Politics at Topeka, Part One

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

On October 23, 1855, delegates of the people of Kansas met in convention at Topeka to write a constitution. They had no lawful authority, but as many had attended their questionable election as had voted in the election that the legal government of the territory called for a week prior. If one subtracted Missourians who had no right to vote in Kansas but did anyway, the convention could likely claim a healthy majority of Kansans in support. They came from near every state in the Union and included men born in England and Ireland. William Phillips waxed eloquent for a paragraph about their antecedents. Charles Robinson had a more qualified view of the delegates’ excellence. In The Kansas Conflict, he writes

The convention to frame the constitution met as provided, and the game of personal politics opened at once. The play was serio-comic from the first, often verging upon the tragic or ridiculous. The only officer of importance to be elected was president of the convention. To this position Colonel Lane, of course, aspired. As an evidence of his resources and political ingenuity, he based his claims to the highest office in the gift of the members on a damaging scandal. He asked for votes as an endorsement and vindication of his character. The Free State of October 29th makes this comment:

“It will be seen in another column that the constitutional convention has met and elected its officers. They, of course, put in the chair a certain individual, in order to counteract the effect of a true report that was abroad that might injure him, and as he declared that he would sink to hell rather than be defeated, we are rather afraid he will ‘sink’ anyhow, notwithstanding his success.”

Phillips doesn’t mention any rumors chasing Lane around Kansas in relation to his convention presidency, but he also wrote in late 1856 when Lane still lived and Kansas remained contested. Robinson wrote in 1892. He would have felt far less pressure to gild the reputation of a dead man. (Lane shot himself in the head in 1866 and died from the injury ten days later.) With Kansas matters settled, he likewise would have had little need to present a united front. But on the other hand, Robinson clearly did not think well of Lane at all. He led the Republicans of Kansas and Lane the Democrats. Phillips could have dismissed the scandal on political grounds, but Robinson could also have dusted it off to settle old scores.

William Phillips

William Phillips

In any event, Robinson reported that the convention divided almost at once between conservative and radical factions.

The first had headquarters at the Garvey House, and the second at the Chase House. Slate-making was at once inaugurated at the Garvey House, while the radicals at the Chase House accepted the situation with good-nature, as they were willing to forego all honors and emoluments of office if they could only secure a free State.

I suspect that Robinson’s group would have liked a few offices for themselves. But if they did not accept losing out on patronage quite as gracefully as he chose to recall, then Phillips describes them as willing to accept a fair amount of compromise and rather less interested in offices than Lane’s. We need not choose between praising their purity or damning their corruption. Robinson’s contingent could have an interest in offices, which he downplayed in later years, and still care more about keeping slavery from Kansas than securing those offices.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Issues played their part. Of these, Robinson first names a resolution “endorsing squatter sovereignty and Democracy generally.” Given his capitalization and the context, it sounds like Lane wanted to make the convention into an explicitly Democratic gathering. By endorsing popular sovereignty, he would align his party with the national party mainstream and keep consistent with his own vote in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Robinson even has his group bringing out “old campaign literature” to make the point. Lane made this into a test: If you would not sign on to his resolution, you could not have a place on his slate. Thus those who had ambitions for office must reconcile themselves to running, officially or otherwise, as Democrats.

The other issues deserve their own posts, which shall come next week.

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