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Kansas town promotes its role in Lincoln’s rise

By John Eligon

New York Times


LECOMPTON, Kan. >> Cloaked in a top hat, frock coat, pleated shirt and cravat, Paul Bahnmaier is on a frenetic campaign to thrust his 600-person hometown into the spotlight by heralding its seismic yet little-known place in antebellum history: The first step toward Abraham Lincoln’s election as president took place here.

Over the past couple of weeks, Bahnmaier, the earnest president of the Lecompton Historical Society, has contacted every local newspaper and television station in this eastern Kansas market, urging them to publicize this blue-collar bedroom community’s story. He is reaching out to about 10 national media outlets and enlisting the help of his sister in Wisconsin to contact the media there.

Although this passion for his hometown’s history started before he was old enough to drive, Bahnmaier, 70, deemed this a timely opening for a full-court publicity blitz because of the recent release of the Steven Spielberg movie “Lincoln.”

“He has sunk his heart and soul into this town to keep the history alive,” said Robin Kofford, 44, working at the family business, Kroeger’s Country Meats, Lecompton’s only market and restaurant.

Normally, Bahnmaier dines there on a turkey sandwich, but on a recent afternoon, he was so excited about the possibility of national coverage of the town’s history that he allowed himself a quarter-pound cheeseburger.

Bahnmaier is the embodiment of the pride that people in this small town, which draws about 6,000 tourists a year, have in their history. The importance of Lecompton to the Civil War era, he believes, rivals the likes of Fort Sumter, Gettysburg and Appomattox.

“None of those places would be important had the events not occurred here in Lecompton,” he said.

After Kansas became a U.S. territory in 1854, Lecompton was named the territorial capital. It was here that the territorial legislature — elected through fraud because many pro-slavery Missourians crossed the border to cast ballots — drafted a constitution to admit Kansas to the union as a slave state, even though a majority of its settlers were against slavery.

When the document was sent to Washington for ratification, it passed the Senate but stirred debates in the House so intense that a fight broke out in the chamber one night. It ended when two Wisconsin Republicans, John Potter and Cadwallader Washburn, ripped the wig off the head of William Barksdale, a Mississippi Democrat, and Potter declared, “I’ve scalped him.”

The House eventually rejected the Lecompton Constitution in February 1858, but not before it drove deep wedges within the Democratic Party. James Buchanan, the president at the time, pushed for passage of the constitution. But Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, a firm believer that each state should decide whether to legalize slavery with a popular vote of its people, opposed the Lecompton Constitution because of the territory’s voting fraud.

The division led the Democrats to put up two candidates for president in 1860, including Douglas, and they (along with a third-party candidate) split the vote, opening the way for Lincoln to win the election as a Republican with about 39 percent of the popular vote.

“Lincoln would not have been president except for the Lecompton Constitution,” said Jonathan Earle, a history professor at the University of Kansas, who is writing a book on the 1860 presidential race.

The Lecompton Constitution is remembered in the two-story, balloon-frame clapboard hall where it was drafted in this hilly town on the Kansas River. The building, stilted to a grassy slope with limestone pegs, is home to a museum on the events surrounding the constitution and Bleeding Kansas, the years of deadly fighting over slavery in Kansas.

The second-floor space, about the size of a large classroom, where most of the territorial legislature’s 60 members met for weeks to draft the constitution has been spruced up with flags hanging from the ceiling, exhibits tacked to the walls and polished gray wooden planks covering the original cottonwood floors. In this room, locals treat visitors to re-enactments of speeches and debates from the era.

Constitution Hall is an ode to Lecompton’s more bustling days in the late 1850s, when it was the capital and businesses packed the streets. People flocked here, including Bahnmaier’s great-grandfather, who immigrated from Germany and worked as a tailor at a hotel. The population peaked at 4,000 in 1858, Bahnmaier said.

But after Topeka became the capital when Kansas was admitted as a free state in 1861, Lecompton, which neighbors the University of Kansas in Lawrence, dwindled. Today, the city is so tranquil that it is easy to hear a chorus of hissing, chirping and fluttering birds. The only businesses along the main thoroughfare are a gift emporium and an art shop. Clapboard homes line the streets, and several yards hold rusty vehicles.

Looking back on Lecompton, some might see a black eye in Kansas’s history, what with the town’s having served as a hub for pro-slavery forces. But Bahnmaier disputed that view.

Lecompton was “where slavery began to die,” Bahnmaier said. “Without this constitution splitting the Democratic Party, Lincoln wouldn’t have been elected president, and who knows how much longer slavery would have existed?”

And a movie named “Lincoln” would not be playing in multiplexes across the country.

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