Constitutional Convention

By 1855, the pattern for admission of a territory to statehood was well established. Seventeen territories had already joined the original thirteen states. When settlement reached a sustainable population, an acceptable constitution was written, and the wish of territorial citizens to join the Union was expressed, then an Act of Congress could create the new state. The Kansas-Nebraska Act had not specified how "popular sovereignty" on the slavery question was to be decided, but everyone assumed the constitution proposed to Congress would state Kansas' position on the issue.

Some in the Bogus Legislature wanted an early constitutional convention and statehood. House Bill 128 to call a convention was introduced and sent to committee. After study, Representative John Anderson, writing for the committee, recommended rejection of the bill:

"...(It) would be premature to provide for the calling of a convention to form a State Constitution, without first submitting the question to the people at the polls, as to whether they desire such a step to be taken, even the proposition were to be accepted that we possess, or will possess by the proposed time, the requisite population.

There are other reasons of importance, which would tend to the conviction, that the bill is premature, which will appear from a mere suggestion. Kansas will apply for admission as a Slave State, and if admitted at all, it must be done partly by Northern votes. In the present state of fanatical excitement, existing in some of the non-slave-holding states, there is some doubt whether we would be admitted to the Union with a slavery clause in our Constitution, for it will be charged that Kansas does not possess the requisite population, a charge which cannot be statistically and officially refuted.

In view of all the circumstances, the committee are of the opinion, that Kansas should not apply for admission into the Union, as long as there is a question as to her right to demand admission by virtue of the Constitution and Laws of the United States.." [House Journal, 406]

The committee proposed a substitute bill, House Bill 140, that only set a procedure for an election to call a convention. [House Journal, 238] and this bill eventually passed both houses. [House Journal, 262] Robert Stone, writing fifty years later, thought the Bogus Legislature made a fatal error in not calling immediately for a convention:

"...Never again was (the pro-slavery) interest so strongly entrenched in the territory. The governor, the courts, the army and the President and his cabinet and Congress all were with them, and the Legislature might have called a convention with the assurance that the election could be carried by the same methods by which it was elected and that those methods would be approved at Washington. In all probability if this had been done Kansas would have been admitted in 1855 with a pro-slavery constitution. Instead the pro-slavery men chose to make the fight against admission at this time because so long as the Federal Government was behind them they could control the territorial government and they believed that by pro-slavery laws they could drive the free-state men out of the territory." [Stone, Kansas Laws, 942]

Did the Anderson Committee make a political misjudgment? Would Congress have rejected statehood on the excuse of lack of the "requisite population?" Although it had undoubtedly grown during the six months since the February 1855 census counted 8,601 residents, the population of Kansas Territory did not approach the usual number. Florida had been admitted in 1845 with a population of 54,477; Texas in 1845 with 250,000; Iowa in 1846 with 81,920; Wisconsin in 1848 with 210,596; and California in 1850 with 107,000.

Had the pro-slavery sentiment reached its zenith in the summer of 1855? Not in the opinion of some southerners. Senator Toombs of Georgia introduced a bill in Congress a year later, in June 1856, proposing a new Kansas census, delegate election and constitutional convention to be completed in December 1856. Congress would pledge itself to accept the result, slave or free, and admit Kansas at once, without the population normally required. The Toombs bill was rejected by northern votes in Congress. [Stampp, America in 1857, 147]

Wyandotte Convention 1859

The delegates met in Lipman Myer's hall, above a warehouse on the Missouri River levee. At 239 feet by 100 feet and four stories tall, it was the largest building in Kansas Territory.

There were ultimately four constitutional conventions in Kansas Territory and four constitutions proposed:

  1. Topeka Constitution -- The convention began October 23, 1855 with free-state members. A constitution was adopted November 2, 1855 and ratified December 15, 1855 by a vote of 1,731 to 46. It was rejected by President Pierce in January 1856 as the product of "persons confessedly not constituting the body politic."
  2. Lecompton Constitution -- The convention began September 5, 1857 with pro-slavery members. A constitution was adopted November 7, 1857. The first vote on December 21, 1857 allowed only a choice between the constitution "with slavery" and the constitution "without slavery," and was ratified by pro-slavery voters 6,226 to 589 "with slavery." In a second vote on January 4, 1858, held at the insistence of the newly elected free-state legislature, the free-state vote was 10, 226 against the constitution, 138 for the constitution "with slavery" and 23 for the constitution "without slavery." A third vote was held August 21, 1858, pursuant to an Act of Congress (the English bill.) The constitution failed in a vote of 11, 300 against and 1,788 for.
  3. Leavenworth Constitution -- The convention began March 23, 1858 with free-state members. A constitution was adopted on April 3, 1858. It was ratified on May 18, 1858 by vote of 4,346 to 1,257. It was presented to Congress on January 5, 1859, but no action was taken.
  4. Wyandotte Constitution -- The convention began July 5, 1859 with both sides represented. A constitution was adopted July 29, 1859. The constitution was ratified October 4, 1859 by a vote of 10,421 to 5,530. Admission of Kansas under the Wyandotte Constitution was delayed for over a year until southern members left the Senate following secession of their states. President Buchanan signed the admission bill on January 29, 1861. [Stone, Kansas Laws, 935, ff.]

Charles Clark