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IOWA LEGACY

Michigan 2020, Kansas 1855

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manatt 20-11-22s

Clockwise from top right: a cartoon depicting pro-slavery politicians forcing slavery down a free settler's throat; the Congressional Investigation report finding massive pro-slavery voting fraud; John Sherman, brother of William Tecumseh Sherman and author of the congressional report; an anti-slavery poster; a photo of "Bleeding Kansas" militants following the contested elections.

Voting outrage! Voting fraud! Fake Voters! Fake News! Illegal votes! Rogue electors and legislatures!

No, not Michigan 2020 — Kansas 1855.

Kansas’ slavery elections in the 1850s were the greatest, longest, most-dangerous contested elections in American history.

Buckle up. This one is wild and complicated.

Slavery had been banned in the Midwest in 1787 and 1820, the only exception being Missouri under the Missouri Compromise.

But after nearly 70 years of the Midwest slavery ban, Congress opened the door to slavery in the Midwest with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. The law was incredibly controversial, because it put the choice of whether Kansas would be a free or slave state into the hands of Kansas settlers.

Problem was, there weren’t any Kansas settlers yet.

The Kansas slavery elections set off a stampede of settlers rushing into the state from Missouri and the pro-slavery South, and from and through Iowa and Nebraska from the anti-slavery Midwest and Northeast. It was a “race to the ballot box” to see who could move more settlers and legal voters into the Jayhawk State in time for the elections.

Or, if not legal voters, then illegal voters.

Plenty of armed, pro-slavery Missouri “Border Ruffians” were itching to cross the Missouri-Kansas line for election day, vote for slavery, then return to the Show Me State.

And that’s just what they did.

In 1854, the territory’s first election was held to select Kansas’ territorial delegate to Congress. The pro-slavery candidate won. More than 50 percent of the votes — 1,729 out of 2,800 votes — were fraudulent. In one town, there were 604 votes cast — despite the town’s having a population of just 24.

Four months later, Kansas settlers returned to the polls to vote on the territory’s new legislature. Despite even numbers of pro and anti-slavery settlers, 37 of the 39 races were won by the pro-slavery candidates.

The territorial governor sought to fix things, ordering new elections in 11 districts. The anti-slavery free staters swept those elections in a landslide.

No matter. The pro-slavery legislature ignored the second election, seating the pro-slavery candidates instead (Michigan legislature, take note).

The pro-slavery legislature in LeCompten, Kansas, then passed a constitution, putting the slavery question to a popular vote. The anti-slavery free staters boycotted the election, broke away and organized their own government in Topeka, and enacted their own anti-slavery constitution with a far larger vote.

With an anti-slavery state constitution duly approved by a majority of Kansas voters, the matter seemed resolved.

Until it wasn’t.

U.S. President Franklin Pierce, a pro-slavery Democrat, unilaterally rejected the Free State Constitution.

Is your head spinning yet?

Congress, controlled by an anti-slavery coalition, sent a fact-finding committee to Kansas. The lead investigator was John Sherman, an Ohio congressman and brother of General William Tecumseh Sherman of “Sherman’s March” fame. The committee found massive fraud had been committed by the pro-slavery faction.

In 1859, yet another anti-slavery Constitution was approved by Kansas settlers 10,421 to 5,530. With the duly ratified 1859 Constitution, the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to admit Kansas as a state.

And then… Pro-slavery southern Senators filibustered Kansas statehood.

Yes, even in the 1850s, the Senate was already the graveyard of Capitol Hill.

Kansas statehood would have to wait until the South seceded from the Union and their Senators quit Congress. It was only in 1861, with the onset of the Civil War, that Kansas would become a state.

So, to review:

You had illegal voters; a legislature illegally reversing legitimate voting; a president trying to endorse the illegal vote; a congressional investigation finding massive fraud; Congress trying to ratify the legal vote; and finally the Senate filibustering Kansas statehood to death.

The Kansas slavery elections would be funny except for two things: first, the underlying issue was the enslavement of 3.5 million African Americans. Second, the southern voting fraud so undermined democracy in Kansas, that politics — “war by other means” — turned into an actual intrastate war — the “Bleeding Kansas” of legend.

And then, the Kansas Slavery Wars, along with the Fugitive Slave Act, Harpers Ferry and the political triumph of the anti-slavery Republicans, caused the Civil War.

History will remember 2020s post-election machinations as farce compared to the Kansas slavery election battles.

There is no parallel except this: This year’s election shenanigans are similarly corrosive to Americans’ faith in elections, in our democracy and in our government.

Benjamin Franklin, asked what the Constitutional Convention had created, answered, “A republic, if you can keep it.”

To keep our republic, we Americans must double down on making sure our elections are fair, honest — and honored.

Otherwise, by definition, the question Lincoln posed at Gettysburg — will an American government of the people, by the people, and for the people endure? — hangs in the balance.

Dan Manatt is a documentary filmmaker and co-manager of his family’s Audubon County farms. His column Iowa Legacy appears regularly in the Carroll Times Herald and Jefferson Herald.

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