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  • Today when people complain about the state

  • of American politics,

  • they often mention the dominance of

  • the Democratic and Republican Parties,

  • or the sharp split between red and blue states.

  • But while it may seem like both of these things

  • have been around forever,

  • the situation looked quite different in 1850,

  • with the Republican Party not yet existing,

  • and support for the dominant Democrats and Whigs

  • cutting across geographic divides.

  • The collapse of this Second Party System

  • was at the center of increasing regional tensions

  • that would lead to the birth of the Republican Party,

  • the rise of Abraham Lincoln as its leader,

  • and a civil war that would claim over half a million lives.

  • And if this collapse could be blamed

  • on a single event,

  • it would be the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854.

  • The story starts with the Missouri Compromise of 1820.

  • To balance the number of slave states

  • and free states in the Union,

  • it allowed slavery in the newly admitted

  • state of Missouri, while making it off limits

  • in the remaining federally administered Louisiana Territory.

  • But compromises tend to last

  • only as long as they're convenient,

  • and by the early 1850s,

  • a tenacious Democratic Senator from Illionis

  • named Stephen A. Douglas

  • found its terms very inconvenient.

  • As an advocate of western expansion,

  • he promoted constructing a transcontinental

  • railroad across the Northern Plains

  • with an eastern terminus in Chicago,

  • where he happened to own real estate.

  • For his proposal to succeed,

  • Douglas felt that the territories

  • through which the railroad passed,

  • would have to be formally organized,

  • which required the support of Southern politicians.

  • He was also a believer in popular sovereignty,

  • arguing that the status of slavery in a territory

  • should be decided by its residents rather than Congress.

  • So Douglas introduced a bill

  • designed to kill two birds with one stone.

  • It would divide the large chunk of incorporated land

  • into two new organized territories: Nebraska and Kansas,

  • each of which would be open to slavery

  • if the population voted to allow it.

  • While Douglas and his Southern supporters

  • tried to frame the bill as protecting

  • the political rights of settlers,

  • horrified Northerners recognized it as

  • repealing the 34-year-old Missouri Compromise

  • and feared that its supporters' ultimate goal

  • was to extend slavery to the entire nation.

  • Congress was able to pass the Kansas-Nebraska Act,

  • but at the huge cost of bitterly dividing the nation,

  • with 91% of the opposition coming from Northerners.

  • In the House of Representatives,

  • politicians traded insults and brandished weapons

  • until a Sargent at Arms restored order.

  • President Pierce signed the bill into law

  • amidst a storm of protest,

  • while Georgia's Alexander Stephens,

  • future Confederate Vice President,

  • hailed the Act's passage as,

  • "Glory enough for one day."

  • The New York Tribune reported,

  • "The unanimous sentiment of the North is indignant resistance."

  • Douglas even admitted that he could travel

  • from Washington D.C. to Chicago

  • by the light of his own burning effigies.

  • The political consequences

  • of the Kansas-Nebraska Act were stunning.

  • Previously, both Whigs and Democrats had included

  • Northern and Southern lawmakers united around

  • various issues, but now slavery became

  • a dividing factor that could not be ignored.

  • Congressmen from both parties

  • spoke out against the act,

  • including an Illinois Whig named Abraham Lincoln,

  • denouncing "the monstrous injustice of slavery"

  • in an 1854 speech.

  • By this time the Whigs had all but ceased to exist,

  • irreparably split between

  • their Northern and Southern factions.

  • In the same year, the new Republican Party

  • was founded by the anti-slavery elements

  • from both existing parties.

  • Although Lincoln still ran for Senate as a Whig in 1854,

  • he was an early supporter of the new party,

  • and helped to recruit others to its cause.

  • Meanwhile the Democratic Party was shaken

  • when events in the newly formed Kansas Territory

  • revealed the violent consequences of popular sovereignty.

  • Advertisements appeared across the North

  • imploring people to emigrate to Kansas

  • to stem the advance of slavery.

  • The South answered with Border Ruffians,

  • pro-slavery Missourians who crossed state lines

  • to vote in fraudulent elections

  • and raid anti-slavery settlements.

  • One northern abolitionist, John Brown,

  • became notorious following the

  • Pottawatomie Massacre of 1856

  • when he and his sons hacked to death

  • five pro-slavery farmers with broad swords.

  • In the end, more than 50 people

  • died in Bleeding Kansas.

  • While nominally still a national party,

  • Douglas's Democrats were increasingly divided

  • along sectional lines,

  • and many Northern members left

  • to join the Republicans.

  • Abraham Lincoln finally took up

  • the Republican Party banner in 1856

  • and never looked back.

  • That year, John C. Fremont,

  • the first Republican presidential candidate,

  • lost to Democrat, James Buchanan,

  • but garnered 33% of the popular vote

  • all from Northern states.

  • Two years later, Lincoln challenged Douglas

  • for his Illinois Senate seat,

  • and although he lost that contest,

  • it elevated his status among Republicans.

  • Lincoln would finally be vindicated in 1860,

  • when he was elected President of the United States,

  • defeating in his own home state,

  • a certain Northern Democrat,

  • who was finally undone by the disastrous

  • aftermath of the law he had masterminded.

  • Americans today continue to debate

  • whether the Civil War was inevitable,

  • but there is no doubt that the

  • Kansas-Nebraska Act made the ghastly conflict

  • much more likely.

  • And for that reason,

  • it should be remembered as one of the most

  • consequential pieces of legislation

  • in American history.

Today when people complain about the state

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【TED-Ed】How one piece of legislation divided a nation - Ben Labaree, Jr.

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