A Free White State: Constitution Writing, Liberty and Racism

(Like the previous one, this post contains racist and inflammatory language uttered by elected delegates writing a constitution to make Kansas Territory the state of Kansas. Prohibiting or allowing slavery in Kansas was the monumental choice facing delegates, but predominant anti-slavery opinion made slavery’s abolition in Kansas a foregone outcome of the July 1859 constitutional convention. Instead, delegates argued repeatedly and graphically about human equality, human rights and racial integration at the convention, which ran from July 5 through July 29, 1859.)

In the end, the 35 Republicans and 17 Democrats elected to write a constitution labored little to banish slavery from the future state of Kansas.

After five years of battling over slavery and after three failed constitutions,[1] the delegates at the Wyandotte Constitutional Convention voted 48-1 to include these words in the Kansas Constitution:  “There shall be no slavery in this State…”[2]

The convention’s swift dispatch of slavery, however, brought a torrent of convention agitation over alternative, harsh propositions to clip rights for people of African descent who might come to the new slavery-prohibiting state of Kansas.

Top of the list for convention Democrats (Democrats at the time largely supported slavery) was the “free white state” pitch to block all people of African descent from living in Kansas. Over and over again, the leading Democrats at the convention tried to work that provision into one section or another of the constitution draft. When it became evident that the majority of delegates weren’t having it, the Democrat delegates tried to write various exceptions into the document. Exceptions like this: If “negroes and mulattoes”[3] were allowed to live in Kansas, they would not be entitled to education in Kansas public schools; or if fugitive slaves from other states escaped to freedom in Kansas, they still could be captured and returned to slavery under their owners in slave states like Missouri.

And if people of African descent were allowed in Kansas public schools, they would have to learn in separate schools, never sharing classrooms or sitting  side-by-side with white pupils.

One delegate even said he wanted an option through which white taxpayers’ money could be withheld from financing public schools that educated children of color.[4]

Liberty and rights were the most contentious concepts the delegates dealt with as they pieced together words that still, today, define the rights of Kansans. And Kansas becoming a free state was remarkable, especially considering that the Kansas-Nebraska Act[5] in 1854 had changed the slave-state versus free- state rules for new states entering the Union.

But while Kansans can be proud that 1850s settlers fought off slavery and saw Kansas enter the Union as a free state, those contentious proposals at the 1859 Wyandotte Constitutional Convention foreshadowed a future of segregated schools, lunch counters, movie theaters.[6]  [Read some examples here and here.]  Deep prejudices against people with African blood in their veins did not fall away with the adoption of the free-state  Kansas Constitution.

C B McClelland (2)
Clark B. McClellan, Jefferson County’s lone delegate to the Wyandotte Constitutional Convention in July 1859. Picture courtesy of the Jefferson County Historical Society in Oskaloosa, Kansas.

The constitutional convention convened July 5, 1859, at Wyandot city, now part of Kansas City, Kansas, on the state’s northeastern border. The constitution it produced was next approved by Kansas Territory voters in October 1859, sent on to Congress and then to President James Buchanan, who signed it Jan. 29, 1861. [Learn why it took so long here. ]

Based on its modest population, Jefferson County was allowed one delegate to the convention. Clark B. McClellan, a Democrat, was elected 278 to 249 over his Republican opponent in the June 1859 delegate elections. McClellan won heavy backing from the county’s minority of southern-leaning precincts that favored Democrats[7] (There were enslaved people in these townships, as shown by territorial censuses.).

At the Wyandotte convention McClellan, a popular Oskaloosa merchant, stuck to his party line on issues oppressive to people of African descent but wasn’t vocal during the floor debates.  He crossed over to the Republican side on some votes. For example, he joined Republicans to squash plans to give Kansas slave owners leeway, six months to a year, to remove slaves from the territory once the new constitution kicked in (since it would make slavery illegal).

But for the most part, he voted with the other Democrats, who as the minority party lacked the votes to succeed. Nonetheless, they made frequent attempts with a flurry of amendments to make Kansas a free white state (no people of African descent allowed to live in Kansas) or to limit the education of black children.[8]

mcclellan store The_Oskaloosa_Independent_Wed__Nov_14__1860_
Advertisement for Jefferson County delegate Clark B. McClellan’s store in Oskaloosa.  Image from the Nov. 14, 1860, Oskaloosa Independent, newspapers.com.

William C. McDowell, a leading Leavenworth County delegate and a Democrat, led a share of the Democrats’ arguments to limit human rights through the constitution’s Bill of Rights section. vigorous charges to limit human rights in Kansas. He said he considered black people to be inferior to whites and felt duty-bound to follow his and his constituents “inclinations and feelings” and bar all black people from Kansas if they could not be enslaved..

“I regard this negro question as the only question of interest that was presented in the late canvass [June election],” McDowell told delegates on July 14.[9] “That the future State of Kansas should be free  was conceded by all parties in this Territory; and whilst that was conceded, it was expected that this Convention would incorporate into the Constitution an article excluding the immigration of negroes into the State.”

McDowell – and other delegates, as well —  chose the highest ideals of his political party to explain his “free white state” position, warning that without it Kansas would become  the “receptacle of free negroes and runaway slaves.”  McDowell argued that “God Almighty, for some high purpose, has established this inferiority of the black race, and stamped an indelible mark upon them.”

McDowell’s speech, only a tiny part of which is quoted here, brought an explicit Republican response from delegate Solon O. Thacher, a Douglas County Republican. Thacher, like McDowell, focused on people of African descent, recounting the violent struggles of Bleeding Kansas and railing against the inhumanity of the nation’s slave power and, now, free-white-staters.

Thacher deployed a nuclear argument to blast at the hypocrisy of Democrats who said  Republicans were promoting caucasian/black equality. His speech raised the issue of white men raping and sexually assaulting enslaved black women, the result of which was lighter-skinned,  mixed-race children.

“And this charge [against equality between black and white people] comes from a party sustaining and propagating a system whose basis rests upon prostitution and concubinage more loathsome and degrading than any that can be found in the wide world,” Thacher told the convention.[10]

“Mark the universal bleaching out of the colored race in the South, and remember that in that region the Democracy hold undisputed sway.  There are there ten slaves to-day with Anglo-Saxon blood coursing their veins, to one pure African.”

“… There are men among you who shriek this cry, who first saw the light in the arms of a negro nurse, and from her breast drew the milk of infancy,” Thacher charged. “Let such men never raise a babble so insane and so reflective of their own history!”

McClellan store SE corner of square 1871
An 1871 picture of Clark B. McClellan’s store on the southeast corner of Oskaloosa’s public square. McClellan was Jefferson County’s delegate to the Wyandotte Constitutional Convention in Jul 1859.  Picture courtesy of the Jefferson County Historical Society.

No direct response answered Thacher’s attack, but near the end of the convention, John P. Slough, another Democrat from Leavenworth County, again expressed his displeasure that the constitution would not block people of African descent from living in Kansas.

“Believing that principle to be right, when I became a candidate for this position, I became pledged to myself as well as to my constituents, to do everything in my power to provide in future for the exclusion of free negroes by a clause in the Constitution of the State of Kansas,” Slough told his fellow delegates. He suggested a future Kansas Legislature should put the question to a vote of the (white male only voters) public.

Slough’s effort failed, but delegates kept up a flow of suggested add-ins and exceptions including free white state provisions, all rejected nearly as quickly as they were proposed.  Those clauses would go something like this:  Public schools will educate Kansas children, except black or mulatto children; and  “All men are possessed of equal and inalienable natural rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”[11] except for people of African descent (the quoted portion is the first section in the constitution’s Bill of Rights).  The edits would switch something like, Kansans  have a natural right to control of their own persons, their own bodies, all except for except enslaved people.  Other delegates fought to write the constitution in a simpler  way to give broad freedoms to Kansans.  Legislatures could write laws outside of the constitution to address specific needs of the state. [Read the convention’s final Bill of Rights and Constitution here.]

That last right, having control of one’s person, was pounced upon by Democrats who feared giving escaping slaves that right would threaten the enforcement of the federal Fugitive Slave Law. in Kansas.  [  The law allowed slave owners to hunt for and capture runaway enslaved people, even if the slaves took refuge in a free state where slavery was illegal. Under the U.S. Fugitive Slave Law, residents of free states could be penalized if they failed to help capture fugitives and return them to their owners. Enslaved people did not possess control of their persons or bodies.

Samuel A. Stinson, another Leavenworth County Democrat, warned that a Kansas constitution flouting  the Fugitive Slave Law would never win acceptance by Kansas voters. He accused the Republicans of grandstanding their abolitionist and fanatical ideas against slavery.

Benjamin Wrigley, Doniphan County, opposed anything that gave enslaved people “control of one’s person” or body.  Such a provision went against U.S. law and was a mischievous and hostile slap at the Fugitive Slave Law, Wrigley said. He correctly recognized the dislike of the fugitive law in many quarters.

James G. Blunt, a Republican from Anderson County and later a Civil War major general commanding Kansas troops, said nothing would make him support language in the constitution that would permit enforcement of  the Fugitive Slave Law in Kansas. He shamed the Democrats for being eager to obey the commands of their “Southern masters” [the nation’s proslavery power] to enforce the Fugitive Slave Law, which Blunt labeled a crime against the laws of God and humanity.

“…And I am equally anxious that the broad prairies of Kansas, that have been so nobly won to freedom, after a long and bloody struggle, shall never be prostituted as the hunting ground for human prey,”[12] Blunt said.

The constitution’s liberty language was defining for Kansas, and that language still govern today. The very words and debates from the 1859 Wyandotte convention were recounted in the April 2019 Kansas Supreme Court ruling on abortion rights.. The court’s interpretation of the Kansas Constitution’s Bill of Rights as it applied to an abortion-restricting law included study of the debates and  deliberations at the  Wyandotte Constitutional Convention, and it peered into the reasons delegates shaped the document’s language the way they did, and didn’t.  {read

In a portion of its 2019 conclusion, the Kansas justices’ 6-1 opinion said, “We hold today that section 1 of the Kansas Constitution Bill of Rights protects all Kansans’ natural right of personal autonomy, which includes the right to control one’s own body, to assert bodily integrity, and to exercise self-determination. This right allows a woman to make her own decisions regarding her body, health, family formation, and family life—decisions that can include whether to continue a pregnancy.”[13]

More caustic than the Wyandotte convention’s deliberations over free white state-ism or allowing black men to vote in Kansas (rejected) was who should or should not be entitled to public school education in Kansas (public schools were called common schools at the time).

William C. McDowell, the Leavenworth County Democrat, returned to his feeling that black and white men were not equal, and that people of African descent could not be legislated “up to our standard.”

“… It is proper for us to have a clause preventing the negroes having the benefit of our common schools,” McDowell said.[14]

Josiah Lamb, a Linn County Republican, challenged McDowell’s and others “inferiority” argument, asserting that withholding education made people inferior.

“If they come into Kansas at all, let us give them an education,” Lamb said.  “The very doctrine of trying to prevent them from having the advantages of common schools makes them an inferior race.  Let the Leavenworth delegation petition the Legislature if they don’t want their children to go to school with the blacks, and they can have different schools.”[15]

John Taylor Burris, Johnson County, asked how one class of men could rightly claim Kansas’s public benefits while denying them to other classes of men.

“We must proceed upon the supposition that the blacks are to live in common with the white,” Burris said.  “It is supposed that they are to mingle and live together with us.”

“I ask if it is desirable to see that class of citizens growing up in entire ignorance?  If they are to live in the Territory they should be made as intelligent and as moral as education can make them.”

William Riley Griffith,  of Bourbon County, and who was later elected the state’s first schools superintendent, looked to the horizon and suggested future Kansas legislatures could deal with specifics like the ones the Democrats proposed: “If we incorporate provisions that shall exclude any class, the time may not be far distant when we may wish we had not done so.”[16]

But the Democrats – who like the Republicans offered many proposals they knew would not succeed but wanted their votes on the record– stuck to their constituents’ assumed wishes. John P. Slough, of Leavenworth County, said he could support public education for black pupils, but they should be separated from white children. Anything that implied forced mixing of the races in public schools would be rejected by Kansas Territory voters, and another proposed Kansas Constitution would fail, he said.

“I shall never consent, by my vote, or by any actions of mine, that those upon whom Nature’s God has stamped inferiority, shall ever associate with my children in our common schools, which I hope to assist in supporting,”[17] Slough said.

Delegates ended up straddling the issue, in a way.  Their public schools section did not  address the race of children in determining who should receive an education and whether it should be received separately from children of another race. Article VI, Sec. 2  instructed future Kansas Legislatures to “… encourage the promotion of intellectual, moral, scientific and agricultural improvement, by establishing a uniform system of common schools…”

That left the door open for legalized racial segregation, and six years later the Kansas Legislature had passed a law that allowed for racially segregated Kansas public chools.

Still, on July 29, the final day of the convention, Solon O. Thacher of Douglas County was pleased with the constitution the delegates had created. He recounted how the document had gone through fiery debate, “ Every line almost has been subjected to the scorch of high-wrought argument.”

The majority party (the Republicans) had aimed to make the Kansas Constitution the outline of “great civil truths and rights, leaving out, as far as possible, special legislation,” Thacher said.

 “But, sir, the feature which most endears this Constitution to my heart, and which will commend it most to the true and good everywhere, is that through every line and syllable there glows the generous sunshine of liberty,” Thacher said. “ No repulsive allusion, no wicked prejudice, no ignorant and heathenish distinction mars its beauty of disfigures its fair symmetry.”[18]

Later that day, the document was adopted by the convention and signed.

Except it was not signed by the Democrats, all 17 of whom refused to put their names on the constitution.

And so began the campaign for the white men of Kansas Territory to embrace or reject the Wyandotte Constitution. The electioneering  was described as both lively and bitter, but voters made themselves clear Oct. 4, 1859m  when they adopted the constitution 10,421 to 5,530 votes, nearly a 2-1 margin.

 

[1] The Kansas Historical Society’s Kansapedia content explains all four constitutions and includes transcriptions of their contents in its article “Kansas Constitutions” https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/kansas-constitutions/16532

The historical society’s Kansas Memory website carries the handwritten Kansas Constitution (Wyandotte) here, along with a text version: https://www.kansasmemory.org/item/90272

[2]From Kansas Constitutional Convention: A Reprint of the Proceedings and Debates of the Convention which Framed the Constitution of Kansas at Wyandotte in July, 1859 (Kansas State Printing Plant, Topeka 1920), 286-287.  The final version was in Section 6 of the constitution’s Bill of Rights and read “There shall be no slavery in this State; and no involuntary servitude, except for the punishment of a crime, whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”  You may read the book from the 25 days of the convention, including the constitution and other material at the Hathi Trust Digital Library, https://catalog.hathitrust.org/Record/006570997

[3] Mulatto, an offensive word today, meant a person of mixed race; having one black parent and one white parent.

[4] Delegate Benjamin Wrigley of Doniphan County failed in his effort to work the following into the state’s constitution: nothing in the constitution will be taken to mean “…that the people will be taxed to support schools for negro or mulatto children, or that an enumeration of negro and mulatto children must be made in making a distribution of the schools funds… .“ Kansas Constitutional Convention: A Reprint of the Proceedings and Debates of the Convention which Framed the Constitution of Kansas at Wyandotte in July, 1859 (Kansas State Printing Plant, Topeka 1920), 465.

[5] The Kansas Nebraska-Act in 1854 booted earlier law that allowed slavery in incoming southern states but banned it in incoming northern states. Instead, Congress, bowing to southern pressure, determined that settlers in Kansas Territory would vote on whether to be a slave state or a free state, setting off fierce competition between proslavers and freestaters. Read more about the Act on the Kansas Historical Society’s Kansapedia website: https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/kansas-territory/14701

[6] The segregation article from the link was published in the spring 2010 edition of Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains 33 by Brent M.S. Campney, pages 22-41.

[7] Four of Jefferson County’s six townships (Oskaloosa, Grasshopper Falls, Osawkee and Rock Creek) favored Republican Henry Buckmaster. But one of the two townships going to the Democrat, C.B. McClellan, did so in such large numbers (Kentucky Township, where most of the enslaved people in Jefferson County lived, went 93-2 for McClellan)that it put McClellan over the top. The other township favoring McClellan was Jefferson.

[8] These ideas were repeatedly  proposed at the convention, even though they repeatedly lost. Democrats – and the Republicans. too – wanted to be on the record with their votes, both for their constituents back home and for upcoming campaigns, including the upcoming public campaign over the constitution’s adoption.

[9]  Mr. McDowell’s speech quoted here can be found  in Kansas Constitutional Convention: A Reprint of the Proceedings and Debates of the Convention which Framed the Constitution of Kansas at Wyandotte in July, 1859 (Kansas State Printing Plant, Topeka 1920), 178-179.

[10]From Kansas Constitutional Convention: A Reprint of the Proceedings and Debates of the Convention which Framed the Constitution of Kansas at Wyandotte in July, 1859 (Kansas State Printing Plant, Topeka 1920), 179-180.

[11] Section 1 of the Bill of Rights in Kansas Constitution reads, in total: “All men are possessed of equal and inalienable natural rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  That result is considerably pared down from the convention’s starting point for proposed language.

[12] From Kansas Constitutional Convention: A Reprint of the Proceedings and Debates of the Convention which Framed the Constitution of Kansas at Wyandotte in July, 1859 (Kansas State Printing Plant, Topeka 1920), 277.

[13]  Opinion of the Supreme Court of the State of Kansas, No. 114,153 ,page 86.

[14] From Kansas Constitutional Convention: A Reprint of the Proceedings and Debates of the Convention which Framed the Constitution of Kansas at Wyandotte in July, 1859 (Kansas State Printing Plant, Topeka 1920), 178.

[15] Ibid, 183.

[16]Ibid, 175.

[17] Ibid, 177.

[18] Ibid. 569