During those tumultuous days of Bleeding Kansas, proslavery and antislavery sides made several attempts to have the territory accepted as a state. To do so, they had to submit a constitution for approval in the United States House and Senate.

Kansas went through more constitutions than any other United States territory. Four were written, ratified, and examined by Congress before Kansas became a state, each one reflecting the beliefs and opinions of the faction in power at the time. Over the next four weeks, we will learn about each one in turn.

The Four Kansas Constitutions: Topeka
The first house in Topeka

The Kansas-Nebraska Act, as we all know, sparked a violent conflict in the new territory of Kansas. Missourians rushed across the border to vote for slavery. Emigrants from New England raced west to vote against the institution.

At first, the Missourians had a distinct advantage simply because they were already so close to the scene of the struggle. When the first territorial election was held, it was all too easy for them to hurry into Kansas and stuff the ballot boxes. Not surprisingly, proslavery candidates won their races, and the “Bogus Legislature” met on July 2, 1855.

The Bogus Legislature lost no time passing laws reflective of their views. They instituted the death penalty for enticing slaves away from their masters with the intention of setting them free, as well as for writing or saying anything that might incite a slave rebellion. Residents of the territory with known antislavery convictions were disqualified as jurors. In short, having seized the reins of the territorial government, the proslavery men were doing their best to drive every abolitionist out.

Exasperated Free State proponents rallied against the high-handed measures of the Bogus Legislature. On June 24, 1855, a group of antislavery delegates met in Lawrence and issued a formal rejection of the Bogus Legislature and its laws:

Resolved, That we look upon the conduct of a portion of the people of Missouri in the late Kansas election as a gross outrage on the elective franchise and our rights as freemen, and a violation, of the principles of popular sovereignty; and, inasmuch as many of the members of the present Legislature are men who owe their election to a combined system of force and fraud, we do not feel bound to obey any law of their enacting.

After a series of conventions, the Free State side met in Topeka to draft an abolitionist constitution to present to the United States Congress. The document was submitted to the people of Kansas for a vote on December 15. The proslavery side boycotted the vote, which allowed the Topeka Constitution to be ratified quite handily—1,731 to 46. These numbers do not include the results at Leavenworth, however, because there the Missouri “Border Ruffians” carried off the ballot box and destroyed the records.

Constitution Highlights

  • Slavery prohibited.
  • Admission of free blacks to the territory left to popular vote (when the constitution was ratified, voters chose to exclude free blacks).
  • Suffrage for white males and for “every civilized male Indian who has adopted the habits of the white man,” 21 years of age or older.

The Constitution on the National Scene

A new antislavery territorial legislature was elected under the Topeka Constitution on January 15, 1856. However, this did not abolish the Bogus Legislature. The two bodies governed in opposition to each other, heightening the tensions in Bleeding Kansas.

On January 24, 1856, President Franklin Pierce gave an address upholding the authority of the so-called Bogus Legislature:

Whatever irregularities may have occurred in the elections, it seems too late now to raise that question. At all events, it is a question as to which, neither now nor at any previous time, has the least possible legal authority been possessed by the President of the United States. For all present purposes the legislative body thus constituted and elected was the legitimate legislative assembly of the Territory.

He further denounced the acts of the Free Staters as illegal:

Persons confessedly not constituting the body politic or all the inhabitants, but merely a party of the inhabitants, and without law, have undertaken to summon a convention for the purpose of transforming the Territory into a State, and have framed a constitution, adopted it, and under it elected a governor and other officers and a Representative to Congress….No principle of public law, no practice or precedent under the Constitution of the United States, no rule of reason, right, or common sense, confers any such power as that now claimed by a mere party in the Territory. In fact what has been done is of revolutionary character. It is avowedly so in motive and in aim as respects the local law of the Territory. It will become treasonable insurrection if it reach the length of organized resistance by force to the fundamental or any other Federal law and to the authority of the General Government.

The Four Kansas Constitutions: Topeka
Federal troops dispersing the Topeka legislature

Nevertheless, the Topeka legislature went forward with its proceedings and presented the constitution to Congress early in March. On July 3, 1856, Kansas statehood under the Topeka Constitution passed the United States House of Representatives by a vote of 99 to 97. The Senate, however, held the bill in committee. Senator Stephen A. Douglas of Illinois instead proposed his own bill, asking for a new census of Kansas Territory and a new constitutional convention. The House ignored this bill. More attempts at substitute bills were proposed by both the House and Senate, but none of them made any progress.

Meanwhile, the Topeka legislature was dispersed on July 4 by Federal troops under the orders of President Pierce. The proslavery side had won the fight—for the time.

Next week: Lecompton

Helpful Resource

Topeka Constitution
View photos of the original document, or read the full text.