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Politics and Government in Kansas Territory

Image of Topeka, 1856. Unrest was a fact of life in Kansas Territory. Elections fraud was common. The site of the capital was changed several times. At one point, two governments operated in Kansas. 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.

The first attempt to write a constitution emerged as a movement—the Topeka movement. 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

The second significant event in 1857 was the controversy concerning Kansas' second constitutional convention. This convention was authorized by the proslavery territorial legislature to meet at Lecompton to draft a constitution. Delegates assembled 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 took place on the national level.

Image of Wyandotte Constitution, page 1

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.

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. By this time the issue of slavery was all but decided in the territory, so the decision to make Kansas "free" was no surprise.

On July 29 a new free state document was adopted and signed. 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' admission was introduced on February 12, 1860. Within two months, the congressmen voted 134 to 73 to admit Kansas under the Wyandotte Constitution.

With the election of Abraham Lincoln, southern states began to leave the Union and opposition to Kansas' admission decreased. Six senators from the South 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.

Territorial era primary sources from the Kansas Historical Society are available online in the Bleeding Kansas portion of Kansas Memory and on a cooperative web site (Territorial Kansas Online) with the Kansas Collection, University of Kansas.

Entry: Politics and Government in Kansas Territory

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Date Created: April 2010

Date Modified: March 2013

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