The relationship between President James Buchanan and Senator Stephen A. Douglas had never been easy, and it was not helped by the president’s failure to provide the Illinois senator with a “just proportion of the federal patronage,” as Douglas frankly put it. Eventually, their differences would become irreconcilable, aggravated by the near civil war in “Bleeding Kansas.”
In September 1857, a contrived constitutional convention – called by pro-slavery legislators and boycotted by Free-Staters – met in the town of Lecompton, where a vote was taken to adopt a new, pro-slavery constitution. The Lecompton Constitution sought Kansas’s admission to the Union as a slave state, declaring that “the right of the owner of a slave . . . is the same and as inviolable as the right of the owner of any property whatsoever.” It also barred free blacks from entering the territory, and prohibited any future amendments that would “affect the rights of property in the ownership of slaves.” As cover for the blatantly one-sided constitution, the convention called for a referendum to be held the following November, but the ballot question was rigged to ensure that slavery would be included in the constitution no matter how the populace voted. Again there was a Free-State boycott, and the Lecompton Constitution was adopted on the basis of thousands of fraudulent votes. So egregious was the sham election that even territorial Governor Robert Walker – a pro-slavery Democrat appointed by Buchanan – denounced it as “a vile fraud, a bare counterfeit.” Walker resigned in protest and, along with a significant number of northern Democrats, urged the president to reject the Lecompton Constitution out of hand.
Buchanan disregarded Walker’s counsel. Bowing to pressure from the southern wing of his party, Buchanan announced his support for the Lecompton Constitution in December 1857, proposing to submit it to Congress as the basis for Kansas’s admission to the Union as a slave state. Many northern Democrats were outraged at the perfidy, none more so than Senator Douglas, who had built his career on the ideal of popular sovereignty. Douglas was more than willing to tolerate slavery in the territories, but only when it was endorsed by a majority of white citizens in a free election. The Lecompton Constitution satisfied neither condition: the election had been a farce and a majority of legitimate settlers in Kansas – excluding Missourians who crossed the border for the sole purpose of casting illegal ballots – were clearly opposed to slavery.
Douglas now faced a crisis of conscience. His political future was linked in the near term to the Buchanan administration, as was his access to patronage. On the other hand, acceptance of the Lecompton Constitution would violate his most pronounced principles. Douglas could be a cagey operator when the situation called for it, but this time principle won out.
Douglas obtained a meeting with Buchanan at which he informed the president that he would lead the opposition to the Lecompton bill. Buchanan retorted that Douglas would pay a price for breaking with his party’s leadership, reminding him of the fate of senators who had defied Andrew Jackson.
“Mr. Douglas,” said the president, “I desire you to remember that no Democrat ever yet differed from the Administration of his own choice without being crushed.”
“Mr. President,” replied Douglas defiantly, “I wish you to remember that General Jackson is dead.”