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Territorial Politics and Government

      Unrest was a fact of life in Kansas Territory. Elections fraud was common. Efforts to approve or reject specific constitutions were also disputed. The site of the capital was changed several times. One town, Pawnee, was the capital but the territorial legislature meet there for only six days before moving to Shawnee Indian Mission. Four different constitutions were written before Kansas became a state. The Lecompton constitution included a provision to allow slavery. At one point, two governments operated in Kansas. Supporters of slavery established a government according to federal guidelines in Lecompton. Those opposed to slavery claimed control in Topeka. Kansas had ten governors or acting governors in just six years. Kansas settlers had to deal with these disputes as they built homes, farms, and businesses.

      The first governor of Kansas Territory was Andrew H. Reeder, who was appointed by President Franklin Pierce. The first election held in Kansas Territory took place on November 29, 1854, to elect a delegate to Congress. John W. Whitfield, a proslavery supporter, easily defeated two free state candidates. The election, however, was contested because large numbers of Missourians had crossed the border to vote. It has been estimated that 1,729 out of a total of 2,833 votes were cast illegally. Nevertheless, Whitfield was certified as elected. The same "influx" of voters occurred during the election of members for the first territorial legislature held March 30, 1855. Andrew Reeder, the territorial governor, declared the results void only in the six districts that filed protests; but in the process, he alienated proslavery inhabitants as well as the many free staters. Elections were held in these districts, but when the legislature finally convened it ousted those elected in May and reinstated those elected in March. Free staters referred to this group as the "Bogus Legislature" because, in their view, it had come to power by fraudulent means. Paradoxically, they recognized some of the laws it passed such as those establishing county boundaries and local governing units.

      As a result of events like these, the political rivalry in the territory of Kansas was intense. It resulted, in part, in the convening of four constitutional conventions (Topeka, 1855; Lecompton, 1857; Leavenworth, 1858; and Wyandotte, 1859), each drafting a constitution under which the delegates hoped the territory would be admitted to the Union.

Image of Topeka, 1856. Constitution Hall on left.      The first attempt to write a constitution emerged as a movement--the Topeka movement--in reaction to unfair elections that gave the proslavery party initial control of Kansas' territorial government. The so-called "bogus" legislature convened at Pawnee on July 2, 1855. Free staters gathered in convention at Lawrence on August 14 and Big Spring on September 5, and delegates assembled at Topeka on October 23, 1855, to draft a constitution. The document was approved on December 15 by a vote of 1,731 to 46. The proslavery--"Law and Order"--party did not participate in the voting on the document. The Topeka Constitution prohibited slavery but excluded free blacks from the state. It also limited suffrage to white males and "every civilized male Indian who has adopted the habits of the white man." Although Congress rejected this constitution and the request for admission to the Union, the "Topeka Movement" remained active for another three years.

      In 1857 two events that were to have a profound impact on the country's now seemingly inevitable journey toward civil war occurred. Both involved the western territories.

      The U.S. Supreme Court on March 6 issued the Dred Scott Decision, which stated that slaves were not citizens of the U.S., residency in a "free" state did not alter their status, and that Congress had no authority to ban slavery in the territories. This decision, in essence, rendered the Missouri Comprise unconstitutional. Drawing on the dissenting opinions of Justices John McLean and Benjamin R. Curtis, Northern opposition to the decision was vehement, and charges of "conspiracy" were aimed at incoming president James Buchanan and his pro-southern administration.

      The second significant event in 1857 was the controversy concerning Kansas's second constitutional convention. This convention was authorized by the proslavery territorial legislature to meet at Lecompton to draft a constitution. In June, 2,200 proslavery voters elected delegates to that convention. The delegates assembled on September 4, reassembled and conducted their business October 19-November 8, and produced a document which was submitted to the voters. But the vote was to be on a special slavery article only: in other words, "for the constitution with slavery" or "for the constitution without slavery." Because a vote "for the constitution without slavery" meant Kansans could keep the slaves they already owned, free staters refused to participate. On December 21 the "constitution with slavery" won 6,226 to 569. Months of controversy followed. A bitter debate took place on the national level.

      While the proslavery party prepared to draft its Lecompton constitution, Kansans held an election on October 5, 1857, for members of a new free state legislature, which was called into special session by Governor Frederick P. Stanton on December 7. Legislators proceeded to call another election on the Lecompton Constitution for January 4, 1858. This time voters overwhelmingly rejected the proslavery document, and subsequently authorized yet another constitutional convention. Despite this show of support for a "free" Kansas, President Buchanan submitted the Lecompton document to Congress on February 2 and recommended that Kansas be admitted as a slave state. Many Northern Democrats split with their party's president on this issue. Subsequently, the Senate voted for admission and the House for resubmission. A compromise--the English bill, providing for an up or down vote on the constitution--passed both houses on April 30, 1858. The Lecompton Constitution was rejected on August 2, 1858, by a vote of 1,926 to 11,812.

      Technically, because of Dred Scott, slavery remained legal in Kansas Territory until it was admitted to the Union. In reality, however, the free state victory in the fall 1857 legislative elections and the defeat of the pro-slave constitution under the English provision settled the issue for Kansas. As Senator Stephan A. Douglas had indicated during one of his famous 1858 debates with Abraham Lincoln, slavery could not survive, no matter what the courts might say, in a territory where the majority was hostile to its continued existence.

      While the debate shifted to the national scene, delegates for the territory's third constitutional convention were elected on March 9 and assembled in Leavenworth on March 25, 1858. Although similar to the Topeka Constitution, the Leavenworth document was more radical. The word "white" did not appear in this proposed document, and it would not have excluded free "Negroes and mulattoes" from the state. The Leavenworth Constitution was ratified on May 18, 1858. But serious efforts on its behalf ended with the defeat of the Lecompton document in August.

      With the free state faction firmly in control, the 1859 territorial legislature approved the convening of a fourth and final constitutional convention. In early June delegates were elected to gather at Wyandotte on July 5. Thirty-five Republicans and seventeen Democrats were chosen to attend the convention. This was the first time delegates carried the now familiar political party labels, the Republican party having been formed in the territory just a few weeks before. By this time the issue of slavery was all but decided in the territory, so the decision to make Kansas "free" was no surprise. The delegates did not adopt a clause excluding blacks as had been proposed earlier, but they failed to remove "white" from several significant parts of the document.

      In addition to the more mundane tasks of little controversy, the Wyandotte convention had to resolve some other controversial issues. The first three constitutions written in Kansas adopted the boundary lines for Kansas Territory. The eastern, southern, and northern borders were the same as they are today. The western border, however, extended as far as the Continental Divide and included the Pikes Peak gold fields. Although not a major issue at earlier assemblies, at Wyandotte the boundary question caused much controversy. Many delegates saw this huge territory as a disadvantage and sought to fix the western border far to the east of the Rockies. Democratic delegates also wanted the state's northern border extended to the Platte River. Republicans united to defeat this effort. The old northern border was retained and the western border was fixed at 102 degrees west longitude (the 25th Meridian). Kansas emerged from the convention with its present rectangular shape.

Image of Wyandotte Constitution, page 1      There was some support among the male delegates for granting equal voting rights to Kansas women. The majority, however, would not accept this "radical" idea, and suffrage was granted only to "Every white male person, of twenty-one years and upward." By this clause, blacks and Indians also were denied the vote. Largely because of the efforts of Clarina Nichols, however, the Wyandotte Constitution included some rights for woman. Women were allowed to participate in school district elections and to own property. The state legislature was to "provide for their equal rights in the possession of their children."

      On July 29, a new free state document was adopted and signed. Because they objected to several key provisions, all seventeen Democrats refused to sign. The subsequent campaign for ratification of the Wyandotte Constitution was a bitter partisan contest. On October 4, 1859, supporters won by nearly a 2 to 1 margin--10,421 to 5,530. An election for state offices was held on December 6. Dr. Charles Robinson of Lawrence was elected governor, defeating the incumbent territorial governor, Samuel Medary. Republicans also won 86 of 100 seats in the legislature.

      After the October vote, official copies of the proposed constitution were prepared and sent to the President of the United States, the president of the Senate, and the speaker of the House of Representatives. The House acted first. A bill for Kansas's admission was introduced on February 12, 1860. Within two months, the congressmen voted 134 to 73 to admit Kansas under the Wyandotte Constitution. William H. Seward of New York introduced a separate bill in the Senate on February 21, 1860. A long-time champion of the free state cause in Kansas, Seward appealed for immediate action, but the admission bill was referred to committee and finally carried over to the next session.

      With the election of Abraham Lincoln, southern states began to leave the Union and opposition to Kansas's admission decreased. The senators from South Carolina were the first to withdraw from Congress. Those from Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida followed them. These last six senators left their seats on January 21, 1861, and later that same day the Senate passed the Kansas bill. A week later the House passed the bill as amended and sent it to the president for his signature. Ironically, it was President James Buchanan, a man despised by most free state settlers in Kansas, who signed the bill making Kansas the 34th state on January 29, 1861.

      The joy over the adoption of the Wyandotte Constitution and the imminent prospects for statehood where tempered somewhat in late 1859 and 1860 by a severe drought and famine. The January 29, 1861, bill signing was clouded a bit by the prospects of war on the national horizon.


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