In the previous blog, I discussed the Kansas-Nebraska Act as the most important change in the political borders of the trans-Mississippi West during the 1850s. It wasn’t just in political borders that this act had an impact, for it was one of the most controversial Congressional acts in an ante-bellum period filled with controversial acts.
The crux of the issue was, of course, slavery. In the Missouri Compromise of 1820, Congress laid down that slavery would not be permitted in the Louisiana Purchase lands north of 36°30” latitude. By the Kansas-Nebraska Act, however, these new territories would be created under the process of “popular sovereignty.” This allowed the citizens of Kansas and Nebraska—-despite the fact that both were north of the Missouri Compromise line—-to vote on whether to be free or slave.
To those opposed to the expansion of slavery, this was clearly a case of Congress stepping over the line drawn, not in the sand, but on the map. This caused a huge outcry in the north, led to the creation of the Republican party, and was one of the primary causes of the Civil War.
The issue was at its core a geographic one, so it is not surprising that maps played an important role in the furor over the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The act was introduced by Stephen Douglas on January 4, 1854, and within days a “large and influential meeting of citizens opposed to any violation of…the Missouri Compromise…” was held at the Broadway Tabernacle in New York City. Called “to protest against the project now pending in the Senate of the United States, for the repeal of that section of the Missouri Act which forever prohibits Slavery in the Territories lying north of 36 degrees and 30 minutes,” the meeting was attended by about 3,000 citizens.
Of great interest was a prop used for the meeting. As reported in a newspaper, “The front of the choir, in rear of the pulpit, was illuminated by a row of lights, intended to display the proportions of a large and handsome map of the United States and the Territories, prepared for the occasion by Mr. Colton. The map was painted upon white canvas and displayed the relative sizes and proportions of the States and Territories. A heavy black line was drawn entirely across its face, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, representing the latitude of 36°30’—-the line which defines the limitations imposed by the Missouri Act. The new Territory of Nebraska was indicated in its appropriate place, as proposed in the bill providing for its organization.” (The original bill mentioned only one new territory, Nebraska, but concerns about its vast size soon caused the bill to be modified to create two new territories).
This map was drawn by George W. Colton, whose father had a map publishing firm that was one of the country's most influential, and which George would take over with his brother in about a decade. Colton’s large, hand-drawn map graphically demonstrated that slavery would no longer be limited to the southern part of the country, for if slavery were voted in by the new territories, it would extend all the way to the northern border. This map helped galvanize the meeting and was referred to by many of the speakers.
Susan’s blog). Maps can convey some information in a graphic form which has a power beyond that of mere words and the use of maps related to this issue is a perfect example of that power. Despite the fact that Frémont lost, these different maps related to the Kansas-Nebraska Act played an important and fascinating role in American history between 1854 and 1856.