Lecompte, Samuel Dexter

Encyclopedia entry by ,
Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, Washington, D.C.

Samuel D. Lecompte. Courtesy of the Kansas Historical Society.

Biographical information:

  • Date of birth: December 13, 1814
  • Place of birth: Dorchester County, Maryland
  • Claim to fame: Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Kansas Territory, October 3, 1854, to March 9, 1859; namesake of the proslavery capital of territorial Kansas: Lecompton
  • Political affiliations: Democratic Party; became a Republican at the end of the Civil War
  • Date of death: April 24, 1888
  • Place of death: Kansas City, Missouri
  • Final resting place: Mount Muncie Cemetery, Leavenworth, Kansas

Samuel D. Lecompte gained fame as chief justice of the Supreme Court of Kansas Territory and a prominent proslavery official during the “Bleeding Kansas” conflict of the 1850s. His association with the expansion of slavery into territorial Kansas was cemented when the town named in his honor—Lecompton—became the capital of the proslavery territorial government.

Born December 13, 1814, in eastern Maryland, Lecompte entered Kenyon College in Ohio at age 16. After two years, he transferred to Jefferson College in Pennsylvania, graduating in 1834. He pursued a career in law, and after working under an established attorney, Lecompte was admitted to the bar and began practicing in Carroll County, Maryland. He became active in state and national politics. As a Democrat he entered the Maryland state legislature in 1840 and unsuccessfully ran for a congressional seat in 1850. In 1854, while living in Baltimore, President Franklin Pierce selected him to serve as chief justice of the Supreme Court in the new territory of Kansas.

Judge Lecompte arrived in Kansas in December 1854 with his wife, five children, and two female slaves.

Judge Lecompte arrived in Kansas in December 1854 with his wife, five children, and two female slaves. Although occupying a judicial position, Lecompte’s appointment was political. He was a strong Democrat and a Southerner, known to favor slaveholding interests. In 1855, the town of Lecompton—named after Judge Lecompte—became the capital of the proslavery territorial government. Antislavery settlers centered their Free-State movement in the town of Lawrence—named after Massachusetts abolitionist Amos Lawrence—only 11 miles to the southeast of Lecompton.

Lecompte was largely responsible for validating the proslavery territorial government in Kansas. Following the controversial elections of 1855, the first territorial governor, Andrew Reeder, challenged the legitimacy of the “Bogus Legislature.” Lecompte ruled in favor of the proslavery legislature’s standing, contributing to the governor’s fall from office. Lecompte’s reputation as a defender of proslavery interests was reinforced in late October 1855, when he participated in a convention of proslavery leaders that formally denounced activities by Free-State Kansans. More significantly, on May 5, 1856, as violence escalated among antislavery and proslavery settlers, Judge Lecompte instructed a grand jury to indict Free-State leaders for treason for opposition to laws of the proslavery territorial legislature. After prominent Free-State figures, such as Charles Robinson and former governor Andrew Reeder, refused to appear before the grand jury, proslavery officials led an armed posse into the town of Lawrence, destroying antislavery newspaper presses and several buildings. The event became known as the “Sack of Lawrence.”

Much of the condemnation for the May 21, 1856, attack on Lawrence fell upon Lecompte. Critics accused him of directing the proslavery posse to assault the town, a charge seemingly supported by proslavery newspapers, such as the Squatter Sovereign, which explained that the Free-State presses and hotel had been “declared nuisances by the grand jury and ordered by the court to be abated, which was done.” Some allegations against Lecompte were pure sensationalism. “Surely to every one who knows me,” he wrote about one claim, “the report that I was seen in a wagon with a cannon and a barrel of whiskey, heading a company of the Marshal's posse, carries its own refutation.” Nonetheless, Lecompte’s association with the Sack of Lawrence elevated his name to the halls of the U.S. Congress, where Republicans such as Schuyler Colfax denounced his court as “part and parcel of the plot to drive out the friends of freedom from the Territory.”

"Every man in this country... has a 'party bias'. I am proud of mine." -Samuel D. Lecompte

Lecompte was open about his political and proslavery sympathies. In September 1856, when newly-appointed governor John W. Geary wrote to Lecompte about concerns of political “party bias” among territorial officials, the judge responded that he assumed “every man in this country... has a ‘party bias.’ I am proud of mine. It has, from my first manhood to this day, placed me in the ranks of the Democratic party.” He further admitted that he was “the steady friend of the Southern rights under the constitution of the United States. I have been reared where slavery was recognized by the constitution of my state. I love the institution as entwining around all my early and late associations.” Lecompte denied that his party affiliation or his Southern sympathies interfered with his integrity as a judge in Kansas Territory. And he opposed the violence and lawlessness prevalent among extremists in the fight over Kansas statehood.

Despite Lecompte’s claims of fairness, events in the fall of 1856 convinced Governor Geary that the judge indeed used the territorial court to protect slaveholding interests in Kansas. The most notable incident involved the murder case of David Buffum, a New Englander killed by proslavery militia near Lawrence in September. After a grand jury indicted pro-slavery militiaman Charles Hays for the crime, Judge Lecompte granted Hays' bail. Once alerted by Free-State men of Hays’ release, an alarmed Geary promptly ordered the suspect rearrested. Several days later, while Geary was out of town, Lecompte issued a writ of habeas corpus and released Hays from jail. By then, Geary had seen enough. He appealed to President Franklin Pierce for the removal of Lecompte and several other proslavery officials from office in Kansas, arguing that they were “prominent actors” and “willing tools” of a “virulent spirit of dogged determination, to force slavery into this Territory.” The president consented to Lecompte’s removal. In response, Lecompte submitted a letter to Congress, defending his handling of the Hays case as fair and consistent with all court proceedings in the territory. Lecompte declared that he had “aimed to discharge my duty to my country, under the solemn sanction of my oath, without favor or prejudice, and without fear or affection.” Ultimately, the U.S. Senate failed to confirm a replacement for Lecompte and he retained his judicial seat in Kansas.

The historical record is silent about Lecompte’s motivations for switching parties, but critics claimed that his party change was a matter of political opportunism.

In 1859, Lecompte resigned from the territorial court and moved to Leavenworth to practice law. While there, he became a probate judge of Leavenworth County. Lecompte remained in Kansas and loyal to the Union during the Civil War. Afterwards he served in the Kansas legislature from 1867-1868. In 1868, he dropped his lifelong Democratic Party affiliation and became a Republican. The historical record is silent about Lecompte’s motivations for switching parties, but critics claimed that his party change was a matter of political opportunism. Many others were not quick to forgive him for his previous role within the proslavery territorial government. By 1874, though, he had risen to chairman of the Republican congressional committee of the First District. Among the most vehement critics was Daniel R. Anthony, who, in the early 1870s, accused Lecompte of complicity in the territorial violence against Free-State Kansans and of post-Civil War political opportunism. Lecompte sued Anthony for libel and won, and publicly maintained that as a judge he had only upheld the territorial laws as they existed. Despite some critics, Lecompton remained a prominent figure within Kansas Republican circles through the 1870s and was generally welcomed by his former political enemies during the postwar era of reconciliation.

In 1877 Lecompte’s wife of 36 years, Camilla, passed away. Ten years later, he moved to Kansas City, Missouri, to live with his son. He passed away the following year, 1888, and was buried in Leavenworth.

Near the end of his life, Samuel Lecompte denounced claims that he had intentionally aided the proslavery cause, and insisted that, “in no solitary instance, did I knowingly, or in any spirit of prejudice or partiality, pervert or abuse my official position.” Nonetheless, he is primarily remembered for his proslavery associations and for his judicial actions against the Free-State settlers of territorial Kansas.

Suggested Reading: 

Nicole Etcheson, Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2004)

Samuel D. Lecompte, “A Defense By Samuel D. Lecompte,Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, Vol. 8, (Topeka: Kansas State Historical Society, 1904), pp. 389-405. 

Cite this page: 
Spurgeon, Ian. "Lecompte, Samuel Dexter" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Jun, 26, 2019 at http://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/lecompte-samuel-dexter

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