Kansas: The Prelude to the War for the Union by Leverett Wilson Spring



IN the town of Lawrence, on the eighth day of January, 1858, there was an unwonted spectacle. The territorial legislature had repaired thither from Lecompton and the state legislature from Topeka, that these bodies, once divided by deadly feuds, might freely and amicably confer together on matters of common interest. A revival of the transfusion project, ineffectually broached during the administration of Governor Geary, was the business which called for these unusual facilities of intercourse. The state legislature still dreamed of some cross-cutting path into the Union. It still regarded the territorial legislature, though rehabilitated and purged of the old leaven, as "an obstacle to the successful execution of the will of the people," -- requested it to disperse, to vote itself out of existence, and transfer all its rights and prerogatives to the state organization. The plan did not commend itself to the territorial body. In the uncertainties of the situation, as the issue of congressional agitations could not be forecast, it would have been palpably impolitic

258          KANSAS.

to abandon the only law making assembly recognized by the federal authorities.

     From this rebuff the Topeka legislature never rallied. After lingering in Lawrence for a time, with futile hopes of a more favorable response to its overtures, it adjourned until the 4th of March. The organization served a most important purpose, but its mission had been accomplished. When it reassembled there was no quorum. The few free-state men, who clung to it with misspent fidelity, printed a plaintive valedictory rehearsing the fortunes of the defunct government, lauding the admirable constancy to principle illustrated in themselves, and dispersed.

     The territorial legislature was now in undisputed mastery of the situation. Yet, though revolutionized in political composition, the quality of its political morality showed little betterment. The record which it made was worse than indifferent, especially in the matter of a new capital and constitutional convention. In Lecompton, founded by the pro-slavery party, the sensitive assembly did not feel at home, and resolved to go elsewhere. A town called Minneola was projected in Franklin County. But the decisive considerations stirring in the affair were neither sentimental nor patriotic. Thirty-five of the fifty-two members of the legislature were financially interested in the venture. Under such circumstances it was to be expected that a bill transferring the


capital from Lecompton to Minneola would easily survive the governor's veto. When the removal began to be agitated Minneola was a stretch of untouched prairie. Not a building of any sort existed on the proposed site of it; nothing was there except "prairie grass, bugle-brush, and weeds." In a few weeks a big, barn-like structure, designed for a capitol, and one or two other buildings were hastily and rudely flung together. The enterprise looked feasible -- at least as a financial investment. But Governor Denver refused to leave Lecompton, or to allow a transfer of the records and public documents. Attorney General Black pronounced the whole scheme unconstitutional; and this adverse decision remanded the ambitious town-site of Minneola into common prairie.

     Nor did the effort for a new constitution prosper The bill authorizing a convention failed to pass the legislature until the thirty-seventh day of the session, which was limited by law to forty days. Governor Denver concluded there had been constitution-making enough for the present, and resolved to call a truce in that disquieting business. The Lecompton constitution was still vexing Congress. Irreconcilables were not wanting who clung to the Topeka movement, and Denver decided to kill the bill. This he was able to do, as the organic law permitted an absolute veto of legislation which reached him within three days of the enforced

260          KANSAS.

adjournment. But legislators, who originated the enterprise of removing the capital to Minneola, could not be thwarted by any such trifle as the pocketing of a bill. Just before the close of the session, Governor Denver received what purported to be the bill calling the constitutional convention, officially indorsed as having been passed over his veto. He sent for the presiding officers of the legislature, and exhibiting the spurious document asked, "Who 's responsible for this?" "Lane suggested it,?' was the reply. "It is not the original bill," the governor continued. "That is still in my hands -- has never been out of them. This bill is a forgery. Now I can make trouble for you if I choose to do it. You have certified to what is not true. The whole statement is false. But I have no wish to keep up the agitation. Two courses are open to you -- either to give me a paper setting forth the fact that the original bill was never returned to the legislature with my objections, and hence never passed over my veto, or to destroy this counterfeit document here in my presence." "What shall we do with it?" the chief clerk asked. "Destroy it," the Speaker of the House promptly replied. The document was torn in pieces and thrust into the stove. That a bill should survive such an ordeal was probably unprecedented, but this hardy bill did survive it. The legislature voted unanimously that it had passed that body in due form. March


9th there was an election of delegates to a constitutional convention, which assembled at Minneola Tuesday, the 23d. But the jobbery and other discreditable facts clouding the whole movement got noised abroad and excited great indignation. For a time the "Minneola swindle" fairly divided curses with the "Lecompton swindle." No sooner had the convention reached Minneola and effected a temporary organization, than a violent debate sprang up over the question whether it should not immediately adjourn to some other place. The discussion raged until five o'clock Wednesday morning, when the convention did adjourn to Leavenworth. There another constitution was formed, which abandoned the once popular "free white state" doctrine, and confronted the intense pro-slavery doctrines of Lecompton with an anti-slavery utterance no less unqualified.

     But the Leavenworth constitution was too heavily weighted for success. When submitted to the people May 18th, only about four thousand ballots were cast, and one fourth of them in the negative. The stigma of its origin destroyed an otherwise excellent constitution.

     Governor Denver, who accepted his post reluctantly and with the intention of retiring from it as soon as practicable, resigned October 10th, and was succeeded by Samuel Medary, of Ohio. Denver is the first among the territorial governors whose resignation was not practically forced.

262          KANSAS

     The fourth territorial legislature convened January 3d, 1859. In comparison with preceding legislatures it presents a tame and uneventful record. The most laborious task which it attempted was the codification of the statutes. The enactments of 1855 were repealed in bulk, and as that act did not fully express public sentiment in reference to them, they were publicly burnt in the streets of Lawrence. The General Laws of 1857 were repealed, and those of 1858 liberally revised. Undeterred by the experiences of former assemblies, the legislature also made provision for another constitutional convention. The question of calling this body was submitted to the people, who cast five thousand three hundred and six affirmative, and one thousand four hundred and twenty-five negative, votes. Delegates were chosen June 7th -- thirty-five Republicans and seventeen Democrats.

     At this election a Republican party appeared in the territory for the first time. The free-state party was an isolated, independent organization, wholly dedicated to a local mission. It avoided outside alliances lest they should distract and enfeeble its energies. Though its record is not ideal, though the odious black law sentiments enunciated at Big Springs and reaffirmed when the Topeka government was commissioned were strangely out of harmony with its general purposes, yet the party never faltered in its hostility to Southern institutions.


     But the question of the domestic institutions of Kansas was now settled. The organization had fulfilled its special mission, and the necessity for isolation no longer existed. A convention at Lawrence November 11th, 1857, discussed and negatived propositions to merge the free-state party in the Republican party. May 18th, 1858, the free-state combination went to pieces upon the organization of the Republican party at Osawatomie.

     The Missouri faction was known by a variety of names. At first it styled itself the pro-slavery party. As the chances that Kansas would not adopt Southern institutions increased, the epithet "pro-slavery" became unpopular, and was exchanged for "law and order." But the revised title had only a brief currency, and the party finally rested its pursuit of a name in the phrase" "The National Democracy of Kansas."

     These changes in the constitution and nomenclature of political organizations betokened a subsidence of party animosities. So strong was the disposition to bury the past that it ultimately took the shape of a general amnesty act, which dismissed all prosecutions growing out of "political differences of opinion," and, as a consequence, a good many people breathed freer. The constitutional convention met at Wyandotte July 5th with a membership largely composed of new men. Few of the leaders who

264          KANSAS.

figured at Topeka, or Lecompton, or Leavenworth were at Wyandotte. The convention fell to work with as much freshness and zeal as if no similar body had ever broken ground in Kansas, and after a session of three or four weeks produced a fairly good instrument. In the matter of the elective franchise it retreated from the radicalism of Leavenworth, which conferred the right of suffrage upon "every male citizen of the United States," and adopted the language of Topeka, "every white male person." October 4th, 1859, the people ratified the constitution by a majority of four thousand eight hundred and ninety-one, in a total vote of fifteen thousand nine hundred and fifty-one. On the 6th of December Charles Robinson was elected governor, J. P. Root lieutenant-governor, and M. F. Conway representative to Congress.

     The debate in Congress on the Wyandotte constitution lacked the bitterness and violence of earlier discussions when Kansas was the topic. Senator Wigfall revived a dialect popular in the Lecompton days. `'I will not consent," he said, "that Texas shall associate herself with such a state as this [Kansas] would be.... The inhabitants of that so-called state are outlaws and land-pirates. The good men were abandoned by the government and were driven out. Ruffianism is all that is left, and are we to associate with it?" But outbursts of this sort were infrequent.


     The opposition, led by Green, of Missouri, despairing of ultimate success, now expended its strength in retarding and deferring the entrance of the obnoxious territory into the Union. There was much criticism of the proposed boundaries, as the Missouri senator insisted that not more than two sevenths of the area included within them could be cultivated, though the western line had been moved eastward to the twenty-fifth meridian. He urged that thirty thousand square miles should be taken from Southern Nebraska and annexed to the projected state. "Without this addition ... Kansas," he said, "must be weak, puerile, sickly, in debt, and at no time capable of sustaining herself!"

     After more than four years of fruitless endeavor Kansas entered the Union. January 21st, 1861, senators of Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi announced the secession of these states and their own retirement from Congress. The election of Abraham Lincoln as president furnished a convenient pretext for revolt. "It has been a belief," said Jefferson Davis, "that we are to be deprived in the Union of the rights ... our fathers bequeathed to us, which has brought Mississippi into her present decision.... When you deny them, and when you deny to us the right to withdraw from a government which. thus perverted, threatens to be the destruction of our rights, we but tread the path of our fathers when we proclaim our independence and take the hazard."

266          KANSAS.

     The defiant Southern valediction was barely finished when Senator Seward called up the bill for the admission of Kansas. With their depleted ranks the opposition could now offer only a feeble resistance, and it passed by a vote of thirty-six to sixteen. The House had already taken favorable action, and on the 28th of January concurred in Senate amendments. It was with memorable dramatic fitness that Kansas, the arena where the hostile civilizations met, should enter the Union just as the defeated South drew off from it.

     The news reached Lawrence late at night. Territorial officials, members of the legislature, which was in session there, and people in general were roused, and there followed an impromptu jollification, to which buckets of whiskey, freely circulated, lent inspiration. The next day saw a more formal and decorous celebration. One hundred guns were fired, making noisy proclamation across the prairies that Kansas had at last become a state.

     The struggle for the possession of Kansas, the loss of which to the South made secession a certainty, was essentially political and constitutional -- not military. The few skirmishes that took place have a secondary if not tertiary importance. In the field of diplomacy and finesse the pro-slavery leaders were outgeneraled. Reckoning too confidently and disdainfully on numbers, on nearness to the theatre of operations and federal support,


they also blundered in underrating their opponents, and in adopting consequently a policy of noise and bluff. They came thundering into the territory on the 30th of March, 1855, when quieter measures would have served their purposes far better. The dash upon the Wakarusa turned out to be a fool's errand. In the sack of Lawrence and the dispersion of the Topeka legislature, victories were won which returned to plague the victors. The career of the free-state party, under the lead of Governor Robinson, who projected and inspired the whole tactical plan of its operations, has no parallel in American history. Composed of heterogeneous, clashing, feverish elements; repudiating the territorial legislature and subsisting without legislation -- an intermediate condition of virtual outlawry -- from the settlement of Lawrence until 1858, the party was not only successfully held together during this chaotic period, but by a series of extraordinary expedients, by adroitly turning pro-slavery mistakes to account, and by rousing Northern sympathy through successful advertisement of its calamities, rescued Kansas from the clutch of Missouri, and then disbanded.

Previous chapter     Next chapter     Return to Table of Contents