The Topeka Conventioneers

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

The free state movement elected their delegates to Topeka alongside Andrew Reeder, their delegate to Washington. They came together with the usual mix of opportunists, men of principle, and opportunistic men of principle. Unlike many past gatherings, these men would have more to do than vote on resolutions and make speeches. Nor had they simply selected themselves or won appointment entirely through small local cliques, as more informal mass meetings had allowed. The free state movement called a general convention, announced well in advance. They came to write a state constitution that those outside Kansas would necessarily read as a grand statement of principles as well as a practical plan of government. Such a charge elevated their work above the level of pure rhetoric, even if the document would have questionable legal status. Its import further suggests that the voters would send the men that enjoyed their full confidence, or as close to it as they could manage. Thus at Topeka something like a snapshot of free state Kansas assembled on October 23, 1855.

The Daniel Wilder’s Annals of Kansas provides an incomplete roster of the convention with name, age, occupation, politics, native and home states. It lists thirty-six and then names another fourteen as absent. Further entries in the Annals indicate that some of them simply arrived late, with the initial roll call finding only twenty-one present. Those missing at the start include George Washington Brown and Henry Burgess. None of the late arrivals have their information on Wilder’s convenient table, but he recorded details on more than half of them.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

James Redpath, a reporter for the Missouri Democrat and resident of St. Louis provided the novelty of a genuine, if not very eastern, outsider taking part in Kansas affairs. He listed his affiliation as Democratic and emancipationist. The convention elected the twenty-two year old, second youngest of its members, its reporter. Thirteen others, including the convention’s secretary, assistant secretary, and both clerks, had not seen the dark side of thirty.

Those longer in years had their contingent, with Massachusetts physician Amory Hunting coming in at sixty-one and John A. Wakefield not far behind at fifty-nine, but only four others had seen more than five decades. They and some men in their forties and late thirties pulled the convention’s average age to just over 35, neglecting the fourteen members the Annals don’t tabulate, but in general the group looks fairly young. According to Alice Nichols’ Bleeding Kansas, they had that in common with the bogus legislature, “more than half of them under thirty and most of the others not much older.” The assembly passed over Wakefield (59), as well as W.Y. Roberts (41), to elect James Lane (33) president. With his past seat in Congress and reputation as a moderate, Lane had more than age to recommend him.

John A Wakefield

John A Wakefield

The members politics ran the gamut. Seventeen on Wilder’s list, including Lane, named themselves conventional members of the national Democracy. James Redpath called himself a Democrat and emancipationist. Only one, Herald of Freedom reporter Samuel F. Tappan, declared himself an abolitionist. Charles Robinson settled for “Independent.” Six claimed the Republican title and six more still carried a torch for the Whigs. Two signed up as “Freesoil” men and one more as Free State. A. Curtiss, a Kentuckian lawyer, implausibly declared his politics “None.” Overall this makes for a Democratic convention, if not overwhelmingly so. This too they had in common with the bogus legislature, which condemned any attempt to form a Kansas Democracy as a distraction from the proslavery cause but regularly availed itself of normal Democratic party rhetoric.

But wherever they came from, whatever their other politics, however old or young, they came to defy the legal authority of Kansas, write their constitution, and throw themselves on the mercy of the Congress for relief from the violence, terror, tyranny and general mockery of the white many’s republic that the proslavery forces had foisted upon them. If they agreed upon nothing else, they agreed on that.

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