When Political Parties Implode: The Battle over the Lecompton Constitution and its Relevance Today

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

I have been watching the implosion of the Republican Party with some concern, not because I am a Republican or support that party, but because I am a historian and understand that the effects of these kinds of crack ups are not just bad for the party concerned, but often for the country, because they reveal deeper social and political issues. As I watch this I am reminded of the crisis and battle regarding the Lecompton Constitution in 1858. Since the article deals with this in some detail I will cut to the bottom line. In 1858 the Democratic Party held majorities in both houses of Congress and the Presidency. It had been aided by the collapse of the Whig Party and the new republican Party was still in its infancy. But extremists Democrats sought to push through a measure to bring Kansas into the Union as a Slave State, though the measure was rife with fraud. It split the Democratic Party and for a time destroyed it as a national party and helped bring about the Civil War. The battle over the Lecompton constitution is an epic event in our history. 

The issues today are not the same by any means, but the rhetoric and the intransigence of the most zealous ideologues is destroying the Republican Party in much the same way other ideologues destroyed the Democratic Party in 1858.  I admit that I could be wrong, but everything that I see happening is pointing to the implosion and possible breakup of the Republican Party. This may be good for Democrats in the short term, but seldom is it good for the country. But whatever your political views are, I do hope that you read this article and think about the implications of it, and of what is happening in our country today.


Padre Steve+


Senator Stephen Douglas in 1858

Kansas was politically divided between two competing legislatures, each which claimed to be the voice of the people. The population of Kansas was heavily anti-slavery and many citizens felt disenfranchised by the official legislature, which was “a pro-slavery body elected by fraud in 1855.” [1] This body met in the city of Lecompton. In 1857 the Lecompton legislature sensed the opportunity to have Kansas admitted to the Union as a Slave State. It elected slavery supporters as members of a constitutional convention to draft a constitution which would be submitted to Congress for admission to the Union as a Slave State.

Free State partisans feared that that if they participated in the election that they would be “gerrymandered, and simply counted out by stuffed ballots,” and sat out the election. As a result it was “a quiet election, with many proslavery candidates unopposed and only 2,200 out of 9,000 registered voters going to the polls, a large majority of extreme proslavery men won election as delegates to the constitutional convention in September.” [2] But the result of the election was untenable, for “Two thousand voters in a territory with 24,000 eligible for the franchise had elected a body of delegates whom no one seriously regarded as representative of the majority opinion in Kansas.” [3]

The Lecompton legislature passed the proslavery constitution, but it was vetoed by the outgoing governor, John W. Geary. Geary accused “the pro-slavery legislature of attempting to stampede a rush to statehood on pro-slavery terms,” but his veto was overridden. The constitution had several provisions that most of the population found unacceptable. It protected owners of “the 200 slaves in Kansas, banned free blacks from the state, and prohibited any amendments to the constitution for seven years.” [4] The newly appointed governor of the territory, Robert J. Walker opposed the measure and denounced it “as a vile fraud, a bare counterfeit.” [5] Walker demanded a new, fair, referendum, which the newly elected president James Buchanan, also backed. In response many Southerners in Congress “threatened to secede unless the administration fired Walker and backed down on the referendum issue.” [6] The threat of secession by Southerners in support of the radical minority in Lecompton led to chaos in the Democratic Party which controlled the House, the Senate and held the Presidency.


President James Buchanan

James Buchanan, who had rode into office on the votes of the South was now pressured by Southern legislators to change his position on the Lecompton Constitution. Buchannan’s cabinet, which was heavily Southern, and pro-slavery expansion also used its influence to pressure the president. In response to the pressure, Buchanan reversed his previous stance in regard to Kansas and endorsed the bill. This provoked a new outcry, this time from members of the Democratic Party. Many Northern Democrats were outraged by the reversal and the threats of secession. Most of the Northern Democrats were willing to accept and even defend slavery where it existed, but they were opposed to the expansion of slavery. They felt betrayed by their president’s actions and rose in opposition to the bill that would admit Kansas as a Slave State.

The formidable Stephen A. Douglas, the Little Giant who had so skillfully crafted the Compromise of 1850 using the principle of popular sovereignty, led these Democrats in their fight against Buchanan’s acceptance and endorsement of Lecompton. Douglas’s previous actions to support the rights of Slave States had made him a hero in much of the South and his stature in both the North and the South made him the front runner to win the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 1860.

But Douglas, who had worked so hard to build compromises that would hold the Union together could not countenance the actions and tactics of the Southern members of his party. Douglas was a political realist and not an ideologue. He was very sympathetic to slave holders and no supporter of emancipation, in fact Douglas was a racist, and was convinced “of the inferiority of the Negro, and he had a habit of stating it with brutal bluntness, “I do not believe that the Negro is any kin of mine at all…. I believe that this government of ours was founded, and wisely founded upon white basis. It was made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity, to be executed and managed by white men.” [7] But despite his own beliefs Douglas understood the danger that the pro-slavery extremists supporting Lecompton were to the party, and he knew that if the bill was passed that it would destroy the unity of the Democratic Party and possibly the Union itself.

Douglas was outraged and when he saw the news that in the Washington Union that Buchanan had decided to support Lecompton he wrote:

“This left no doubt were the old bastard stood. “Can you believe his Goddamned arrogance?” I told a friend. “I run the Committee on Territories. He should have consulted me before approving the Lecompton fraud. He’ll pay for that. By God, sir, I made Mr. James Buchanan, and by God, sir, I’ll unmake him.” [8]

As such, the Little Giant threw caution to the wind and stormed to the White House “to confront Buchanan on the “trickery and juggling of the Lecompton constitution.” He warned the president of that his actions in support of the Lecompton party would “destroy the Democratic party in the North,” and we warned that “if Buchanan insisted on going through with it, Douglas swore to oppose him in Congress.” [9]

It was an epic confrontation. Douglas recalled, “The Lecompton constitution, I told Buchanan bluntly, was a blatant fraud on the people of Kansas and the process of democracy, I warned him not to recommend acceptance of it. With his head titled forward in that bizarre habit of his, he said that he intended to endorse the constitution and send it to Congress. “If you do,” I thundered, “I’ll denounce it the moment that it is read.” His face turned red with anger. “I’ll make Lecompton a party test,” he said. “I expect every democratic Senator to support it.” I will not, sir![10] Buchanan then cut Douglas off.

Angry and offended by Douglas Buchanan issued his own threat to Douglas saying, “I desire you to remember that no Democrat ever yet differed from an administration of his own choice without being crushed….Beware of the fate of Tallmadge and Rives,” two senators who had gone into political oblivion after crossing Andrew Jackson.” Douglas was undeterred and fought back, Douglas riposted: “Mr. President, I wish to remind you that General Jackson is dead, sir.” [11] It was an unprecedented action by a sitting Senator, to confront a President of one’s own party and threaten to oppose him in Congress was not done.

Following the confrontation with Buchanan Douglas was even more determined to defeat the Lecompton party. In righteous anger Douglas “took his political life into his own hands and assailed the Lecompton Constitution on the floor of the Senate as a mockery of the popular sovereignty principle.” [12] Buchanan’s allies in Congress fought back, and the two sides sometimes came into physical confrontation with each other in the chambers of Congress. When Buchanan’s supporters pushed for Lecompton’s approval and the admission of Kansas as a Slave State, Douglas fired back, warning “You do,” I said, “and it will lead directly to civil war!” I warned the anti-Lecompton Democrats of the North that the President intended to put the knife to the throat of every man who dared to think for himself on this question and carry out principles in good faith. “God forbid,” I said “that I ever surrender my right to differ from a President of the United States for my own choice. I am not a tool of any President!” [13]

Under Douglas the Northern Democrats joined with Republicans for the first time to defeat the admission of Kansas as a Slave State. Douglas recalled the battle:

“After the Christmas recess, the Administration unleashed its heavy horsemen: Davis, Slidell, Hunter, Toombs, and Hammond, all southerners. They damned me as a traitor and demanded that I be stripped of my chairmanship of the Committee on Territories and read out of the Democratic party. Let the fucking bastards threaten, proscribe, and do their worst, I told my followers; it would not cause any honest man to falter. If my course divided the Democratic party, it would not be my fault. We were engaged in a great struggle for principle, I said, and we would defy the Administration to the bitter end.” [14]

Southern members of Congress fought back and as the battle continued their acrimony towards Douglas grew and their rhetoric against the Little Giant became more heated. He was “at the head of the Black column…stained with the dishonor of treachery without parallel…patent double dealing…detestable heresies…filth of his defiant recreancy…a Dead Cock in the Pit…away with him to the tomb which he is digging for his political corpse.” [15]

But Douglas was undeterred by the threats to his career, he saw that he was in the right, and though he was in agreement with the philosophy of his opponents regarding slavery as an institution he realized that appeasing the South was not an option in regard to Lecompton. He wrote:

“My forces in the House fought a brilliant delaying action while I worked to win over wavering Democrats. When we introduced a substitute bill, Buchanan called a dozen congressmen to the White House and exhorted them not to forsake the administration. He was cursing and in tears. He had reason to be: on April first, a coalition of ninety-two Republicans, twenty-two anti-Lecompton Democrats, and six Know-Nothings sent Lecompton down to defeat by passing the substitute bill. This bill provided for a popular vote on the Lecompton constitution and for a new convention if the people rejected that document, as they surely would.” [16]

The substitute bill was passed by the Senate as well and sent back to Kansas for a popular vote. When the Lecompton Constitution was resubmitted to the people of Kansas, “to the hideous embarrassment of Buchanan, the voters of Kansas turned on August 30th and rejected Lecompton by a vote of 11,812 to 1,926.” [17] Douglas wroteThe agony is over,” cried one of my aides, “and thank God that the right has triumphed. Poor old Buck! Poor old Buck had just had his face rubbed in shit. By our “indomitable courage, “ as another aide put it, we’d whipped this “powerful and proscriptive” Administration and forced the Black Republicans to support a substitute measure which fully embodied the great principles of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.” [18]

Pro-slavery Southerners were outraged and Buchanan used every measure that he could to crush the anti-Lecompton Democrats, but he had lost “one of the most vicious struggles in the history of Congress, Southern Democrats had seriously damaged the patience of their Northern counterparts, and Buchannan loyalists in the North were unseated wholesale by upstart Republicans in the 1858 congressional elections.” [19] Buchanan’s Presidency was discredited, his party divided, its majority in congress lost, and the South moving closer to secession. Southerners considered Douglas a traitor and accused him of betraying them. “A South Carolinian lamented that “this defection of Douglas has done more than all else to shake my confidence in Northern men on the slavery issue, for I have long regarded him as one of our safest and most reliable friends.” [20]

The fight over Lecompton was a watershed. It served to illuminate how “minuscule minorities’ initial concerns ballooned into unmanageable majoritarian crises. The tiny fraction of Missouri slaveholders who lived near the Kansas border, comprising a tinier fraction of the South and a still tinier fraction of the Union, had demanded their chance to protect the southern hinterlands.” [21] The crisis that they provoked drew in the majority of Southern Democrats who came to their aid in Congress and provoked Northerners to condemn the Southern minority, which they believed was disenfranchising the majority in order to expand slavery to new territories.

The issue of Lecompton galvanized the political parties of the North and split the Democratic Party into Northern and Southern factions, dooming it as a national party for the foreseeable future. It was also the first time that a coalition Northern Democrats sided with anti-slavery forces. Through the efforts of “Republicans and anti-Lecompton Douglas Democrats, Congress had barely turned back a gigantic Slave Power Conspiracy to bend white men’s majoritarianism to slavemaster’s dictatorial needs, first in Kansas, then in Congress.” [22]

The political impact of the Lecompton crisis on the Democratic Party was an unmitigated disaster. The party suffered a major election defeat in the 1858 mid-term elections and lost its majorities, and in a sense fulfilling Lincoln’s words “became increasingly a house divided against itself.” [23] Douglas’s courageous opposition to Lecompton would be chief among the 1860 split in the Democratic Party, Southern Democrats turned with a vengeance on the man who had been their favorite in the 1856 democratic primary. This doomed his candidacy for President and ensured the election of Abraham Lincoln and the Republicans, a man that he had defeated for Senate in that critical summer of 1858.


[1] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.81

[2] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.300

[3] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.314

[4] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.115

[5] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.165

[6] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.164

[7] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.340

[8] Ibid, Oates The Approaching Fury p.208

[9] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.166

[10] Ibid, Oates The Approaching Fury p.208

[11] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.166

[12] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.115

[13] Ibid, Oates The Approaching Fury p.210

[14] Ibid, Oates The Approaching Fury pp.212-213

[15] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.168

[16] Ibid, Oates The Approaching Fury pp.215-216

[17] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.116

[18] Ibid, Oates The Approaching Fury p.216

[19] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.116

[20] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.167

[21] Ibid. Freehling, The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 p.140

[22] Ibid. Freehling, The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 p.142

[23] Fehrenbacher, Don E. Kansas, Republicanism, and the Crisis of the Union in The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition edited by Michael Perman and Amy Murrell Taylor Wadsworth Cengage Learning Boston MA 2011 p.94


Filed under civil rights, civil war, History, laws and legislation, leadership, Political Commentary

7 responses to “When Political Parties Implode: The Battle over the Lecompton Constitution and its Relevance Today

  1. Steve, one of your best-ever articles! I’m very interested in this and in fact have been thinking about doing my own article about the possible coming breakup of the Republican Party in comparison to the political reorganizations of the 1850s–not so much Lecompton as the disintegration of the Whig Party. While there’s going to be a lot of chaos ahead, if the modern Republicans really are breaking up it’s going to be fascinating to watch a political process that has not occurred in America for 160 years. Your writing and use of sources here is terrific. I’m struck by the profanity in Douglas’s accounts. You don’t often see that in documents from this era.

  2. Reblogged this on http://www.seanmunger.com and commented:
    This is an amazing post from Padre Steve’s blog that is one of the finest melds of history and current events that I’ve read in quite a while. Steve takes us through the contentious history of the Lecompton Constitution, a slavery controversy in the 1850s, and how it destroyed the Democratic Party–and explains how today’s rapidly progressing implosion of the modern Republican Party resembles it in some ways. I was considering doing an article on my own blog similar to this, and I still may, but in the meantime please check out this fine piece of history and news–it will open your eyes!

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