Constitution Hall stands at 315 Elmore St. in Lecompton, located in Douglas County. The building is both a Kansas and National Historic Landmark. (Library of Congress)
The other day I was having coffee with a friend downtown in Emporia and he was talking about the challenge of teaching history to high school students. It was difficult, he said, to get kids to understand the pivotal moments when, if something had gone a little differently, the result would have been a wildly different world today.
As examples, my friend mentioned the battles of Tours (732), Waterloo (1815) and Gettysburg (1863). Reverse the victors in those contests and you get alternative histories worthy of science fiction novels.
My friend is a Vietnam vet with a PhD in history, so it’s natural for him to think in terms of military victories and defeats. Nothing moves the hands of history like war. But I think my history-minded friend was being a bit hard on his high school students because I doubt most adults could articulate how those battles changed the world.
Not long after that conversation, I got to thinking about the part each of us plays in shaping the world. It’s clear that a handful of American pilots during the battle of Midway (1942) turned the tide of war in the Pacific. It’s equally clear how other, more peaceful acts, such as the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming (1928) also changed the world.
Hindsight makes all things obvious.
What is less clear is the effect our individual actions, taken cumulatively, have had on the world. So take your citizenship seriously and cast informed votes as if democracy depended on it — which, of course, it does.
It might not feel like our votes make a difference. We live in a time when the carnival of political turmoil seems never-ending. Of what value are the actions of a single individual when we are confronted with the absurdity of modern politics? Fact and compassion are out, disinformation and division are in. It might be funny if so much weren’t at stake.
And that got me to thinking about the Lecompton Constitution.
To explain, let’s go all the way back to Bleeding Kansas, those years of tumult preceding the Civil War. The Lecompton Constitution was the second of four constitutions proposed for the state of Kansas. It was signed in 1857 in Constitution Hall at Lecompton, the territorial capital of Kansas, and it was framed by pro-slavery advocates. It would have, among other things, protected the enslavement of human beings in Kansas and excluded free Black persons.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 had repealed the Missouri Compromise, a devil’s bargain between free and slave states, and left the question of slavery in the territories up to popular vote. Advocates on both sides were drawn to Kansas Territory, from New England abolitionists who wanted a free state to pro-slavery Missourians who thought little of crossing the border to vote. The Lecompton Constitution was heavily tilted toward the pro-slavery side because, over fears of ballot fraud, free staters boycotted the vote.
The document was drafted Nov. 8, 1857, at “Constitution Hall” in Lecompton, which is today a Kansas and National Historic Landmark. It is touted as the “Civil War Birth Place” and somewhat ironically as “Where Slavery Began to Die,” but in 1857 the framers of the Lecompton Constitution had no such hindsight. The Lecompton Constitution was ratified by Kansas voters — again, with free staters boycotting — and the document was transmitted to President James Buchanan, who recommended its approval and the admission of Kansas to the union as a slave state. Buchanan’s goal was to admit Kansas as quickly as possible and put an end to the bloody affairs on the border.
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In February 1858, a brawl erupted on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives during debate of the Lecompton Constitution. This melee occurred at 2 in the morning, with insults and fists being thrown. In June of that year, Abraham Lincoln delivered his “house divided” speech after being named the Republican candidate for Senate from Illinois. The impetus for the speech was the Lecompton Constitution.
“A house divided against itself cannot stand,” Lincoln told the convention, quoting the Gospel of Mark.
He went on to say that he did not think the nation could endure as half slave and half free.
“I do not expect the Union to be dissolved,” Lincoln said. “I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all other.”
Lincoln lost the senate race to his opponent, Stephen A. Douglas. But in 1860, having emerged as a national figure on the issue of slavery, Lincoln was elected president. Kansas was admitted to the Union on Jan. 29, 1861, as a free state.
The issue had been thrown back to Kansas voters, who in a valid election in August 1858 overwhelmingly adopted the Wyandotte Constitution. Had Kansas gone for any of the three previous constitutions, interestingly enough, the state would have been much larger than it is now, extending west to the Rocky Mountains and encompassing southern Nebraska.
The Civil War, from April 1861 to April 1865, settled the issue of slavery. Lincoln was assassinated by Southern sympathizer John Wilkes Booth only a few days after General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse. Nebraska was admitted to the Union on March 1, 1867, putting an end, at least territorially, to what the Kansas-Nebraska Act had started.
The Lecompton Constitution crisis did not cause the Civil War, but it was the result of a moral rot at the nation’s core and a chain of bad decisions by leaders at every level. Broadly, it was a popular referendum on the issue of slavery itself, and not just a territorial vote to determine how Kansas would enter the union. The issue was complicated by violent and sometimes murderous radicals, a mistrust of elections and other systems of government, and the inability of Congress to have reasoned debate without coming to blows.
It seems unthinkable now that Kansas would have entered the union as anything but a free state, but in 1858 we came damned close to being admitted as part of the Southern pro-slavery faction. Kansans using their power to vote, in August 1858, blocked a series of bad decisions by territorial and national leaders.
Today, the political divisions in our country — and our state — run deep. Yet, there are many things we agree on as Kansans.
Recently, the 2023 Kansas Speaks statewide public opinion survey was released by the Docking Institute of Public Affairs at Fort Hays State University. These surveys attempt to gauge the cultural and political temperature of the state, and this year revealed a widening disconnect between what Kansans want and what lawmakers think we should have.
For example, the survey says two-thirds of Kansans favor Medicaid expansion, 67% support the legalization of recreational marijuana, and 57% feel climate change is a crisis, or at least a major problem. There is much more to the survey, but these are the figures that caught my attention. They don’t represent a crisis of Lecompton proportions, but they are serious.
This Tuesday, Nov. 7, is another election day.
There are no headline-grabbing issues to be decided, no races for governor or president. Most of the candidates on the ballot are running for seats on their city governments or school boards, positions that are the foundation of public service in their communities. But in these days of political carnival it takes courage to run for any position. Each seat brings with it a degree of political and reputational risk, or at least the prospect of having to endure the shouted displeasure of constituents.
So do your civic duty and go vote.
Democracy requires the constant engagement of informed and active voters. The result may not be as dramatic as a battle, but your participation is no less important than any of the dates we remember as turning points. Because, you see, every vote is a turning point — and another chance to change the world.
Max McCoy is an award-winning author and journalist. Through its opinion section, the Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.
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