The Paradox of Self Government, Individual Rights, and Slavery: The Lecompton Constitution

The August release of The American Slavery Collection, 1820-1922: From the American Antiquarian Society includes several speeches about the proposed constitutions under which Kansas, first as a territory and then as a state, would be governed. The Topeka Constitution of 1855, the first of four proposed constitutions, would have banned slavery in Kansas. In response to the Topeka Constitution, the territorial legislature, consisting mostly of slave-owners, met at the designated capital of Lecompton to produce a rival document. The Lecompton Constitution enshrined slavery, protected slaveholder rights, and provided for a referendum that allowed voters the choice of allowing more slaves to enter the territory. Free-state supporters, who comprised a large majority of actual settlers, boycotted the vote. In fact, the proposed Lecompton Constitution was so divisive that territorial Governor Robert Walker, a strong defender of slavery but opposed to the blatant injustice of the constitution, resigned rather than implement it.

Mr. Collamer's Report and Speech Against a New Constitution for Kansas, and in Favor of the Free State Constitution (1856)
By Senator Jacob Collamer

Senator Collamer was a member of the Committee on Territories who refused to vote for the Crittenden Amendment, which proposed resubmitting for popular vote the pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution. The day before making a persuasive minority report explaining his and Wisconsin Senator James Doolittle’s opposition to the amendment, Collamer spoke of voting fraud that might shock today’s pundits:

I state, from information which I regard as entirely reliable, and as facts which I believe capable of most unquestionable proof, which can at any time be presented, that of the 6,331 votes cast in March, 1855, for the election of the Legislative Assembly of Kansas, 4,291 of them were cast by armed bands of the inhabitants of Missouri, who invaded Kansas for that purpose on that occasion; that only 1.410 legal votes were cast, and a majority of those were for the Free State candidates, though most of the Free State voters were driven from the polls.

Admission of Kansas under the Lecompton Constitution (1858)
Speech of Hon. John Cochrane, of New York, at Tammany Hall, March 4, 1858

Representative John Cochrane claimed his support of the Lecompton Constitution was based on opposition to tyranny and support of individual rights and self-government. However, Cochrane’s speech illustrates his perverse understanding of these principles. In rejecting the argument that federal authority trumps states’, or territories’, rights, Cochrane said:

I think, sir, that this same doctrine of popular sovereignty, as habitually understood, both within congress and without, is quite abusive of the inherent right of the people to govern themselves. I am at a loss to perceive how a body of men under foreign domination can be said to be clothed with the powers of self-government. The spectacle with which we are most familiar is that of the sovereignty of the people of the States in ever present exercise and application. But the law which the representatives of the people of the States enact for the government of the inhabitants of Territories beyond the States is an instance, not of popular government, but of popular tyranny. Even if there were justification for such tyranny to be found in the peculiar posture of the Territories, the integrity of our constitutional fabric and the safety of individual rights would instantly repudiate and denounce it. There is, however, no such peculiarity – none that can raise even a plausible pretext for so gross and monstrous a violation of inalienable privileges. I take it that popular right is but the aggregation of individual rights; and what there is, either in the soil or in the atmosphere of a Territory, not only to neutralize but to oppress these rights, I am unable to perceive.

Speech of Hon. D.C. Broderick, of California, Against the Admission of Kansas, under the Lecompton Constitution (1858)
Delivered in the Senate of the United States, March, 22, 1858

Senator David Broderick opposed the Lecompton Constitution, but spoke in favor of repealing the Missouri Compromise, which had given territories the right to choose whether they would allow or prohibit slavery, rather than basing the decision on geographic location. According to the Republican senator,

…if it had not been for the repeal of the Missouri Compromise, there would now be no Republican party in existence. Instead of uttering regrets at its repeal, the Republican party in the North should rejoice that it made the territories a common battle-field in which the conflicting rights of free and slave labor might struggle for supremacy.

He continued optimistically, arguing:

In the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska bill, the rampart that protected slavery in the southern territories was broken down. Northern opinions, Northern ideas, and Northern institutions were invited to the contest for the possession of these territories.

How foolish for the South to hope to contend with success in such an encounter. Slavery is old, decrepit, and consumptive. Freedom is young, strong, and vigorous. One is naturally stationary and loves ease. The other is migratory and enterprising. There are six millions of people interested in the extension of slavery. There are twenty millions of freemen to contend for these territories, out of which to carve for themselves homes where labor is honorable. Up to the time of the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, a large majority of the people of the North did not question the right of the South to control the destinies of the territories south of the Missouri line. The people of the North should have welcomed the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. I am astonished that Republicans should call for the restoration of the Missouri Compromise. With the terrible odds that are against her, the South should not have repealed it, if she desired to retain her rights in the territories.

Speech of the Hon. H.C. Burnett, of Kentucky, in Favor of the Admission of Kansas under the Lecompton Constitution (1858)
Delivered in the House of Representatives, Tuesday, March 23, 1858

Representative Henry C. Burnett supported repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the Lecompton Constitution. He defended the Supreme Court decision that declared the compromise unconstitutional, and he attacked Republicans, the majority of whom did not share Senator Broderick’s nuanced position on the compromise, for their criticism of the court. 

I have been taught, Mr. Chairman, to venerate that high tribunal, to regard its determination of all questions as final and binding upon every loyal citizen of the country, and to acquiesce gracefully in any decision it may make upon any issue before it. That, sir, was the school in which I was taught, as I had hoped every citizen of this country had been. I was mistaken, sir. To my surprise I find that court denounced for its decision upon this question, its decree hooted at, and derided, and its spotless integrity assailed. It has been charged that it formed a corrupt and unholy combination with the slave power; that it and the present Executive formed a coalition to “undermine the national legislature, and destroy the liberties of the people;” that a mock issue by the means of which this decision could be reached had been concocted, and that the court had stretched, nay exceeded, its constitutional authority to decide these points; and that, therefore, its decisions should not be regarded. These denunciations, sir, coming from the members of the Republican Party, an organization so perfectly destitute of political integrity itself as to make no assault upon private or official character too detestable for its leaders to attempt, can well be attributed to that ruthless disregard for everything sacred in our government which has characterized that party from its formation to the present moment.

Burnett is additionally noteworthy because, “loyal citizen of the country” notwithstanding, he presided in 1861 over a sovereignty convention that formed a Confederate government. He also, while a Representative in the United States Congress, raised a Confederate regiment and briefly served in the Confederate States Army. The House deemed Burnett’s actions treasonable, and on December 3, 1861 a resolution to expel him passed easily. He is one of only five members of the House of Representative ever to be expelled.

Passages in “Tolerably Good English” (1858)
Remarks of Hon. Lewis D. Campbell of Ohio, in the House of Representatives of the United States, April 30, 1858, on the Final Passage of the Kansas Conference Bill

These remarks from the floor of the House are noteworthy not for the specific arguments made and countered, many of which have been approached in the preceding publications, but rather as a window into the workings of Congress. This exchange from the floor of the House followed several calls to order after a number of interruptions and illustrates the tension surrounding the larger debate:

Mr. LETCHER. The three gentlemen from Ohio have been upon the floor and talking at the same time; now I raise the question of order, that not more than one member has the right to address the Chair at one time; and I insist on its enforcement.

The SPEAKER. The Chair fails to enforce order with his voice or with his gavel.

Mr. LETCHER. Then I say, call for the Sergeant-at-Arms.

Later, the Speaker of the House and Representative Campbell lightened the mood in the House with this amusing exchange:

Mr. CAMPBELL. When I rose yesterday, perhaps somewhat excited by the demonstration which I had witnessed upon the part of my colleagues, and made a motion that there be a call of the House, the Chair, rather peremptorily, told me to take my seat. I was not aware that I was out of order. I certainly do not wish to put myself again where it will be the right of the Chair to command me to take my seat. I am perfectly willing, nay more, I am anxious to give gentlemen on all sides of the House, particularly gentlemen who propose to vote for this bill, some of them for one reason, and some for another, an opportunity to propound questions to me, and to answer my interrogatories. The Chair, however, has decided it to be out of order, and without the unanimous consent of the House, it would not be in order.

The SPEAKER. The Chair desires to say to the gentleman from Ohio, in reference to the call to order yesterday, that he did not intend to be even uncivil to the gentleman from Ohio. Several gentlemen were addressing the Chair out of order; and as the eye of the Chair fell upon the gentleman from Ohio, he thought, as he was one of the older members of the House, that he might as well commence with him as with any other member.

Mr. CAMPBELL. I am very willing, whenever it is necessary to quell a storm in this House, for the Chair to call me by name, whether I am violating the rules or not. [Laughter.]


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