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42 Kansas State Historical Societi/.
THE CONVENTION EPOCH IN KANSAS HISTORY.
An address delivered by Dr. Eichaed Coedley at the annual meeting of the State Historical
Society, at Topeka, January 17, 1882.
Some time since, in preparing a paper concerning some early reminiscences of
Kansas experience, I was led to describe the first free-state convention I attended
after my arrival in the autumn of 1857. In looking over the matter more fully
afterwards, I was impressed with the part these free-state conventions played in
the early history of our state. So vital were they in all the anomalous movements
of that anomalous time that this may be called " The Convention Epoch of Kan-
sas History.". I do not refer to the constitutional conventions, in which Kansas
leads the entire sisterhood of states. There have been at least four of these:
The Topeka, the Lecompton, the Leavenworth and the Wyandotte conventions,
each presenting to the world a complete constitution. If any community shall
be in need of a ready-made constitution, Kansas can oifer the most complete as-
sortment of any state. In this matter she defies competition. She can furnish a
constitution with slavery, or a constitution without slavery, or a constitution
half wa.y between â€” excluding slavery and the negro, too. This last is com-
mended to our dear Christian brethren on the Pacific slope. By substituting
" Chinamen " for "negro," our old Topeka constitution would just grade up to
their level of civilization.
But I do not refer to these constitutional conventions, nor to the ordinary
political convention; but to the voluntary gatherings of the free-state people in
the early years of our history. They were not the growth of years, nor were they
copied from the example of other states. They grew from the exigencies of the
times. They were the spontaneous coming together of the people to confer as to
what they should do in the various emergencies that were upon them. They
could exist only in an anomalous state of affairs. They came with the emergen-
cies they were designed to meet ; they thickened as the emergencies thickened ;
they passed away as the emergencies ceased. They had no legal authority, and
yet throvigh general concurrence their decisions became the law of their constit-
uents as completely as any legislative enactments ever were. Thej^ could not be
enforced, but they did not need to be enforced, for the people were a law unto
themselves. Eecognizing the federal laws, they repudiated the fraudulent terri-
torial laws. They were a distinct commonwealth by themselves, and these con-
ventions were their bond of union, and their officers and standing committees
their leaders. The Topeka constitution, with its conventions and elections, its
state officers and legislature, was the creature and instrument of this other con-
vention movement, and the defeat of that constitution did not destroy nor weaken
this less tangible, but no less mighty, organization back of it. That invisible
commonwealth, represented in these free-state conventions, was simply driven to
seek its ends in other ways. I cannot say how many there were of these conven-
tions. Including those pertaining to the Topeka constitution, I find signs of at
least nine different gatherings, from about July, 1855, to July, 1856, and some 10
from March, 1857, to December 23 of the same year. Some of these were spon-
taneous; some were in response to calls; some were mass meetings, and some were
delegate conventions; but they all sprang from the exigencies of the times, and
were designed to meet the ever-changing issues. I cannot speak of all of these.
"-Â£J.e uno, dUee omnes:''^ from one (or rather three) learn all. I will speak of the
Addresses before the Society. 43
convention at Big Springs, where the free-state party was formed; of that at
Grasshopper Falls, where that party changed its policy; and of one at Lawrence,
where that party was disrupted.
As the Kansas-Nebraska bill left the question of slavery to the popular voice,
the North determined to make Kansas free by settling it with free men. It was
soon discovered, however, that it was the Southern plan to stifle this voice of
the people, if there were any danger of favoring freedom. At the first election
for members of the legislature, March 30, 1855, thousands of armed men rushed
into the territory from Missouri, took possession of the polls, and shaped the
election to suit themselves. The settlers were thrust aside and residents of
Missouri elected to the legislature. Only one free-state man was allowed a seat,
and he resigned and left it entirely to the members chosen by outside voters.
They adopted the Missouri code of laws without reading, made opposition to
slavery a penitentiary offense, and required every voter to support the fugitive-
slave law and the laws of the territory. Free-state men, therefore, could not vote
to overthrow these oppressive laws without first taking an oath to support them.
The fi-ee-state men were placed in a very delicate and embarrassing position.
To submit was to put themselves in the power of their enemies; to resist was to
submit themselves to the charge of lawlessness. To submit was to allow a gross
outrage to secure its fruits: to resist was to invite a long and doubtful struggle;
to resist required wisdom and caution and unanimity. They must have a well-
defined policy, thoroughly understand each other, and loyally sustain each other
till the end was gained. They all agreed that the legislature was an imposition,
its enactments a fraud, and its officials usurpers. But the usurpers had seized
all the forms of law, and left them no legal remedy.
While the legislature was still in session a free-state convention met in Law-
rence, June 25, 1855, and resolved, " That while we claim no right to meddle with
the affairs of Missouri, we do claim the right to x-egulate our own affairs, and by
the help of God we intend to exercise that right."
Two days later, June 27, a democratic convention met at Lawrence, with
James H. Lane as president, and resolved, "That we consider ourselves capable
of managing our own affairs, and kindly ask people north and south to let us
This convention embraced those democrats who could not indorse the usur-
pation. The constituents of these two conventions blended in the free-state
movement, which was just beginning to take shape.
The legislature met July 2, and continued in session until August 30. While
in session, another convention was held in Lawrence, August 14 and 15, and
resolved, "That we repudiate a government imposed by foreign force, and
pledge our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor to a resistance to its
You notice the shifting of the issue? It is no longer "slavery" or "anti-
slavery," but " resistance to outside interference." Around this single issue the
free-state party grew.
This convention at Lawrence provided for another, larger and more general,
to be held at Big Springs, Sepitember 5, 1855. This was a delegate convention,
and every settlement in the territory was represented, and over 100 delegates
were present. The party grew larger as the issue grew nan-ower. It comprised,
of course, all original free-state men, who came to make Kansas free ; it com-
prised all democrats who wished to see fair play, and it comprised many south-
ern men who had no interest in slavery. The party also drew to itself a large
number of men who saw the shadows of coming events, and began to surmise
44 Kansas State Historical Socleti/.
where the emoluments of the future state were most likely to be found. It in-
cluded the abolitionists, who desired to make Kansas free because of their
interest in the negro : it included also the black-law men, who desired to make
Kansas free because of their dislike to the negro.
This enlarging of the party of course lowered its tone. They now repel, with
scorn, the " charge of abolitionism " ; they propose a " liberal treatment of slave
property already here " ; they propose to exclude negroes as well as slavery from
the territory. Thus was introduced into the platform of the free-state party that
black-law plank which appears in all its after history, and which was the only
serious blemish in the Topeka constitution. But on the one great living issue of
the times there was no ambiguity and no diversity. They declare the legislature
which had just adjourned " a spurious body, and its enactments of no binding
force " ; they declare " every man is at full liberty to defy or resist them" ; they
declare " they will endure these laws only so long as the best interests of the ter-
ritory require ; and they will resist them to a bloody issue as soon as they learn
that peaceful means have failed." Meanwhile they commend to their friends
"the procuring of arms and the oi-ganization and discipline of military com-
They go further than this. They declare the election law adopted by the
legislature as "an attempt to rob them by weak and wicked legislation of their
great American birthright, the elective franchise : they declare they will not
meet with them on the day appointed for the election, but will themselves fix a
day for the purpose of electing a delegate to congress." In accordance with this
last resolution, they selected October 9 as a day of election, and appointed an
executive committee to canvass the returns. They then nominated ex-Gov.
Andrew H. Reeder for delegate to congress, and he accepted the nomination
amid great enthusiasm. They also inaugurated the Topeka movement, which
resulted in the Topeka constitution and legislature and corps of state officers.
But this movement at Big Springs did not depend on constitution, or legislature,
or officials. Rejecting the one or dispersing the other did not lessen the force of
the movement itself. These were but its instruments, and if one instrument
failed it seized another.
The position assumed at Big Springs was maintained for two years. It was
an unique position to, which history furnishes no parallel. In consequence, they
were misrepresented and charged with all manner of crimes; they were annoyed
by all manner of legal processes; they were arrested under all manner of pre-
tenses. Their farms were seized, their homes were burned, their towns were be-
sieged, and their highways were blockaded. Their leaders were imprisoned.
Their presses were burned, and many of their fi'iends driven fi-om the territory.
But in spite of all this they adhered to their position of repudiating the bogus
legislature, and all that flowed from it. They would vote at none of their elec-
tions; they would pay none of their taxes: they would recognize none of their
officers. It was the first and grandest example of " boycotting " the world has
ever seen. Their position was so evidently just and their bearing so prudent that
every governor was compelled to recognize them, though coming with prejudice
against them. When Secretary Stanton came as acting governor, in the spring
of 1857, he made a speech to the people of Lawrence. It was a very fine speech,
but it avoided the great issue of the day. In the midst of his flowery periods,
some one in the crowd cried out, " But, governor, how about the bogus laws ? "
Without noticing the interruption, he went on with his speech. Again the
question came from half a dozen voices, " But, governor, how about those bogus
laws ? Are they to be enforced ? " "The laws must be obeyed," cried the gov-
Addresses before the Society. 45
ernor in tones of thunder. " Never, never," responded the crowd. " Then there
is war between you and me; war to the knife, and the knife to the hilt." " Let
it come! " was the instantaneous reply of the crowd. The governor closed his
speech with the feeling that he had a determined people to deal with, and before
many months he found himself looking for sympathy to those he had at first
counted his opponents.
This condition of things continued for two years, and the free-state party
was becoming the controlling power of the territory. It was very plain that
the forms of power, as well as the fact, would soon pass into their hands. To
prevent this, the other side sought to bring the territory into the union with
a slave constitution. For this purpose the legislature, in the winter of 1856-
'57, provided for a constitutional convention, which was to be chosen in June.
Governor Geary, and after him Secretary Stanton and Governor Walker, ad-
vised the free-state men to participate in this election and take possession of
the convention and frame a constitution to suit themselves. Several meet-
ings were held in Topeka to confer about the matter, but the conclusion was
to adhere to their position and ignore everything that flowed from the bogus
legislature, and this convention with the rest. So the free-state men all
abstained from voting, and the convention was entirely composed of pro-
slavery men, and framed a pro-slavery constitution. But in settling this
question another had suggested itself: Should they participate in the October
election for the members of the territorial legislature? Governor Walker was
very urgent that they should, and promised them a fair election, "a full vote
and a fair count." Counsels were divided, and a convention was held at
Grasshopper Falls, August 26, 1857, to decide upon the policy to be pursued.
There was a long and warm discussion. Such leaders as Robinson, G. W,
Smith and Holliday favored voting; the more radical men, such as Conway,
Phillips, and Redpath, opposed. The proposition carried, and all acquiesced.
The free-state men participated in the election, and gained control of the next
The convention chosen in June had framed what was called the Lecompton
constitution. There was great danger that Congress would admit Kansas into
the union under this constitution. In Janviary an election was to be held for
state officers, and a legislature to serve in case the state was admitted. The old
question was before the free-state men again, " Shall we take part in this elec-
tion, and gain possession of the state government in case we are admitted? or
shall we ignore this election as we have everything else originating in that old
bogus legislature? " Again counsels were divided ; again a convention was called ;
and again it was necessary to decide upon a line of policy for the party. This
convention met at Lawrence December 23, 1857. It was a delegate convention,
and was very largely attended. Nearly all the names in free-state history were
on its rolls, and nearly all the leaders of the party were present and participated
in the discussions. Gov. Charles Robin.son, the trusted adviser in all the past,
was the president. There was the far-famed Jim Lane, of whom they used to
" One blast of his bugle horn
Were worth a thousand men."
There was Martin F. Conway, the silver-tongued orator of the West ; there was
Marcus J. Parrott, keen, clear, and brilliant ; there was Thomas Ewing, calm,
scholarly, and eloquent ; there was the President of the State Historical Society,
in the freshness of youth, with the classic air of college life still about him and
the fire of the times already burning within him. [T. D. Thaeher.] There was
4G Kansas State Historical Society.
a host of others, many of whom have since made their mark in the history of the
state. As you may judge, it was a remarkable body. One would travel far to
find its equal. I was a stranger in the territory, and in attending its session I
was impressed with its ability and with its profoundly earnest spirit. They
spoke as men who realized that they were on the eve of great events, and that
peace or war might hang on their decisions. The temper there displayed was
more like what I imagine was the temper of the continental congress than any-
thing I ever witnessed.
As I said, the question before them was, "Shall we vote for officers under
the Lecompton constitution, and so take possession of it in ease it is imposed
upon us?" There was the same division as at Grasshopper Falls, only opinions
were more decided, feelings were more intense, and the two parties better de-
fined. The radicals insisted that the whole Lecompton movement was a fraud;
born in fraud, and carried on in fraud. They reminded the convention of
the fact "that they had all agreed that the old bogus legislature was a fraudu-
lent affair." They had never consented to its laws; they had never recog-
nized its officers. This Lecompton Constitution was the offspring of that
liogus legislature, and they could do no other than treat it as a fraud like the
rest. To vote for officers under it would be to stultify theraselves, and to
throw discredit on all they had said and done during the past two years.
Besides, this election was in the hands of the creatures of the convention
itself; and the pro-slavery party would control the election by fair means or
foul. They believed therefore in maintaining the high ground on which
they had stood for two years, and in fighting it out to what they were fond of
calling "the bitter end." If this constitution should be imposed upon them,
they would fall back on their reserved rights, as a people wronged and robbed
in this whole matter.
The conservatives replied "that they must come out of the clouds and
stand upon the ground. No matter what position they had hitherto taken,
they must now adapt their policy to their present circumstances. The Le-
compton constitution, fraud as it was, was now before congress. It was quite
likely Kansas would be received into the union under it. If so, it became the
law of the land in spite of all their high notions. Let us take possession of it,
and administer it for ourselves, or change it as we will."
The radicals replied, "that the position hitherto taken was right, and it
was right to adhere to it. The right was always wise.
"Right was right, since God was God,
And right the day would win."
The conservatives retorted, "that all things were lawful in war. They
must change front as the enemy changed position. As circumstances change,
their plans must change. In the past it was wisest not to touch the bogus
affair; it now seemed wise to take hold of it and strangle it."
Thus the discussion proceeded for two days. The radicals were the most
eloquent and high-toned; the conservatives were the most experienced and
shrewd. The radicals comprised the younger men, who followed impulse and
conviction; the conservatives comprised the more cautious men and the
political managers. As the discussion progressed the breach widened rather
than otherwise. There was no sign of agreement, and no ground of com-
promise was found. A vote was reached at last, and the radical policy was
adopted by a decided majority. The convervatives thereupon withdrew to
the basement of the Herald of Freedom office, and organized another conven-
Addresses before the Society. 47
tion, which was known as "The Cellar-Kitchen Convention." They rejected
the action of the majority, and nominated a full state ticket, which afterward
received about half the votes of the party. The Lecompton constitution be-
ing rejected by congress, neither action was put to the test.
The free-state party may be said to have ended its career with the dividing
of that convention on December 24, 1S57. Its work was done. The issue that
gave it being was settled. The common danger against which its members
made common cause had passed. The common danger over, every man Avent
his own way.
The history of the free-state people is the history of Kansas for the time.
All our traditions point back to them. They were not only successful, but so
completely successful as to take possession of the entire state, shaping its
ideas, its institutions, and its laws. The pro-slavery party was a power in
its day, but in its defeat it was extinguished. Its membership remained, but
its ideas were submerged. It had no successor and no heirs. No existing
party claims descent from it, or would tolerate the charge of such descent.
The free-state party dissolved, too, but its ideas lived and became the
dominant and controlling forces of the future state. Its achievements and
honors and memories are the common inheritance of all the people. We shall
find in it the germs of all our best ideas, of all our best institutions, and of
all our best laws.
Those spontaneous gatherings in which these ideas were fostered are of vital
interest. They gave room for no political intrigue or private schemes, and so
there was in them a freshness and a frankness of which the ordinary political
convention knows nothing. The discussions were able and high-toned, and dealt
in principles rather than in schemes. They had a wonderfully educating influ-
ence upon the people. You can trace the advance of sentiment from convention
to convention. Free from sinister designs, the people were open to conviction,
and the truth had free course.
It was a time, too, of intense excitement, and consequently of intense impres-
sions. Ideas come to stay when they come to men in such a condition. Three
such years would do more to mark a people for their own than three score of or-
dinary years. Kansas still bears the marks of those early days.
It was in these times of upheaval and of intense impression that Kansas re-
ceived her form and spirit. It was then there was created that state sentiment
â€” that wonderful " esprit de corps " â€” which makes every Kansan proud of his
state. At the Centennial I met old Kansans from Maine, and from Oregon, and
from everywhere, all boasting of our grand state display. No matter where a
man may now chance to reside, if he ever lived in Kansas he reports himself ever
afterward as " formerly of Kansas." The fires of that early time intensified our
common life and welded us together as one common people.
48 Kansas State Historical Society.
THE PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN OF 1856 â€” THE
Address of Col. Cyeus K. Holliday, President of the Society, delivered at the annual meeting,
.January 20, 1891.
Members of the State Historical Society, and Ladies and Gentlemen:
A.t the time of my election to the presidency of your Society, a year ago, I
thought, then, to embrace this opportunity to present some features concerning
the Topeka constitutional convention and its work which, I think, have not here-
tofore been touched upon in any of the addresses delivered or papers read before
the Society. But the death of our distinguished fellow citizen, John Charles
Fremont, on the 13th day of last July, having awakened recollections of the great
political campaign in which he was the leader, I have concluded to change my
subject ; and will therefore consume my portion of our time this evening in re-
calling to mind some of the prominent incidents of the presidential campaign of
1856, or of what is popularly known as the "Fremont campaign."
The preceding campaign of 1852 resulted in the utter rout and destruction of
the grand old whig party, and gave the democratic party such a sweeping victory
as it never had achieved before. Of the 31 states participating in that election,
Franklin Pierce carried 27, and Gen. Winfield Scott but four. Of the electoral
vote. Pierce had 254, or 86 per cent., and Scott only 42, or 14 per cent. Both the
United States senate and the house of representatives were almost as largely
democratic ; and the supreme court was so constituted that it was regarded as
morally certain to render its decisions upon political issues coming before it to
accord with the policy of the party in power ; as it afterwards did in the cele-
brated Dred Scott case.
The democratic party, therefore, having complete control of all three branches
of the federal government â€” executive, legislative, and judicial â€” and the south-
ern states- having largely the control of the democratic party, it was perceived
by the southern states and the pro-slavery element in the northern states that
now was the time, if ever, to make provision for the further extension of slavery.
By the terms of the Missouri compi-omise â€” so-called â€” slavery was prohibited
in all the territory lying north of latitude 36 degrees and 30 minutes â€” about the
southern boundary of the state of Missouri extended west. This compromise was
held and regarded by the country generally as a solemn compact between the free
and the slave states; being the solution of the bitter controversy which had grown
out of the admission of the states of Maine and Missouri into the union in 1820
and 1821. For a third of a century it had been held as most sacred by all sec-