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17th-18th Century Articles
Return of Rogers' Rangers
Betrayed by a Mason?
Benedict Arnold in Canada
The Success of Napoleon
Battle of Great Bridge
Frederick: Battle of Leuthen
G. Washington and J. Monroe
The Start: Jumonville's Glen
The Raid on Thurso, 1649
Why France Lost the Seven Years' War
The Battle of Cowpens
War Comes to the Islands
The Battle of Dunbar
Governor Kieft's Personal War
Philip's War
Zaporozhian Cossack Battle at Korsun

Bruce Brager Articles
Book Review: Operation Paperclip
Book Review: Midnight Rising
Cuban Missile Crisis
Memorials Past and Future
American Way of War
Flip Side of Containment
Stephen Douglas and Popular Sovereignty
The Start: Jumonville's Glen
Winter Warfare
The City Point Explosion
A Cold War Retrospective
John Paul Jones & Asymetric Warfare
Early Texas Military History
The Office of Strategic Services
The Battle of St. Etienne

Book Reviews
Security First

Books by Bruce L. Brager 

The Texas 36th Division

John Paul Jones America's Sailor

There He Stands: The Story Of Stonewall Jackson

The Iron Curtain: The Cold War in Europe

Recommended Reading

Stephen A. Douglas

The Impending Crisis, 1848-1861

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Stephen Douglas and Applied Popular Sovereignty
Stephen Douglas and Applied Popular Sovereignty
by Bruce L. Brager

At noon, December 5, 1853, the first session of the 33rd Congress opened. Very few senators had over six years seniority. "Unlike the men they displaced, whose national perspective had been born of long service, the new senators were more inclined to follow their own personal and sectional dictates."[1]

The same day the session began, Senator Augustus Caeser Dodge, of Iowa, introduced a bill authorizing the formal organization of a territorial government for Nebraska. A similar bill had been defeated in the previous congress. Expediting construction of a "northern route" for the hotly debated intercontinental railroad[2] was the major reason for wanting to organize the territory. The Nebraska bill was referred to the Senate Committee on Territories, under the chairmanship of Senator Stephen A. Douglas, Democrat of Illinois.

An immediate problem for Douglas, who wrote the formal January 4, 1854 report on the bill, and the revised text of the bill,[3] was how to handle the proposed territory's location. It lay above the "Missouri Compromise line," north of which slavery was not permitted. The Compromise of 1850,[4] the not totally popular "Armistice of 1850", had already added a state and two territories without reference to the Missouri Compromise Line. Southern support for the bill would be at risk if the strict geographical dividing line between slave and free states was to be revived.

By the time the bill eventually passed on May 25, 1854, it created two territories, Kansas and Nebraska. With the passing of this bill, the concept of “popular sovereignty” was introduced to the public. Douglas later described this concept as:

"The principle, under our political system, … that every distinct political Community, loyal to the Constitution and the Union, is entitled to all the rights, privileges, and immunities of self-government in respect to their local concerns and internal policy, subject only to the Constitution of the United States."[5]

An amendment to the bill specifically repealed the Missouri Compromise and its geographic limitation on slavery in the territories. Though he had not introduced the amendment, during the course of the debate Douglas stated that "I do not like, I never did like, the system of legislation on our part, by which a geographical line, in violation of the laws of nature, and climate, and soil, and of the laws of God, should be run to establish institutions for a people."[6] Douglas considered slavery the most dangerous American political issue. However, he chose to focus his corrective efforts on the agitation over slavery, seeking to solve the problem by taking slavery out of national politics[7] - by letting the people of each state choose their own "domestic" institutions. Despite his experience in local Illinois politics, Douglas did not realize that it would be far harder to moderate local politics.

"Bleeding Kansas"

Comprehensive in most of its elements, the Kansas Nebraska Act failed to specify when the people of the two territories would vote on whether to allow slavery - at the time of application for statehood or earlier. The Act also failed to set voter eligibility standards. As a result, Kansas (lying just west of a slave state, Missouri, saw a rush of settlers.

Northerners moved first. William H. Seward of New York told the Senate, just after the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed the House, "We will engage in competition for the soil of Kansas, and God give the victory to the side which is strongest in numbers as it is in the right."[8]

Southern leaders took Northern bombast very seriously. More free states would tip the balance in the Senate. With slavery seeming to be on the decline in several border states, this might eventually lead to a situation where three quarters of the states were free states, enough to pass a Constitutional amendment banning slavery. Perhaps more importantly, expansion of slivery was seen as a way of dispersing the rapidly growing slave population, and lessening the chances of slave rebellion, the greatest Southern fear.

Southerners saw Northern efforts in Kansas as a threat. Senator David Atchison of Missouri, for one, warned Southerners to match Northern efforts, to move to Kansas and to vote. In November of 1854, Atchison helped lead several thousand Missourians to vote in the first territorial election. 1,700 fraudulent ballots (according to a later Congressional investigation) led to election of a pro-slavery delegate to Congress.[10] A census taken soon after the election showed that sixty percent of legitimate Kansas settlers came from Missouri. Atchison's side probably would have won anyway.

The pro-slavery forces outdid themselves in the March 1855 elections for a territorial legislature. The same census which gave the origins of Kansas settlers listed 2,905 legal voters among the legitimate residents. Election returns showed that over 6,300 votes were cast in easily electing a pro-slavery legislature.[11]

The presidentially appointed territorial governor, Andrew Reeder, provoked by the violent behavior of the pro-slavery elements, had changed since his arrival from sympathy t towards opposition to slavery.

Reeder ordered new elections in about a third of the Kansas districts, most of which were won by free soil candidates. When the legislature met in July 1855, though, it seated the original winners. Reeder went to Washington, to try and get President Franklin Pierce to bring some order to the situation in Kansas.

However, as a result of pressure from Southern supporters, Reeder lost his job.

By the fall of 1855, legitimate free state settlers in Kansas outnumbered pro-slavery elements. They intended neither to obey the slave code laws nor recognize the legislature that passed them. A free soil convention met in Topeka in October, drafting a free state constitution and calling for new legislative elections. By January of 1856, Kansas had a second legislature meeting in Topeka - unofficial, though representing a majority of actual residents.

After a violent fall, a harsh winter kept things quiet - for a while. In May, 1856, the pro-slavery Kansas Judge Samuel Lecompte, organized a grand jury and had it indict members of the Topeka legislature for treason. A group of 800 Missourians, trusted by Lecompte, was deputized as a posse to arrest the indicted legislators living in Lawrence. The free-soil leaders decided not to resist, though the legislators fled Lawrence. The Missourians entered the town, destroying its two newspaper offices, hotel and the home of the elected free-soil governor.[12]

Sumner and Brooks

Violence was not limited to Kansas. On May 19 and 20, just before the attack on Lawrence, Senator Charles Sumner from Massachusetts spoke before the Senate. He called his speech "The Crime Against Kansas." Sumner had warned that he would speak with passion - an accurate warning. His passion exceeded his taste and judgment, even in the view of some of the Republican press commenting on the speech. Stephen Douglas was one target of insulting attacks by Sumner. While listening to Sumner speak, after being unable to ignore the speech, Douglas was heard to mutter "That damn fool will get himself killed by some other damn fool."[13]

Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina was a particular target of attack for Sumner. At one point Sumner accused Butler of having taken the "harlot" slavery as a "mistress." A few days after the speech, Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina, a cousin of Butler, approached Sumner, seated at his desk on the floor of the Senate. He told Sumner the speech was "a libel on South Carolina, and Mr. Butler . . . Brooks then started hitting Sumner over the head with a gold-headed cane. Sumner became entangled in his desk, unable to rise until he yanked the desk off its hinges. Brooks hit him more than thirty times, until Sumner was finally rescued. Sumner missed several years' work in the Senate, during which time he was re-elected.

In Kansas, immediate retaliation occurred for the Lawrence attack, and the Sumner beating. A 56 year old abolitionist named John Brown, believing in the Biblical eye for an eye, decided to take revenge. He and some of his sons were members of a free-state militia company on its way to Lawrence when that attack occurred. Brown was already in a rage when the news of the near murder of Senator Sumner reached him. He figured that pro-slavery men had killed at least five anti-slavery men since the troubles began. On the night of May 24-25, therefore, Brown, four of his sons and three other men abducted five pro[-]slavery settlers, picked at random. The five were murdered; their skulls split open with broadswords.[14]


The culminating Kansas political crisis began in January 1857. The pro-slavery legislature enacted a bill calling for what was effectively a rigged constitutional convention. More significantly, the bill also provided that the new constitution would take effect without a public referendum. The delegates would be elected in June of that year.

Governor John C. Geary, later a successful Northern Civil War General, the second governor since Reeder, had come to Kansas anti-abolition but been converted by the blatant and ruthless behavior of the pro-slavery elements - greatly outdoing similar behavior on the part of the anti-slavery people. Geary immediately vetoed the convention bill, only to have the veto easily over - ridden by the legislature. Despite his success in temporarily quelling violence the fall before, Geary now had had enough. With his life threatened, and unable to accomplish anything further, Geary resigned on March 4, 1857.

Buchanan offered the governor's job to Robert J. Walker of Mississippi. After consulting with Douglas, Walker accepted. Walker arrived in Kansas the end of May, accepting that there was a free soil majority among Kansas voters, but also that he was too late to change what he acknowledged was an unfair election system. Free soil men ignored Walker's plea for them to participate anyway. Only 2,200 of the 9,250 registered voters participated, and pro-slavery elements won all seats in the convention.

Walker strongly favored a referendum for the resulting constitution. At first, the new President, James Buchanan, supported a referendum.[15] The majority of national Southern leaders, knowing the likely results of such a referendum, began to put pressure on Buchanan to back down on his support. Walker further outraged the Southerners by his actions after the election for the next Kansas legislature, which took place before the convention met. He threw out massively fraudulent returns, and certified a free soil legislature.

The Lecompton convention created what was basically a standard state constitution. But it also guaranteed slavery. The entire document could not be amended for seven years. The slavery clause could never be amended The constitution would be sent to Congress, with a petition for statehood, without a referendum.

On November 7, the convention changed its mind and decided to call for a referendum on the "Constitution with Slavery," or the "Constitution with No Slavery." The "no slavery" clause did not actually ban slavery, just the importation of new slaves into Kansas. Walker was sure Buchanan would reject the "vile fraud." Buchanan, sympathetic to the South, had already buckled under Southern pressure to support the Lecompton constitution.[16]

Stephen Douglas and Lecompton

Stephen Douglas left Chicago in late November, 1857, headed to what he knew would be a fight in Washington. Walker, who would not return to Kansas, had already spoken to Buchanan and learned the President was going to back down. He went to New York and informed Douglas of the results of the meeting. On December 3rd Douglas went to the White House to meet with Buchanan. He soon began to argue with the President, warning him unsuccessfully that giving in on Kansas would destroy the Democratic party in the North.

Buchanan's December State of the Union message to Congress praised the constitutional procedures in Kansas as being fully in line with popular sovereignty. Immediately after Buchanan's speech was read, Douglas announced his support of most of the message. "...but in regard to one topic - that of Kansas - I totally dissent from all that portion of the message which may fairly be construed as approving of the proceedings of the Lecompton convention."[17]

On December 9th, Douglas spoke again. He stated that the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and popular sovereignty, did not require just the issue of slavery to be decided by the people. Aside from the fact that the Kansas convention had no power to establish a government, the people were being required to vote for the constitution, with or without slavery. They could not vote against the constitution itself. The reason, Douglas accurately declared, was that supporters knew they would lose a fair vote. Douglas went on to say that it was not his business whether it was a good or bad constitution, as long as it did not violate the Federal constitution and the fundamental principles of liberty. Douglas ended by declaring that, "If this constitution is to be forced down our throats, in violation of the fundamental principles of free government, under a mode of submission that is a mockery and an insult, I will resist it to the last."[18]

The "official" Kansas vote on the constitution took place on December 21, 1857. Including 2,270 ballots later declared fraudulent, the constitution with slavery won by a vote of 6,143 to 569. The Topeka Legislature scheduled its own referendum, allowing people to vote on the entire constitution. This vote was boycotted by the pro[-]slavery elements. The final result was 161 for the constitution, 10,226 against the document.[19] Congress now had two votes from which to choose.

On February 2, 1858, Buchanan sent the Lecompton constitution to Congress with a message recommending admission of Kansas as a slave state. Support for Lecompton might have assured Douglas Southern support for the Democratic nomination in 1860. However, the combination of Lecompton and the power of the Republican Party in the Northern states would have given Douglas little chance of any electoral success in the North. Douglas could also have remained silent. However, he told the Senate that he could never vote to "force this constitution down the throats of the people of Kansas, in opposition to their wishes and in violation of our pledges."[20]

During the debate, "Douglas by physical and mental force dominated the scene. A host in himself, he was always ready to meet any onslaught, to answer any argument."[21] There was little chance of victory in the Senate, and Lecompton was approved by a vote of 33 to 25. Douglas was better able to muster anti-Lecompton forces in the House, winning by a vote of 120 to 112. A weak compromise bill later passed, calling for a vote on the Lecompton constitution -- guaranteed fair, but under the guise of settling some land issues. The constitution lost by 11,300 to 1,788.[22] Kansas was eventually admitted as a state in January 1861.


Douglas arrived back in Washington, after closely beating Abraham Lincoln for reelection to the Senate, for the "lame duck" session of Congress in December, 1858. He quickly discovered that the Southerners, and the administration, had a long memory. They took revenge for Lecompton by removing Douglas as Chairman of the important Senate Committee on Territories.[23]

In 1860, most Southerners bolted the regular Democratic Party. Some radical secessionists specifically wanted to elect Abraham Lincoln, to provoke a breakup of the Union.[24] Most Southerners, however, were motivated merely by dislike of Douglas. But the effect was the same.

Douglas disliked disunion even more than the Republican Party. He made preventing disunion, rather than his own victory, the focus of his campaign. He toured the country, including the deep South, at political and personal risk (and health risk, as Douglas died seven months after the election), mounting the first national speaking campaign of a major political candidate. Should Lincoln win, Douglas's message went (and he expected Lincoln to win), losing an election was no reason to destroy the government. As Bruce Catton put it:

"... the greatness that had always hovered around his dogged trail descended full upon him …. Douglas’ course of action alone was that of the statesman."[25]

Political actions have to stand the final test of how things work out in the long run. This may be unfair, as it holds political leaders accountable for things they may not be able to anticipate. Then again, perhaps anticipating should be part of the job description of political leaders. Perhaps they should be judged on how well they acted not only with what they knew then but also with what they should and could have known then and with what we know now. We know how the Kansas-Nebraska Act turned out, the immediate local disaster for the people of Kansas, the contribution to the major disaster of the American Civil War. Why did Douglas make his mistake? Was his call for local control of local institutions, seemingly in keeping with American tradition (and modern trends) just an idea not sufficiently thought out, another example of the historical law of unintended consequences? Douglas was neither the first nor the last leader to make such an error. Was Douglas engaging in political pandering, not knowing or disregarding the extreme risk to local peace and the unity of the nation? Though he later made prodigious efforts to correct his mistake, Douglas would not have been the first, nor would he be the last, political leader to take a high risk action for short term gain.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography

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Copyright © 2007 Bruce L. Brager.

Written by Bruce L. Brager. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Bruce L. Brager at:

About the author:
Bruce Brager is a writer specializing in military history, defense and foreign policy. He is the author of ten published books and over fifty published articles.

Published online: 12/08/2007.

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