Slavery’s Future

The Border Ruffian Code in Kansas, 1856

“In 1854, his profession had almost superseded the thought of politics in his mind, when the repeal of the Missouri compromise aroused him as he had never been before.”Lincoln autobiography, 1860

The smoldering conflict over slavery’s expansion became ignited in January 1854 by Illinois Senator Stephen A. Douglas’s proposal to organize the Nebraska Territory. Under the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which promised that the territories north of the southern border of Missouri would be forever free, Nebraska would have been a free state. Douglas’s bill included a provision declaring that territorial legislatures would determine the status of slavery in Nebraska — a proposal known as “popular sovereignty.” Southern Democrats demanded that a subsequent version of the bill split off a second territory, Kansas, which was more likely than Nebraska to become a slave state.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act became law in May 1854, with far-reaching consequences for political party alignments. Whigs split along sectional lines and the party all but disappeared by 1856. Northern Democrats who opposed Kansas-Nebraska joined with like-minded Whigs to form a new coalition, the Republican Party. The Republicans immediately became a force in national elections, winning 18 percent of seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1854 and 49 percent of House seats by 1858.

The 1858 senatorial election in Illinois pitted Douglas, the North’s most prominent Democrat, against Lincoln, who was little known outside of Illinois. In the seven debates that took place across Illinois, slavery’s expansion to the territories often took center stage.