The Lecompton Constitution was a controversial and disputed legal document of the Kansas Territory that became the focus of a great national crisis as the United States split over the issue of slavery in the decade before the Civil War. Though it is not widely remembered today, just the mention of "Lecompton" stirred deep emotions among Americans in the late 1850s.
The controversy arose because a proposed state constitution, which had been drafted in the territorial capital of Lecompton, would have made slavery legal in the new state of Kansas. And, in the decades before the Civil War, the issue of whether slavery would be legal in new states was perhaps the most intensely debated issue in America.
The controversy over the Lecompton Constitution eventually reached the White House of James Buchanan and was also heatedly debated on Capitol Hill. The issue of Lecompton, which came to define whether Kansas would be a free state or a slave state, also influenced the political careers of Stephen Douglas and Abraham Lincoln.
The Lecompton crisis played a role in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates of 1858. And the political fallout over Lecompton split the Democratic Party in ways that made Lincoln's victory in the election of 1860 possible. It became a significant event on the nation's path toward Civil War.
And so that national controversy over Lecompton, though generally forgotten today, came to be a major issue on the nation's road toward Civil War.
Background of the Lecompton Constitution
States entering the Union must draw up a constitution, and the Kansas territory had particular problems doing so when it moved to become a state in the late 1850s. A constitutional convention held at Topeka came up with an constitution that did not allow for slavery.
However, pro-slavery Kansans held a convention in the territorial capital of Lecompton and created a state constitution that made slavery legal.
It fell to the federal government to determine which state constitution would go into effect. President James Buchanan, who was known as a "dough face," a northern politician with southern sympathies, endorsed the Lecompton Constitution.
Significance of the Dispute Over Lecompton
As it was generally assumed that the pro-slavery constitution had been voted upon in an election in which many Kansans refused to vote, Buchanan's decision was controversial. And the Lecompton Constitution split the Democratic party, putting the powerful Illinois senator Stephen Douglas in opposition to many other Democrats.
The Lecompton Constitution, although a seemingly obscure issue, actually became a subject of intense national debate. For example, in 1858 stories about the Lecompton issue appeared regularly on the front page of the New York Times.
And the split within the Democratic Party persisted through the election of 1860, which would be won by the Republican candidate, Abraham Lincoln.
The U.S. House of Representatives refused to honor the Lecompton Constitution, and the voters in Kansas also rejected it. When Kansas eventually entered the Union in early 1861 it was as a free state.