The Kansas-Nebraska Act: 1854 and 2016

Posted on June 17, 2016. Filed under: Civil Rights, Civil War, Politics, Slavery | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , |

Our first comparison in our series examining the serious and striking comparisons between the U.S. in the months (and years) before the 1860 presidential campaign and the 2016 presidential campaign goes back a little to an article about the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854.

As you recall, the KNA overthrew the Missouri Compromise (1820) that established a line at 36°30′ north of which all states entering the Union would be free, and south of which would be slaveholding states. Stephen Douglas, the Democratic author of the KNA, wanted Nebraska to enter the Union free, but the territory was so large it extended south of the compromise (or, better put, appeasement) line and Southern Congressmen refused to let it enter as free. So Douglas split the territory in two, creating the Kansas Territory to be a potential southern state. Anticipating a howl of outrage from northern members of his party at turning part of a free territory into a slave territory, Douglas then proposed that the people of each territory be allowed to decide for themselves, in a vote, whether to enter the Union free or slave (this was called popular sovereignty).

The legacy of that decision is infamous in U.S. history. People who lived in other states went to Kansas to swing the vote, and violence between proslavery and antislavery interlopers gave the territory the name Bleeding Kansas. Abolitionist John Brown got his start in Kansas as an antislavery interloper who led a small militia that killed proslavery interlopers.

In 1854, when the KNA was passed, the nation was divided once again along sectional lines, and now we come to our comparison with 2016. As we said in our opening post,

Today’s sectionalism, then, represents a divide between liberals and conservatives that seems as strong as the divide between North and South ever did. Liberals and conservatives are found in every geographic region of the country, which means there is no region that serves as a safe haven for either…

When we read one of the many New York Times‘ editorials on the KNA, it rings eerily familiar. Substitute in “gun control” or “immigration”, or “war on Christianity” for “slavery”, or “liberal” for “Northerner” and “conservative” for “Democratic” and it could be an account of Congress in 2016:

Popular indignation at the passage of the Nebraska bill finds vent in various projects, some wise and some otherwise. …Cassius Clay [abolitionist and one of the founders of the Republican Party] proposes that every body who voted for the bill shall be treated to a social as well as a political crucifixion—and seeks to prepare the country for a dissolution of the Union. [Abolitionist William Lloyd] Garrison [seizes] the opportunity to push [a] program of dissolving the Union and breaking down the Constitution. We hear men a good deal more sensible than any of these proclaiming their hatred of all compacts [agreements] which bind us to the Slaveholding interest, and declaring they will keep no faith with them.

…The champions of the [KNA] know perfectly well that they have acted in direct opposition to the popular will. The originators of the iniquitous measure have for months been as clearly persuaded that the great sense of the country is against this outrageous breach of honor and good faith, as they are of their own existence, yet they have accomplished it through recreant Northern votes. These Northern traitors prating Democratic cant have gone deliberately against what they knew to the the mind of the North. The smallest fraction of decent regard to honor and propriety would have led them to put it over till the sense of the country could be tested by another election. They were chosen to vote on no such question. Its coming up was not dreamed of by the people at large. When it was sprung upon the country, there was but one consentaneous cry of indignation throughout all the Northern land, in which honest and honorable men of all parties joined.

…A large portion of the honest and honorable feeling of the South was against it too.The palpable indecency of driving it through under such circumstances, was doubtless as much a matter of distinct consciousness to the majority that perpetrated it, as to the minority that resisted it, as to the country that cried out against it. They did it because it was in their power to do it—they had the Might and that they knew was all the Right they had.

The clear and seemingly accepted sense of the nation being firmly divided into North and South, each with a plan for the nation that is utterly opposed to the other’s, and anyone who dreamt of bridging the gap lacerated as a villain—all these are bitterly familiar to Americans today. So is calling for a “political crucifixion” of anyone outside one’s own faction. And, increasingly, so is the threat of the nation splitting over political ideology.

The KNA truly was a terrible piece of legislation, which justified this kind of outrage and made it understandable to call those who supported it traitors without honor or propriety. The issues we face in 2016 do not match up. 1854 was about enslaving human beings and breeding them for sale. 2016 is about whether to let non-white (Latin American) and increasingly non-Christian (Muslim) immigrants into the country. 2016 is about whether every American should own and carry a gun, and whether transgender citizens possess civil rights. These seem like lesser issues that could be solved politically by drawing on our national legacy of always extending more and more civil rights to our citizens and future citizens.

But that’s what makes 2016 exactly like 1854 or 1860—there is a growing contingent of Americans who want to stop extending civil rights to all U.S. citizens and future citizens. They want to roll back civil rights in this nation and reserve them to the few: the native-born, straight, and Christian. That is a kind of slavery, and that’s why the 21st-century sectionalism of liberal v. conservative is as potent and dangerous as the 19th-century sectionalism over slavery ever was.

Next time: Trump and Brooks

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