Lesson Plans

The Kansas – Nebraska Act of 1854

Written by James Scanlon, Worcester Public Schools


This multi-lesson unit is designed for the High School teacher, be that teacher a History Teacher, BD Specialists, Inclusion Specialist, or other Special Educator, teaching students who are studying United States History I. It can be adapted to address the needs of many academic level students or classes of students. It offers ways the teacher can address the various learning styles of his or her students.

The focus of the unit is the Kansas – Nebraska Act of 1854, other events leading to Kansas-Nebraska, and the impact of slavery on the development of the new territories of the United States as well as its impact on the start of the American Civil War. It will focus on the cause and effect of several events and how they came about. Each lesson is designed to make this part of American History real, that is to show the student that the events are not just lines in a history text book but involved real people and places and the ideas of people who did not always see eye to eye on thing that had great impact on the growth of our country.

In order to make the events as real as possible, each lesson will use as its central element a primary source document. These documents will be presented in their original form whenever possible, but will also be offered in other, sometimes more usable forms. A student can use almost any United States history textbook for background information needed to place these events into historical perspective; however, these lessons will provide other materials that can replace the use of a text. Because some teachers may feel that they do not have the background in this subject to adequately teach it, additional information has been provided to augment their understanding of this subject.

Teachers who are not history teachers or who feel that they are not as familiar with the subjects will find suggested readings that might be done to better acquaint them with the subject which might make them feel more comfortable teaching this content.

The unit is made up of three lessons. The first addresses the events that led up to the passing of the Kansas – Nebraska Act, primarily the plans for the building of the Railroads to the West. The next lesson deals with the attempts to populate the new territories after the bill was passed. The last lesson approaches the long-range effects on the development of the United States that the Bill had.

Guiding Question

How was the issue of American slavery dealt with politically from the writing of the Constitution to the American Civil War?

Learning Objectives

  • Students will be able to list the major events that led to the American Civil War.
  • Students will discuss:
    • the 3/5's Compromise provision in the Constitution
    • the Missouri Compromise of 1820
    • the Compromise of 1850
    • the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854
    • Eli Thayer's attempt to keep the Kansas Territory a free state

Massachusetts Framework Standards Addressed

This Unit addresses many of the following Massachusetts Curriculum Frameworks listed below. In some case other consideration must be included in addressing them as well:

The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1860-1877

USI.35 Describe how the different economies and cultures of the North and South contributed to the growing importance of sectional politics in the early 19th century. (H)

USI.36 Summarize the critical developments leading to the Civil War. (H)

  1. The Missouri Compromise (1820)
  2. The South Carolina Nullification Crisis (1832-1833)
  3. The Wilmot Proviso (1846)
  4. The Compromise of 1850
  5. The publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1851-1852)
  6. The Kansas-Nebraska Act (1854)
  7. The Dred Scott Supreme Court case (1857)
  8. The Lincoln-Douglas debates (1858)
  9. John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry (1859)
  10. The election of Abraham Lincoln (1860)

USI.37 On a map of North America, identify Union and Confederate States at the outbreak of the war. (H, G)

USI.38 Analyze Abraham Lincoln’s presidency, the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), his views on slavery, and the political obstacles he encountered. (H, C)

Seminal Primary Documents to Read: Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (1863) and Lincoln’s second inaugural address (1865)

Seminal Primary Documents to Consider: Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech (1858)

Note: highlighted standards are directly considered, others indirectly

Preparing to Teach This Unit

In order to teach this unit, you must understand the chronology of events, which led up to the passing of the bill. You must understand the relationship of one event to another thought out this time period as well as its impact on the American people. You must be able to put it into the proper context. You should consider a careful reading of the textbook used by your students, follow up on any recommended reading offered in that text as well as the following suggested reading:

  • Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Simon & Schuster, 2005. Chapter 5, The Turbulent Fifties offers a very good sketch of the period and factors leading to the Act.
  • The Impending Crisis: 1848 – 1861, David M. Potter; The New American Nation Series; Harper Colophon, 1976. Chapter 7A Railroad Promotion and its Sequel; Chapter 9, Two Wars in Kansas; as well as other parts of the book.
  • “The Genesis of The New England Emigrant Aid Society”, Samuel A. Johnson, The New England Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 3 (Jan. 1930), pp. 95 – 122 (access at: www.jstor.org)
  • “The Railroad Background of The Kansas – Nebraska Act”, Frank Heywood Hodder, The Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Vol. XII, No. 1, June 1925, pp. 3 – 22 (access at: www.jstor.org)
  • “Kansas Crusade: Eli Thayer and The New England Emigrant Aid Company”, Horace Andrews, Jr., The New England Quarterly, Vol. 35, No. 4 (Dec. 1965) pp. 497 – 514 (access at: www.jstor.org)
  • A review of any of the Web Links listed on this Unit Plan

Unit Lessons

  1. Eli Thayer and the Kansas-Nebraska Act
  2. How We Got to Kansas-Nebraska

Primary Source Documents to be considered

  1. Douglas railroad
  2. The Act that chartered the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid company
  3. Letter regarding passing of bill banning slavery (transcript also at this site)

Web Links To Helpful Kansas – Nebraska Act Sites