Frederick P. Stanton was born in Virginia on December 22, 1814. He received a classical education and went on to become a schoolteacher for a time. Eventually, however, he took up the study and practice of law in Memphis, Tennessee.
Politics eventually attracted Stanton, however, and he served as a Democratic representative from Tennessee from 1845 to 1855. During Stanton’s time in Congress, he served as chairman of the Committee on Naval Affairs and the Committee on the Judiciary.
When Secretary Daniel Woodson became receiver of the Delaware land office on April 1, 1857, Stanton took office as the new secretary of Kansas Territory. Robert J. Walker had recently accepted the post of territorial governor, replacing John W. Geary, and it was at Walker’s personal request that Stanton agreed to take on the challenge.
Stanton arrived in Kansas Territory on April 15 to relieve Woodson of his secretarial duties. Walker did not take office until May 27, making Secretary Stanton the acting governor of Kansas for over a month.
Time in Office
Like most new territorial officials, Stanton started with a trip through Kansas to examine the situation and address the people. On April 25, he spoke to a crowd of about a thousand in Lawrence, vowing to uphold the territorial laws. When the audience shouted, “Never! Never!” Stanton fired back with a cry of, “War to the knife, and the knife to the hilt!” Newspapers took up the phrase, and a feeling that war was inevitable began to overtake the country.
Apportioning the territory for an election of delegates to attend a constitutional convention proved to be a delicate matter. Charles Robinson, illegal governor of the Free State government, observed that fraud had already occurred in the voter registration process. Somehow, many prominent Kansas citizens had been omitted and many Missourians had been registered. He suggested that Stanton have one man representing the Free State government and another man representing the territorial government work together to correct the registry. As an extra precaution, after the election, two Free State judges and two territorial judges would ensure fair dealing. The concurrence of a majority of the judges would be necessary to secure a seat for the delegate in the constitutional convention. Stanton dismissed the proposal.
When Robert J. Walker finally arrived, he spent several months attempting to placate both sides but mostly offending both. A controversial election selected members for a constitutional convention. This in turn crafted the even more controversial Lecompton Constitution. This document went to the people for a vote, but the voters received only two options—the constitution with slavery, or the constitution without slavery. They could not vote against the constitution itself. Furthermore, to vote for the constitution without slavery still permitted the ownership of existing slaves. Walker left the territory in disgrace, making Stanton acting governor again.
Stanton began his second stint as governor on November 16, 1857, but it did not last for long. The vote on the Lecompton Constitution took place on December 21. The “constitution with slavery” option won overwhelmingly, but around half of the votes were fraudulent. The new territorial governor, James W. Denver, took office that day, but Stanton had had enough. Refusing to be a party to such a scandal any longer, he left Kansas Territory.
- Helped to create the impression that the impending Civil War was inevitable.
- Apportioned Kansas Territory for the Lecompton constitutional convention.
In His Own Words
- Free State participation in elections: “Now, it is useless for any of us to disguise the truth. The great mass of the Free State people didn’t care a fig whether their names were registered or not. They were opposed to the Convention; they were opposed to all the laws and all the proceedings under it.”
- Lecompton Constitution fraud: “I had made up my mind upon the first receipt of this fraudulent paper, that rather than sign any certificate upon it, if I should be compelled to do so, I would resign my place, in order to signify the sense of wrong and outrage I felt—not only a wrong and outrage against the people of Kansas, but against myself, in the supposition that I could be made the instrument of accomplishing so great a fraud.”