Rise of Sectionalism: 1815–1859

Conflict over Slavery

Kansas-Nebraska Act and Bleeding Kansas

Passage of the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act granted popular sovereignty in the Kansas and Nebraska territories. The act ultimately led to violent conflict between pro- and antislavery factions in Kansas.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act, 1854

The Kansas-Nebraska Act repealed the Missouri Compromise and created the Kansas and Nebraska Territories.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act, also called "An Act to Organize the Territories of Nebraska and Kansas," was introduced to Congress in 1854 by Stephen A. Douglas. A senator from Illinois, Douglas's motive for the act was economic in nature.

A growing number of Americans were settling in the West. Douglas and many others believed a transcontinental railroad was critical in supporting this movement. There were two possible routes for a transcontinental line: through the North or through the South. Douglas favored a northern route that passed through Chicago. This would provide great economic benefit to his home state. Also, should the mounting regional tensions lead to war, he preferred the rail lines be in the North rather than the South.

For the rail line to follow the northern route, it would have to pass through the unorganized Nebraska Territory. This vast region included the present-day states of Kansas, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Montana. Borders would have to be established before the railroad could break ground for the new line. Another concern was presented by the provisions of the 1820 Missouri Compromise. The compromise would prohibit slavery in this region, as it fell above the compromise's cutoff line of 36°30′ latitude.

Douglas crafted a bill to address both issues. First, the Kansas-Nebraska Act established borders for the Kansas Territory and the Nebraska Territory. Second, it provided for popular sovereignty to address the issue of slavery in both territories. Finally, it repealed the Missouri Compromise, including the 1820 line that prevented slavery in the Louisiana Purchase. The Kansas-Nebraska Act was hotly contested in the Senate but passed on March 4, 1854, in a 37–14 vote. It became law on May 30 of that year.

Douglas and others had intended for popular sovereignty to resolve the matter of slavery civilly and democratically. In reality it incited a small-scale but extremely bloody civil war in the Kansas Territory. Immediately following passage of the law, antislavery and proslavery forces rushed to the Kansas and Nebraska territories. Northerners created groups with the sole purpose of moving to and settling the area. Meanwhile, proslavery factions crossed the border from Missouri into southern Kansas. In 1855 John Brown, an avid abolitionist, arrived in Kansas with several of his adult sons and settled in as an antislavery guerrilla leader.

The antislavery and proslavery groups engaged in numerous brutal conflicts, both vying for supremacy in the Kansas Territory. The violence reached such a degree that newspapers covering the events began referring to them as "Bleeding Kansas." In the Pottawatomie Massacre, Brown and his followers killed five proslavery advocates. The antagonism and fighting lasted for seven years. During this time, several proposed state constitutions were written. Finally, in 1861 Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state.

Dred Scott Decision

Enslaved African American Dred Scott attempted to gain his freedom through the court system. Dred Scott v. Sandford became a landmark decision by the U.S. Supreme Court on constitutional law in 1857.

The Dred Scott decision was a controversial 1857 Supreme Court ruling that determined slaves could not be citizens and that prior residence in a free state did not entitle an enslaved individual to freedom.

Dred Scott was born into slavery around 1800 in Virginia on the plantation of slaveholder Peter Blow. The Blow family moved to Missouri (a slave state) in 1830. Two years later, Blow sold Scott to army surgeon John Emerson. In 1833 Emerson was transferred to an army post in Illinois (a free state). Scott worked for Emerson in Illinois for nearly three years. Emerson was again transferred—this time to Wisconsin Territory (a free territory). In the Wisconsin Territory, Scott married Harriet Robinson, who was also enslaved. Emerson and the Scotts moved briefly to Louisiana in 1838, where Emerson married. The Emersons and Scotts returned to Wisconsin Territory soon after. Scott and his wife were sent to Missouri in 1840, where Emerson hired them out to various people.

Emerson died in 1843, and ownership of the Scotts passed to his widow, Irene Emerson. Dred Scott had lived in free territories for seven years. He approached Irene Emerson, asking to buy his freedom, but was refused. In 1846 Scott and his wife filed petitions in St. Louis Circuit Court requesting their freedom and citing earlier residence in both a free state and free territory as the basis for their request.

The case Scott v. Emerson was tried several times. In 1850 a Missouri state court jury ruled in favor of the Scotts, setting them free. Mrs. Emerson appealed that decision, and in 1952 the Missouri Supreme Court reversed the state court's decision, making the Scotts enslaved once more. Irene Emerson then gave control of her late husband's estate—including the Scotts—to her brother John Sandford. As Dred Scott v. Sandford, the case finally reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1857 the court ruled that Scott could not claim freedom based on prior residence in a free state or territory. Once he moved back to the slave state of Missouri, his status was governed by Missouri state law. Moreover, the decision stated, slaves were not citizens of the United States and could not bring suit in federal courts. The court further declared the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional and Congress lacked authority to prohibit slavery in the territories.

The sons of Dred Scott's first owner, Peter Blow, had kept in touch with him over the years. When the Supreme Court decision left the Scotts in slavery, his former owner's sons bought the family and gave them their freedom.

The following decade saw the Dred Scott decision overturned by the 13th and 14th Amendments to the Constitution, which were ratified in 1865 and 1868, respectively.

John Brown's Raid

Three years after his involvement in Bleeding Kansas, abolitionist John Brown led a raid on the arsenal in Harpers Ferry in an effort to incite a slave rebellion.
Marines led by Colonel Robert E. Lee stormed the stronghold of John Brown and his followers, ultimately capturing the rebels on October 18, 1859.
Credit: Courtesy of the Library of Congress,LC-USZ62-126970
John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry was one of the most notorious and catalytic events that contributed to the outbreak of the Civil War. A militant abolitionist, Brown gained national attention for his role in Bleeding Kansas. He and his sons had led an assault on a proslavery settlement in Kansas in May 1856. Known as the Pottawatomie Massacre, Brown's raid resulted in the murder of five men.

Back in the East, Brown concocted a scheme to incite a uprising among enslaved workers in Maryland and Virginia. To do this, Brown planned to arm local slaves with weapons from the federal armory in Harpers Ferry in present-day West Virginia. Using the name Isaac Smith, he rented the Kennedy Farmhouse four miles from Harpers Ferry, in July 1859. For three months, Brown's followers, known as Brown's Army, hid at the farm and planned their raid.

Brown and 21 followers—a group consisting of 2 of Brown's sons, 14 white men, and 5 African American men—began the raid on the night of October 16, 1859. They quickly captured the armory and two bridges leading into Harpers Ferry. They also took a group of 60 hostages from the town in hopes of inspiring local slaves to revolt.

Word of Brown's raid spread quickly, and within two days local militia and a group of U.S. marines led by Colonel Robert E. Lee regained control of Harpers Ferry and the armory. Seventeen people, including both of Brown's sons, were killed during the fighting. Brown and his six surviving followers were tried and hanged shortly after. Brown's execution cemented his status as a symbol of the abolitionist movement.

Though many Northerners openly opposed Brown's raid, it had a significant impact on the South. Southerners, already fearful of slave uprisings, were infuriated by Brown's actions. The raid on Harpers Ferry helped hasten the already impending civil war between North and South.