Disputed elections, fracturing political parties ,protracted fights over the leadership of Congress, Presidents elected with less than 50% of the vote; studying history can sometimes leave a bitter taste in our mouths. Failing to study history can send us headlong toward the cliffs of disaster.
Tucked in the northeast corner of Douglas County, along the south bank of the Kansas River, sits a small town that the vast majority of Americans have never heard of, Lecompton, Kansas. Recently discovered documents show how much things have changed in the last 165 years. In the last half of the 1850’s it was rare for an American not to have heard the name Lecompton. Nearly every newspaper in America as well as many around the world carried stories concerning Lecompton. Most political debates mentioned Lecompton (including over 50 times in the famous Lincoln/Douglas debates).
Newly discovered is a sheet of ballots from New Jersey. In the election of 1858 incumbent Congressman Garnet Adrain changed his party from National Democratic to “Anti Lecompton” ; his ballot included other local officials as well. With research, the Lecompton Historical Society has discovered that eight men were elected to Congress in 1858 on the Anti Lecompton tickets. They came from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Indiana. These defections helped the Republicans gain control of the House.
Additionally the Lecompton Historical Society has acquired a program from an Anti-Lecompton rally held in Buffalo, New York where thousands of western New Yorkers signed a petition to Congress protesting the Lecompton Constitution and the actions of President Buchanan. This along with a similar program from a rally held in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania shows how strong the Anti Lecompton movement had become nationwide.
Why so much anger towards a small town just emerging from the plains of the newly opened Kansas Territory?
The concept of popular sovereignty was key to the Kansas- Nebraska Act as authored by Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois. It allowed the “residents” of a territory to vote on their preference regarding slavery. In theory a solution to the fights on the floor of Congress. In practicality, in Kansas, a disaster.
A legislature (many of whom still called Missouri their home) was elected in an election where thousands of questionable votes were cast. The same is true in the election of delegates to the Constitutional convention that was held in Lecompton. That questionable Constitution called for Kansas to enter the Union as a slave state. Efforts by President Buchanan to get it ratified by Congress included bribery. The effort to turn back the Lecompton Constitution was led by fellow Democrat Stephan Douglas. In hotly contested votes in both chambers the Lecompton Constitution failed to be ratified. The fight split the Democratic Party between supporters of the President Buchanan efforts (southern Democrats) and those of Douglas (northern Democrats). A split that remained through the election of 1860. The Lecompton controversy led to the election of Lincoln as he would receive only 39% of the popular vote.
The Lecompton controversy along with the Kansas Nebraska Act and the Dred Scott decision meant the question of slavery was now about its endless expansion. A line in the sand had been drawn by the people of America and the politicians of the day failed to find an acceptable solution. Civil war was right around the corner.
The current residents of Lecompton don’t celebrate the pro slavery government that once ruled from their town. They do recognize, preserve and tell the story of how the events that played out on the streets of their town contributed to the election of Lincoln, the start of the Civil War and the ending of slavery in America. A story well worth telling. These newly discovered documents prove the historic importance of Lecompton in American history and are proudly displayed in the Territorial Capital museum.
Jack L. Oglesby II
Member Board of Directors
Lecompton Historical Society
Note: this article was published in the Kansas City Star on October 30, 2023