In the mid-1800s, the United States seemed to be on an unavoidable path toward civil war between the proslavery southern states, and the primarily anti-slavery northern states. The north was intent on not allowing slavery to spread to the new states entering the union in the Midwest and western part of the country.
By 1855, flashpoints were emerging and none were bigger than what happened in 1857 in Lecompton Kansas. It is one of many points along the way in the decade leading to war where Congressional and Presidential leadership failed the nation.
After the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, there was a rush among the citizens of the Kansas Territory to become a state. The United States government had ordered the removal of natives to make way for more white settlers.
The territory was flooded with settlers from the north and south each with their own agenda and each equally passionate about their position. This conflict would define the struggle that Kansas had to endure to become a state in the Union.
During the election of 1855, pro-slavery advocates from neighboring Missouri came over and voted fraudulently in the election which created a mostly pro-slavery legislature based in Lecompton, Kansas.
In March of 1857, President James Buchanan took the oath of office and threw his support behind the new Lecompton Constitution. The convention decreed that the rights of slave owners would be protected in the Kansas Territory.
Most free-state supporters living in the territory refused to obey these laws because they had been passed by the pro slavery territorial legislature obtained through fraud. The area descended into violence between pro and anti-slavery factions. Bleeding Kansas was a sign of things to come unless the issue could be decided at the national level by a strong leader. That was not to be the case.
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James Buchanan was 15th President of the United States and quite possibly the worst one inCredit: Opensource the history of the United States. At 66 years old, he was ancient for that day and age and it showed. He cared little for the daily activities associated with the job and the inability to competently deal with the split that would lead to the Civil War is considered one of the great failings in the history of the nation.
His incompetence was on full display during the Lecompton affair. Despite an abundance of evidence of voter fraud, Buchanan, a pro southern Democrat endorsed the Lecompton Constitution which infuriated one of his primary northern rivals, Stephen Douglas. At that point, Buchanan had the respect of no one. President James Polk once referred to him as "an old woman."
It’s been said that throughout the history of the nation, fate has had a remarkable way of dropping the perfect leader on the nation. Without George Washington, the Revolutionary War would have almost certainly been lost. Whether Lincoln and Roosevelt’s steady leadership during critical periods of war, Kennedy’s cool during the Cuban missile crisis, Reagan’s firm hand after the meek and disastrous Carter years, history gave the nation the perfect leader during critical moments.
Unfortunately, the decade before the American Civil War is one glaring exception to that point of view. That period failed to provide a competent and engaged leader that could have prevented that unnecessary disaster.
Presidential leadership was lacking from not only James Buchanan, but his two predecessors Millard Fillmore and Franklin Pierce. There is a reason why you probably cannot remember anything about these three men. They accomplished absolutely nothing during their time in the Presidency and did nothing to calm the inflamed passions that were leading to war.
However, Buchanan was the weakest of the three and it was the worst possible time in American history to have a President in the office that really did not think it was his job to get involved in state matters such as this. He failed to consider how it would rip the nation apart and as Commander in Chief, he is the person that is most responsible for allowing the situation to get to the point that it did. He simply muddled his way through his 4 years content to pass the mess on to his successor, Abraham Lincoln.
Stephen Douglas would later write that had Buchanan called the bluff in 1857 of four states that were threatening succession over the Lecompton affair, the entire war might have been avoided. Those states were ill-equipped to back up their secession threat and the entire matter would have discredited their leaders after they backed down.
Overturning the Lecompton Constitution
In 1858, free states supporters overturned the Lecompton Constitution through a referendum and gained control of the Kansas territorial legislature and moved it to Lawrence. They rewrote the Lecompton Constitution to their own beliefs. In 1858, the Wyandotte Constitution was approved and the territory applied for statehood into the United States. Kansas entered the Union at the beginning of 1861 as a free state.
Shortly thereafter, Lincoln took office. One by one, the southern states began to leave the Union and all out war started a few months later. It would not end until 600,000 Americans were dead or maimed.
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The Lecompton Convention is one of many decision points that could have altered history had competent leadership been shown. Had the country had a leader at the time with the nerve of a Washington, an Andrew Jackson or a James Polk, the Civil War might have been avoided. At the very least, it could have delayed any conflict allowing enough time for economic facts and technology advances to make the issue of slavery in new and old territories a moot one. The world was entering the industrial age and slavery was a dying industry. Soon machines of all varieties would emerge that made slaves obsolete because the overall cost was so much cheaper. The country just needed their leaders to hold it together for a few more decades but they failed the nation.
There is a lesson here for modern American leaders. Policies of non-engagement rarely lead to favorable results, whether in your personal life, domestic politics or foreign policy.