Daily Archives: March 5, 2016

When Political Parties Implode, Pt 1: The Fraud of the Lecompton Constitution

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Over the past six months or so I have alluded to events in the Republican Party that make it appear that it is about to implode. I am a historian, and there is precedent in American history for the collapse of a national political party. This happened before in the 1854 collapse of the Whig Party, the 1912 division in the republican Party, but more importantly during the 1858 through 1860 collapse of the Democratic Party. Now I am not a person to say that history repeats itself. there are similarities and trends, but nothing is ever exactly the same as to why different parties collapse.  

While the issues of each day may be different there are common threads of humanity, hubris and hatred that unite to destroy political parties. I think that this is happening now in the Republican Party, and that it is possible that something similar may occur with the Democratic Party in the coming years. So it is important to look at history whenever possible to see how different political leaders responded in times of intense ideological, economic, social, national, and sectional division.

This is a three part series on the disaster that the Democratic Party made for itself and the country between 1858 and 1860. The first part deals with the background of the issue, a time when Democratic leaders allowed themselves to be captivated by an extreme minority of slaveholders in eastern Kansas to force that territory’s admission into the Union as a Slave State.

This is a section of one of the chapters of my Civil War and Gettysburg text and I hope that you will find it interesting and thought provoking.


Padre Steve+


Senator Stephen A. Douglas

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, in fact slaveholders and their supporters were a minuscule minority in the territory, but they were both load, and often used violence and intimidation to achieve power. As such 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. To ease the way for this to happen over the will of the majority this legislature elected slavery supporters to be members of a constitutional convention, the goal of which was to draft a constitution which would be submitted to Congress for the admission of the Kansas Territory to the Union as a Slave State.

Free State partisans in Kansas feared that that if they participated in the election that they would be “gerrymandered, and simply counted out by stuffed ballots,” and most decided to sit out of 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] In response the pro-Free State legislature in Topeka issued a referendum in which people voted “10,226 votes to 162 votes” [5] against the pro-slavery measures contained in the Lecompton Constitution. The newly appointed governor of the territory, Robert J. Walker opposed the measure and denounced it “as a vile fraud, a bare counterfeit.” [6] 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.” [7] 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.

James Buchanan was a pro-slavery Pennsylvania Democrat who had rode into office on the votes of the South. He was now pressured by Southern legislators to change his position on the Lecompton Constitution. Buchanan’s cabinet, which was heavily Southern, and pro-slavery expansion also used its influence to pressure the president into supporting the plan to admit Kansas as a Slave State. In response to the pressure, Buchanan reversed his previous stance in regard to Kansas and endorsed the bill, and he “called on Congress admit Kansas as a slave state with a constitution (drafted by the proslavery territorial government at Lecompton) that was never approved by Kansas voters and obviously opposed by a majority of them.” [8] The decision by Buchanan tossed aside the doctrine of popular sovereignty which had been key to engineering earlier compromises and in response some Northern Democrats opposed Buchanan.

Buchanan’s patently obvious move to placate the slave states and overturn the restrictions on the expansion of slavery contained in the Missouri Compromise, the Compromise of 1850, and the Kansas-Nebraska Act, provoked a new outcry, this time from Northern members of the Democratic Party. Many Northern Democrats were outraged by Buchanan’s flip-flop and the threats of secession emanating from the South if the measure was not approved. 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. His announcement to the House of Representatives “touched off a twelve-hour donnybrook in February 1858” and “about 50 congressmen in various states of inebriation tangled with each other on the House floor… The rumble subsided only when Mississippi congressman William Barksdale tackled an unidentified assailant as the latter snatched his toupee and waved it about like a captured flag. Barksdale finally retrieved his scalp and plopped it on his head wrong side out, the absurdity of the scene giving the combatant’s pause.” [9] Many Northern Democrats felt betrayed by their president’s actions and rose in opposition to the bill that would admit Kansas as a Slave State. Even so Buchanan was a “skilled political infighter swung a remarkable percentage of Northern Democratic members of the House of Representatives, fully 60 percent, behind the Lecompton Constitution,” [10] but he did not contend with the charismatic power of Stephen Douglas in the Senate.

These Democrats were led by the formidable Senator Stephen A. Douglas. Known as the Little Giant Douglas had 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 frontrunner 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 was certainly no supporter of emancipation, in fact the Little Giant was an avowed racist. He was completely 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.” [11] But despite his own racist beliefs Douglas understood the danger that the pro-slavery extremists supporting Lecompton were to the Democratic Party and the nation. Douglas understood that if the bill to admit Kansas as a slave state was passed that it would destroy the unity of the Democratic Party and quite possibly the Union itself.

The Illinois Senator found out about the President Buchanan’s new support of the measure when he read the newspaper. He was outraged when he saw the news in the Washington Union that Buchanan had decided to support Lecompton. He was infuriated and the fury showed when he wrote with characteristic honesty:

“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.” [12]

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.” [13]

It was an epic confrontation. Douglas recalled, “The Lecompton constitution, I told Buchannan 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![14]


President James Buchanan

Angry and offended by the confrontation of Douglas, Buchanan cut the senator off and issued his own threat to Douglas and his political career 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.” The redoubtable Senator from Illinois was undeterred by the President’s threat and fought back, “Douglas riposted: “Mr. President, I wish to remind you that General Jackson is dead, sir.” [15] 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 simply not done, but now Douglas was doing it, but doing so to his President’s face, and the consequences for him, his party, and the country would be immense.

Following his confrontation with Buchanan, Douglas was even more determined to defeat the Lecompton party and their brazen attempt to admit Kansas as a slave state over the will of the non-slave majority. In a display of righteous anger Douglas did what few politicians would consider doing in our day and age and “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.” [16] President Buchanan and his allies in Congress fought back viciously, so much so that 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!” [17]

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.” [18]

Southern Democrats in Congress fought back furiously. As the battle continued their acrimony towards Douglas grew into apocalyptic proportions and their rhetoric against the Little Giant became more heated. According to his opponents Douglas 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.” [19]

But Douglas was undeterred by the threats to his career made by Buchanan, his congressional opponents and the press. He believed that he was in the right, and though he was in agreement with the philosophy of his opponents regarding slavery as an institution to be protected in the South, he realized that appeasing the South was not an option in regard to Lecompton, since that measure undermined the entire concept of popular sovereignty. 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, Buchannan 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.” [20]

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 for a vote, the results of the referendum were devastating to the pro-slave faction, and “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.” [21] The ever colorful and blunt Little Giant 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.” [22] The victory of Douglas and his faction over the Buchanan faction in the Lecompton fight “ended a political battle which had convulsed the country and virtually destroyed two administrations, but the full consequences of the prolonged struggle had yet to become evident.” [23]

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 Buchanan loyalists in the North were unseated wholesale by upstart Republicans in the 1858 congressional elections.” [24] 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.” [25]

To be continued…


[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. Freehling, The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 p.138

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

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

[8] Ibid. Levine Half Slave and Half Free p.211

[9] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.144

[10] Ibid. Freehling, The Road to Disunion Volume II: Secessionists Triumphant 1854-1861 p.138

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

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

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

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

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

[16] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.115

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

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

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

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

[21] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.116

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

[23] Ibid. Potter The Impending Crisis p.325

[24] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.116

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






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