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Calhoun's Candlebox

Box that held fraudulent election returns

This plain wooden box played an infamous role in Kansas territorial politics.

Although the box itself is simple, its story is not. For a few weeks in 1858, it was at the heart of an election controversy that would overturn proslavery political control in the territory.

Kansas Territory needed a constitution to become a state. People living in the territory could vote on a document that would either prohibit or allow slavery, however, fraudulent elections, threats of violence, and congressional disagreements all prolonged the conflict over whether Kansas would enter the Union as a slave state or free. Between 1854 and 1861 it created four separate constitutions (one of which was voted on three times), the capital moved to five different towns, and at one time there were two separate legislatures--one antislavery, the other proslavery.

John CalhounA Proslavery Constitution

The box pictured here came into play during the struggle over the second constitution. Named after the town in which the convention met, the Lecompton Constitution was created by mostly proslavery delegates under the leadership of John Calhoun. Although a person of significant responsibility—he was the surveyor general—Calhoun was suspected of tampering with returns in at least two elections. The first incident occurred in October 1857 during a referendum for a new territorial legislature, when Calhoun was implicated in falsifying hundreds of proslavery votes. The second incident, involving this box, took place just a few months later during the winter of 1857 to 1858.

Although a free-state legislature was in place, proslavery delegates still controlled the constitutional convention with Calhoun as president, and they produced a proslavery constitution at Lecompton. To the shock and dismay of free-state voters, the convention decided not to put the entire document to a popular vote. Kansans could cast a ballot only on the slave codes in Article 7. This was not a clear-cut choice on slavery, because a vote against Article 7 would nevertheless allow slaveholders already in the territory to retain their "property." Freestaters were livid when they realized that no matter how they cast their ballots, there would be slaves in Kansas under the Lecompton Constitution.

Election Day

Calhoun and the constitutional convention set the election for December 21, 1857. It was boycotted by the free-state population and, as a result, Article 7 was overwhelmingly approved by the proslavery electorate. The convention next set January 4, 1858, for the election of state officers under the Lecompton Constitution.

Meanwhile, the free-state legislature decided to hold a referendum of its own. Incensed that Kansans were not given an opportunity to reject or approve the constitution in its entirety (rather than just Article 7), the legislature set the same day, January 4, 1858, for a popular vote on the complete document. This time, freestaters turned out in great numbers to reject the Lecompton Constitution. They also voted in the election held by the proslavery constitutional convention on the same day, choosing a slate of antislavery men to hold state office.

Although troops were again stationed at the polls, incidents of violence and intimidation occurred on January 4. On election day the territorial governor wrote, "Confound the place, it seems to have been cursed of God and man. Providence gave them no crops last year, scarcely, and now it requires all the powers conferred on me by the President to prevent them from cutting each others throats."

Election Fraud

In the mid-19th century, election returns were not tallied instantaneously by voting machines. It took days to assemble the ballots from scattered polling places, as riders struggled through bad weather and terrible roads to deliver the returns. Even so, word of election fraud quickly spread after January 4. Within a short time it became clear that an inordinate number of proslavery votes had been cast in the election for state officers, and John Calhoun's name was linked to the fraud.

The territorial legislature appointed an investigating committee, which quickly zeroed in on the returns from Delaware Crossing (now the location of Grinter Place State Historic Site). John Henderson, a Leavenworth newspaperman, had altered the totals by adding several hundred proslavery votes to the tally. When investigators demanded to see the original returns, Henderson claimed he'd given them to Calhoun. In turn, Calhoun denied ever receiving them.

Sketch of Calhoun cabin and woodpile

Investigators next confronted Calhoun's chief clerk, L.A. McLean, later described by one free-stater as "a splendid model of a man in all but his morals." McLean swore he had sent the ballots to Calhoun, but in early February an informant made claims to the contrary. He had seen McLean and another clerk bury the evidence inside this box (called a "candlebox" because candles had been shipped in it) during the night of January 27. They had chosen a spot under the woodpile outside Calhoun's office in Lecompton, as depicted in this sketch.

Acting under a warrant obtained by the investigative committee, a sheriff uncovered the returns "by removing a pile of wood situated on the premises . . . and adjacent to the office of the surveyor-general, and by digging from under it a box buried in the earth, about eight inches, and supposed to contain the election returns." When the investigators opened the box, they discovered that over 300 proslavery votes were forged at Delaware Crossing in both the December and January elections, "by or with the knowledge of John D. Henderson, and that John Calhoun was particeps criminis after the fact."

The incident irreparably damaged the reputations of Calhoun and the Lecompton Constitution, which failed to gain congressional approval. Proslavery forces never again controlled the Kansas political scene. Two more constitutions would be proposed to Congress after Lecompton before one was finally approved. Kansas became a state in 1861, just a few months before the Civil War began.

The candlebox which had held the fraudulent election returns was donated to the Kansas Historical Society in 1878. It is in the collections of the Society's Kansas Museum of History. The story of its role in Kansas history is recorded in ink, now faint with age, on the base (view the interior). It is displayed at Constitution Hall State Historic Site in Lecompton, not far from the site of the woodpile where it originally was buried.

Entry: Calhoun's Candlebox

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: October 2004

Date Modified: April 2018

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.