Fighting Words in Nebraska Territory

The motto on the Nebraska Territorial Seal, “Popular Sovereignty,” was seen as a euphemism for the expansion of slavery.

By David L. Bristow, Editor

 

Before the Nebraska State Seal was adopted in 1867, a territorial seal served a similar purpose. A painted glass version was installed in a new skylight ceiling in the U.S. Capitol in 1857. (The state seal was added later.) The glass seals came to History Nebraska after being removed during capitol remodeling in 1949.

The territorial seal shares several features with its state counterpart: a steamboat, river, trees, locomotive, anvil, and distant hills or mountains. It also includes a plow (replaced by a shock of wheat in the state seal), a telegraph line, a U.S. flag and Constitution, and two men: a frontiersman with musket and powder horn, and a prosperous-looking man in a tailcoat and planter’s hat. Other than the land itself, each item represents something transformative; together they illustrate the settlers’ notion of “progress.”

But laid across the top were two words that spelled out red-hot controversy. “Popular sovereignty” was the catchphrase associated with the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. This law organized the new territories while repealing the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which had prohibited slavery in the region where the two territories were later formed. Now the “Nebraska bill” re-opened the slavery question, to be decided by each territory’s citizens.

In this context, “popular sovereignty” was bitterly resented by the “anti-Nebraska” men who founded the Republican Party. They heard it not as a statement of democratic ideals, nor even as a middle way of resolving the nation’s most contentious issue, but as a euphemism for the expansion of slavery. They feared the country would be dominated by the “Slave Power,” as they termed the Southern planter aristocracy.

Nebraska was not expected to become a slave state, though its legislature did not ban slavery until 1861, and only then over the governor’s veto. “Bleeding Kansas,” however, was violently contested, foreshadowing even greater bloodshed during the Civil War.

 

When Nebraska became a state in 1867, a controversy over Black voting rights led to the adoption of our state motto, “Equality Before the Law.” Read more.

 

Posted Feb. 28, 2022. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of Nebraska History Magazine.

Photo: History Nebraska 7434-1


For further reading:

Eric Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party before the Civil War (Oxford University Press, reprint edition 1995).

James E. Potter, Standing Firmly by the Flag: Nebraska Territory and the Civil War, 1861-1867 (University of Nebraska Press, 2012).

Become a Member!

Our members make history happen.

Join Now

You May Also Enjoy

The Church Built Top to Bottom – St. Mary Magdalene Church in Omaha

The Church Built Top to Bottom – St. Mary Magdalene Church in Omaha

FDR at the Martin Bomber Plant

FDR at the Martin Bomber Plant

Martin Luther King Jr. Visit to Lincoln

Martin Luther King Jr. Visit to Lincoln

About History Nebraska
History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
Explore Nebraska
Discover the real places and people of our past at these History Nebraska sites.

Upcoming Events

View our new and upcoming events to see how you can get involved.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.

Latest Hall of Fame Inductee

The Nebraska Hall of Fame was established in 1961 to officially recognize prominent Nebraskans.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.
Nebraska Collections
History Nebraska's mission is to collect, preserve, and open our shared history to all Nebraskans.
Explore Nebraska
Discover the real places and people of our past at these History Nebraska sites.

Our YouTube Video Collection

Get a closer look at Nebraska's history through your own eyes, with our extensive video collections.

Additional Research Resources

History Nebraska Research and Reference Services help connect you to the material we collect and preserve.
Support History Nebraska
Make a cash donation to help us acquire, preserve, and interpret Nebraska’s history. Gifts to History Nebraska help leave a legacy and may help your taxes, too! Support the work of History Nebraska by donating to the History Nebraska Foundation today.

Volunteers are the heroes of History Nebraska. So much history, so little time! Your work helps us share access to Nebraska’s stories at our museums and sites, the reference room, and online.