The Fugitive Slave Act and the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin combined to create unprecedented (unheard of) Northern hostility toward the South and its continued defense of slavery. Then in 1854, a new law called the Kansas-Nebraska Act made relations between the North and the South even worse. This law sparked a terrible eruption of violence between pro- and antislavery factions that ultimately took the lives of more than two hundred people.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act had been crafted by Senator Douglas of Illinois in response to the growing national call for construction of a railroad that would extend from America's East Coast to its West Coast. Douglas wanted to build this "transcontinental" railroad through the middle of the country so that it would pass through the Chicago area. The senator, who was thinking about running for president some day, knew that if his route was chosen, he would be very popular with voters in his home state and other regions of the North. In addition, Douglas owned a lot of real estate along his proposed route, and he recognized that he could sell this land to merchants and other business owners for a great deal of money.
Douglas faced two major obstacles to his plan, however. First, his proposed route would take the railroad through a vast territory in the middle of the country that still had not formed any kind of government. Several attempts had been made to establish a territorial government in the region, but these had been blocked by Southern legislators, who knew that the territory's location would make it a nonslave state according to the terms of the Missouri Compromise of 1820. Second, the South wanted the transcontinental railroad for itself and resisted all efforts to route the railroad through the North.
As Douglas studied the situation, he recognized that there was one way that he could convince Southern legislators to give up their claim on the railroad. In return for their support of his proposed route through the North, Douglas submitted a bill that divided the disputed territory into two territories—Kansas and Nebraska— that could decide for themselves whether to permit slavery. Southern members of Congress accepted the deal, and even though many Northern lawmakers voted against Douglas's Kansas-Nebraska Act, it received enough support for passage.
Based on the concept of "popular sovereignty," which held that the citizens of each new state should be able to decide for themselves whether to allow slavery, the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 was enormously popular with Southerners. It explicitly abolished the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had drawn a line across the country and outlawed slavery in thousands of square miles of American territory. This gave the South a golden opportunity to expand the practice of slavery.
In the North, however, the new law was greeted with disgust and mounting anger. Antislavery congressmen, led by Senator Salmon P. Chase (1808-1873) of Ohio, immediately issued a document called The Appeal of the Independent Democrats. It denounced Douglas's bill as "a criminal betrayal of precious rights" and "part and parcel of an atrocious plot [to convert the West] into a dreary region of despotism [acting like a ruler with total power], inhabited by masters and slaves. . . . Whatever apologies may be offered for the toleration of slavery in the States, none can be offered for its extension into Territories where it does not exist." These feelings were echoed by abolitionists all across the North, and millions of the region's citizens became convinced that the South meant to spread the stain of slavery all across the West.
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