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, before taking 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 was appointed as receiver of the Delaware land office on April 1, 1857, Stanton was selected 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
While Woodson before him had initiated little business during his time as acting governor, mainly executing existing orders and saving the rest for the return of the official governors, Stanton decided to take the bull by the horns. Unlike the official governors before him, who made inaugural addresses dwelling on equal justice and the weight of responsibility they felt, Stanton made a fiery address promising to enforce every law of the hated territorial legislature and demanding that the Free State Party participate in territorial elections if they expected to have any share in the government.
Like most new territorial officials, Stanton then traveled through Kansas to examine the situation and listen to the opinions of the residents. He did his share of speaking, too. On April 25, he addressed a crowd of about a thousand in Lawrence, renewing his vow 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. Many Free Staters protested that no territorial elections had been conducted fairly thus far, and that there was no reason to think that this election would be any different. Charles Robinson, prominent leader and illegal governor of the Free State government, attempted to smooth matters over by proposing a solution to Stanton. Robinson observed that fraud had already occurred in the voter registration process, with many prominent Kansas citizens somehow being omitted and many Missourians somehow being registered. His idea was to 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 that each delegate was elected fairly, the concurrence of a majority of the judges being necessary to secure a seat for the delegate in the constitutional convention. Stanton dismissed the proposal.
When Robert J. Walker finally arrived in the territory, he spent several months attempting to placate both sides but mostly offending both. A controversial election was held to select members of a constitutional convention, which in turn crafted the even more controversial Lecompton Constitution. This document was submitted to the people for a vote, but the voters were only given two options—the constitution with slavery, or the constitution without slavery. They could not vote against the constitution itself, and 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 was not destined to last for long. The vote on the Lecompton Constitution was held on December 21. The “constitution with slavery” option won overwhelmingly, but around half of the votes were known to be 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
- Enforcement of the territorial laws: “Then you [the Free State Party] and I are at war upon this point; but I shall spill every drop of blood in my body but what the laws shall be enforced.”
- 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.”