In this signed petition, 34 citizens of St. Joseph County, Michigan, voiced their concern that the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 would open the American West to slavery. “[S]lavery, in the nature of things, is a violation of republican and democratic principles,” the petition stated, “and therefore its extension should be prohibited at all times in all places under this professedly free Government.”
Since 1820, the Missouri Compromise outlawed slavery in the territories west of the Mississippi River and north of the 36°30' latitude line. The Kansas-Nebraska Act, however, proposed allowing citizens of the Kansas and Nebraska Territories, both of which existed north of the line, to determine through direct vote whether to legalize slavery.
The expansion of slavery and the admission of new western states into the Union caused fierce debate across the country in the years before the Civil War. Three decades earlier, lawmakers had engineered the Missouri Compromise to maintain a balance of power in Congress between free and slave states. But the popular sovereignty clause in the Kansas-Nebraska Act threatened to upset the equilibrium on Capitol Hill by potentially creating several new pro-slavery states. “[I]t is a violation of the solemn compact adopted in 1820, when Missouri was admitted into the Union,” the petition admonished.
In the House, debate on the bill was often contentious. At one point, discussions over whether to refer the bill to the Committee of the Whole rather than the more sympathetic House Committee on Territories led Representative Francis Cutting of New York to challenge pro-slavery Representative John C. Breckinridge of Kentucky to a duel.
Ultimately, the Kansas-Nebraska Act passed and became law on May 30, 1854. In response, abolitionists and proponents of slavery rushed to Kansas, hoping to secure enough support to influence the vote whether to allow slavery. The situation in Kansas grew increasingly volatile and violence often erupted between groups of abolitionists and pro-slavery forces. The series of deadly skirmishes eventually became known as “Bleeding Kansas.” Both Kansas and Nebraska abolished slavery only months before the start of the Civil War in 1861.