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First in the Midwest: How and why a U.S. president tried to stop Nebraska from becoming a state — and failed

by Mike McCabe ~ October 2015 ~ Stateline Midwest »
When the Territory of Nebraska joined the union in 1867, it became the nation’s 37th state — and the first ever to be admitted over a presidential veto. A simple proclamation issued by President Andrew Johnson marked the end of an unprecedented path to statehood. But it revealed little of the unusual story behind it: a story of national expansion and contentious debates over the separation of powers, Reconstruction, civil rights, and the respective limits of state and federal authority.
Created by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, the sparsely populated Territory of Nebraska was initially reluctant to embrace the idea of statehood. But in 1864, the nation was embroiled in the Civil War, and President Abraham Lincoln faced an uncertain campaign for re-election.
To bolster his chances, sympathetic Republicans in the U.S. Congress secured passage of a measure allowing the predominantly Republican territories of Colorado, Nebraska and Nevada to adopt constitutions, establish new governments and petition for statehood, which, presumably, would result in additional electoral votes for the incumbent president.
This plan produced only mixed results; citizens in Colorado rejected a proposed constitution in September, and a convention in Nebraska failed to produce a new charter. Only Nevada acted quickly enough to win statehood before the fall election.
Following the war’s end and Lincoln’s assassination in April 1865, the new president, Democrat Andrew Johnson, quickly found himself at odds with the Republican majority in Congress over post-war Reconstruction policy. The national debate over Reconstruction and the rights of black Americans quickly spilled over into the Nebraska Territory, where economic and population growth fueled support for another pass at statehood.
In June of 1866, Nebraska voters narrowly approved a draft constitution; one of its provisions limited voting rights to white males. A bill to admit Nebraska to the union was then introduced in Congress, where it was adopted just before session ended in late July, notwithstanding some resistance from Republicans who opposed the “white suffrage” clause in the new constitution, as well as Democrats who were leery of granting statehood to another Republican stronghold.
President Johnson pocket vetoed the bill as Congress adjourned, making Nebraska the second would-be state to be defeated by veto. (Johnson had affirmatively vetoed a Colorado statehood bill just two months earlier.)
Questions of federalism, voting rights
The issue was renewed shortly after Congress reconvened in December 1866. This time, however, an amendment sponsored by Vermont Sen. George F. Edmunds effectively conditioned statehood on the acceptance by the territories of a prohibition against voting restrictions based on race or color.
The Edmunds Amendment won the support of radical Republicans and others hoping to impose similar conditions on the former Confederate states. But it drew fire from Democrats and Johnson, who opposed the condition on constitutional grounds. They argued that the federal government could not infringe on the power of states to establish their own qualifications for suffrage.
The issue of statehood had become a question of federalism, as well as a tug of war between the president and Congress. Despite Johnson’s objections, Congress passed admission bills in January 1867 for Nebraska and Colorado.
Before the month was out, however, the president vetoed both measures. For Colorado, the veto effectively delayed statehood for almost a decade, due in part to uncertain support in the territory itself. But the story was different in Nebraska, which boasted a larger population and a growing economy.
Less than two weeks after Johnson vetoed the Nebraska statehood bill, both houses of Congress voted overwhelmingly to override the President. The territorial legislature quickly accepted the condition imposed by the Edmunds Amendment, thus eliminating racial restrictions on voting.
On March 1, 1867, Nebraska became the first — and to this day the only — state to be admitted to the union by means of a veto override.
The Nebraska statehood battle served as a telling precursor of the larger Reconstruction debates that followed. In both its framing of key civil rights issues and its shaping of Johnson’s struggles with Congress, the Nebraska debate established important precedents that played out repeatedly over the next few years.
Eventually, radical Republicans managed to pass much of their Reconstruction policy over Johnson’s vetoes. And when most of the former Confederate states were readmitted to the union in 1868, the enabling legislation approved by Congress (once again over Johnson’s veto) included voting-rights provisions resembling those that were previously imposed as a condition of statehood upon Nebraska.

 

First in the Midwest is an ongoing series of articles highlighting interesting, innovative and noteworthy firsts in the history of state governments in this region.