The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854

597 words | 2 page(s)

The etiology of the U.S. Civil War is of course complex, consisting of a diverse number of causes and events that led to it occurring, from economic reasons to political, from social issues such as slavery to a general world view and conception of what the human being is. Reducing the etiology to the period of 1850 to 1860, perhaps one event can be considered symptomatic of these diverse causes that shaped the eventual conflict: the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. This is because this law contains within it a diverse number of elements: from the proclamation of a political structure, in which state autonomy is praised as a form of political organization, to a view of the human being in which slavery can be decided by the autonomous choice of those who hold power. The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 is, in this view, a microcosm of the complex cause and effect relationship that led to the Civil War itself.

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 introduced the states of Kansas and Nebraska. The creation of these two states themselves however were the result of a complex synthesis of political, ideological and economic motives. For example, the creation of the states was to help in the construction of a transcontinental railroad. Furthermore, the states’ creation was to encourage new settlements. However, at the same time, arguably the crucial feature of this law was the sense in which the economic reasons for the creation of the states was also informed by the question of popular sovereignty. Popular sovereignty, in other words, would place crucial ethical issues, such as slavery in the hands of the civilian population, allowing states to decide not only on economic or political policy, but essentially deciding who is to be considered a human being.

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The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, in other words, instigated a political model that would foreshadow the Civil War: it created a precedent with a concept of popular sovereignty that would give the South legal reason to secede from the North. Namely, the autonomy granted to states could be cited so as, for example, to justify the question of slavery. In essence, with the introduction of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the United States introduced within its own political system a law which could in a profound sense the possibility of Civil War. Hence, if the federal government would make a proclamation on slavery, states in favor could then simply cite popular sovereignty to undermine the government’s authority.

Undermining the government’s authority is not an evil in itself: but when considering the fact that what could be placed under the question of popular sovereignty is issues such as slavery, then the popular sovereignty model can threaten to produce radical violations of ethics. Granting too much to popular opinion opens the possibility that minorities, who by definition have less of a say in a democratic system where majority counts, are potentially exposed to mistreatment and dehumanization, when the majority decides against basic human rights to be conferred to the minority.

This is exactly what happened with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. The concept of popular sovereignty favored slavery to the extent that it was already a “traditional” social institution with clear economic benefits. However, allowing ethical decisions about the status of human beings to the whim of popular sovereignty is a recipe for exploitation and dehumanization. The Kansas-Nebraska Act in this sense summarizes one of the key causes of the Civil War, by placing political power in popular hands and precedent for creating autonomy in decision-making on fundamental basic ethical issues such as the nature of the human being.

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