Kansas Gets Its Governor

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Civil War
Charles Robinson
Charles Robinson, image courtesty of Flickr Commons.

One hundred and two years ago, on Saturday February 9, 1861, the fervent abolitionist Charles Robinson was sworn into office as Kansas' first state governor.

As a long-time supporter of the Free-State cause in Kansas, Robinson was no stranger to adversity – or to skirting existing laws to achieve what he considered to be a higher moral purpose. During the Bleeding Kansas conflict, Robinson’s fellow "jayhawkers," and their proslavery opponents, engaged in the politics of violence that marked Kansas' entry into the Union and helped push the United States into the Civil War.

With a reputation as a rugged frontiersman (having once killed a man with an iron bar, by hand, after being shot in the chest), Robinson arrived in Kansas Territory as an agent for the New England Emigrant Aid Company, an organization which promoted migration to Kansas by abolitionists and other Northerners who wanted to see Kansas Territory become the State of Kansas, sans slavery. Their proslavery opponents came from the South and over the Missouri-Kansas border, sometimes voting illegally in Kansas elections and engaging in the violence that gave the territory the nickname, "Bleeding Kansas."

Documents that have been digitized for the Library’s forthcoming website, www.civilwaronthewesternborder.org, demonstrate Robinson’s predilection for controversy. One of them, from May 24, 1856, is entitled, "U.S. vs. Charles Robinson." In it, a Mr. Cox testified:

that he had heard Charles Robinson, in common conversation, repeatedly urge upon the people the propriety and necessity of resisting the enforcement of the Territorial laws, peaceably if they could; but if any force was employed to enforce them, that such enforcement at all hazards.

As this document indicates, Charles Robinson had been arrested and tried for treason against the Territory of Kansas and the United States. He found himself in this position for opposing the first Kansas Territorial Legislature, which Free-Staters considered the "Bogus Legislature." That legislative body had come into power after proslavery "border ruffians" crossed over the Missouri border, under the leadership of former Senator David R. Atchison, in order to vote in the Kansas elections on March 30, 1855. As a result of the ballot-stuffing, the number of votes for proslavery candidates in some areas actually exceeded the entire voting population.

Free-Staters countered the "Bogus Legislature," which had the recognition of the federal government, by setting up their own legislature at Topeka under the "Topeka Constitution" they drafted. That legislative body, which failed to achieve legal legitimacy, selected Robinson to be the territorial governor of this body, only to be arrested on May 10, 1856 and indicted for treason. He spent the following four months as a prisoner – with much of the time spent at Lecompton, Kansas, the proslavery capital of the Bogus Legislature.

By the time Robinson was inaugurated Governor of Kansas on February 9, 1861, the situation had changed considerably. Kansas Territory had become the State of Kansas, Abraham Lincoln had been elected president, Southern states were seceding, and the nation was facing an imminent Civil War.

Despite the onslaught of bad news nationally, Robinson became the legitimate governor of Kansas under the "Wyandotte Constitution," which prohibited slavery and granted citizenship rights (except voting rights) to African-Americans. More "radical" provisions that Robinson had supported, like equal rights for women, had unfortunately been rejected. As shown in a petition that is also a part of the Library’s new digital collection, Robinson (along with his famous wife, Sara Robinson, and activist Clarina Nichols) genuinely believed in and fought for the extension of rights to blacks and women.


U.S. vs. Charles Robinson, First District
Court of the United States,September
10, 1856. Courtesy of the Kansas
Historical Society

True to form, Robinson's governorship was tumultuous. It was marked by border warfare: "jayhawking" raids into Missouri, countered by Missouri "border ruffian" raids into Kansas. Furthermore, the state House of Representatives impeached Robinson in connection with a scandal over a bond issue, but he was acquitted. Despite his dubious distinction as the only Kansas governor ever to be impeached, Robinson is remembered fondly by historians of a more progressive age, in which his ideals of universal suffrage and expanded public education have become a reality.

Aside from the archival documents that chronicle Robinson’s years in Kansas, the Civil War on the Western Border website (expected to launch soon) will provide visitors with original contextual essays, biographical descriptions of Charles and Sara Robinson, Clarina Nichols, Daniel R. Atchison, and numerous other figures who embodied the border wars. This work is being completed by some of the top scholars of border wars history, which will provide contextual balance to the 6,000 pages of archival materials available on the site.

About the Author

Dr. Jason Roe is a member of the Missouri Valley Special Collections department and a content manager and editor for the Library’s digitization and encyclopedia website project, The Missouri-Kansas Conflict: Civil War on the Western Border. He received his Ph.D. in U.S. History from the University of Kansas in May 2012 and is the author of the Library’s popular “This Week in Kansas City History” column.

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