Nebraska Statehood Launched in Troubled Times
On March 1, 1867, President Andrew Johnson reluctantly signed the proclamation declaring Nebraska’s statehood. The signing ended the life of a territory which thirteen years earlier had been organized amid controversy. The quarrels at both the beginning and the end of the territory’s life were connected to the issues over which the Civil War was fought. When the territory was organized in 1854, it was a question of “popular sovereignty,” the right of the residents to decide whether they would allow slavery. At the time of the admission of Nebraska as a state, the point at issue was whether Congress had the right to force Nebraska to give African Americans the vote.
The territory of Nebraska, along with Kansas Territory, had been organized in 1854 on the basis of popular sovereignty. This infuriated many in the North, who were bitterly opposed to the extension of slavery and were demanding that Congress keep it out of the newly organized territories. By 1867 the Civil War had decided the fate of slavery and problem of the day was whether the newly freed people were to be granted the right to vote. The Nebraska constitution originally submitted to Congress, in common with the constitutions of most other northern states, restricted the right to vote to white males. Women were not considered qualified to vote.
Congress, controlled by radicals who were demanding African American suffrage, amended the enabling act to provide that Nebraska could not be admitted unless this restriction was removed. President Johnson, believing Congress had no constitutional right to dictate to Nebraska in this fashion, vetoed the bill. Congress passed the bill over the presidential veto. In Nebraska, the legislature elected the year before was called into special session by Governor Alvin Saunders to consider the conditions imposed by Congress. The legislature acted quickly to approve the conditions, convening one day and adjourning the next. President Johnson then proclaimed Nebraska to be a state.
More information on Nebraska statehood and the turbulent political times during which it was achieved is online at the Nebraska State Historical Society’s blog.