LECOMPTON — Gov. Sam Brownback and other political leaders took time Friday to honor the role the former territorial capital of Kansas played in American history, remembering it as crucial to ending slavery rather than as a site where a pro-slavery constitution was written for the troubled territory.
About 70 people, some in period dress, filled the upper floor of Lecompton's Constitution Hall in the town of 625 residents about 20 miles east of Topeka. The territorial legislature met at the hall in 1857 and drafted a pro-slavery constitution for Kansas.
But historians stress that the document was widely viewed as fraudulent and galvanized anti-slavery forces both in Kansas and across the nation. They also note the bitter debate over the document split the national Democratic Party and allowed the election of Republican Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860.
"You can sit here solemnly and almost feel the history, and feel the bloodshed that led to the fight that divided this country," Brownback told the audience. "To me, it's a very solemn moment because you think about all the pain that went into that time period and all the pain that led up to it with the institution of slavery. Finally, in Kansas people say, 'No more.' "
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Congress organized Kansas Territory in 1854, under a policy of allowing settlers to determine whether slavery would be allowed. Fighting between pro- and anti-slavery factions gave the territory the nickname "Bleeding Kansas."
Congress refused to admit Kansas as a state under the Lecompton constitution. Statehood under an anti-slavery charter came on Jan. 29, 1861. The Civil War started less than three months later.
"It starts here," Brownback said. "The match is lit here."
Brownback presented a proclamation honoring Lecompton, and House Speaker Mike O'Neal read a resolution approved by lawmakers doing the same. It wasn't all solemnity: A stagecoach borrowed from another Kansas historic site gave some visitors — including Brownback — a ride through the town.