Democrats had extolled the finality of the COMPROMISE OF 1850 as a permanent resolution of the slavery controversy. Its constitutional elements included the stringent Fugitive Slave Act of 1850; the organization of New Mexico and Utah Territories without a prohibition of slavery; abolition of the slave trade in the DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA; and the "Clayton Compromise," which made all questions arising in the TERRITORIAL COURTS involving blacks' personal freedom or title to slaves directly appealable to the Supreme Court of the United States. The Illinois Democrat STEPHEN A. DOUGLAS, chairman of the Senate Committee on the Territories, disrupted this settlement in 1854, however, by introducing a bill to organize the remainder of the LOUISANA PURCHASE territory in order to facilitate construction of a transcontinental railroad that would have Chicago as its midcontinent terminus.
Douglas's original bill contained minor concessions to slavery, including reenactment of the Clayton Compromise provisions for Kansas Territory. But dissatisfied proslavery senators wrested further concessions. These included the declaration that the Missori Compromise of 1820 (which prohibited slavery in the Louisiana Purchase territory north of latitude 36°30', except in Missouri) had been superseded by the Compromise of 1850 and was void. The Kansas-Nebraska Bill enacted the principle of popular sovereignty, declaring that "all questions pertaining to SLAVERY IN THE TERRITORIES ? are to be left to the decision of the people residing therein." It included a vague suggestion that the federal Constitution might in some unspecified way inhibit the power of a territorial legislature to exclude slaves. The bill explicitly endorsed "nonintervention," a code word for an indefinite congeries of proslavery constitutional principles that hinted at an absence of power in any government to inhibit the intrusion of slavery into the territories prior to statehood.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act, together with the Compromise of 1850, surrounded the free states and the free territory of Minnesota with a cordon of territories open to slavery, thus threatening to make the Great Plains a vast proslavery chasm between the free states of the northeast and the...