Unlike the lands taken from Mexico, Kansas and Nebraska lay in the nation’s heartland, directly in the path of westward migration. Slavery, moreover, was prohibited there under the terms of the Missouri Compromise, which Douglas’s bill repealed. In response to Douglas’s proposal, a group of antislavery congressmen issued the Appeal of the Independent Democrats. Written by two abolitionists from Ohio—Congressman Joshua Giddings and Senator Salmon P. Chase—the Appeal proved to be one of the most effective pieces of political persuasion in American history. It arraigned Douglas’s bill as a “gross violation of a sacred pledge,” part and parcel of “an atrocious plot” to convert free territory into a “dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves.” It helped to convince millions of northerners that southern leaders aimed at nothing less than extending their peculiar institution throughout the West.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act opened a vast area in the nation’s heartland to the possible spread of slavery by repealing the Missouri Compromise and providing that settlers would determine the status of slavery in these territories.

Thanks to Douglas’s energetic leadership, the Kansas-Nebraska Act became law. But it shattered the Democratic Party’s unity. Even as Congress debated, protest meetings sprang up throughout the North. Fearing that the bill’s unpopularity among their constituents would harm their chances for reelection, half the northern Democrats in the House cast negative votes. Loyalty to Pierce, Douglas, and their party led the other half to support the measure. It is difficult to think of a piece of legislation in American history that had a more profound impact on national life. In the wake of the bill’s passage, American politics underwent a profound reorganization. During the next two years, the Whig Party, unable to develop a unified response to the political crisis, collapsed. From a region divided between the two parties, the South became solidly Democratic. Most northern Whigs, augmented by thousands of disgruntled Democrats, joined a new organization, the Republican Party, dedicated to preventing the further expansion of slavery.

An 1853 broadside for one section of the Illinois Central Railroad. One of the most important new lines of the 1850s, the Illinois Central opened parts of the Old Northwest to settlement and commercial agriculture, and it helped to cement Chicago’s place as the region’s foremost city.

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