Lecompton Constitution Senate Speeches

1856 Kansas-Nebraska Territory Map
Image courtesy of the Territorial Capital Museum

In 1854, Senator Stephen A. Douglas proposed repealing the Missouri Compromise and opening the Nebraska Territory to popular sovereignty. The Kansas-Nebraska Act triggered a land rush in Kansas. Missourians were especially passionate about making Kansas a slave state. That fall, 1,700 armed Missourians poured into Kansas to elect a proslavery delegate to Congress.1 Dubbed, “border ruffians,” by the antislavery newspapers, these Missourians flooded the elections with Southern votes. The territorial elections for Kansas took place in March 1855, and reports estimate as many as five thousand Missourians crossed into Kansas to participate.

Proslavery voters cast 5,247 ballots against the 791 from the Free Soilers in the territorial election; however, a congressional investigation later concluded that 4,986 of the proslavery votes were fraudulent.2 Intimidated by the border ruffians, Kansas politicians did not overturn the results, which led to the adoption of proslavery laws. Anyone opposing slavery in Kansas could be imprisoned, and those instigating a slave rebellion or assisting a fugitive slave could be sentenced to death.

Enraged free-staters banned together and turned Lawrence into an antislavery stronghold. Armed with “Beecher’s Bibles,” Sharps rifles transported in boxes labeled “Bibles,” the men organized the free-state party, and held an election for a constitutional convention.3 The party met in Topeka, Kansas, drew up a new constitution that prohibited slavery in the territory, and established a legislature. As historian James M. McPherson points out, Kansas had two territorial governments – one legal by fraudulent votes, and a second illegal, but representing the majority of settlers. The Democratic controlled Senate and President James Buchanan recognized the former, while the Republican House favored the latter.4

In September 1857, the Kansas Constitutional convention met in Lecompton, determined to make Kansas a slave state. Newly appointed Governor, Robert J. Walker, assured his free-state opponents that a fair and legitimate territorial legislature would be seated. The election results gave the proslavery candidates an edge, but it was soon discovered that Missourians were up to their old tricks. In one district, which had only 30 legitimate voters, 1,601 ballots were cast with names from the Cincinnati city directory.5 In total 2,800 fraudulent votes were discarded and the free-staters won the majority.

The new Lecompton Constitution included a provisional article that guaranteed a slaveholder’s right to retain ownership of their slaves currently living in the territory, but it also prohibited future importation of slaves to Kansas. Voters would later decide to include or exclude this article in the constitution. If excluded, slavery would be prohibited in Kansas entirely. Like each of the previous constitutions, the Lecompton Constitution had its opponents and supporters. Two referendums were held, each boycotted by a different party. Eventually the proslavery vote was accepted.

Heated debates took place in the Senate over the admission of Kansas, under the proslavery Lecompton Constitution. Some Senators argued the Lecompton Constitution did not represent the true values of the people in Kansas. Missouri Senator, Trusten Polk, argued, if the people wanted a free state then they should not have boycotted the vote. Southerners threatened secession unless Kansas became a slave state. With President Buchanan stating that Kansas “is at this moment as much a slave State as Georgia or South Carolina,” the Lecompton Constitution barely passed the Senate, and was eventually defeated in the House.6 On August 2, 1858 the people of Kansas finally rejected the Lecompton Constitution.

This collection contains speeches from Missouri Senator, Trusten Polk and Illinois Senator, Steven A. Douglas on the admission of Kansas to the Union under the Lecompton Constitution.

Contributed by Territorial Capital Museum

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  1. James M. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001),102.
  2. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire, 102.
  3. Antislavery clergyman Henry Ward Beecher said that just one Sharp rifle would do more good than a hundred Bibles in Kansas. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire, 103.
  4. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire, 103.
  5. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire, 115.
  6. McPherson, Ordeal by Fire, 116.