The Lecompton Constitution

Constitution Hall in Lecompton, Kansas.

Following the violence in Kansas known as Bleeding Kansas, there was a question of whether the territory would be admitted as a free state or slave state. After taking office in 1857, President James Buchanan appointed Robert J. Walker of Pennsylvania to be governor of Kansas. Governor Walker wrote a letter to President Buchanan, stating “that the actual bona fide residents of the territory of Kansas, by a fair and regular vote, unaffected by fraud or violence, must be permitted, in adopting their State Constitution, to decide for themselves what shall be their social institutions.” Walker to Buchanan, March 26, 1857, in Kansas State Historical Society Transactions, V (1891-1896), 290 (italics in original). Even with such a pronouncement regarding the nature of an election, no one knew how Kansans would vote on the issue of slavery or how soon Kansas would become a state.President Buchanan approved the language in Governor Walker’s inaugural address, which said:

Governor Robert Walker.

“In no contingency will Congress admit Kansas as a slave state or free state, unless a majority of the people of Kansas shall first have fairly and freely decided this question for themselves by a direct vote on the adoption of the Constitution, excluding all fraud or violence.” Testimony of Walker, April 18, 1860 before the Covode Committee, House Reports, 36 Cong., 1 sess., No. 648 (Serial 1071), 105-06.

Governor Walker supposed that there were 24,000 Kansans at the time with “Free State Democrats” numbering 9,000, Republicans numbering 8,000, “Proslavery Democrats” numbering 6,500, and “Proslavery Know-Nothings” numbering 500. Walker to Buchanan, June 28, 1857, in Covode Committee, 115-19.

Topeka, Kansas in 1856. The left building is Constitution Hall.

When Governor Walker arrived in Kansas, there was a shadow government operating out of Topeka and the recognized government operating out of Lecompton. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 300. Within a matter of months of his arrival, an election was held for the legislature of the Kansas territory. Fraud was rampant. In Oxford, Kansas, where there were six houses and fewer than 30 votes actually cast, the results indicated that 1,601 individuals voted. See id. at 306. It quickly came to light that the names were copied onto a voting roll from a voter directory of Cincinnati, Ohio. See id. Secretary of State Lewis Cass warned Governor Walker that as governor, he could not review election returns, as only a court could do that. Id. Nonetheless, Governor Walker threw out the fraudulent returns, putting free-state forces in the majority for the Kansas legislature, a first for the political body. See id.

Depiction of the Constitutional Convention in Lecompton, Kansas.

Then, a constitutional convention began in Lecompton, Kansas, which would produce a proposed state constitution that “departed from the routine pattern of new state constitutions at a number of points, including a prohibition of any amendment for a period of seven years and requirement of twenty years’ citizenship for eligibility for the governorship.” Id. at 307 citing House Reports, 35 Cong., 1 sess., No. 377 (Serial 966), 73-92. The constitution restricted “the chartering of banks” and prohibited free blacks from entering the state. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 307. While the proposed constitution allowed the approximately 200 slaves in the territory to remain, it left to voters to decide by referendum whether slavery should be permitted in the territory. See id.

Poster for Public Meeting for Lecompton Constitution.

Ultimately, the voters in Kansas “were not permitted to cast their ballots for a clear-cut no-slavery clause.” Id. at 311. In fact, they could only vote to exclude importing slaves into the state, not outlaw slavery. See id. President Buchanan, around this time, said that according to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, the states were “perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic institutions in their own way,” essentially saying that each state could justifiably and reasonably decide whether slavery was permitted. See id. at 312 citing Buchanan, messages to Congress, Dec. 8, 1857, Feb. 2, 1858, in James D. Richardson (ed.), A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789-1902 (11 vols.; New York, 1907), V, 450, 477. Crucially, President Buchanan believed that if Kansas became a state, the tension that had “for some years occupied too much of the public attention” would “speedily pass away.” Buchanan, message to Congress, Dec. 8, 1857, in Richardson (ed.), Messages and Papers, V, 453.

President Buchanan had a difficult decision to make in supporting the Lecompton constitution, as rejecting it would be mysterious given his defense of it, and rejecting it would alienate the southern contingent of the Democratic Party. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 313. The South was a stronghold for the Democrats and provided a path to the presidency for President Buchanan. Any hopes for reelection in 1860 would surely depend on the South. He sent a letter to Congress, taking the official position that the Lecompton convention:

President James Buchanan. Courtesy: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

“[A]ffirmed that the question of slavery had been ‘fairly and explicitly referred to the people,’ that the exciting question could now be peacefully settled ‘in the very mode required by the organic law,’ and that if any Kansans should refuse this fair opportunity to vote, they alone would be ‘responsible for the consequences.'” Id. at 315 quoting Buchanan’s message, Dec. 8, 1857, in Richardson (ed.), Messages and Papers, V, 449-54.

Following these developments, Governor Walker resigned and acting governor Frederick Stanton took a different approach to the Lecompton constitution. See David Potter, The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War, 1848-1861, 316. He recommended that the territorial legislature assemble and pass a law that put the approval of the Lecompton constitution to the people of the territory. See id. at 317. When that vote was held, the results indicated that a majority of Kansans were opposed to the Lecompton constitution. See id. at 318. Then, President Buchanan undertook a course of action to ensure that Kansas was admitted as a slave state.

The Lecompton Constitution.

The battle would play out in Congress, and it would be reminiscent of the contentious passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. It would be a protracted battle between the Democrats and Republicans, with the Democratic president, this time President Buchanan rather than President Franklin Pierce in 1854, expending virtually all of his political capital to pursue passage of the bill in the House of Representatives. See id. at 320. Congress passed a bill which would require a referendum for Kansans to reduce the amount of land in the territory while preserving slavery, and if Kansans did not approve this measure, they could not seek admission as a state until the population reached 90,000. See id. at 324. In compliance with the new law, for the third time, Kansans went to the polls and voted on the Lecompton constitution, rewritten by Congress, and the voters overwhelmingly rejected it. See id. Kansans did not have an appetite for approving a constitution that allowed slavery.

Kansas would not become a state until 1861, and the South had virtually nothing to show for all its work in attempting to have Kansas admitted as a slave state. Following the Dred Scott decision, the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Compromise of 1850, this failure to admit Kansas was a blow to the South but also to the Democratic Party, which had become entrenched in the South. While Kansas was not crucial to the future of the slave economy, it was a symbolic fight for southerners who had hoped to spread the institution as new states were admitted. In this sense, it was an attenuated battle between two ideologies, but each time the issue was raised in the political discourse, tensions flared and an outpouring of resources came on each side.

View of Sumner, Kansas in 1858.

Kansans had a free and fair choice to consider permitting slavery and admission as a slave state, but the will to embrace the South and its ideology was not present. While contemporaries and historians since then have dissected the reasons for that, one crucial development was that the South could reinforce its narrative of northern oppression of slavery and the South’s economy with the saga surrounding the Lecompton constitution. This narrative had been building for years, even decades, and the longer the narrative continued, the more escalated tensions became. Kansas, through Bleeding Kansas and the Lecompton constitution, was a western territory pushing the eastern sections of the country toward greater conflict. Astute observers of politics in the late 1850s realized this, but none could have expected that within a matter of a few years, a second American revolution would begin.


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