The Great Seal for Nebraska’s Sesquicentennial Celebration is popping up more and more with one year to go until March 1, 2017.
The Nebraska Sesquicentennial, its 150th birthday is just a year away and committees across the state are planning the celebration. How should we mark the 149th anniversary of Nebraska statehood this year?
Well, this month we’re going to look at what came before Nebraska statehood on March 1, 1867.
What is it like in the country when a new state joins the union? Do you remember the excitement when a new state is added to the country, when a new star is added to the flag? Maybe not. If you’re not into your mid-60’s that has not happened within your memory.
Hawaii is our newest state joining the republic on August 21, 1959 as our 50th state just seven months after Alaska made the old 48-star flag obsolete in January of that year. That 48-star flag served the country for 47 years and was the longevity record-holder until ten years ago when our 50-star flag passed that milestone and is now, by far, our longest-serving design for the star-studded blue field in the upper-left hand corner of the flag.
We remember that the United States began with just 13 states formed from 13 British colonies. But how did we get to 50 states and what was the 14th state?
First, when did the U.S. come into being? The Constitutional Convention stated that the constitution would become effective, and by extension, the nation would be formed when nine colonies had ratified the document. However, the original intent of the convention was to amend the Articles of Convention. Those attending that meeting had quickly scraped the Articles and started anew. But the Articles required unanimous approval by all 13 colonies to enact changes.
So our country began with a compromise, actually several. When New York became the 11th colony to ratify, the Continental Congress Confederation decreed the new constitution was in force in a resolution on September 13, 1788. The new nation was officially formed as far as they were concerned.
Creating our new nation was not a slam dunk. There was considerable opposition about details, some of them big ones. North Carolina took another year until November, 1789 to decide to join and Rhode Islanders finally approved of the United States after yet another year on November 29, 1790, almost four years after Delaware earned their title of The First State (still a big deal in that little state.)
So it took four years for the 13 colonies to become the 13 states. How long was it until there were 14? Not very long. Vermont was first in line.
Article IV, Section 3 of the Constitution defined how new states were to be added, “New States may be admitted by the Congress into this Union; but no new State shall be formed or erected within the jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the junction of two or more States or parts of States, without the consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as of the Congress.”
A couple of things. First, capitalization and punctuation was a bit of a novelty in the document. Next, did you notice that the Nebraska panhandle can’t join Wyoming unless we let it. And, this defines how a state becomes a part of the Union but makes no mention or how a state may leave. When that question came up about 70 years later we didn’t find any compromise, unless you count a suggestion that I’ll paraphrase as, “Let’s just go out and have us a civil war about it.”
So Congress exercised its authority on March 4, 1791 to admit Vermont as the 14th state, barely three months after Rhode Island got around to being #13.
Vermont was the first of 21 new states added to the union before January of 1861 when Kansas became a state just weeks before the beginning of the Civil War. That was averaging a new state about every three and a third years.
Then we even made two new states in the midst of the Civil War. West Virginia is a good story. After Virginia seceded from the Union to join the Confederacy, the west part of Virginia seceded from the Confederacy to rejoin the Union. Nevada was less contentious when it became a state.
After the Civil War there were 36 states. Let’s not bookkeep the sequence and dates that states in the defeated Confederacy wandered back home.
Nebraska became the first of 12 new states in the next 45 years until New Mexico and Arizona joined in 1912 for another average rate of more than one every four years. And there we sat with the 48-star flag until 1959.
So today’s Americans have been denied the excitement of seeing a new state join the Union. Our only opportunities to witness any part of the process would be to follow the low-volume discussions about the District of Columbia or Puerto Rico or the various separatist/secession noise. But there was a time when new states were almost routine news.
Or was it?
How “routine” was the process that led to bringing Nebraska Territory into the U.S. and later statehood?
Lands in the West were administered as territories. In 1854, Nebraska Territory stretched from Rulo to Glacier National Park. Yes, the territorial capitol was in Omaha.
Not very. Nebraska Territory and Kansas Territory were created in 1854 with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. That act overturned the provisions of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 the first of two “Missouri Compromise” acts, the second in 1850. The issues in those pieces of legislation were not so much organizing new territories as it was slavery. And it wasn’t the question of whether or not there would be slavery in the United States. Few were advocating abolition at this point. The question in those acts was where slavery would exist.
There were 22 states in 1818, 11 were free states and 11 were slave states. The senate was balanced in that regard. But the north was more heavily populated so the House of Representatives “leaned free” and when discussion began about admitting Missouri as a state a New York representative proposed banning slavery in that new state.
There were about 2,000 slaves in the territory that would become Missouri and southern states were opposed to any such ban. Henry Clay of Kentucky and our county’s namesake came up with his Missouri Compromise of 1820 to admit Missouri as a slave state and to spin off a big piece of Massachusetts as the free state of Maine. Another provision divided the remaining territory of the west in Louisiana Territory as free north of 36 degrees and 30 minutes of latitude and permitting slavery to the south.
Historians agree that Clay’s 1820 compromise defused the slavery issue and postponed the civil war for 30 years.
Alvin Saunders (1817-1899) was the 10th Governor of the Territory of Nebraska serving from May 15, 1861 until statehood on March 1, 1967. He served as a U.S. Senator from Nebraska from 1877 to 1883. Yes, the namesake for Saunders Avenue.
Fast-forward to 1848 when the U.S. acquired lands in the southwest after the Mexican War. California was applying for statehood and slavery was still the question. Henry Clay again proposed a compromise along with Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois.
This Missouri Compromise of 1850 admitted California as a free state and authorized Utah and New Mexico territories to determine their own slave status. There were several other provisions but they would unravel in short order.
Then Stephen Douglas was the architect of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 which created the territories with those names. The immediate purposes of the act were to open up the plains for farming (that worked out well) and to create order and stability to build a transcontinental railroad.
Railroad planners debated a northern and a southern route and the consequences of that decision were huge. As congress discussed railroad merits of the routes, the issue of slavery in the new territories again crept into those discussions and then dominated.
The Nebraska rail route was popular but much of its support came from southerners who were adamant about slavery. Missouri Senator David Atkinson famously said that “…he would rather see Nebraska ‘sink in hell’ before he would allow it to be overrun by free soilers.”
Nebraska Territory was large. It looks familiar down here in its southeast corner but the territory extended essentially from the Missouri River to the Continental Divide and north to the Canadian border. Much of the Dakotas, Wyoming, Montana and some of Colorado would be later carved out of it.
The first Nebraska Bill authorizing the territory was complicated as Douglas continued to walk the line between the sides of the slave issue. We could go on for many pages. The terms of the Compromise of 1920 prohibiting slavery north of the demarcation line were repealed. Residents of the territories would determine their own slave status. “Anti-Nebraska” public rallies sprung up across the northeast as opposition to the act grew.
The debate in Congress was bitter. There were filibusters and threats of violence by elected officials and all manner of shenanigans. Eventually the bill squeaked by.
The impact was disastrous on so many levels. Pro-slavery settlers poured into Kansas from Missouri to tilt local elections. Abolitionist settlers called “Jayhawkers” (did you see that coming?) came from the East and open warfare broke out leading to the name “Bleeding Kansas.” Eventually the free soilers won the population race to make Kansas a free territory.
Nebraska and Kansas Territories replaced much of the Indian Territory and quickly the Kickapoo, Delaware, Omaha, Shawnee, Otoe, Missouri, Miami, Kaskaskia and Peoria tribes were displaced.
The Democratic and Whig parties were split along geographic lines by disputes that led to the Kansas-Nebraska Act and were soon ineffective as political parties, the Whigs disappearing entirely. Stephen Douglas and former Illinois Congressman Abraham Lincoln conducted seven joint speaking appearances in October of 1854 discussing their differences with the act and slavery in general. That series of speeches was the precursor to Lincoln-Douglas debates when Lincoln ran for Douglas’ senate seat four years later.
The pressing need to connect the two coasts of the mid-19th Century United States was a driving force behind organizing the prairies and creating Nebraska Territory.
Kansas was admitted as a state in January, 1861, pretty much the last straw. Confederate artillery fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston, South Carolina on April 12th and the Civil War was on tearing the country up from 1861 until April, 1865.
Then two years after the Civil War decided the slavery issue, Nebraska was admitted as the 37th state in the Union on March 1, 1867.
It was routine congressional act.
We’ve digressed from our usual custom of talking about Sutton and Clay County history this month. We hope this article reminds you of things barely heard in school or introduces you to another important story in our past.
So during the next year up to the 150th anniversary of Nebraska statehood, be reminded that the expansion of the United States into our part of the country was a complicated and messy process with repercussions that literally tore the nation apart.
Nebraska was big part of the national conversation even before there was Cornhusker football.
Nebraska became the 37th state in the union after a tortuous period of legal, political, cultural and social turmoil culminating in the Civil War. Nebraska had a painful birth.