Through the spoils of war in 1848, and a $15 million payment, the U.S. acquired nearly half of Mexico's territory. To some, Mexico had dumped its useless wasteland and the U.S. had been duped into paying for it. But to most, the acquisition of the Mexican territory was the culmination of Manifest Destiny--the fulfillment of the expansion across the North American continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, that was ordained by God.
But did God intend for this territory to be slaveholding or free?
Within two short years, California petitioned to become a state. Slaveholding or free? That question would propel the nation that had just become a continental power to the precipice of dissolution.
It took the Compromise of 1850 to avert a disaster. The Compromise itself was made up several bills. Among them, California would be admitted as a free state. To pacify slave-state politicians upset about the imbalance, the Fugitive Slave Act was passed. It required Northern citizens to assist in the recovery of slaves escaping from the South.
With the threat of dissolution addressed, a continental build-out could get underway. The country pined for a transcontinental railroad. The South wanted a route that ran far south, but the North insisted on a route in the center. Democratic Senator Stephen A. Douglas was committed to this central route and to the prerequisite organization of the territory of Nebraska.
As chairman of the Senate Committee on Territories, Senator Douglas had the responsibility of sponsoring the necessary legislation. He had already been instrumental in bringing five states into the Union and had created five territories. He repeatedly tried to organize Nebraska, but sectional differences had made it impossible thus far.
The Missouri Compromise, thirty years prior, had prohibited slavery north of the line of 36º 30', and all of the Nebraska territory was above that line. Yet Douglas' 1854 legislation--though it used the same language under which Utah and New Mexico had become territories--made the proposed condition of slavery or freedom unclear. So the legislation was revised to appeal to the Southern Democrats, explicitly stating that the decision about slavery was "to be left to the decision of the people residing therein, through their appropriate representatives." Essentially, "popular sovereignty" would rule the day and kill the slave restriction in the Missouri Compromise.
Still, Democratic Senator Archibald Dixon of Kentucky didn't think this pushed the Missouri Compromise far enough. Dixon proposed an amendment that specifically stated the Missouri Compromise restriction did not apply to the proposed Nebraska Territory, nor to any other territory of the United States.
Douglas wanted to avoid a fight and begged Dixon to withdraw his amendment, but Dixon refused. So Douglas supported the Kansas-Nebraska bill--now modified to propose two territories from the land rather than just one. The bill declared that the Missouri Compromise was inconsistent with the Compromise of 1850 and, hence, inoperative. With the backing of Democratic President Franklin Pierce, the bill had become law.
Protests arose not only from free-soilers and abolitionists, but also from moderates--including moderate Democrats--who thought the slavery issue had been put into remission in 1850, and now found it eating away at the country again.
Abraham Lincoln, retired from politics and happy in his law practice, was compelled to return to politics. As Paul M. Angle observed, Lincoln "believed that no man concerned for his country could remain silent." Writing about the event later, in the third person, Lincoln said of himself, "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."
"It is as if two starving men had divided their only loaf," Lincoln...
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