Harry S. Truman Presidential Library & Museum

Lecompton Constitution
Steve Larson
American History
Time Frame:
1-2 Classes
Civil War

Grade Levels:
8, 9, 10, 11, 12

Classroom/Homework Activity to be performed:
  • The Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 required people to decide on the issue of slavery through their vote for a constitution for any new territory which desired to become a state. This very controversial act which was based on Stephen Douglas’ notion of Popular Sovereignty led to the beginning of a series of events in Kansas and Missouri which culminated in violence and became known as “Bleeding Kansas” and was the prelude to the Civil War. One of the most controversial, confusing and famous of these events was the writing, voting on and submission to Congress of the Lecompton Constitution by Pro-slavery advocates in Lecompton, Kansas in 1857 and the subsequent response to that document by President James Buchanan in a message to Congress in February, 1858. This is designed to be used as a one or two period lesson which will guide students through these complicated events by using excerpts from both of those documents with questions to stimulate thinking about the consequences of their implementation.

  • The purpose of this activity is to better acquaint the student with the problems faced by Kansas settlers.  Decisions made by our countries leaders have to be well thought out or they may come back to haunt us.  This was part of the problem with Kansas in dealing with the Missouri Compromise and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

District, state, or national performance and knowledge standards/goals/skills met:

Missouri Standards:

  • SS1 1.6. 4.2
  • SS2 1.6
  • SS3 4.1, 1.6
  • SS3 1.6
  • SS3 1.8
  • SS3 1.6, 3.1

Secondary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:
Primary materials (book, article, video documentary, etc.) needed:


Creating the Lecompton Constitution began with choosing the delegates who would

write it. In the summer of 1857 territorial voters traveled to area polling places to elect

delegates. Legally, only residents of Kansas Territory could vote in a territorial election. In

reality, some people voted more than once, and many proslavery Missourians crossed the

Missouri-Kansas border to vote. Missourians wanted to make sure their Kansas neighbor got

a proslavery constitution. Free-staters chose not to vote at this election because they felt their

votes would be a show of support for illegal voting practices in previous elections. The result

was that the majority of delegates elected to write the Lecompton Constitution were

proslavery. However, the majority of territorial voters in the summer of 1857 supported the

free-state cause.

Elected delegates gathered at a constitutional convention in the town of Lecompton in

the fall of 1857. Here they wrote the Lecompton Constitution. The majority of delegates

supported slavery, which resulted in a constitution that allowed slavery in the new state of


            Next, the completed Lecompton Constitution went before territorial voters for approval. The             proslavery constitutional convention claimed the right to call for a vote on part of the constitution             and to turn over the power of the territorial governor and legislature to the president of the             constitutional convention. The territorial governor and the new free-state legislature disagreed             with the convention. Their inability to reach an agreement resulted in

            two elections. The first election resulted in approval of the proslavery Constitution, but the second             election resulted in the free-state voters overturning the Constitution which led to even more             anger and violence in Kansas.



            ARTICLE VII.-- SLAVERY.

            SECTION 1. The right of property is before and higher than any constitutional sanction, and the             right of the owner of a slave to such slave and its increase is the same and as inviolable as the r            ight of the owner of any property whatever.

            SECTION 2. The Legislature shall have no power to pass laws for the emancipation of slaves             without the consent of the owners, or without paying the owners previous to their emancipation a             full equivalent in money for the slaves so emancipated. They shall have no power to prevent             immigrants to the State from bringing with them such persons as are deemed slaves by the laws             of any one of the United States or Territories, so long as any person of the same age or             description shall be continued in slavery by the laws of this State: Provided, That such person or             slave be the bona fide property of such immigrants: And provided, also, That laws may be passed             to prohibit the introduction into this State of slaves who have committed high crimes in other             States or Territories. They shall have power to pass laws to permit the owners of slaves to             emancipate them, saving the rights of creditors, and preventing them from becoming a public             charge. They shall have power to pass laws to permit the owners of slaves to treat them with             humanity, to provide for them necessary food and clothing, to abstain from all injuries to them             extending to life or limb; and, in case of their neglect or refusal to comply with the direction of             such laws, to have such slave sold for the benefit of the owner or owners.

            SECTION 3. In the prosecution of slaves for crimes of higher grade than petit larceny, the             Legislature shall have no power to deprive them of an impartial trial by petit jury.

            SECTION 4. Any person who shall maliciously dismember, or deprive a slave of life, shall suffer             such punishment as would be inflicted in case the like offense had been committed on a free             white person, and on the like proof, except in case of insurrection of such slave.

            BILL OF RIGHTS -- #23 Free negroes shall not be permitted to live in this state under any             circumstances.

            SCHEDULE – SEC. 7 This constitution shall be submitted to the Congress of the United States at             its next ensuing session…

            Before this constitution shall be sent to Congress, asking for admission into the Union as a State,             it shall be submitted to all the white male inhabitants of this territory, for approval or disapproval,             as follows…The voting shall be by ballot. The judges of said election shall cause to be kept two             poll-books by two clerks, by them appointed. The         ballots cast at said election shall be             endorsed, “Constitution with slavery,” and “Constitution with no slavery.”

            From the Annals of Kansas found at:






            1. Does the Lecompton Constitution reflect a belief that the people of Kansas believed in slavery                 or popular sovereignty as a solution to the conflict in their territory?

            2. What options did the final draft give the voters of Kansas regarding the issue of slavery?

            3. What were some of the ways in which the proslavery Missourians influenced the slavery issue                 in this Constitution to insure that their slaves would be protected in Kansas?



            Failing to appreciate the growing power of free soil ideology in the north, President Buchanan             continued his long-standing policy of appeasing the slave states by appointing many southerners             to his cabinet. He also showed his southern leaning in the matter of "Bleeding Kansas." The             Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 repealed the Missouri Compromise line of 1820 and destroyed the             finality of the Compromise of 1850 by allowing voters in the western territories to decide for             themselves whether or not to allow slavery. The result was that large numbers of pro-slavery and             antislavery settlers rushed into the Kansas territory. When voters met at Lecompton to write a             state constitution, free-soil Kansans boycotted the registration and delegate election process,             resulting in the election of a pro-slavery convention. When only a pro-slavery constitution was             presented to voters, the antislavery faction again refused to participate in the election and the pro-slavery constitution was sent to Buchanan for congressional approval. Meanwhile, the             territorial legislature in Kansas called for a referendum on the entire constitution and, with            antislavery partisans participating this time, the result was a large majority against the Lecompton   Constitution. Amidst the ensuing national firestorm, Buchanan characteristically decided his course by applying a narrow legalistic logic to the case. Since the first election had been legal, neither the president nor a territorial legislature had authority to intervene and so he submitted the     pro-slavery Lecompton Constitution to Congress.


                                                            (Excerpts only)

            The following message was received from the President of the United States by Mr. Henry, his             secretary:

            To the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States:

            I have received from J. Calhoun, esq., president of the late constitutional convention of Kansas, a             copy, duly certified by himself, of the constitution framed by that body, with the expression of a             hope that I would submit the same to the consideration of Congress, "with the view of the             admission of Kansas into the Union as an independent State." In compliance with this request, I             herewith transmit to Congress, for their action, the constitution of Kansas, with the ordinance             respecting the public lands, as well as the letter of Mr. Calhoun, dated at Lecompton on the 14th             ultimo, by which they were accompanied.

            The enemies of the territorial government determined still to resist the authority of Congress.             They refused to vote for delegates to the convention, not because, from circumstances which I             need not detail, there was an omission to register the comparatively few voters who were             inhabitants of certain counties of Kansas in the early spring of 1857, but because they had             predetermined, at all hazards, to adhere to their revolutionary organization, and defeat the             establishment of any other constitution than that which they had framed at Topeka. The election             was, therefore, suffered to pass by default; but of this result the qualified electors who refused to             vote can never justly complain.

            From this review, it is manifest that the Lecompton convention, according to every principle of             constitutional law, was legally constituted and was invested with power to frame a constitution.

            The sacred principle of popular sovereignty has been invoked in favor of the enemies of law and             order in Kansas. But in what manner is popular sovereignty to be exercised in this country, if not             through the instrumentality of established law? In certain small republics of ancient times the             people did assemble in primary meetings, passed laws, and directed public affairs. In our country             this is manifestly impossible. Popular sovereignty can be exercised here only through the ballot-            box; and if the people will refuse to exercise it in this manner, as they have done in Kansas at the             election of delegates, it is not for them to complain that their rights have been violated.

            The question of slavery was submitted to an election of the people of Kansas on the 21st             December last, in obedience to the mandate of the Constitution. Here, again, a fair opportunity             was presented to the adherents of the Topeka constitution, if they were the majority, to decide             this exciting question "in their own way," and thus restore peace to the distracted Territory; but             they again refused to exercise their right of popular sovereignty, and again suffered the election             to pass by default.

            The people of Kansas have, then, "in their own way," and in strict accordance with the organic             act, framed a constitution and State government; have submitted the all-important question of             slavery to the people, and have elected a governor, a member to represent them in Congress,             members of the State legislature, and other State officers. They now ask admission into the             Union under this constitution, which is republican in its form. It is for Congress to decide whether             they will admit or reject the State which has thus been created. For my own part, I am decidedly             in favor of its admission, and thus terminating the Kansas question. This will carry out the great             principle of non-intervention recognized and sanctioned by the organic act, which declares in             express language in favor of "non-intervention by Congress with slavery in the States or             Territories," leaving "the people thereof perfectly free to form and regulate their domestic             institutions in their own way, subject only to the Constitution of the United States." In this manner,         by localizing the question of slavery, and confining it to the people whom it immediately             concerned, every patriot anxiously expected that this question would be banished from the halls             of Congress, where it has always exerted a baneful influence throughout the whole country.

            It is proper that I should briefly refer to the election held under an act of the territorial legislature,             on the first Monday of January last, on the Lecompton constitution. This election was held after             the Territory had been prepared for admission into the Union as a sovereign State, and when or             change its character. The election, which was peaceably conducted under my instructions,             involved a strange inconsistency. A large majority of the persons who voted against the             Lecompton constitution were at the very same time and place recognizing its valid existence in             the most solemn and authentic manner, by voting under its provisions. I have yet received no             official information of the result of this election.

            JAMES BUCHANAN.

            Washington, February 2, 1858.

            From the Library of Congress Journal of the Senate 35th Session found at:




            1. Does President Buchanan’s attempt to get Congress to recognize the pro-slavery Lecompton             Constitution have anything to do with its protection of slavery?

            2. After reading this document does it appear to you that President Buchanan believes people in             the territory of Kansas, or any other territory for that matter, have the right to establish slavery of             they want it? Why or why not?

            3. Did President Buchanan’s message threaten the success of Popular Sovereignty in Kansas?

Full description of activity or assignment.

1. Using a map of the Missouri Compromise and a map of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, have students contrast the two so that they can see how much the country had grown and to analyze new developments in the map of 1854 in order to appreciate the urgency of the arguments advanced in the arguments over slavery.


2. Have students define the following terms:

            1) sectionalism - A number of people who regard the interests of a certain section of the country to be more important than national interests.

            2) Popular Sovereignty - Settlers of a territory deciding by vote, whether that territory should be free or slave.


Divide the students into two groups. Pass out the two documents (LeCompton Constitution & Buchanan’s message to Congress), one to each group.

            a) Have each student read the document silently, then discuss it as a group and decide whether it is either pro-slavery or anti-slavery.

            b) Have the groups decide whether they believe the document supports Popular Sovereignty or not.

            c) Have the groups discuss the following questions in their own group and then share their responses with the whole group:

                                    1. Why were people all over the country talking about Kansas and the LeCompton Constitution?

                                    2. Why was it so important that Kansas enter the Union as either slave or free?

                                    3. Was President Buchanan really pro-slavery or was he just trying to keep the South happy and prevent a Civil War?

                                    4. If you were a settler in Kansas which is more important to you? Arguing over slavery, or arguing over the right to choose if Kansas is slave or free?

Full explanation of the assessment method and/or scoring guide:

 After students have read the LeCompton Constitution, have them complete the cause and effect worksheet entitled “Making Sense of the LeCompton Constitution” .





Electing Delegates

Illegal voting takes place. The majority of votes are cast for proslavery delegates. The majority of legal voters are free-state.


Writing the Lecompton Constitution


The Lecompton Constitution is a pro-slavery document. If approved it would allow slavery in the state of Kansas.

Calling for a Vote

Both the proslavery constitutional convention and the free-state legislature claimed to have the authority to call for an election on the Lecompton Constitution.


Voting on the Constitution – The First Vote


Free-state voters refuse to vote in the first election. The Lecompton Constitution is approved. The constitution is sent to Congress for ratification.

Voting on the Constitution – The Second Vote

The territorial legislature called for the second election. It gave people three choices: reject the entire constitution, approve the constitution with slavery, or approve the constitution with slavery allowed for only Kansasans who already owned slaves.