Lecompton Constitution: Definition & Summary

Instructor: Jason McCollom
In the late 1850s, the Lecompton Constitution of Kansas Territory laid bare the divisions in the U.S. over slavery. Kansas voters, Congress, and even the President argued over this pro-slavery document. Learn about the Lecompton Constitution and test yourself with a quiz.

Popular Sovereignty and Kansas Territory

Though everyone knew that anti-slavery 'free-soilers' made up the majority of voters in Kansas Territory, voting fraud had produced a pro-slavery constitution at the town of Lecompton in 1857. Kansas's delegates sent the constitution to Congress as part of a request for admission for statehood as a slave state. The President, Democrat James Buchanan, supported the Lecompton Constitution and demanded Congress follow his lead. A powerful member of his party, Stephen A. Douglas, took a bold move, and broke with the president. Douglas opposed the Lecompton Constitution, and told a reporter 'I made Mr. James Buchanan, and by God, sir, I will unmake him.' The constitution was sent back to Kansas for a vote by its people.

Stephen A. Douglas
Stephen A. Douglas

This is just one of the many political twists and turns surrounding the Lecompton Constitution. Here's the background: the doctrine of popular sovereignty stipulated that voters in any U.S. territory would decide themselves whether that territory would be admitted to the Union as a slave state or a free state. In 1854 Kansas Territory became ground zero for a battle over popular sovereignty. Both parties - the northern 'free soil' Republican Party and the proslavery Democratic Party - sent supporters to flood into Kansas to stuff the ballot boxes and shape the outcome of popular sovereignty.

As a result, Kansas Territory became bitterly divided between pro- and anti-slave factions. There was violence and bloodshed. Pro-slavery voters from Missouri, called Border Ruffians, crossed into Kansas and voted illegally. Free-soilers sent their own advocates to Kansas to do the same. As a result of the 1854 election, the supporters of slavery won out, and it looked as though the territory would become a slave state. Though the free-soilers called foul and formed a rival government in Topeka, a territorial legislature formed in Lecompton.

The Lecompton Constitution

After a few years of political wrangling, by 1857 voters in Kansas Territory elected delegates to a constitutional convention in Lecompton. These delegates had the responsibility in creating a constitution for Kansas once it became a state. Again, antislavery voters boycotted the convention. They argued that the delegates were actively creating electoral conditions whereby the supporters of slavery would have excessive political power. This situation left the pro-slavery delegates to draw up a constitution making slavery legal in Kansas. This proslavery document was called the Lecompton Constitution.

Constitutional Convention, Lecompton, Kansas
Constitutional Convention, Lecompton, Kansas

With the creation of a constitution, the next step was for Kansas Territory to apply to Congress to become a slave state. Democratic President James Buchanan inserted himself into this debate. Buchanan, influenced by his southern advisors and politically dependent upon powerful southern congressmen, publicly supported the Lecompton Constitution and urged Congress to admit Kansas as a slave state.

President James Buchanan
President James Buchanan

Congress, however, was divided. As a dominant bloc, southern Democrats pushed approval through the Senate. But in the House of Representatives, northern Republicans moved to block acceptance of the Lecompton Constitution. This was the context in which Democrat Stephen A. Douglas went against his own party - and the President of the United States - and spoke out against the admission of Kansas as a slave state. With Congress deadlocked, the Lecompton Constitution was sent back to Kansas for another vote.

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