January 22 was a Sunday in 1854. The President was Franklin Pierce of New Hampshire. Though a New Englander, Pierce was firmly in the pro-slavery camp and had been put into office by the powerful slave-owning planters who dominated U.S. politics and controlled the Democratic Party. “Handsome Frank,” as he was known, was also a complicated blend of alcoholic and Sabbatarian, refusing to conduct business on Sundays.
As the new year dawned, the president had wisely avoided the controversy brewing in Congress over the spread of slavery into the remnants of the Louisiana Purchase. On December 14, 1853, Senator Augustus Dodge (D-IA) had introduced a bill to organize the Nebraska Territory, which was sent to Stephen Douglas’s (D-IL) Committee on Territories. From the start, the bill encountered Southern opposition because it did not repeal the so-called “Missouri Compromise Line” of 1820 that had barred slavery north of Missouri’s southern border. Agitated by the rapidly growing anti-slavery movement in the free states, Southerners were anxious to spread slavery as fast as possible before they lost control of either Congress or the Presidency (or both). Senate President Pro Tempore David Atchison (D-MO) led the opposition to Dodge’s bill. He and his “F Street Mess” housemates, Andrew Butler of South Carolina and James Mason and Robert Hunter of Virginia, made it clear to Douglas that no bill would receive their blessing that did not explicitly repeal the Line. Douglas, who eyed the presidency in 1856, on the other hand, had hoped to push through a bill that would create new Territories without an explicit repeal. Douglas took Dodge’s bill and went back to the drawing-board. Alone at his Washington residence, without consulting the President or his committee, Douglas created a new bill that employed the concept of popular sovereignty (allowing settlers to vote on slavery) but still lacked explicit repeal. The revised measure, not surprisingly, was not enough for Southern bosses.
On January 16, Archibald Dixon (W-KY) rose in the Senate and added an amendment to Douglas’s bill which would decisively ax the 1820 Line. The amendment was a line in the sand for all to see: if Northerners like Dodge and Douglas wanted western development, trans-continental railroads, and the presidency, they had to accept the unfettered spread of slavery. Douglas accepted the amendment, but his Northern colleagues immediately saw danger, since supporting a repeal of the Line would be political suicide in the free states.
Thus far, the most prominent Northern Democrat, President Pierce, had played no role in this legislative show-down. Pierce was understandably reluctant to get involved in such an explosive issue. If Southerners were not appeased, the Democratic Party would fracture and Southerners would hurl threats of secession; if slavery were permitted to spread above the Line, free state voters would leave the party in droves. Before deciding on a course of action, the President consulted his cabinet advisers Lewis Cass (D-MI) and William Marcy (D-NY). Both men cautioned him to stay out of the Congressional crisis. Pierce decided to ignore their advice and instead convened a meeting of his full cabinet to agree on a public course of action. On Saturday, January 21, they drafted an alternative to repeal. Instead of Congressional action, Pierce looked to a judicial solution (meaning that a federal court would rule on Congressional power over slavery in the Territories), hoping that passing the buck to the courts would prevent a sectional and partisan calamity.
They sent the plan to Douglas and the F Street Mess that night via Representative John Breckinridge (D-KY), who had close ties to both camps. The bosses rejected Pierce’s plan and instructed Douglas to proceed with outright repeal. Douglas wanted a commitment of support from the President, however, knowing that he would need executive assistance to push the measure through the unruly House of Representatives, where Northerners enjoyed a majority. Since Douglas was scheduled to introduce a newly revised Nebraska bill (including repeal) on Monday, time was short for the Illinois Senator.
The next day, Sunday, January 22, Douglas and the party leadership, including Atchison and Jefferson Davis, descended on the White House. Confronted by the array of Congressional king-pins, Pierce set aside his own reservations and agreed to meet. Sitting by the fire in the library on that cold night, the party scions badgered Pierce until he agreed to repeal, doubtless reminding him of the debts he owed for his nomination and election. But Douglas and the bosses demanded more from Pierce than simple verbal his consent – they demanded a written pledge. Douglas handed the President a pen and paper and instructed him to write the fateful words in his own hand: The 1820 Line, Pierce scrawled, “was superseded by the principles of the legislation of 1850, commonly called the compromise measures and is hereby declared inoperative and void.” That phrase, penned by the President, made the bill an official administration measure and a test of party loyalty. Every Northern Democrat would have to rally to the expansion of slavery or be read out of the party. “The administration is committed to the Nebraska Bill & will stand by it at all hazards,” announced Douglas days later. “The principle of this Bill will form the test of Parties, & the only alternative is either to stand with the Democracy or to rally under [anti-slavery heretics] Seward, John Van Buren & co.”
The die was cast. On Monday, January 23, as scheduled, a confident Douglas introduced the new bill, now called the “Kansas-Nebraska Act,” creating two territories, repealing the 1820 Line, and providing for effective implementation of the Fugitive Slave Law. The bill instantly polarized the nation between opponents of the expansion of slavery and its supporters. Southerners rallied behind the bill and the Democratic Party, while free state voters set aside their differences on banking, immigration, and the tariff to unite first into “anti-Nebraska” groups, and then into a new Republican Party.
The origins and outcome of the Kansas-Nebraska Act are complex and nuanced, but the night of January 22, 1854 was a key moment. Had President Pierce not relented to his party’s leaders and agreed to make the bill an administration measure, Douglas might not have been able to push it through Congress. The Southern-controlled Senate was no problem, but the House of Representatives was far from certain. Even with the president’s patronage and pressure, the bill only squeaked through the House by 113-100, on May 22, after months of legislative machinations. The stroke of Pierce’s pen on January 22, it is clear, was critical to the bill’s success, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, in turn, was one of the most important and immediate causes of the Civil War.