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Thomas Gay: Kansas Reminiscences, Part 11 [Lecompton Constitutional Convention]

Personal Recollections of Life in Territorial Kansas in Border Ruffian Days

March 10, 1857, Robert J. Walker of Mississippi, was appointed governor of Kansas. Before his appointment, which he only accepted at the earnest solicitation of President [James] Buchanan, he stipulated as a condition of his acceptance that the constitution then provided for, and which was passed in the fall of the same year should be submitted to the people for their endorsement or rejection. President Buchanan is on record as having expressly promised his power for such submission, and with this promise, Walker accepted the undesirable position and arrived in Lecompton May 27, 1857.

Let me here, as briefly as is possible for a proper understanding of the objections to the notorious instrument, recite the conditions under which it was formed, and the means used to fasten it on the territory.

First. The legislature providing for the convention to formulate the constitution was a “bogus legislature,” to which three-fourths of the adult residents gave only a forced allegiance.

Second. The census by which the delegates were elected was taken in only fifteen counties. In nineteen counties strongly free state there was no census and could be no vote for delegates.

Third. The registry of voters was exclusively in proslavery hands.

Fourth. A constitution was formed exclusively by delegates from a proslavery constituency, the free state party abstaining from voting.

Fifth. The convention only provided its submission in this form: “Constitution with slavery; or, constitution without slavery.” In either event, slavery already existing, could not be interfered with.

What was called an election on these two propositions was held December 21, 1857, and resulted in 6226 votes for constitution with slavery, and 569 votes for constitution without slavery. Of this larger vote, 3000 were rejected as fraudulent. On the 2nd day of February, 1858, President Buchanan, false to all his solemn pledges to Governor Walker, sent this constitution to the Senate of the United States, with a message asking its acceptance. He had also previous to this endorsed it in his annual message to congress.

Stephen A. Douglas took issue with the president, on the ground that a failure to submit the constitution to the people of Kansas was in direct conflict with the doctrine of squatter sovereignty, the leading feature of the “Kansas-Nebraska bill.” [The Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 handed the decision of whether to allow slavery in Kansas Territory (and Nebraska Territory) to voters in those territories.] The ruptures in the democratic party by this action of Douglas was not healed. The breach constantly widened till a complete separation took place by which, in 1860, two candidates for president, representing the extreme and moderate view, in regard to slavery, went before the country, and by that action, Lincoln was elected to the presidency.

April 30, 1858, the “English compromise bill” was proposed by congress. By this bill the “Lecompton swindle” was sent back to the people for submission, with a promise that if they would accept it the government would be very liberal to them in the way of public lands, etc. On the 2nd day of August I cast my first vote, and it was one out of 11,300 “nays” recorded against the constitution, while the lonely number of 1,786 said “yea” to the proposition. That vote settled the slavery question in Kansas, and there was hallelujahs among the “Sunflowers.”

Early in 1857 I made the acquaintance of a man by the name of Swift. [William H. Swift, Alexander Bayne and Thomas D. Chiles were the Jefferson County delegates to the Lecompton constitutional convention.] For some reason quite a strong friendship had grown up between us, although he was Simon pure pro-slavery, and I was equally untainted “visa-versa.” He was elected one of the delegates from Jefferson County to the Lecompton constitutional convention, notwithstanding he was not a bona fide resident of the territory. The well-known fact that he had his residence in Missouri did not operate as a practical bar to shut him off from assisting to make a constitution for Kansas. He was frequently in Osawkee looking after his fences, and as often as he came he would drop in on Abner and I, and we would get an intellectual treat from him. When his duties commenced at Lecompton, he would generally come up Saturday and stop with us and visit the Dyers [Brothers William and George Dyer ran a store in Osawkee (Ozawkie).] till Monday. One Saturday he proposed to me that I go down to Lecompton with him the following Monday and witness the process of constitution-making and study the characters of the builders. So I went with him, with the understanding that he was to protect me and explain to the solons that I was on a voyage of discovery as to what kind of a document they would be likely to turn out with such a dreadful lot of raw material to build with.

Swift smiled faintly when I told him I should think it would be easy enough for Missourians to make a constitution for Kansas, especially when it was not intended to consult the people of Kansas as to whether they approved it or not. Oh! He said, “What was good enough for Missouri was good enough for Kansas, and the Kansas constitution was to be the Missouri instrument made to fit the more modern idea of how things should be done.” Swift was honest enough to say to me “that Kansas must be made a slave state, and that the convention received its instructions from Washington as to the best methods of procedure to secure that result.” The central idea of the delegates from Missouri was that with free Iowa on the north and free Illinois on the east and a free state to the west, her peculiar institution would be subject to such adverse influences as to render slave property insecure, and as a consequence materially reduce the value of her slaves. So this convention, entirely pro-slavery and largely interested in slave property in Missouri, backed up and advised by the pro-slavery administration, built this instrument to perpetuate their financial and political interests. What a majority of the residents of the territory desired had no influence in this body or in the White House.

John Calhoun, afterwards known as “Candle Box John,” [John Calhoun, surveyor general and proslavery leader, was twice accused of tampering with election results. The second time involved the burial of ballots in a box that had been used to ship candles.] presided over their deliberations, and as they were mostly of one mind in regard to the central idea, there was not sufficient antagonism developed among the delegates to spice up the proceedings beyond a kind of monotonous perfunctory state.

[At right: Constitution Hall, Lecompton, Kansas. For more information, visit https://lecomptonkansas.com/learn/constitution-hall-state-historic-site/ ]

Before the call to order, Swift introduced me to Calhoun and others, as a hot-blooded young abolitionist from Wisconsin – a protégé of his – who had come down to study the modus operandi of things in the capital; and he, with mock solemnity, suggested that it would be wise to behave themselves, as I had carried arms successfully at Hickory Point, and also treat me respectfully. [Gay was in the Battle of Hickory Point Sept. 13-14, 1856.] With that, Tom Childs [Chiles], another delegate from our county, reached to his rear and pulled out a flask from his coat tail pocket, and a half dozen others followed suit, till I was in danger of being swamped by the excess of their well-meant hospitality. Swift then told them that I was studying for the ministry and he had heard it reported that abolition preachers didn’t indulge in anything stronger than aqua pura. Then Calhoun blurted out, “Bub, take a little for your stomach’s sake anyhow. See what a good round one Sam Kookagee [Samuel J. Kookagee, a Leavenworth County delegate] has, and he built it up on old rye and pure bourbon. Come, young man, it will make a bishop of you. And say, Swift, get your friend to act as chaplain, for I’m sure there is a lot of these unregenerate that need praying for.” So they joked and badgered the innocent boy till the gavel fell, when they went on lazily building, building the famous organic structure on a foundation of sand, destined to soon come tumbling down upon them, burying them fathoms deep in infamy and disgrace.

When the conscience of a people is thoroughly awakened, how easily are the laborious and systematic efforts of villains brought to naught.

— Thomas Gay


These articles are from a series written by Thomas Gay in 1894 for the Chariton (Iowa) Herald newspaper. Mr. Gay lived in Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, for a few years beginning in May 1856. Copies of his articles were obtained from the Lucas County Genealogical Society (Iowa) and from the Kansas State Historical Society Biographical Scrapbooks, volume 55. His name is included on the Poll List for an August 1858 election at Osawkee Township (Kansas State Historical Society). Mr. Gay, born in Canada, served in the Civil War in an Illinois regiment, and soon after the war settled in Iowa, where he lived the rest of his life. Thomas Gay moved to Kansas Territory from Wisconsin and wrote that he had come to help the free-state cause. He lived with a family friend from Wisconsin, “Abner Lowell,” whom Gay wrote was from Massachusetts. The cabin was located on the Delaware River (then called the Grasshopper River) somewhere between Ozawkie and Lecompton. Some readers might recognize parts of later installments because a few snippets were used in the book, “Ozawkie on the Delaware, 1854-1876,” by Erma L. Steffey.


This story appeared in "Yesteryears" in April 2016.

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