James W. Denver was born in Winchester, Virginia, on October 23, 1817. He grew up on a farm in that state, but about the time he reached adulthood he went with his parents to Ohio, where he studied engineering.
Engineering was not Denver’s calling, however. In 1841, he moved to Missouri and spent some time teaching school, but within a year he was back in Ohio to study law. He entered the legal profession in 1844, practicing first in Ohio and then in Missouri.
After serving as a captain in the 12th U.S. Volunteer Infantry during the Mexican–American War, Denver decided to move to the promising young state of California in 1850. Here he made a living, not prospecting as so many tried to do, but trading. Like many lawyers, however, Denver was attracted to politics. He served in the California state senate, a term tainted by rumors of his profiteering from a relief expedition to aid destitute overland immigrants to the state. These charges terminated in a duel with newspaper editor Edward Gilbert, in which the latter was shot and killed, Denver being a superior marksman.
Denver’s political career continued, however. He subsequently served as California Secretary of State, Representative from California, and Commissioner of Indian Affairs under President James Buchanan. It was in this last role that he first came to Kansas on the official business of making treaties.
But the resignation of Governor Robert J. Walker and the impending resignation of Territorial Secretary Frederick P. Stanton left the president with the task of finding yet another appointee to take up the unenviable work of keeping peace in Kansas. Denver was his choice.
Time in Office
Denver arrived in Kansas on December 21, 1857, as territorial secretary. Because there was no governor, however, he immediately became acting governor—on the day of the vote on the Lecompton Constitution, no less. But Denver was prepared. He had already secured from John Calhoun, a Democratic leader in the territory not to be confused with the more famous South Carolina statesman of the same name, a promise that the election would be carried out fairly. Calhoun had gone a step farther and invited Denver to be personally present at the counting of the ballots.
It was Denver and his assistants who unmasked the widespread fraud that had taken place. The Lecompton Constitution had been approved with provisions for slavery by all appearances, but a variety of discrepancies were noted, such as disproportionately large numbers of ballots being cast in areas with small populations. President Buchanan persisted in claiming that the document was legitimate, but with Denver’s influence on the territorial scene and Senator Stephen A. Douglas’s influence on the national scene, a referendum was secured. Denver accomplished an even more amazing feat by coaxing the Free State Party to vote instead of boycott. The Lecompton Constitution as a whole was overwhelmingly rejected by the people of Kansas on January 4, 1858. A legitimate territorial legislature with Free State leanings was elected at the same time.
Denver’s personal correspondence from this time suggests that he may have felt that this should have been the end of the issue. However, neither faction was ready to yield. President Buchanan loudly denounced the referendum on the Lecompton Constitution, while the new legislature drafted a new and equally controversial constitution in Leavenworth without the acting governor’s approval.
Despite Denver’s strong desire to leave Kansas Territory and turn over his job to someone else, he was selected to be the official governor of the territory and accordingly took the oath of office on May 12. His private secretary, Hugh Sleight Walsh, filled his place as territorial secretary. Exactly one week later, the turbulent border erupted into violence again when a band of Missourians rounded up 11 unarmed Free State men and opened fire, killing five of them. This event became known as the Marais des Cygnes Massacre, the last major act of violence in Kansas territorial history.
The United States Congress paid little heed to the Leavenworth Constitution and instead sent the English Bill to the territory. This bill promised Kansas 3.5 million acres of public land if it would only ratify the Lecompton Constitution. If the citizens turned down this opportunity, however, Kansas would be denied statehood until the population substantially increased. On August 2, the English Bill and the Lecompton Constitution were overwhelmingly rejected. President Buchanan urged Governor Denver to stay in office until the next session of the territorial legislature ended, thereby preventing any further attempts to make Kansas a state. But all to no avail. The governor resigned on October 10.
- Instrumental in unmasking the fraud involved in first vote on the Lecompton Constitution.
- Brought the Lecompton Constitution back to the people for a fair vote.
- Became the namesake of Denver, Colorado, at that time part of Kansas Territory.
In His Own Words
- Bleeding Kansas: “This country beats all creation for reports of every hue and description. A quarrel between two men is soon magnified into a battle in which a score or two are killed. Putting reports into circulation and exciting the public mind has become a business here, and people are beginning to understand them. Nothing can be believed until it is corroborated by well established facts.”
- First vote on Lecompton Constitution: “It is asserted by some that persons from other States have interfered in the elections and that frauds have been perpetrated by which they have been over-powered, and deprived of their rights. These charges may be true, but if so the evils they complain of will not be remedied by absenting themselves from the polls.…It is true that a question may be presented in a manner objectionable to some but that is not a good reason for refusing to vote; for if the majority wills it, the difficulty can soon be remedied by presenting the question in the manner required.”
- Role of the governor: “I began writing this before noon—it is now after dark and I have only got thus far—being interrupted every minute or two by persons on business or loafing. Many people here seem to think that the Governor is all powerful and if one man makes mouths at another he must run with a complaint to the Governor about it. If a desperado is to be taken it is expected that the Governor will do it.”
- Desire to resign: “If they will only let me turn over the government to some of them in four or five weeks I will give them a pledge never to put my foot inside of their Territory again. Confound the place it seems to have been cursed of God and man. Providence gave them no crops last year scarcely and now it requires all the powers conferred on me by the President to prevent them from cutting each others throats. Were I not a very patient man they would almost tempt me to swear, but I endeavor to call philosophy to my aid to resist the temptation. Among them there is one continual struggle for the ascendancy, and all means are resorted to, fair or foul, to effect their object. They are ready to cheat, to swindle, to violate their word of honor given in the most solemn manner,—in fact they are in good part a most rascally set.”