The Four Kansas Constitutions: Leavenworth

The Four Kansas Constitutions: Leavenworth

The Four Kansas Constitutions: Leavenworth
Territorial Governor James W. Denver

When the people of Kansas voted on the Lecompton Constitution in January 1858, they also elected a state legislature and other officials. Because the Free State Party did not boycott the vote, their candidates won key positions in the government. A few stubborn proponents of the Topeka Constitution refused to abandon their document, but overall the abolitionists were eager to start over and make the most of their opportunity.

A bill for the election of another constitutional convention was sent to the new territorial governor, James Denver, for approval. He ignored the bill entirely, but the new legislature delayed its scheduled adjournment to pass it, despite the territorial laws limiting the length of sessions. The new constitution was thus laid open to bitter debate before it was even written.

On March 25, 1858, the delegates assembled in Leavenworth. The discussion on the document was short, but sharp. The abolitionist members of the convention were divided on what the document should offer to Kansans, particularly blacks. Some felt that it should merely be a reworking of the Topeka Constitution, while others felt that the Topeka Constitution already contained far too many compromises on the subject of black rights.

Nevertheless, the delegates were able to vote through their differences and produce the Leavenworth Constitution on April 3. The document was ratified by popular vote on May 18, but the number of votes cast showed that relatively few residents attended the event.

 

Constitution Highlights

  • Slavery prohibited.
  • Free blacks permitted to live in the state.
  • Black suffrage submitted to the people for a vote.
  • Racial segregation of schools submitted to the people for a vote.

 

The Constitution on the National Scene

It appears that Congress never really took the Leavenworth Constitution seriously. It was considered radical even by some abolitionists. Furthermore, the nation was distracted with President James Buchanan’s recommendation to admit Kansas under the Lecompton Constitution, regardless of what the polls had demonstrated.

Buchanan declared that the Lecompton Constitution had been duly ratified, and that if the Free State Party had made the decision to boycott the original vote, they must take the consequences:

The question of slavery was submitted to an election of the people of Kansas on the 21st December last, in obedience to the mandate of the constitution. Here again a fair opportunity was presented to the adherents of the Topeka constitution, if they were the majority, to decide this exciting question “in their own way” and thus restore peace to the distracted Territory; but they again refused to exercise their right of popular sovereignty, and again suffered the election to pass by default.

As for the vote on January 4:

This election was held after the Territory had been prepared for admission into the Union as a sovereign State, and when no authority existed in the Territorial legislature which could possibly destroy its existence or change its character. The election, which was peaceably conducted under my instructions, involved a strange inconsistency. A large majority of the persons who voted against the Lecompton constitution were at the very same time and place recognizing its valid existence in the most solemn and authentic manner by voting under its provisions.

However, the writers of the Leavenworth Constitution clearly stated their intentions when their new document was submitted to the people:

Resolved, That should Congress accept the application accompanying the Lecompton Constitution, and admit Kansas as a sovereign State into the Union, without the condition precedent that said constitution, at a fair election, shall receive the ratification of the people of Kansas, then we will put the Leavenworth Constitution, ratified by the people and the government under it, into immediate and active operation, as the organic law and living government of the State of Kansas, and that we will support and defend the same against any opposition, come from whatever quarter it may.

While the Leavenworth Constitution was pending ratification, the English Bill passed both houses of Congress. This bill sent the Lecompton Constitution back to the people of Kansas one last time. However, if they would ratify the Lecompton Constitution, the United States would grant them 3.5 million acres of public land to be used in building schools, a state university, other public buildings, and roads (the Lecompton Constitution had demanded 23.5 million acres). If they rejected the constitution, Kansas would be barred from making any more attempts at statehood until the population had increased.

The English Bill created yet another outcry in Kansas, where it was seen as bribery. The vote was held on August 2. Of the voters present, 1,926 accepted the terms of statehood proposed by Congress, while 11,812 rejected them, along with the Lecompton Constitution.

But when the Lecompton Constitution met its demise, the Leavenworth Constitution did, as well. There was no doubt that Congress would never accept such a radically abolitionist document, and much of the Free State Party did not entirely agree with it, either. Since nothing more was to be feared from the Lecompton Constitution, the Free State Party let the Leavenworth Constitution fade into oblivion. It was high time to regroup.

 

Next week: Wyandotte

 

Helpful Resource

Leavenworth Constitution
See images of the original document, or read the full text.