Willing to Die for Freedom - Constitutions
Four Different Constitutions
Kansas had four different constitutional conventions between 1854 and 1861.
The territory had ten different governors, the capital moved to five different towns, and two separate legislatures existed at the same time--one antislavery and the other proslavery. Fradulent elections, threats of violence, and congressional disagreements all prolonged the conflict.
Why did it take so long to approve a constitution?
Because delegates couldn't write a document that satisfied both the people of the territory and the U.S. Congress.
Here are basic facts on each of the four constitutions.
Why did it fail?
When a proslavery legislature was elected through voter fraud, freestaters called it "bogus" and set up their own constitutional convention in Topeka. This separate government was technically illegal. Thus, Congress would not accept the Topeka constitution because the federal government did not recognize the convention.
James Lane saw in Kansas an opportunity to make a name for himself. He compromised his beliefs whenever necessary to stay in power and remain in the public eye. As a freestater at the Topeka convention, Lane argued to ban all Blacks--free or slave--from the territory. Within a few years, though, he would change his mind and organize the first Black military regiment formed in the North.
"Lane is hot-headed, rash . . . but not wanting in bravery . . . never gives a thought about how his acts will appear in history."--Parkville Weekly Southern Democrat, Missouri, 1855
Learn more about James Lane by visiting PBS' "The West".
Why did it fail?
There were 3 different votes on this document as control of the legislature shifted between free-state and proslavery. Like Kansas, the U.S. Congress also was divided on the issue of slavery. Its members were unsure this constitution represented the will of the people, therefore, it was never ratified.
John Calhoun was a notorious figure involved with election fraud related to the Lecompton Constitution. He directed his clerk to bury fake ballots in a wooden box, thereby hiding them from free-state investigators. Calhoun led the Lecompton convention at the peak of proslavery power in the legislature. This is the last time proslavery forces controlled the legislature.
"You have the most infernal government that ever cursed a land. I would rather be a painted slave over in Missouri . . . than have the abolitionists in power."--John Calhoun, Leavenworth, 1855
View the Lecompton constitution.
Why did it fail?
Freestaters were in control of the legislature and passed a radical antislavery constitution granting voting rights to African Americans. The constitution was ratified by Kansas voters but not approved by the U.S. Congress. Proslavery leaders controlled the Congress, where they ensured its failure at the national level.
John Ritchie was an abolitionist delegate to the Leavenworth convention. A friend of John Brown, Ritchie helped fugitive slaves escape to freedom, and even employed Blacks at his Topeka quarry. The views of Ritchie and other delegates were too extreme for the U.S. Congress to approve the Leavenworth Constitution.
"The Radical of Radicals is John Ritchey [who] is an ultra Abolitionist, woman’s rights man, teetotaller, and general advocate for reform."
-- Leavenworth Times, July 17, 1859
View the Leavenworth constitution.
This is the actual constitution (with amendments) under which Kansas operates today. View the Wyandotte Constitution.
Why did it succeed?
Less radical than the Leavenworth Constitution, this document provided voting rights for White males only--not Blacks or Indians. Although it was easily approved by Kansas voters, the constitution didn't gain congressional approval until Southern states began seceding from the Union. The balance of power in the U.S. Senate then shifted to free-state, and Kansas entered the Union on January 29, 1861, the 34th star on the flag.
Clarina Nichols pressed delegates at the Wyandotte convention for women's rights. A newspaper publisher and tireless crusader active on the national level, she came to Kansas in 1854 convinced she could make a difference. Nichols knitted while she listened to debates at the convention. Although she was not allowed to speak, Nichols lobbied for women's rights when the delegates took breaks. Her efforts gained property rights for women, and voting rights in school district elections.
"[These women] are prepared to resign their knitting work, and take upon themselves the business of legislation."
-- Atchison Union, 1860
Comparing the constitutions:
|Votes for Women?||No||No||No||
Only in school
|Votes for Blacks?||No||No||Yes||No|
Willing to Die for Freedom is an online exhibit developed by the Kansas Museum of History to commemorate the 150th anniversary of Kansas Territory.
- Flashpoint - Kansas was the flashpoint for the Civil War and the abolition of slavery.
- Politics - Many Americans believed Kansas would determine the future of slavery.
- Violence - The territory quickly became known as Bleeding Kansas.
- Opportunity - People came here to buy cheap land and influence national politics.
- Survival - Making a home in Kansas often was difficult.
- Freedom - The name "Kansas" meant freedom to many African Americans.
- Legacy - The territorial era set the stage for both good and bad in Kansas history.
- Timeline - Outline of important events in Kansas history, with links to learn more.
- Constitutions - Kansas had four constitutions, more than any other territory.
- Voting game - Test your knowledge about who could vote legally in Kansas Territory.
Contact us at KansasMuseum@kshs.org