In September 1857, proslavery forces in Kansas, meeting in Lecompton, drafted a constitution that would bring Kansas into the Union as a slave state. Recognizing that a proslavery constitution would be defeated in a fair election, proslavery delegates offered voters a referendum on whether they preferred "the constitution with slavery" or "the constitution without slavery." In either case, however, the constitution guaranteed property rights in slaves. Free soilers boycotted the election and as a result "the constitution with slavery" was approved by a 6000-vote margin.
President James Buchanan--recognizing the Democratic party's dependence on southern support--accepted the proslavery Lecompton constitution as a satisfactory application of the principle of popular sovereignty. He then asked Congress to admit Kansas as the sixteenth slave state.
Stephen Douglas, though an ardent Democrat, considered the Kansas election a travesty of the principle of popular sovereignty. The Illinois Senator broke with the administration and joined with the Republicans in an attempt to defeat the Lecompton constitution.
After a rancorous debate, the Senate passed a bill admitting Kansas as a slave state under the Lecompton constitution. The House rejected this measure and instead substituted a compromise, which allowed Kansans to vote on the proslavery constitution. As a thinly veiled bribe to encourage ratification, the bill offered Kansas a huge grant of public lands if it approved the Lecompton constitution. While federal troops guarded the polls, Kansas voters overwhelmingly rejected the proslavery constitution.
The bloody battle for Kansas had come to an end. Free soilers took control of the territorial legislature and repealed Kansas's territorial slave code. Without legal safeguards for their slave property, slaveowners quickly left the territory. The census of 1860 found just two slaves in Kansas.
But the nation would never be the same. To antislavery Northerners, the Lecompton controversy showed that the slave power was willing to resort to violence, fraud, and intimidation to force slavery on a free people.
In this letter, Andrew Johnson (1808-1875), a leading border state politician and future President offers a candid appraisal of President James Buchanan and assesses Stephen Douglas's future within the Democratic party.
Mr. Buchanan is a very weak man in the two Houses of Congress. In fact there seem to be very few devoted to the fortunes of the Administration. As yet there are none willing to come up and make any sacrifice for it. Mr. Buchanan does not attach men to him personally and has no strength outside of the...party organization. I am inclined to think though that he has much more strength through the country than he has in Congress, and it is not detected enough there to make the Members stand close up to call his measures. In regard to democratic measures generally he is entirely too cautious with a pretty fair proportion of [the organization]. He needs will and decision of character while he seems to have a good deal of it in conversation, but he is timid and hesitating in practice. I hope that there will be a much better feeling in Congress and the country in regard to the administration. Douglas' move has angered the Administration some: but I think it will pass off and in the end do him Douglas more harm than the Democratic party. If Douglas intended to bolt and I think he did, he could not have selected a better time than he did for the party.
He was of the opinion that he could make the [move] and identify himself with the antislavery feeling of the north and at the same time hold on to his strength in the South, but instead of doing this he has failed in both and as the thing stands he is perfectly flat. He is a dead cock in the pit.