Wyandotte Constitution

Encyclopedia entry by ,
University of Missouri—Kansas City

The Union Pacific Railway Co., where the Wyandotte Constitutional Convention was most likely held. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Constitution summary:

  • Date originally drafted: July 1858
  • Stance on slavery: prohibited
  • Suffrage for women: voting allowed only in school board elections
  • Suffrage for African Americans: none
  • Suffrage for Native Americans: none
  • Status: Adopted as the state constitution, January 29, 1861 to present

The Wyandotte Constitution was the fourth and final proposed Kansas constitution following the failed attempts of the Topeka, Lecompton, and Leavenworth conventions to create a state constitution that would pass Congress and be signed as a bill by the president. For its time, the constitution expressed progressive ideas of liberty by explicitly prohibiting slavery, granting a homestead exemption to protect settlers from bankruptcy, and offering limited suffrage to women. When the lame duck President James Buchanan signed the bill approving the Wyandotte Constitution on January 29, 1861, Kansas was admitted to the Union as the 34th state, and it marked the end of five years of bitter conflict over slavery in Kansas Territory.

The Wyandotte constitutional convention differed from the preceding conventions in a number of ways, primarily because by mid-1859 most proslavery settlers had been driven out or outnumbered and the success of the Free-State Party made the prohibition of slavery in the territory nearly a forgone conclusion. But the constitution also marked the end of the Free-State Party, as its members joined with the national Republicans and adopted the position that Congress had the power to ban slavery in the territories. Thirty-five out of 52 of the Wyandotte convention delegates were Republicans; the remaining 17 were Democrats. The majority were young men from Northern states under 30 years of age.

Absent but not generally missed from the meetings were radicals and extremists on either side of the issue. On the antislavery side, the more extreme leaders, including Free-State Party rivals Charles L. Robinson and James H. Lane were both occupied with their own tribulations. Robinson was involved with his extralegal governorship and town building project at Quindaro, Kansas, while Lane was concluding his trial for murdering a neighbor, Gaius Jenkins, over a land dispute. On the proslavery side, Benjamin Stringfellow, apparently resigned to defeat, stayed away from the convention. Perhaps most telling, not a single Missourian was present at the meetings.

The constitution also marked the end of the Free-State Party as its members joined with the national Republicans and adopted the position that Congress had the power to ban slavery in the territories.

Beginning in the summer heat of July 5, 1859, the convention delegates met for three weeks in Wyandotte, Kansas. Compared to the drama of previous conventions, the meetings were tedious. The convention abandoned the old Topeka Constitution and chose the Ohio Constitution as the model for Kansas.

One of the most hotly debated issues was over state boundaries, which at that time extended west to the continental divide in modern west-central Colorado, and north to the Platte River, covering the southern third of modern Nebraska. A state 700 miles long was thought too large to govern and the western boundary was moved east to the 25th meridian. Delegates from Topeka and Lawrence desired to gain the location of the state capitol for their cities and feared the inclusion of the Platte territory would not only diminish their chances and regional influence, but also include too many Democrats who would stall the new constitution’s adoption. The convention therefore rejected the Platte River as a border, and the state’s northern boundary was set at its present location at the 40th parallel.

The convention members also wrangled over issues of exempting homesteads from foreclosure, temperance, and universal suffrage. The temperance issue did not receive much support, but the Wyandotte Constitution, like the constitution of Illinois and other states of the Old Northwest Territories, directly prohibited slavery. The new document stopped short of universal suffrage by granting only white men over the age of 21 the right to vote. This excluded American Indians and African Americans; however, women were granted property rights, equal custody of their children, and the right to vote in school board elections, none of which were common in the mid-19th century. Future decisions about suffrage were left in the hands of the state legislature, and despite solid support from the Democrats the convention could not muster enough votes for a provision that would prohibit the migration of free blacks to the new state.

Women were granted property rights, equal custody of their children, and the right to vote in school board elections.

The document was written in long hand, 21 feet in length, and carefully checked line-by-line by a committee before it was submitted for a vote. When it was moved that the convention adopt the constitution, the Democrats refused to sign it and raised objections over a number of provisions, primarily including the dispute over the state’s reduced borders, which eliminated the votes of many Democratic delegates. A contentious campaign to adopt the Wyandotte Constitution proceeded and then ended with an election on October 4, 1859. The voters approved the Wyandotte Constitution by a better than two-to-one margin, and it was sent on to Washington, D.C. for approval by Congress and the president.

Congress proposed the Wyandotte Constitution and statehood for Kansas in a bill in the spring of 1860. The bill passed back and forth between houses for nearly a year with strong resistance from Southern congressmen until the election of Abraham Lincoln and the secession of several Southern states thinned the ranks of the opposing Southern senators.

In a bit of irony, the bill finally passed both houses of Congress on January 21, 1861, and was signed on January 29 by President Buchanan, who had been an opponent of the Free-Staters in Kansas. News of the bill’s signing was transmitted from Washington to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, along the new telegraph line and then carried by horseback to the Eldridge Hotel in Lawrence, where the town celebrated with great joy at joining the Union. The Wyandotte Constitution has been amended many times since its adoption, but it is still the constitution of the state of Kansas today.

Suggested Reading: 

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

Goodrich, Thomas. War to the Knife: Bleeding Kansas, 1854-1861. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1998.

Cite this page: 
O’Bryan, Tony. "Wyandotte Constitution" Civil War on the Western Border: The Missouri-Kansas Conflict, 1854-1865. The Kansas City Public Library. Accessed Jun, 26, 2017 at http://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/wyandotte-constitution

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