Saturday, March 22, 2008

Nebraska Bill

Nebraska Bill, who was he? No, this is not about some old grizzled veteran of the Plains or some legendary Nebraska political figure. This is not a story about a “he.” This is a story about a “what.”

This is about one of the most important Congressional Acts in the history of United States; the “Nebraska Bill.” As those of you who attended National Park Service Historian Todd Arrington’s presentation at Homestead National Monument of America’s Heritage Center on Sunday, February 17, 2008 on “Lincoln, the early Republicans, and the West” learned; one consequence of this Bill among many consequences was the eventual passage of the Homestead Act of 1862.

The history of the “Nebraska Bill” began in 1844 when Illinois Congressman Stephen Douglas introduced a bill in the House of Representatives “to establish the territory of Nebraska,” which was read twice and referred to the committee on territories from which it was not reported. The boundaries of the territory were very similar to the current states of Kansas and Nebraska combined into one territory and extending to the Continental Divide.

Between 1844 and 1854 a bill “to establish the territory of Nebraska” was introduced five more times. The size of the “Nebraska Territory” to be created by these “Nebraska Bills” varied. The last would have created a “Nebraska Territory” with a southern border near the current southern border of Kansas and a northern border that is the current border with Canada. This “Nebraska Territory” would have reached from the Missouri River on the east to the Continental Divide on the west. This “Nebraska Bill” was introduced on January 4, 1854 by Stephen Douglas, by then a U. S. Senator from Illinois. As stated above, the first “Nebraska Bill” died in committee, but generally the “Nebraska Bills” introduced between Douglas’ first in 1844 and his 1854 “Nebraska Bill” passed in the House of Representatives, but were defeated in the Senate.

This is where the story gets interesting. The bills failed in the Senate because of the Missouri Compromise. Because of the regulations of the Missouri Compromise this “Nebraska Territory” and any states carved out of it would be free, free from slavery. Therefore, Senators from the slave holding states voted against and defeated all these “Nebraska Bills.” Already greatly out numbered in the House of Representatives, the creation of new “Free States” would make the representatives of the slave holding states greatly out numbered in the Senate as well.

Back to the last “Nebraska Bill” introduced by Senator Douglas in 1854, it was hotly debated, but never went to an actual vote. Douglas replaced it on January 23, 1854 with a bill that would create the “Territories of Kansas and Nebraska.”

This new Bill introduced after a meeting among President Franklin Pierce, four Senators from slave holding states, and Douglas would over throw the Missouri Compromise and allow “Popular Sovereignty” to decide the issue of slavery in any resulting states that were created from the two territories.

It was very difficult, but with the support of President Pierce and the four senators from slave holding states, Douglas got this Bill passed by both Houses of Congress. Today, history books call this “Nebraska Bill” “the Kansas-Nebraska Act,” but back then, even though it created two territories, it was still called the “Nebraska Bill.”

The passage of this final “Nebraska Bill” led to a rush of settlers to Kansas who wanted to either “vote slavery up” or “vote slavery down.” This of course, led to open violence in Kansas. The “Nebraska Bill” was the main issue of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates held when Abraham Lincoln tried to take Douglas’ Senate seat away from him in 1858. And this “Nebraska Bill” as it was then called eventually led to Secession and the Civil War.

And as stated by National Park Service Historian Todd Arrington’s in his presentation on “Lincoln, the early Republicans, and the West” it not only led to the passage of the Homestead Act in 1862, but with the slave holding Senators and Representatives no longer voting in the U S. Congress it also led to the Morrill or Land Grant College Act which created public supported state universities and to the Pacific Railroad Act that created the Transcontinental Railroad. The Homestead Act, Land Grant College Act, and Pacific Railroad Act, like the “Nebraska Bill” had been defeated in the 1850’s by Senators and Representatives from the slave holding states because these acts would have expanded “the free labor system” and as Abraham Lincoln said, “give everyone a fair chance in the race of life.”


Johannsen, Robert J. 1973. Stephen A. Douglas. New York: Oxford University Press.

Morton, Sterling J. and Watkins, Albert. 1918. History of Nebraska. Lincoln, Nebraska: Western Publishing and Engraving Company. [Revised Edition: Augustus O. Thomas, James A. Beattie, and Arthur C. Wakeley Editors]

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