The Four Kansas Constitutions: Lecompton

The Four Kansas Constitutions: Lecompton

The Four Kansas Constitutions: Lecompton
Constitution Hall, Lecompton

About a year passed before much more was done to write a constitution for Kansas. The federal government was clearly stalling on the issue of the Topeka Constitution, and both abolitionist and proslavery sides had taken to guerrilla warfare as a means of settling their differences.

Meanwhile, James Buchanan was elected president of the United States, and he appointed Robert J. Walker as governor of Kansas Territory. Governor Walker arrived in Kansas in May 1857 with instructions to assist the “regular legislature” in forming a constitutional convention. He urged residents of the state to vote rather than boycott, and promised to protect voters from force or fraud.

However, on June 9, a Free State convention assembled in Topeka to craft a reply:

WHEREAS, By unfair legislation by the Lecompton “Legislative Assembly,” and the manner of registration under the act providing for the call of a convention to form a constitution, has excluded a large majority of the voters of Kansas from a participation in the election of delegates to said convention; therefore,

Resolved, That since the issues of the past have been sufficient to develop the sterling principles of every man in Kansas. Therefore we regard any man who sympathizes with our oppressors to the extent that he consents to become a delegate to the Lecompton Convention, or a candidate to the same, as unworthy the fellowship or confidence of Free-State men, and one to be regarded with suspicion everywhere.

When delegates were elected to attend a constitutional convention at Lecompton, Free Staters again boycotted the proceeding, allowing the proslavery side to dominate the convention despite their relatively small numbers across the territory.

The Lecompton Constitution was drafted between mid-October and early November. As was to be expected, the Lecompton convention did address slavery, but in a very unique way. During the ratification process, voters would be handed two ballots, one reading “Constitution With Slavery” and the other reading “Constitution With No Slavery.” And this is what the two choices meant:

  1. The constitution with slavery: “The right of property is before and higher than any constitutional sanction, and the right of the owner of a slave to such slave and its increase is the same and as inviolable as the right of the owner of any property whatever….The Legislature shall have no power to pass laws for the emancipation of slaves without the consent of the owners, or without paying the owners previous to their emancipation a full equivalent in money for the slaves so emancipated.”
  2. The constitution with no slavery: “…The article providing for Slavery shall be stricken from this Constitution by the President of this Convention, and Slavery shall no longer exist in the State of Kansas, except that the right of property in slaves now in this Territory shall in no manner be interfered with….”

Notice, also, that no provision was made for voting against the constitution itself.

The outrage over this affair was so great that Governor Walker resigned. Free Staters refused to vote either for slavery or for the so-called no-slavery option.

On December 21, the Constitution With Slavery option won in the polls by 6,226 to 569 votes. About half of the Constitution With Slavery votes were later reported as fraudulent.

 

Constitution Highlights

  • Slavery protected.
  • Free blacks barred from residence in the state.

 

The Constitution on the National Scene

The Four Kansas Constitutions: Lecompton
Territorial Governor Robert J. Walker

Free Staters acted quickly, begging Congress not to admit Kansas to the Union under the Lecompton Constitution. However, President James Buchanan, a Democrat believed to have Southern sympathies, spoke up in favor of the constitution. Senator Stephen A. Douglas, a Northern Democrat, joined forces with the fledgling Republican Party in opposition to the document on the grounds that it probably did not represent the true will of the people of Kansas. The Democratic Party was split.

Through the combined efforts of Senator Douglas and the Free State Party in Kansas, a referendum was held on the document on January 4, 1858. This time, the abolitionists realized the need to vote. Over 10,000 voters rejected the Lecompton Constitution, compared to over 100 who opted for the Constitution With Slavery option and about 20 for the Constitution Without Slavery option.

Not surprisingly, the Lecompton Constitution made little progress in Kansas after the referendum, although President Buchanan’s faction was not yet ready to yield. Meanwhile, the Free State side was quickly preparing to follow up on this victory.

 

Next Week: Leavenworth

 

Helpful Resource

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