Robert J. Walker was born on July 19, 1801, in Northumberland, Pennsylvania. His father was a district court judge, so perhaps he inspired young Walker’s interest in the law. Walker graduated at the top of his class at the University of Pennsylvania in 1819. He was admitted to the bar two years later. Walker practiced law first in his native state and after 1826 in Mississippi.
Walker served as a Democratic senator from Mississippi between 1835 and 1845. He spent part of that time as Chairman of the Committee on Public Lands. Westward expansion was his favorite topic. Walker became famous as one of the earliest advocates of a homestead act. He also worked tirelessly to make Texas an American state. He also made a name for himself as a pro-Union Democrat of the antislavery stripe, preferring gradual emancipation of slaves.
Unfortunately, Walker’s time as Secretary of the Treasury under President James Knox Polk was considerably less illustrious. While serving as Secretary of the Treasury, he became a shareholder in a railroad company. He then tried to use his influence to secure a route that would bring him a handsome profit when he sold his stock. Also, money had a way of disappearing from the Treasury unaccounted for on Walker’s watch.
After the controversial Kansas–Nebraska Act passed, Walker became a proponent of the popular sovereignty doctrine—the concept that the people of a state should decide what institutions would be legal or illegal in that state. This and his past record as a moderate Democrat probably inspired President James Buchanan to select Walker as the next governor of Kansas Territory in 1857.
Time in Office
When Walker took office in Lecompton on May 27, his inaugural address created an uproar. Walker promised that the upcoming election to choose delegates for a constitutional convention would be fair this time. He went on to observe that popular sovereignty was the real issue at hand, not slavery. Kansas, he claimed, would never become a slave state, no matter what the people voted. The inexorable authority of climate had already decided that little issue.
This did little to reassure Free Staters—abolition was too important to be treated so lightly. Furthermore, they saw no point in voting when the voter registration process under Frederick P. Stanton had already gone awry. All of Walker’s attempts at reconciliation failed, and the Free State Party boycotted the election for delegates.
In July, the town of Lawrence rejected its municipal charter, issued under the “Bogus Legislature.” The townspeople applied to the Topeka legislature for a new charter. When their request was denied, they proceeded to craft their own charter independently. Governor Walker vigorously protested this defiance of territorial authority in an official proclamation. He then hurried to the scene with the United States infantry at his back. Newspapers North and South openly ridiculed his pomposity and self-importance. Walker’s reputation did not improve when he abruptly withdrew from Lawrence without accomplishing his purpose on the pretext of an Indian scare.
A proslavery convention drafted the Lecompton Constitution in later October and early November. However, they made no provision for voting against the constitution altogether. Governor Walker strongly opposed this unfair ratification process. However, with President Buchanan evidently bent on recognizing the legality of the proceedings, there was little that he could do. Walker left the territory and ultimately resigned to resume his legal practice.
- Oversaw the formation of the Lecompton constitutional convention.
In His Own Words
- The real issue in Kansas: “It is not merely shall slavery exist in or disappear from Kansas, but shall the great principles of self-government and state sovereignty be maintained or subverted?”
- Authority of the territorial legislature: “You were distinctly informed in my inaugural address of May last, that the validity of the Territorial laws was acknowledged by the government of the United States, and that they must and would be carried into execution under my oath of office and the instructions of the President of the United States.”
- Lecompton Constitution: “By that inaugural and subsequent addresses I was pledged to the people of Kansas to oppose by all ‘lawful means’ the adoption of any constitution which was not fairly and fully submitted to their vote for ratification or rejection. These pledges I cannot recall or violate without personal dishonor and the abandonment of fundamental principles, and therefore it is impossible for me to support what is called the Lecompton constitution, because it is not submitted to a vote of the people for ratification or rejection.”
“Proclamation, No. 2, To my rebellious subjects at Lawrence”
An example of the style of ridicule that Walker faced over his solution to the Lawrence charter controversy.