Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



Document Type



The doctrine of popular sovereignty emerged as a potential solution to the crisis over slavery in the territories because it removed the issue from the halls of Congress. Most historians have focused on its development and implementation beginning in the late 1840s and culminating with passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, but have not recognized its significance in earlier debates over slavery. Popular sovereignty, which took various forms and received different definitions, appeared as a potential solution to the problem of slavery extension as early as the first decade of the nineteenth century when settlers in the Louisiana Purchase and the Old Northwest demanded the right to govern their own domestic institutions. This work charts its development beginning with the earliest debates over the extension of slavery in the territories and traces its place in political discussions until the breakup of the Union. Focusing on the idea of popular sovereignty illustrates how Americans perceived democracy and democratic institutions, specifically the division of power between states and the federal government. The issue of slavery in the territories became a flash point in the debate over the nature of the Union in the earliest years of the republic; it persisted to the coming of the Civil War. The expansion of slavery remained a contentious issue throughout the nation’s first eighty years, even though the terms of the debate changed significantly over time. Popular sovereignty offered a way to avert a clash over the future of slavery by affirming the right of residents in the territories to determine slavery’s future within their jurisdiction. Ultimately, the doctrine failed to settle the crisis over slavery in the territories because northerners and southerners could not agree on how the people would exercise self-government. Placing the future of slavery in the hands of settlers in the territories presented a risk to both northerners and southerners. The North feared that they would permit slavery; the South believed that antislavery citizens would seize control of territorial governments and prohibit slavery.



Document Availability at the Time of Submission

Release the entire work immediately for access worldwide.

Committee Chair

Cooper, William J.



Included in

History Commons