The Legacy of the Mexican War drew Abraham
Lincoln from his self-imposed political exile. In 1854 Illinois' Democratic
Senator Stephen Douglas took up the issue of settling the western territories,
which had festered since 1847.
While northern and southern politicians
wrestled with the problem of organizing the west while maintaining a
sectional political balance, settlers continued to stream westward.
Northerners and southerners often took up residence in the same communities,
and each expected to live according to the laws and conventions that
had governed their previous home. These expectations often clashed,
especially over the issue of human slavery.
Congress had delayed organizing these
rapidly settled areas into territories because northern and southern
factions entertained divergent, and potentially explosive, expectations
for them. Many northerners saw the West as a haven for white settlers,
free from competition with slave labor. Most Southerners expected that
they could move west with their slave property without the threat of
Stephen Douglas broke this political
deadlock with his Kansas-Nebraska Bill, which proposed to organize the
territories of Kansas and Nebraska based upon "Popular Sovereignty,"
or the stated will of the settlers themselves. Thus the people were
to decide if their territories were to be slave or free.
Douglas believed that his proposal drew
upon the strength of the American Democratic Tradition, and it became
law in the spring of 1854. But the Act quickly fanned the flames of
the sectional crisis, driving northern and southern extremists to new
lengths in their attempts to win the territories for their rival political
In the North many Whigs and a substantial
number of Democrats cried that Douglas' Act overturned the Missouri
Compromise of 1820, which had banned slavery above the line extending from Missouri's southern border.
Northerners already distrustful of southerners who had seemingly dominated
national politics for a generation were quick to assume that the "Slave
Power" had triumphed again.
These developments led to the rapid birth and development of the Republican
Party, which came together around the fundamental issue of opposing
slavery's western expansion. This issue summoned Abraham Lincoln back
to public life, and the Republican Party brought his message to a national