting the territory to enter the Union when it became a state, "with or without slavery." The accompanying report said, in substance, that since many southerners thought the Missouri Compromise unconstitutional, and since the principle of non-intervention had been established by the compromise of 1850, it was advisable to treat all territories as New Mexico and Utah had been dealt with. The bill apparently left the existing prohibition of slavery undisturbed and yet indirectly authorized the inhabitants to disregard it.

Douglas appears to have introduced this singular and startling proposition entirely on his own motion, and its purpose seems to have been nothing more nor less than an effort on the part of a presidential candidate to secure favor in a quarter where he lacked popularity. Douglas was too thorough a Democrat in person and in feeling to be regarded with sympathy by the aristocratic south, and if he was to be successful in the Democratic national convention of 1856, he saw that he must somehow gain southern approbation. He undoubtedly thought that by applying the "principle of non-intervention," so successful in allaying discord since 1850, he could win the applause of the south and retain the support of all conservatives at the north who were committed to upholding as a finality the similar arrangement in the cases of Utah and New Mexico. That his bill would produce a revolution in politics and do more than any one thing to precipitate civil war never entered his head. His action was based on a total failure to comprehend the veiled sectionalism of the time and a still deeper inability to grasp the moral bearing of the anti-slavery feeling of the north. At no time in all his relations with the slavery controversy did Douglas show any other criterion than that of immediate political success; and hence all his energy and ability led him ultimately to disaster.

Instantly the question arose as to the exact meaning of the bill, and Douglas was promptly obliged to forsake his vagueness, for on January 16 Dixon, of Kentucky, offered an amendment expressly repealing the Missouri Compromise; and the next day Sumner responded by offering one expressly reaffirming that clause. It now became necessary for Douglas to commit himself, and with reluctance he decided to risk everything, to accept the principle of the Dixon amendment, and to take the consequences. The first step was to secure the approval of the president, and in this Jefferson Davis, secretary of war acted as intermediary. In an interview on January 22, Pierce gave his assent, for he too was thinking of 1856 and could not risk offending southern supporters. Pierce's conduct has been severely criticized in view of his pledge to allow no disturbance of the existing repose. A farsighted leader would have foreseen the dangers involved in such a radical proposal as the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, but Pierce was not farsighted nor was he in any sense a leader. He was simply a man of moderate abilities, good intentions, and personally attractive qualities, who was wholly dominated by his party and its acknowledged leaders.

The bill was again reported by Douglas on the 24th, with new provisions, by which the Missouri Compromise was openly repealed, on the ground that it was "superseded by the principles of the legislation of 1850," and the territory was divided into two parts, that lying west of Missouri to be called Kansas, the rest to remain as Nebraska. It was clearly intended by this last change to prepare Kansas for settlement by the Missourians; while Nebraska, with the larger limits, was left to the slower process of northern immigration. At the same time the Washington Union, reputed to be Pierce's organ, printed an editorial saying that the administration approved the Kansas-Nebraska bill and regarded it as "a test of Democratic orthodoxy." The proposition was now fairly before the country.

By this time the public at the north realized that something startling was underway, and newspapers began to spread the alarm that Douglas and the administration were attempting to open the territories to slavery and disturb the existing equilibrium. Whig and Democratic, as well as Free Soil, papers grew extremely bitter in their comments when the bill was reported in its second form. Then appeared, on January 24, a solemn and impassioned protest, written by Chase and signed by the group of third-party men in Congress, entitled the "Appeal of the Independent Democrats in Congress to the people of the United States." They called upon the people of the north to oppose the passage of the bill by every possible means of protest; they arraigned it in strong language as "a gross violation of a sacred pledge; as a criminal betrayal of precious rights; as part and parcel of an atrocious plot"; they called the repealing clause, with its reference to the compromise of 1850, "a manifest falsification of the truth of History"; they accused Douglas of criminal ambition, and in conclusion, they asked: "Will the people permit their dearest interests to be thus made the mere hazards of a presidential game?" By the time debate opened, the interest of the whole country was concentrated upon the measure, and sectional passions were rising with alarming rapidity.

Then followed one of the most desperate contests in the history of Congress. In the Senate, the debate lasted from January 30, almost without interruption, until March 3. It was seen from the start that, with the Democratic administration and most of the southern Whigs to aid him, Douglas was secure of passing his bill through the Senate; but the debating strength of the minority was totally unexpected, and the country hung upon the speeches with unrelaxing tension. Douglas began with a savage personal attack upon Chase and the Independent Democrats, whom he accused of having "applied coarse epithets by name" to him in their address, and of stirring the alarm of the north by deception. "This tornado," he cried, "has been raised by Abolitionists and Abolitionists alone. They have made an impression upon the public mind . . . by a falsification of the law and of the facts."

On the other side, the assailants of the bill replied with exasperating emphasis, especially Chase, who in this debate reached in many respects the highest point of his senatorial career. He spoke not merely for the small third-party group, but for the entire north, and in the strength of argument, boldness, and directness of attack he took the leadership. He tore the sham features from the bill with a merciless hand. "The truth is," he said, "the Compromise acts of 1850 were not intended to introduce any principle of territorial organization to any other territory except that covered by them. . . . Senators, will you unite in a statement which you know to be contradicted by the history of the country? ... If you wish to break up the time-honored compact embodied in the Missouri Compromise, ... do it openly, do it boldly. Repeal the Missouri prohibition. Do not declare it 'inoperative' because 'superseded by the principles of the legislation of 1850 . . . You may pass it here," he continued, "it may become law. But its effect will be to satisfy all thinking men that no compromises with slavery will endure, except so long as they serve the interests of slavery. . . . This discussion will hasten the inevitable reorganization of parties upon the new issues. ... It will light up a fire in the country which may, perhaps, consume those who kindle it."

Besides Chase, Sumner spoke for the Free Democrats, Seward for the anti-slavery Whigs, and Everett for the Webster Whigs, all opposing the bill on the ground of its violation of national faith. Another recruit was Chase's colleague, Wade, who up to this time had made no strong impression on the Senate, but who now found a proper field for his rough and aggressive manner in assailing the south and the Democrats. Without Douglas's wonderful adroitness he had much of Douglas's strength in invective and was from this time among the foremost northern combatants.

On the other side, long speeches were made by the leading southern senators; but the real defense of the bill rested with Douglas, who showed in this contest an ability in parliamentary combat unequaled by any of his opponents. His arguments, whether good or bad, were presented in such a manner as to appear plausible and reasonable. He dwelt at length upon the futility of mere laws to exclude or establish slavery in any territory, asserting that the Northwest Ordinance, the Missouri Compromise, and the Oregon act had been mere superfluities, the real decision in every case having been made by the settlers in those regions. Hence he insisted upon the universal applicability of the "principle of nonintervention claiming the authority of Clay for its support. Further, he repeatedly assailed the Missouri Compromise as in no sense a real compact, and by continually attacking minor defects in his opponents" reasoning made it appear that they and not he was on the defensive before the country.

In the final session, Douglas kept up a running debate single-handed against Seward, Sumner, Everett, and Chase, and showed himself more than their equal, closing with a series of bitterly personal attacks upon Chase and Sumner. He accused them of entering the Senate "by corrupt bargain or a dishonorable coalition in which their character, principles, and honor were set up at public auction or private sale..... "Why," he concluded, "can we not adopt the principle of this bill as a rule of action in all territorial organizations? Why can we not deprive these agitators of their vocation? ... I believe that the peace, the harmony, and the perpetuity of the union require us to go back to the doctrines of the Revolution, to the principles of the Constitution, to the principles of the Compromise of 1850, and leave the people, under the Constitution, to do as they may see proper in respect to their own internal affairs."

However much Douglas might attempt to restate his proposition in a form more attractive to the north, the issue was the naked one of opening to the introduction of slaves to a territory from which they had hitherto been excluded. Chase and Sumner continually offered amendments designed to emphasize this fact, but their propositions were voted down without ceremony by the administration majority. The only amendments of importance were two providing that the old laws of Louisiana recognizing slavery should not be revived, and limiting the right to acquire and hold land to American citizens. Douglas further accepted an amendment eliminating the equivocal phrase "superseded by" the compromise of 1850, and substituting the words "inconsistent with." A proviso was also added, declaring it to be "the true intent and meaning of this act not to legislate slavery into any territory or state, nor to exclude it therefrom; but to leave the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their own domestic institutions in their own way." Benton sneered at this as "a little stump speech injected in the belly of the bill." In this form the measure was finally passed, on March 3, 1854, by a vote of 37 to 14. The majority was composed of 28 Democrats, northern and southern, and 9 southern Whigs. The minority comprised 2 Free-Soilers, 6 northern Whigs, 1 southern Whig — Bell, of Tennessee — 4 northern Democrats, and 1 southern Democrat — Houston, of Texas.

The struggle was now transferred to the House, but when, on motion of Richardson, of Illinois, Douglas's lieutenant, the bill was taken up on March 21, it was placed on the calendar of the committee of the whole by a vote of no to 95. With fifty others ahead of it, the measure seemed placed beyond the reach of legislation; but it was generally recognized that it was not dead, The willingness of the "Hard" faction of New York Democrats to harass the president caused this apparent defeat and not a genuine opposition to the bill. Still, for weeks it was in abeyance and the country remained in suspense.

Meanwhile, the members of Congress and the administration were treated to an explosion of fury in the north which surpassed anything in the memory of living men. At a breath, the contented calm of 1853 vanished in a storm of anger towards Douglas, Pierce, and the south. From outraged conservatives who saw their cherished compromise disturbed, to radical anti-slavery men who fiercely welcomed the bill as an unmasking of the perfidy of the "slave power," arose a tempest of protest. Editorials and public letters were followed by meetings, without distinction of party, to denounce the bill, at first singly in the large cities, then by dozens, scores, hundreds in nearly every county and town of the free states. Five northern legislatures passed resolutions of protest. Ministers of all denominations preached sermons against "the Nebraska iniquity," and from them and from thousands of others petitions and remonstrances of every sort began to pour in upon Congress.

On the other side, the bill received scant applause. Those in the northern states who did not object to it were silent in the tumult of denunciation, and only a few administration newspapers attempted any defense of the measure. Three Democratic legislatures refused to take any action in the matter, and the only one to pass approving resolutions was that of Illinois, Douglas's own constituency. In the south, the general feeling was at first indifference, and the repeal of the Missouri Compromise under Douglas's leadership was regarded as a northern affair; but when the rising anti-slavery excitement became evident, southern newspapers rallied to uphold Pierce. Still, vigorous popular support to counterbalance the northern agitation was lacking.

In the face of this storm, the administration showed a fighting spirit. However much Pierce may have regretted the demon he had conjured up, Douglas and Davis were not the men to yield, and it soon appeared that every sort of official pressure was to be used to put the bill through the House. The cabinet, excepting Marcy and McClelland, who held aloof, worked heartily to whip waverers into line by the use of patronage; and the Union, the administration mouthpiece, let it be clearly understood that no Democrat who forsook his party at this crisis could hope for further favors.

On May 8, accordingly, with a majority stiffened up by these means, Richardson, of Illinois, strongly aided by Stephens, of Georgia, forced the fighting.

The original Kansas-Nebraska bill was too deeply buried for resurrection, but by laying aside eighteen other bills in succession, another Nebraska bill, introduced into the House earlier in the session, was finally reached, and to this Richardson moved the Senate bill as a substitute. This maneuver was successful by a vote of about 109 to 88, but the opposition, keyed up to unwonted obstinacy by the popular excitement, was not discouraged from a desperate resistance. On May 11 Richardson moved to close debate, whereat the minority, led by Campbell, of Ohio, Mace, of Indiana, and Washburne, of Illinois, began a contest of determined filibustering. For over two days, in continuous session, the minority consumed time by incessant roll-calls, motions to adjourn, requests to be excused from voting, and every other device within the rules of the House, while feeling ran continually higher, language grew harsher, and popular excitement grew more intense. The Senate was unable to keep a quorum, for its members were watching from the galleries while Douglas steered affairs on the floor of the House. Finally, late in the second night, when all were angry and many were inflamed with liquor, a personal altercation between Campbell and Stephens and Seward, of Georgia, nearly brought on a free fight. Only the utmost exertions of the speaker, Boyd, of Kentucky, succeeded in securing an adjournment.

Then followed more days of a bitter altercation, but, on a second trial, Richardson obtained a vote to close the debate on May 20. The opposition could not have had any real hope of defeating the bill by obstruction, for there was no fixed end to the session nor was there any sign of weakening among the majority; yet, led by the indefatigable Campbell, they still fought on with dilatory motions and amendments until, by a clever trick, Stephens managed to force a vote on the night of May 22. The bill passed, 113 to 100. The majority was composed of 101 Democrats, northern and southern, and 12 southern Whigs; the minority comprised no less than 42 northern Democrats and 2 southern ones who defied the administration, together with 45 northern and 7 southern Whigs and 4 Free Democrats. Since the bill as passed left out the provision restricting land-holding to citizens, it went back to the Senate, which concurred, after a brief debate, on May 25, by 35 to 12. On May 30 Pierce signed it, and the Kansas-Nebraska bill became law.

No act more fateful in character ever passed the Congress of the United States, for it set in motion the train of political changes which led straight to the Civil War. It was the direct cause of a radical alteration of northern political feeling, of the total failure of the compromising or Union policy of 1850, and of the destruction of both the national parties. The suddenness of its introduction, and the recklessness of its disturbance of the territorial situation, were such as to make an instant powerful impression; and the members of Congress who passed it realized, when the session finally ended in August, that they had begun a political revolution whose end no man could foresee.