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 to take interest in the law. Walker graduated at the top of his class at the University of Pennsylvania in 1819 and was admitted to the bar two years later, practicing law first in his native state and after 1826 in Mississippi.
While Walker became interested in politics during an 1832 controversy over the rights of states to declare federal laws null and void, what finally convinced him to pursue a political career came a year later. He had become involved in land speculation, accumulating much debt in the process. However, he found a way to earn a little extra cash by negotiating secret agreements between prospective buyers. The buyers promised not to compete against each other at auctions of public land, thus allowing parties to the agreement to purchase large acreages for considerably reduced prices. When Walker’s role in the negotiation process became known, a scandal erupted. It took some persuasive speaking on his part to put the matter to rest, but he did conclude that he was born for politics.
Walker served as a Democratic senator from Mississippi between 1835 and 1845, spending part of that time as Chairman of the Committee on Public Lands. Westward expansion was his favorite topic, and he became famous as one of the earliest advocates of a homestead act and as a senator who 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 he assisted in drafting legislation that lowered tariffs and established the Department of the Interior, Walker was frequently implicated in speculation and financial scandal. While serving as Secretary of the Treasury, he became a shareholder in a railroad company and tried to use his influence to secure a southern route for the proposed transcontinental railroad—a route that promised to 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, a phenomenon that Walker never seemed to care to explain very clearly.
After leaving the Treasury, Walker resumed his legal practice. He refused an ambassadorship to China in 1853, but could not quite avoid public life altogether. After the controversial Kansas–Nebraska Act was passed, he 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. Walker refused several times, but the president insisted. Walker finally consented to accept the post.
Time in Office
When Walker arrived in Kansas in the spring of 1857, it was with the typical talk of impartiality and justice. But when he took office in Lecompton on May 27, his inaugural address created an uproar on both sides of the debate. Besides the usual promises to uphold the territorial government and its laws, Walker promised that the upcoming election to choose delegates for a constitutional convention would be held fairly this time. He urged Free Staters to make their voice heard by casting ballots. Perhaps what he said next was meant to placate them, but if so, it failed miserably. Walker 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. That little matter had already been decided by the inexorable authority of isothermal lines (lines on a map displaying differences in temperature across the United States).
This did little to reassure Free Staters—abolition was too important of an issue to them to be treated so lightly. Furthermore, they saw no point in voting when all other territorial elections had been beset with widespread fraud and when the voter registration process under Frederick P. Stanton had already gone awry. Walker spoke to the Topeka legislature on June 9, attempting to make peace with its members and urge them to vote. However, he continued to insist that the existing territorial legislature was recognized by the federal government and therefore legitimate, election fraud or no. Walker’s attempts at reconciliation failed again, and the Free State Party boycotted the election for delegates.
In July, the town of Lawrence rejected its municipal charter, which had been issued by the “Bogus Legislature.” The townspeople applied to the Topeka legislature for a new charter, but 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 and 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.
The Lecompton Constitution was drafted by early November. Unfortunately, its provisions for ratification were extremely controversial. Voters were to be handed two ballots—one marked “Constitution With Slavery” and one marked “Constitution With No Slavery.” The latter option allowed existing slaves to be kept as property, which did not appeal to those favoring emancipation. Furthermore, there was no provision made for voting against the constitution altogether.
Governor Walker strongly opposed this unfair ratification process, but 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?”
- Climate and slavery: “I shall dissipate the delusion which has prevailed upon this subject, and show that, after three years’ experiment, when I arrived in Kansas there were less than 300 slaves there, and the number constantly diminishing; that, as proved by the official records of Congress, published and authenticated by those distinguished southern statesmen, John C. Calhoun and Jefferson Davis, the winter climate, even of eastern Kansas, is colder than that of New England, and that the pro-slavery territorial convention of Kansas consolidated with the pro-slavery territorial legislature on January 4, 1857, nearly five months before my arrival here, did distinctly abandon the slavery issue, the cause as set forth by one of their number, ‘the pro-slavery party was in a small and admitted minority,’ ‘and the cooperation of the free-state democrats was invited as the only hope of success, not to make Kansas a slave state, which was conceded to be impossible, but to make it a conservative democratic free state.'”
- 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.…If laws have been enacted by the Territorial Legislature which are disapproved of by a majority of the people of the Territory, the mode in which they could elect a new Territorial Legislature and repeal those laws, was also designated.”
- Lawrence municipal charter controversy: “As all arguments heretofore so often addressed by me to you, have failed as yet to produce any effect upon you, I have deemed it necessary for your own safety, and that of the Territory, and to save you from the perilous consequences of your own acts, under the authority vested in me by the President of the United States, to order an adequate force of the troops of the United States into your immediate vicinage, to perform the painful duty of arresting your revolutionary proceedings. Let me implore you not to compel me to appeal to that military power which is required in the last resort, to protect the government of your country.”
- 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.”
- Resignation: “…[The president’s] message clearly indicates an approval of my course up to the present most unfortunate difference about the so-called Lecompton constitution. Inasmuch, however, as this difference is upon a vital question, involving practical results and new instructions, it is certainly much more respectful to the President, on my part, to resign the office of governor, and give him an opportunity of filling it, as his right under the constitution, with one who concurs with him in his present opinions, rather than go to Kansas and force him to remove me by disobedience to his instructions.”
“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.