The Mexican War and Slavery, 1845-1861

Author: Stephen A. Douglas  | Date: 1854

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Defense of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill

At the next meeting of Congress after the election of General Pierce, Mr. Douglas, as chairman of the committee on Territories, reported the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, accompanied by a special report, in which he said, "that the object of the committee was to organize all Territories in the future upon the principles of the compromise measures of 1850. That these measures were intended to have a much broader and more enduring effect than to merely adjust the disputed questions growing out of the acquisition of Mexican territory, by prescribing certain great fundamental principles, which, while they adjusted the existing difficulties, would prescribe rules of action in all future time, when new Territories were to be organized or new States to be admitted into the Union." The report then proceeded to show that the principle upon which the Territories of 1850 were organized was, that the slavery question should be banished from the halls of Congress and the political arena, and referred to the Territories and States that were immediately interested in the question, and alone responsible for its existence; and concluded, by saying "that the bill reported by the committee proposed to carry into effect these principles in the precise language of the compromise measures of 1850."

By reference to those sections of the Kansas-Nebraska Act which define the powers of the Territorial Legislature, it will be perceived that they are in the precise language of the acts of 1850, and confer upon the Territorial Legislature power over all rightful subjects of legislation, consistent with the Constitution, without excepting African slavery.

During the discussion of this measure it was suggested that the 8th section of the act of March 6,1820, commonly called the Missouri Compromise, would deprive the people of the Territory, while they remained in a Territorial condition of the right to decide the slavery question, unless said 8th section should be repealed. In order to obviate this objection, and to allow the people the privilege of controlling this question, while they remained in a Territorial condition, the said restriction was declared inoperative and void, by an amendment which was incorporated into the bill, on the motion of Mr. Douglas, with these words in explanation of the object of the repeal: "it being 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 domestic institutions in their own way, subject only to the Constitution of the United States." In this form, and with this intent, the Kansas-Nebraska Act became a law, by the approval of the President, on the 30th of May, 1854.

This bill and its author were principally assailed upon two points. First, that it was not necessary to renew slavery agitation, by the introduction of the measure; and secondly, that there was no necessity for the repeal of the Missouri restriction.

To the first objection it was replied, that there was a necessity for the organization of the Territory, which could no longer be denied or resisted. That Mr. Douglas, as early as the session of 1843, had introduced a bill to organize the Territory of Nebraska, . . . Mr. Douglas renewed the introduction of his bill for the organization of Nebraska Territory in each session of Congress, from 1844 to 1854, a period of ten years, and while he had failed to secure the passage of the act, in consequence of the Mexican war intervening, and the slavery agitation which ensued, no one had objected to it upon the ground that there was no necessity for the organization of the Territory. During the discussions upon our Territorial questions during this period, Mr. Douglas often called attention to the fact that a line of policy had been adopted many years ago, and was being executed each year, which was entirely incompatible with the growth and development of our country. It had originated as’ early as the administration of Mr. Monroe, and had been continued by Mr. Adams, General Jackson, Mr. Van Buren, Harrison, and by Tyler, by which treaties had been made with the Indians to the east of the Mississippi River, for their removal to the country bordering upon the States west of the Mississippi or Missouri Rivers, with guaranties in said treaties that the country within which these Indians were located should never be embraced within any Territory or State, or subjected to the jurisdiction of either, so long as grass should grow and water should run. These Indian settlements, thus secured by treaty, commenced upon the northern borders of Texas, or Red River, and were continued from year to year westward, until, when in 1844, Mr. Douglas introduced his first Nebraska Bill, they had reached the Nebraska or Platte River, and the Secretary of War was then engaged in the very act of removing Indians from Iowa, and settling them in the valley of the Platte River, with similar guaranties of perpetuity, by which the road to Oregon was forever to be closed. It was the avowed object of this Indian policy to form an Indian barrier on the western borders of Arkansas, Missouri and Iowa, by Indian settlements, secured in perpetuity by a compact, that the white settlements should never extend westward of that line. This policy originated in the jealousy, on the part of the Atlantic States, of the growth and expansion of the Mississippi Valley, which threatened in a few years to become the controlling power of the nation. Even Colonel Benton, of Missouri, who always claimed to be the champion of the West, made a speech, in which he erected the god Terminus upon the summit of the Rocky Mountains, facing eastward, and with uplifted hand, saying to Civilization and Christianity, "Thus far mayest thou go, and no farther!" and General Cass, while Secretary of War, was zealous in the execution of this policy. This restrictive system received its first check in 1844, by the introduction of the Nebraska Bill, which was served on the Secretary of War, by its author, on the day of its introduction, with a notice that Congress was about to organize the Territory, and therefore he must not locate any more Indians there. In consequence of this notice, the Secretary (by courtesy) suspended his operations until Congress should have an opportunity of acting upon the bill; and inasmuch as Congress failed to act that session, Mr. Douglas renewed his bill and notice to the Secretary each year, and thus prevented action for ten years, and until he could procure action on the bill. In the mean time the passion of the Western people for emigration had become so aroused that they could be no longer restrained; and Colonel Benton, who was a candidate in Missouri for reelection to the Senate in 1852 and 1853, so far yielded to the popular clamor as to advise the emigrants, who had assembled in a force of fifteen or twenty thousand on the western border of Missouri, carrying their tents and wagons, to invade the Territory and take possession, in defiance of the Indian intercourse laws, and of the authority of the Federal Government, which, if executed, must inevitably have precipitated an Indian war with all those tribes.

When this movement on the part of Colonel Benton became known at Washington, the President of the United States despatched the Commissioner of Indian Affairs to the scene of excitement, with orders to the commanding officer at Fort Leavenworth to use the United States army in resisting the invasion, if he could not succeed in restraining the emigrants by persuasion and remonstrances. The Commissioner of Indian Affairs succeeded in procuring the agreement of the emigrants that they would encamp on the western borders of Missouri until the end of the next session of Congress, in order to see if Congress would not in the mean time, by law, open the country to emigration. When Congress assembled at the session of 1853-54, in view of this state of facts, Mr. Douglas renewed his Nebraska Act, which was modified, pending discussion, by dividing into two Territories, and became the Kansas-Nebraska Act. From these facts you can draw your own conclusion, whether there was any necessity for the organization of the Territory and of Congressional action at that time.


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Chicago: Stephen A. Douglas, "Defense of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill," The Mexican War and Slavery, 1845-1861 in America, Vol.7, Pp.205-210 Original Sources, accessed March 29, 2023,

MLA: Douglas, Stephen A. "Defense of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill." The Mexican War and Slavery, 1845-1861, in America, Vol.7, Pp.205-210, Original Sources. 29 Mar. 2023.

Harvard: Douglas, SA, 'Defense of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill' in The Mexican War and Slavery, 1845-1861. cited in , America, Vol.7, Pp.205-210. Original Sources, retrieved 29 March 2023, from