When thinking about the causes of the American Civil War, it’s worth thinking about the Kansas-Nebraska Act as a cause of the Civil War. The Act in itself was a significant contributor to the tensions that followed, and it is no accident that the Civil War broke out just six years after the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed. The question remains, of course, whether it is better to see the Kansas-Nebraska Act as a cause of the Civil War, or as a symptom of the underlying problems that caused the Civil War.
It’s important to understand, first of all, what the Kansas-Nebraska Act did. In 1854, congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The Act, among other things, repealed the Missouri Compromise that was originally put forth in 1820. The Act was designed such that those who settled in the territories of Kansas and Nebraska would be allowed to choose whether or not slavery would be legal within those territories. This idea of “popular sovereignty,” in many ways, helped make the Kansas-Nebraska Act an important cause of the Civil War.
By the time we reached the Kansas-Nebraska Act, tensions were already high on the issue of slavery between the North and the South. This sectional struggle, however, had largely been muted, and had been fought in the congress rather than on the battlefield or in the streets. The root cause of the Civil War – this sectional struggle – is what ultimately led to the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
It was in Kansas that this sectional struggle turned violent. With the intention that Kansas would decide for itself the issue of slavery, abolitionists and supporters of slavery rushed to Kansas and became locked in armed conflict. The radical abolitionist John Brown, in response to violence between these two groups, exacted bloody vengeance on pro-slavery forces in Kansas.
Following the conflict in Kansas, the political parties made their final sectional splits, with the third-party Republicans overtaking the remaining Whigs and becoming the dominant political force in the North.
There were, of course, other symptoms and signs of this sectional conflict, that eventually led to the Civil War. The Dred Scott decision, which favored the South, further polarized the sections. After John Brown’s raid on a Federal facility, both sides blamed the conflict on the other side. The North labeled the slave culture as a culture of violence dominated by the planters (known as the “slave power conspiracy”). The South characterized all abolitionists along the lines of the radical John Brown, and feared a northern takeover of southern culture.
Sadly, the Kansas-Nebraska Act was the conduit through which the North and South conflict truly became violent, and eventually triggered the Civil War.