Anniversary of the Single Most Consequential Law in American History

Roundup: Talking About History

From the Associated Press (May 29, 2004):

Take out your pencils and a clean sheet of notebook paper.

Sunday being the 150th anniversary of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, here's a pop history quiz.

Pretend the act died in Congress instead of being signed by President Franklin Pierce on May 30, 1854. With that in mind, answer these three questions:

When was slavery abolished in the United States?

What party has won six of the last nine presidential elections?

Whose picture is on the $5 bill?

The answer to all three questions: Who knows?

The law got Abraham Lincoln back into politics, led to the formation of the Republican Party and sparked what some historians consider the real first battles of the Civil War.

"It would be hard to find another single piece of legislation in all of American history that had greater consequences for the country - both good and bad - than the Kansas-Nebraska Act," said historian James McPherson of Princeton University.

To a 21st-century reader, the act appears fairly innocuous. It created the two territories out of land acquired through the Louisiana Purchase, and provided that residents of each would decide whether slavery would be allowed there.

But it had the effect of repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which prohibited slavery in new territories - creating worries that the southern "Slave Power" wanted to expand slavery nationwide.

A coalition of anti-slavery Democrats, breakaway Whigs and Free Soil Party members responded by forming the Republican Party. In 1860, the fledgling Republicans gained the White House.

In Illinois, the act's passage fell "like a thunderclap" on Lincoln, a former Whig congressman who had taken himself out of politics five years earlier.

"He was so outraged by the act that he got back in," McPherson said.

On Oct. 16, 1854, Lincoln vented that outrage in a speech at Peoria, Ill. He argued that Congress, not a popular vote in the territories, should determine the slavery issue in Kansas and Nebraska.

"If there is any thing which it is the duty of the whole people to never entrust to any hands but their own, that thing is the preservation and perpetuity of their own liberties and institutions," he said.

The speech revitalized Lincoln politically. Six years later, with the Democratic Party split along sectional lines over slavery, Lincoln was elected in a three-way race....

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