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. Freestaters 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." Congress rejected this constitution and the request for admission to the Union.
Read the Topeka Constitution
In 1857 some Kansas residents organized a second constitutional convention. This convention was authorized by the proslavery territorial legislature to meet at Lecompton to draft a constitution. In June 1857 more than 2,000 proslavery voters elected delegates to that convention. After an organizational meeting September 4, the delegates conducted their business from October 19 to 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, freestaters refused to participate. On December 21, the "constitution with slavery" won 6,226 to 569. Months of controversy followed. A bitter debate on the national level followed.
Read the Lecompton Constitution
Visit Consitution Hall in Lecompton where this document was written.
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 scheduled 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 in Kansas Territory—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.
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.
Read the Leavenworth Constitution
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.
Read the Wyandotte Constitution
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.
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, this free state constitution 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.
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' 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 a civil war on the national horizon.
Check out this online exhibit that has information about the Four Different Constitutions.
In addition to the text of each constitution, Kansas Memory contains numerous items related to the various constitutional conventions.
Kansas Constitutions Bibliography
Entry: Kansas Constitutions
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: February 2011
Date Modified: November 2012
The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.