Progress in Kansas

Some Notes on the Wyandotte
Constitutional Convention

by Kirk Mecham

KANSAS Day this year is the 75th anniversary of the admission of the state to the Union. In that three-quarters of a century Kansas has had to turn to the stars through many difficulties, but with the exception of the Civil War years her troubles have been few compared with the bloody months that preceded statehood.

The Wyandotte constitution, under which the state was admitted, was the culmination of five years of strife between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces. Three other constitutions had been written, wrangled over and finally defeated, and it had to wait nearly a year and a half for approval. The convention began work July 5, 1859, and adjourned July 29. On October 4, the constitution was ratified by a vote of the people, and two officers and members of the legislature were elected.

THEN the people of Kansas "having exhausted their authority in state-building," as Governor Martin put it, "patiently awaited the action of Congress." On the 11th of April, 1860, the House of Representatives voted to admit Kansas, but twice the Senate defeated motions to consider the bill. Finally, on January 21, 1861, several Southern senators having seceded, it passed by a vote of 36 to 16, and on the 29th it was signed by President Buchanan.

There is not space here to discuss the merits of this constitution. It may be of interest, however, to comment on two or three incidents and personalities that went into its making.

THE constitution was written by 52 elected delegates, of whom 35 were Republicans and 17 Democrats -- it being the only constitutional convention held in the territory in which all parties participated. Of these, 18 were lawyers, 16 farmers, 8 merchants and 5 physicians: while the surveyors, land agents, manufacturers, mechanics and printers each had one or more representatives. Robert Graham of Atchison county, 55 years of age, was the oldest member, while Benjamin F. Simpson of Lykins, only 23, was the youngest. Eighteen delegates were less than 30 years old, only 11 were over 40, while only 1 was over 50.

One-half the members had been in the teritory less than two years. Six came in 1854, four in 1855 and 12 in 1856. Forty-one were from the northern states, 7 were from the South and 4 were of foreign birth; England, Scotland, Ireland and Germany each sending one. While Missouri had been a strong factor in other conventions there were none from that state in the Wyandotte convention. Only one western state was represented, Indiana with 6. Twelve came originally from New England, and 12 came from Ohio. Pennsylvania contributed 6 and New York 4.

THE most striking feature of the convention was the absence of both the anti-slavery and pro-slavery leaders. Among those who had participated in preceding conventions and were now conspicuous by their absence, were James H. Lane, Charles Robinson, Martin F. Conway, Cyrus K. Holliday and Preston B. Plumb, and on the pro-slavery side, John Calhoun, Benjamin Stringfellow, Rush Elmore and many others. Apparently the chiefs had grown tired of constitution making and their absence doubtless was a fortunate thing for the incipient state.

The younger men of the territory made the constitution at Wyandotte. They met with open minds and were not handicapped by feuds and jealousies. They knew they had to make good and they set about the task with industry and intelligence. As John A. Martin said, "They were not martyrs or reformers; they had no old battles to fight over again, no personal enmities to distract them; no recollections of former victories or defeats to preserve or maintain."

THE first question was whether to use the constitution of some other state or some former draft of the Kansas constitution as a model. On the first ballot Ohio received 13 votes; Indiana 12; Kentucky 6; the Leavenworth constitution 5; the Topeka constitution 3; and there were scattering votes for 8 other states. On the second ballot, Ohio received 25, Indiana 23 and Kentucky 1. The constitution of Ohio was therefore selected as the model for the new document. In this connection it is interesting to know that the Ohio constitution was in the main founded upon that of New York.

One of the most heated debates to the convention arose over the northern boundary of Kansas. Delegates from southern Nebraska petitioned the convention to fix the northern boundary at the Platte river. They argued that the Platte was the natural boundary because it could not be forded on account of quicksand, could not be bridged because no bottom could be found for the piers and could not be ferried because there was not enough water to float a boat. The Democratic minority in the convention were unanimously in favor of the Platte as a northern boundary but the Republicans feared that if they took in this territory they would admit too many Democrats, who might defeat the constitution and elect Democratic United States senators.

OUTSTANDING among the provisions were those prohibiting slavery; extending the rights of married women to property; and exempting homesteads from forced sale. There was also a proposal to prohibit the sale of alcoholic liquors, which was defeated by a vote of 31 to 18. It is said that the anxiety of members to exclude any provisions which would make its adoption doubtful or prevent the admission of the state defeated the proposition.

The work of the convention was practically completed in 21 days but so insistent were the members that every word be the right word that it was referred to a special committee headed by John J. Ingalls for further revision and verification. This revision occupied the remaining time until 8 o'clock in the afternoon of the 29th, when the last section was completed.

THEN occurred one of the most dramatic scenes of the convention. It was moved that "we do now adopt and proceed to sign the constitution." The Democratic leader addressed the chair, and after eulogizing the constitution as a model instrument he formally announced that political objections impelled him to refuse to sign. So it happened that the original copy of the constitution, 21 feet long and carefully written in longhand, now in the custody of the Kansas State Historical Society, bears only the signatures of the Republican members.

Commenting on this, Governor John A. Martin, who at 21 was the secretary for the convention, said:

"Each party, I think, was guilty of one blunder it afterwards seriously regretted -- the Republicans in refusing to include the South Platte country within the boundaries of Kansas; the Democrats in refusing to sign the Constitution they had labored diligently to perfect. I speak of what I consider the great mistake of the Republicans with all the more frankness, because I was at the time in hearty sympathywith their action; but I feel confident that no Republican member is living to-day who does not deplore that decision. And I am equally confident that within a brief time after the Convention adjourned, there were few Democratic members who did not seriously regret their refusal to sign the Constitution."


Kirk Mecham wrote this article in 1936, when he was Secretary of the Kansas State Historical Society, for Progress in Kansas.

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