Who could legally vote in Kansas?

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

I have frequently accused the men who crossed from Missouri on election day, 1854, of stealing that election. They voted fraudulently in someone else’s election, which sounds like stealing to me and probably does to most readers. When a band of outsiders come in and vote, swamping the votes of people whom the elected official will notionally represented, it goes against the very idea of holding elections. Many Americans understood that at the time and likewise saw Kansas’ elections as illegitimate frauds. The Howard Report denounced the cross-border voting as “unlawful interference” that

has been continued in every important event in the history of the Territory: every election has been controlled, not by the actual settlers, but by citizens of Missouri; and, as a consequence, every officer of the Territory, from constable to legislators, except those appointed by the President, owe their positions to non-resident voters. None have been elected by the settlers; and your committee have been unable to find that any political power whatever, however unimportant, has been exercised by the people of the Territory.

Emphasis in original.

I think that most Americans would understand intuitively the magnitude of this. Many of us gripe about the electoral college every four years, myself included. Why hold the election if our votes don’t actually matter? Worse still, why hold it when people not governed by the result at all have a deciding vote? At least presidential electors hold American citizenship. If the Canadians or Mexicans came over and voted, electing their chosen president to run our executive branch most of us would probably consider ourselves citizens of an impotent, compromised democracy. People in other countries certainly have that opinion when the American military comes in and takes over their governments. Once upon a time, we considered similar actions by the Soviet Union in especially dire terms.

The Missouri filibusters did not necessarily agree. They understood the future of Kansas and the future of Missouri as deeply connected. Only a line on a map separated most of the two lands; people passed freely back and forth. Many of the settlers came from Missouri to Kansas and retained personal and business connections there. Many Missourians saw Kansas as inherently theirs to have due to its proximity. Why wouldn’t they?

John Wilkins Whitfield

John Wilkins Whitfield

J.B. Crane testified that in his district

There was some dispute about the polls, about the right of Missourians to vote-some saying that any man having a claim in the Territory had a right to vote, no matter where he lived.

They could and did easily fabricate those claims. Some went so far as to say that their residence at the moment of the election granted them the right to vote in Kansas. They lived. They stood in Kansas. Thus they lived in Kansas. If they lived in Missouri before, so did many others. If they lived in it thereafter, every white man had the right to move freely.

This all sounds a bit flippant, and the finer points of the law certainly did not convince people from Missouri to come over in great numbers. But no body save the United States Congress then had the power to declare what constituted a legal voter in Kansas. It specified only:

That every free white male inhabitant above the age of twenty-one years who shall be an actual resident of said Territory, and shall possess the qualifications hereinafter prescribed, shall be entitled to vote at the first election, and shall be eligible to any office within the said Territory; but the qualifications of voters, and of holding office, at all subsequent elections, shall be such as shall be prescribed by the Legislative Assembly: Provided, That the right of suffrage and of holding office shall be exercised only by citizens of the United States and those who shall have declared on oath their intention to become such, and shall have taken an oath to support the Constitution of the United States and the provisions of this act: And provided further, That no officer, soldier, seaman, or marine, or other person in the army or navy of the United States, or attached to troops in the service of the United States, shall be allowed to vote or hold office in said Territory, by reason of being on service therein.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

How long did you have to reside in the territory to count as an actual resident? Could one acquire residence via staking and registering a claim? Did residence require intention to stay or to live exclusively within Kansas? The judges of elections had the legal power to rule on these things, but many of the judges that Andrew Reeder appointed found themselves set aside by Missouri mobs and replaced by those with a more expansive idea of legal residence.

Does that fig leaf of ambiguity suffice to exonerate the Missouri filibusters? It might have done so in their minds, but I doubt many others would agree. Few crossing the border probably cared about such things at the time. They understood themselves as acting in self-defense, against invasion and subversion by outsiders, which trumped all legal niceties. Missouri had too much riding on the future of Kansas to risk letting Kansans set its course. They began setting things to right, in their own minds at least, by electing John Whitfield.

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