Kansans have spent 22 years restoring Constitution Hall to remind us of our Free State heritage

January 24, 2021 3:25 am

A painted lantern slide by artist Samuel J. Reader of Constitution Hall in Kansas Territory, as it appeared in 1856. (Library of Congress)

The Topeka Constitution was unequivocal: “There shall be no Slavery in this State.”

It was also, in 1856, regarded as rebellion by the sitting president.

One of the things about our present cyclone of current events is that it’s easy to forget that history doesn’t follow a 24-hour news cycle. Even though we may feel we’re being roasted on the hot hinges of history, there is some comfort in knowing that others have faced similar challenges — even though their work on the right side of history took years, or even lifetimes, to bear fruit.

“All history is in a sense local history,” said William Seale, “or a combination of local histories.”

Seale was a historian nationally known for his books about the White House. But Seale, who died in 2019, also loved old buildings because they are portals to history. One of those buildings was Constitutional Hall, now an unremarkable looking pair of storefronts in downtown Topeka.

In the 1850s, it stood quite literally alone as a monument to the radical fervor which would lead Kansas to enter the union, 160 years ago come Friday, as a free state.

“Constitution Hall — as it was known then and has always been called since — is the principal site historically associated with the free state struggle for the future of the territory,” Seale concluded in a 2004 proposal to restore the site. “In this building Kansas really began the long journey to statehood.”

A two-story building at 429 S. Kansas Avenue, Constitution Hall is the oldest permanent structure in Topeka and one of the oldest in the state. During the prelude to the Civil War known as “Bleeding Kansas,” it was the site of a convention that produced the failed Topeka Constitution, part of a free state insurrection that was put down by federal troops at cannon point. It was the southern terminus of an underground railroad that freed an estimated 400 enslaved persons from bondage, and part of a row of buildings that served as the state capitol from 1863 to 1869.

Construction was completed early in 1855, according to Seale’s study, by builder and owner Loring Farnsworth, who would later be elected the city’s first mayor. Farnsworth used local limestone (culled from a ravine out back) and native timber, particularly oak. The work was done with axes and other implements that could be expected in a rural setting of the time, and the result was rough-hewn. The roof was probably canvas covered with sand-loaded white paint, a common technique on the frontier.

There is no other building like it in the United States, Chris Meinhardt told me recently.

Meinhardt is a founder of the Friends of the Free State Capitol, a federal nonprofit dedicated to preserving the building.

Restoration has been underway for 22 years, Meinhardt said, after the building was narrowly saved from demolition in 1997. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2008. Support for the restoration accelerated after the site became part of Freedom’s Frontier, a federally designated national heritage area in eastern Kansas and western Missouri.

Constitution Hall, at 429 S. Kansas Avenue, is the oldest permanent structure in Topeka and one of the oldest in the state. It was the site of a convention that produced the failed Topeka Constitution, part of a free state insurrection that was put down by federal troops at cannon point, and the southern terminus of an underground railroad that freed an estimated 400 enslaved people from bondage. It was also part of a row of buildings that served as the state capitol from 1863 to 1869. (Noah Taborda/Kansas Reflector)

The influence of Constitution Hall for Kansas, Meinhardt said, is “foundational.”

It is currently not open to visitors, as the interior is not yet ready or safe enough for public viewing, Meinhardt said. This year, if the weather turns mild enough by March 1, masons will begin work to restore the facade to its original look, using limestone from Chase County. The local stone was just too soft, he said. The work is funded largely by Topeka’s transient guest tax. If things progress as expected, there may be some public event at the hall later this year.

Although Kansas residents may be more familiar with another Constitution Hall — the state historic site at Lecompton, about 20 miles east — the one in Topeka may be more historically and spiritually significant for the state. The Lecompton Constitution, which also failed to win approval from Congress, would have made slavery legal in Kansas.

The question of whether Kansas Territory would be admitted a free or a slave state had the attention of the nation. Eastern reporters were dispatched to cover the latest turmoil and poets spun news into verse. John Greenleaf Whittier wrote of the bloodshed, “Great drops on the bunch grass, but not of the dew!”

The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 had upset the precarious balance of power created by the Missouri Compromise, which had prohibited slavery in new states along a line generally west of Missouri and north of Texas. But the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed the issue to be decided by popular vote. This resulted in pro-slavery Missouri “border ruffians” crossing into Kansas to vote, and groups like the abolitionist New England Emigrant Aid Company recruiting homesteaders to found and populate free state towns like Lawrence and Topeka. The shooting war that erupted on the Missouri-Kansas border was a precursor to an all-out Civil War.

When Constitution Hall at Topeka was built, Kansas Territory was ruled by a “bogus” pro-slavery legislature, the result of real election fraud with nonresident voters, deadly intimidation and stuffed ballot boxes. This bogus legislature had the backing of President Franklin Pierce, a northerner who thought slavery evil but feared the abolition movement would tear the country apart.

The Topeka Constitution was a “bold end-run to establish a free-state government,” Seale wrote. The goal was to “appeal to Congress to support it, bypassing the presidential authority claimed by the pro-slavery (state) legislature.”

Constitutional Convention, Topeka, Kansas Territory. The convention met from October to November 1855 in Constitution Hall, Topeka. This appeared in an issue of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in December 1855. (Library of Congress)

The U.S. House of Representatives approved the Topeka Constitution by two votes, but it would ultimately be defeated in the Senate. President Pierce declared the constitution an act of rebellion. Meanwhile, the Topeka Movement organized a government, issued scrip and elected Charles Robinson as governor. The Topeka Legislature planned to convene, appropriately enough, at Constitution Hall on July 4, 1856.

Four hundred dragoons from Fort Leavenworth were dispatched to prevent it.

“It was quite a performance in the raw, new town, before Constitution Hall, the only building of consequence then standing in Topeka,” Seale wrote. “(Col. Edwin Vose Sumner) planted two pieces of artillery at the head of Kansas Avenue, the gunners holding lighted matches.”

Sumner dismounted in front of 500 spectators — including John Brown, who was hiding behind a thicket of wild sunflowers — and ascended the stairs to the senate chamber. Sumner asked for the assembly to disband, which they did without incident.

To condense a rather complicated history, the Topeka Constitution became a roundabout model for the successful 1859 Wyandotte Constitution, which led to the admission of Kansas as a free state on January 29, 1861.

“Subsequent episodes of (Constitution Hall’s) history are interesting and sometimes melodramatic,” Seale wrote. “It was a storage place for firearms, the boxes of Beecher’s ‘Bibles,’ which were in reality rifles to aid in the free state cause. It was used in the support of a chief fugitive escape route to the North, and as one of the State Row buildings, it was in use for six years as part of the first Kansas state capitol, before the present Capitol was occupied.”

But, Seale noted, while the building that gave birth to the pro-slavery Lecompton constitution is commemorated as a state historic site, Constitution Hall at Topeka had received no similar honors.

Today, the preservation effort that began more than two decades ago remains incomplete. But there will come a time when Constitution Hall is open for tours and exhibits to inspire new generations of Kansans. And these words will again be heard in that rough-hewn hall, just as they were in 1856 when the hot hinges of history pressed:

“There shall be no Slavery in this State.”

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Max McCoy
Max McCoy

Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. A native Kansan, he started his career at the Pittsburg Morning Sun and was soon writing for national magazines. His investigative stories on unsolved murders, serial killers and hate groups earned him first-place awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors and other organizations. McCoy has also written more than twenty books, the most recent of which is "Elevations: A Personal Exploration of the Arkansas River," named a Kansas Notable Book by the state library. "Elevations" also won the National Outdoor Book Award, in the history/biography category. Max teaches journalism at Emporia State University.