An Antislavery Dissent, Part Two

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

We left C. Stearns in the pages of the September 22 Herald of Freedom telling us that not every antislavery Kansan went all out for the radicals’ plan to make their own government and strike at once for statehood. To bolster his credibility as a genuine free soil man, Stearns quoted a letter he had from a friend in Boston. If a Boston lawyer, who Stearns left anonymous, could not sign on from the safety of Massachusetts, then surely antislavery men in Kansas could voice their strong opposition.

Stearns continued, in his own voice, to explain the problem facing the free state movement. After telling a folksy anecdote about a guinea (the English coin, not the adorable rodent) blocking the view of a man who opposed reform, he explained

It is not always guineas that prevent men from seeing the truth, but sometimes it is the American’s other ruling passion, viz: love of office.

I trust that your readers will not consider that in my opinion, if fewer persons here were seeking for office we should hear less about a State Constitution than we do now. If any person takes offense at this remark, he will prove himself the identical office-seeker in question.

One hears this kind of argument a great deal. People who object to injustices are simply grandstanding for their own gain. Just look how many have political aspirations for themselves. One would never expect any kind of natural overlap between the politically ambitious and the leadership of political movements. With this argument one can indict any movement on behalf of any cause. All human endeavors will attract their share of the self-aggrandizing. The free state movement had one in James Lane and probably others. Not satisfied with that, Stearns happily went on to declare that anybody disagreeing with his accusations of bad faith simply proved them true.

Insult posing as argument out of the way, Stearns proceeded to more substantive charges. He argued that

it is extremely foolish to talk of forming a State Constitution, as we would write a newspaper article or make a stump speech. I question whether a year would be time enough to form such a Constitution as the wants of the age would require. We must go about such a measure free from all excitement, and with the utmost deliberation. The very short time left for us between the first of October, and the session of Congress, would hardly suffice to elect delegates.

I can’t argue much with the plea for deliberation in crafting something so weighty as a constitution, but what Kansas did C. Stearns live in? His opponents had not accepted delay, but struck early and often. It gained them much, however thoroughly it alienated most Kansans. Proceeding in haste might have its own risks, and the delegate election would come before a constitutional convention could assemble, but patience and restraint had poorly served Kansas’ antislavery party to date.

An Antislavery Dissent, Part One

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

My sources for the antislavery resistance in Kansas skew heavily to the radical end. I do what I can with the materials available to me to highlight the less radical elements as well, but I have no good repository of moderate antislavery opinion from the time and place. While the proslavery party’s embrace of violence and suppression of white freedoms certainly radicalized many, and drove others previously sympathetic over to the opposition, not everybody took that journey so far as the Charles Robinsons or George Browns of the day. The constant emphasis on unity in the resolutions of antislavery meetings speak well enough to that. Nor did every moderate come to that place through acts of political opportunism, as James Lane did.

In the September 22 Herald of Freedom, published just after George Brown’s return from the Topeka Convention, latest of the free soil party’s move toward a state government and a subject of future posts, a C. Stearns wrote of his “utter dissent” from the idea that the Free State party should write a constitution and strike for statehood. Stearns’ letter predates the Topeka and Big Springs Conventions alike, but arraigns their project in general. Stearns began by affirming his own antislavery beliefs:

While I honor the motives that actuate the majority of those concerned in this movement, yet believing as I do, that it is fraught with lasting injury to the cause that lies nearer to my heart at present than any other, viz: the making of Kansas a free State, I must unqualified condemn this movement. This I do hesitatingly, for my experience here has convinced me that no man can obey the “light within,” and act as his conscience directs, in all things, without meeting with the common lot of all reformers, viz: ridicule and hatred.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Stearns went on to say that he wrote a lawyer he knew in Boston to get qualified opinions on the matter. His Boston friend understood the situation well enough, saying that free soil Kansans fought “against unscrupulous wickedness, armed with power.” The “utmost sagacity and discretion” would give them little help against a foe who controlled the territory. But the antislavery men of Kansas had a single great weapon at their disposal: the ability “to guide and arouse the Northern feeling.” He thus endorsed repudiation of the legislature. But Stearns and other Kansans should stop there:

I think a State Government, without a basis of sufficient population, would be a mistaken course. That defect would be held by all the nation, a sufficient, though it might only be the pretended reason, for rejecting you, and this would give the enemy the best side of the argument. By ignoring the Legislature, and organizing Territorially [sic], you keep all the principles of right, law, and statesmanship on your side. Whether you fail or succeed in your immediate purpose, this keeping right legally, as well as morally, is a great thing, if possible.

Easy for him to say off in Boston, but he did have a point. A wildcat state government offered up excuses for most any politician on the national stage to repudiate it. Congress set up a territorial government, not a bunch of random Kansans on their own authority. Usurpation of congressional power would give not just proslavery men a plausible reason to deny the free state men, but also any dubious northerner. Such politicians could then say that they didn’t have a slavery problem in Kansas, but rather a civil disorder that required suppression. Such language had answered resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, as a Bostonian would know very well.

Glenn Brasher on James Oakes

If any readers want to hear more about James Oakes’ ideas about emancipation’s place in the Northern agenda, I’ve just found Glenn David Brasher’s review of Freedom National, where Oakes began developing them:

Oakes is keenly aware that his narrative challenges a good deal of the historiography, especially in insisting that Republicans warned the South of military emancipation prior to the war and were liberating all slaves behind Union lines for well over a year before the Emancipation Proclamation. He is also aware that there are many primary sources in which leading Republicans (such as Seward, Chase, Sumner, and even Lincoln himself) made contemporary statements that contradict his interpretations. But in what is the book’s boldest section (and perhaps its most stunning), Oakes labels these many wartime statements as “collective amnesia,” blaming them for creating a “myth” that still persists (328-339).

Brasher has much more. He has good things to say about the book too, but clearly doesn’t think much of Oakes’ argument.

 

A Different Southern View of Kansas

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

The proslavery party within Kansas, abetted by their election-stealing Missouri neighbors, considered themselves fighting for the entire South. If slavery failed to take root in Kansas, it would soon fail in Missouri. The Missouri domino might then topple Kentucky’s or Arkansas’ slavery. Each slave state turned free would become another pair of antislavery votes in the Senate. With the House already lost, this would put slavery on a path to ultimate extinction and all the ruin that would bring.

The Missouri slaveholders, from Atchison on down, had good reason to fear the prospect of freedom along their property lines, felt the threat keenly. The rest of the South, and even some Missourians quite close to the Kansas border, did not necessarily agree. I have seen letters in the Herald of Freedom, sent anonymously, which testify to that. While interesting, I take them with some skepticism as I understand nineteenth century newspaper men had a habit of inventing anonymous correspondence and I have no good way to spot specimens of their craft.

But a piece from another newspaper presents fewer interpretative issues. The Herald of Freedom reprinted a piece from the St. Joseph Gazette on Kansas matters that testifies to a more disinterested perspective on the future of the nation’s newest and most contentious territory. George Brown, still free despite his late lawbreaking, ran it under the title “Extreme Legislation”:

This illustrious body of law-givers adjourned on the 30th ult., after a tranquil session of sixty working days having performed more legislation during that space of time than perhaps necessity or the wants of the people required. Most of the laws enacted were good ones, because they were fac-similies of Missouri Statutes; but whenever they deviated fro a fixed standard, we find them floundering about like Milton’s devil, when traversing Chaos. The Kansas slave law is a disgrace to the age in which we live-it fetters the press-takes away the liberty of speech, and the right of every free white person of good character to sit on juries.

We shouldn’t always take the proslavery Kansans at their word when they say that they served the cause of the whole South. The Gazette doesn’t want anything to do with the Assembly’s slave code. Southerners could even approve wholeheartedly of slavery, and in endorsing Missouri’s laws as Kansas’ example the Gazette seems to do that, and take exception to what the majority had done with their ill-gotten seats in the legislature. They might do so for any number of reasons. Some southerners followed John C. Calhoun’s idea that as a united minority, the South could exert a real or effective veto over the national government and so keep slavery safe even as the minority section. Others simply thought that Kansas would not take to slavery anyway, either from its northern climate or because better virgin land remained to turn into slave labor camps in Texas and Arkansas. And some simply saw the sacrifice of white freedom as at least too overt or too radical.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

The Gazette expected that courts would soon set aside Kansas laws. Even if no court struck, then who would enforce such enactments? But even if the courts stood idle and sheriffs did their duty, that would only make things worse:

Whenever legislation is too harsh or rigorous it cannot command general approbation and support; and public sympathy is transferred from justice to the criminal, for the victim to too severe a law is considered a martyr. A cruel enactment may be compared to a bulldog-being so fierce he is kept constantly chained, and because he is never permitted to go at large, is of course no terror to the evildoer.

The Gazette concluded that Kansas judges and juries would err toward leniency, laws or otherwise. That asked a lot of jurist and jury sworn to affirm Kansas’ laws and which, by those same laws, excluded anybody of antislavery bent, but stranger things had happened. Endorsing laws costs us little, but looking in the eyes of their victims can change minds. Until then, someone else does the dirty work.

George Brown Shoots Back

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

We left George Brown defiantly publishing his violations of the bogus legislature’s slave codes. He bragged about how he flouted the law to say that one had no right to hold slaves in Kansas and circulated other antislavery materials including the Bible, the Declaration of Independence, and the Constitution. If they wanted to enforce their law, then proslavery men knew where to find him. Robert S. Kelley, ringleader at the mobbing of Pardee Butler, business partner of Speaker of the House John Stringfellow in the Squatter Sovereign, and postmaster at Atchison received Brown’s paper in the course of his duties at the post office. He promptly returned the copies, save for a few he kept as evidence, with a nasty note that Brown should keep his work to himself. The law would catch up with the editor in due course.

In due course did not, however, mean at once. Brown received Kelley’s note of September 7 and published further defiance on September 22, 1855. I wrote about this before, but I think that I missed a second shot back at Kelley in the same issue:

We would respectfully call the attention of Postmaster Kelley, of Atchison, K.T., to the 32d section of an act of Congress, approved July 2d, 1836, entitled “An act to change the organization of the Postoffice,” &c.

“Sec. 32. And be it further enacted, That if any postmaster shall unlawfully detain in his office any letter, package, pamphlet or newspaper, with intent to prevent the arrival and delivery of the same to the person or persons to whom such a letter, package, pamphlet or newspaper may be addressed or directed in the usual course of the transportation of the mail along the route; or if any postmaster shall, with intent as aforesaid, give a preference to any letter, package, pamphlet or newspaper, over another, which may pass through his office, by forwarding the one and retaining the other, he shall, on conviction thereof, be fined in a sum not exceeding five hundred dollars and imprisoned for a term not exceeding six months, and shall, moreover, be forever thereafter incapable of holding the office of postmaster in the United States.

Kelley could threaten Brown’s freedom and livelihood under the law of Kansas. But as an employee of the United States Post Office, he had to abide by the laws governing it. Kelley clearly broke those laws. Thus Brown essentially dared him to come and fight it out in the courts. Maybe they could share a cell.

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

Mutually assured destruction requires both parties able to carry out their half of the devastation, however. Though Brown had broken the laws of Kansas, he may not have expected Kelley would come down for him with a posse. The people of Lawrence might not allow any such effort, even if Kelley or some sheriff got one together. Likewise, Brown did not plan to march up to Atchison to collect Kelley. Both men had placed themselves in similar legal peril, but they did so with the expectation that their respective communities would support and defend them. Lawrence already had a militia company. Kelley could command Atchison mobs. If either reached out with more than paper, pitched battles might ensue.

The War of Northern Aggression? It depends.

A friend pointed me to James Oakes’ piece in the latest Jacobin, titled The War of Northern Aggression and available on their webpage. There Oakes describes the contemporary consensus that the North went to war to preserve the Union, rather than to end slavery:

We are repeatedly told that the North did not go to war over slavery. The Civil War is once again denounced as morally unjustified on the grounds that the North was not motivated by any substantial antislavery convictions. Emancipation itself is described as an accidental byproduct of a war the North fought for no purpose beyond the restoration of the Union. A recent study of the secession crisis states that during the war, slavery was abolished “inadvertently.”

So far as criticizing the war as morally unjustified because a blue uniform or an office in Washington at the time did not transform one into an abolitionist or racial egalitarian, I’ve never encountered the argument except from the usual suspects who use it to deflect attention from the paramount interest in preserving slavery that the Confederates clearly, consistently expressed in word and deed.

I don’t know that I would go so far as the study Oakes quoted, but that would depend on the context that a single quoted word doesn’t supply. Certainly the secessionists did their part in inadvertently abolishing slavery, but only because they lost. Many northerners did not march off to war to free the slaves, but the slaves turned their advance into an emancipation movement by flocking to Union lines. In that context, calling abolition inadvertent also makes for what I consider sound history.

But all that said, I do think that a majority of white northerners and border state residents had little to no interest in suppressing slavery when they went off to war in 1861. Some certainly did, and the Republicans’ efforts to that effect. According to Oakes,

Unwilling to take seriously what contemporaries were saying, historians have constructed a narrative of Emancipation and the Civil War that begins with the premise that Republicans came into the war with no intention of attacking slavery — indeed, that they disavowed any antislavery intentions. The narrative is designed to demonstrate the original premise, according to which everyone at the time was mistaken about what the Republicans intended to do.

Fully aware of Oakes’ greater education and expertise, I still can’t entirely agree with him. I think that his piece, perhaps for reasons of space, perhaps at the hands of an editor, conflates a series of related but separate questions of interpretation. Separating them back out clarifies things greatly. One can tackle the issue from even more angles, but I think the two which follow cover the core of the dispute.

First one must consider what the Republicans did and why they did it. Here, I have no real quarrel with Oakes. The Republicans, from Lincoln on down, understood the election of 1860 as their great opportunity. Lincoln forbade his agents in Washington during the secession winter from making any compromise that would forgo restrictions on slavery in the territories, from Kansas on west, on the grounds that it would give up the whole point of their election. The people of the North elected then on an avowed platform of restricting slavery and placing it on the road to its eventual extinction. I don’t know of many historians who would argue otherwise. In that respect, the Republicans absolutely waged a war of at least containment against slavery. One can and should consider slavery coterminous with the South, as nineteenth century Americans did, and thus in a sense the Republicans did propose to wage at least a cold war against it regardless of any secession. Does that count as a war of northern aggression? Possibly, though given the normal context in which one sees that name used I do not rush to adopt it.

However, the Republicans did not eradicate the Northern Democracy. The Democracy arguably did an exemplary job of that all by itself, but even they had not destroyed the party completely. Thus one can’t fairly take the Republicans’ goals as synonymous with those of the North at large. Consideration of and cooperation with democrats, especially in the border states, placed a significant restraint on what the Republicans could do. The party of Jackson might not command a majority in the Congress, but early in the crisis much hinged on the loyalty of the border states where they had considerably more influence. Those politicians had constituents as well and they did not enthusiastically embark upon a campaign against slavery, even if many did eagerly sign up to preserve the Union. Many probably would happily received news that the Republicans had repudiated their platform not just out of partisan interest but also sincere belief. I don’t think one can fairly call them militants in a war of northern aggression. They fought against slavery only reluctantly and only as a means to what they considered a higher end.

I have yet to delve deep into the scholarship on why ordinary soldiers fought for the Union, but I understand that Gary Gallagher satisfied most scholars with his extensive look into their letters. He came down firmly in favor of the Union first interpretation. If Oakes condemns other scholars for not taking the sources at their word, then he should find Gallagher’s work rather persuasive. Maybe he takes it on in his books, and I’d love to hear if he does, but it appears in his essay only as a cause for criticism.

So did Northerners fight a war of aggression to end slavery? It depends on which Northerners one asks about. To that, we could also add when we ask about them. A soldier from Maine who signed up in 1861 and knew slavery only as a vague thing that happened far away might find ending it more imperative after seeing it up close. Of course changes of heart could go the other way as well. Northern-born white Americans had gone into the South and discovered there that they liked slavery quite well, or at least found it necessary to manage black Americans concentrated in such numbers. We can hope that people draw the right lessons from experiences, but not all of us do.

New Look for the Blog

Gentle Readers, I’ve done some remodeling. Apologies to anybody who visited during the process and found things missing or gone strange. After all this time with stark white and black, I opted for more color. I think that everything is sorted and all the same features should be active but if I have it wrong, please let me know.

Should we have an Appomattox Holiday?

Wilmer McLean's house, where the surrender was negotiated

Wilmer McLean’s house, where Grant and Lee met

The war did not end in Wilmer MacLean’s parlor, one hundred fifty years and one day ago today, but the surrender of the Confederacy’s premier field army on top of the loss of its capital and flight of its government made for something close to a final victory. The Americans on the winning side noted it as such. Some today think we should have a holiday to celebrate the anniversary of Lee’s surrender. I regret that I can’t recommend Brian Beutler’s two pieces on the subject. He appears to think that the white South today remains largely unchanged from that of 1865 or 1954. Kevin Levin has justly taken him to task for it.

But let’s take the question on its own. The holidays we recognize, the names we put on buildings, and all the rest constitute statements about ourselves. In having such a holiday, we would declare that we find the Confederacy’s defeat worthy of celebrating. Americans, with some exceptions, don’t normally celebrate the ends of wars. Few of us mark VE Day or VJ Day, though they occasioned great celebration at the time. We even turned Armistice Day, which in Europe carries a strong element of mourning and relief at the end of a great and terrible war, into the Veteran’s Day celebration of all former members of the military.

An Appomattox Day could be an American Armistice Day. A great many Americans died in the war, as people die in all wars. But we already have Memorial Day for remembering them. I suspect further that we have quite enough holidays dedicated in one way or another to the appreciation of the military. Another would neither say much more nor much new about Americans. It would quickly fall into the background noise of the numerous other patriotic observances. This might do for some other war, but Americans have only had the one Civil War. For such a sui generis event to vanish into the flag-waving haze misses the point entirely.

Should we then have a holiday that amounts to taking a victory lap around Lee’s house? Maybe at the end we could have a couple of professional wrestlers dressed up as Grant and Lee. Skullcrusher Ulysses could put the hurt on Lousy Lee while the crowd cheered. I suppose that I wouldn’t mind that, absurdity aside, but while Lee’s surrender constitutes a military victory I don’t see it as important just in light of that. Lee’s surrender signaled that the principle struggle of the Civil War had ended, but unmoored from why Lee’s army fought and what Grant’s helped achieve in defeating him we just have another one of those infamous dates to memorize from the history books. Appomattox matters because it serves as possibly the best place to mark where the Confederacy lost. With it died the dream of a new nation, conceived in slavery, and dedicated to the proposition that black lives belonged on white ledgers and the fruit of black labor belonged in white pockets. Most white Union soldiers did not fight for the freedom of black Americans. Nor did they all welcome the presence of black Americans, either as contraband laborers or fellow soldiers. But the presence of Union armies in the South resulted in the de facto freedom of countless slaves from the day Benjamin Butler invented the classification.

That deserves remembering and I think that it both differs sufficiently from Juneteenth or the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation to warrant its own day. If those days could serve to celebrate the end of slavery, we could have Appomattox Day to remember how the nation achieved that end, the prices paid for it, and the Americans who had to lose so the slaves could win. I think that the last of those, however vindictive it might sound, deserves more remembering than it gets.

In the happy ending often given to the war, Grant gives Lee generous terms and Lee in turn doesn’t encourage any kind of guerrilla resistance to the Union’s victory. Whether Lee encouraged it or not that resistance, guerrilla and otherwise, appeared in depressingly short order. The defeated states promptly reelected their old politicians to go to Washington, some of whom had worn Confederate military uniforms. They embarked on turning the clock back as thoroughly as they could. On the ground, terrorist bands did the violent work of suppressing black agency. For a brief few years, despite all that, the American South had an  interracial political movement. Then the rest of the nation turned its back on the freedpeople and left them to the mercies of white terror for another century before we had another brief moment of interracial politics in the South. We’ve made some gains since then, but white Americans and black Americans still live in very different worlds. We vote accordingly. Those coalitions, like the partnership of whites and blacks during Reconstruction, did not confine their operations to the former Confederacy.

Maybe that’s the best argument for an Appomattox Day. We too eagerly congratulate ourselves for winning battles and pretend that each one ended the conflict that brought the armies, real or rhetorical, to the field. That day in Virginia brings with it all the continued, frequently vicious, complexities of life in America: the work done, the work ahead, the work left unfinished, and those who lost their war but won the next century’s peace, those who let them, and those sacrificed along the way.

George Brown Breaks the Law, Part Two

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Gentle Readers, I must disappoint you. I still intend to write a post, probably more than one, on literacy in the middle of the nineteenth century. However, the statistics are not so conveniently available as I remembered and so will require some adjustment and arrangement. Putting that on top of the data entry (easy enough, but tedious and time-consuming) and subsequent analysis, as well as several connected topics that arose and probably deserve posts, and I’ve created for myself a project that I don’t think I can do justice to with the time available to me before this post would go live. What I could offer you now would make for, at best, a first approximation that I would have to come back and revise in later posts.

I can, however, give you some more about George W. Brown’s civil disobedience.

George Washington Brown tossed the proverbial tea into the Missouri River on September 15, 1855. That day, the Assembly of Kansas’ laws to protect slave property through the generous suppression of white freedoms came into effect. That laws forbade the utterance, writing, publishing, or circulating of essentially any antislavery opinion within Kansas. Unlike eighteenth century Bostonians, he did not bother dressing up as someone else. Instead he published news of his lawbreaking in his own newspaper, under his own name, and helpfully cited the exact provisions of the law that he broke. Brown did not settle with implicating himself once, but instead confessed to multiple counts. He broke the law with his newspaper, but also with the Bibles and copies of the Declaration of Independence that he sold from the Herald of Freedom offices.

After sounding off on how the Bible and Declaration ran afoul of Kansas’ new laws, and how Brown expected to end up in a Missouri prison until his sentence to hard labor put him to work back in Kansas on a Pacific railroad, the editor came to another text of some interest:

By the way, there is an obsolete document which formerly was quoted largely by statesmen of small caliber, known as the Constitution of the United States, which declares that “Congress shall make no law ** abridging the freedom of speech or the press,” and as a corollary it was urged that no body deriving their authority from Congress could pass any such law; but modern statesmen care nothing about that document. The “Barons of Kansas” are superior to the Constitution; and as to the Declaration of Independence, or the Bible, it is of no account whatever.

John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, Secretary of State, Senator, and the generation's leading secession and slavery booster.

John C. Calhoun

Most nineteenth century Americans, including the federal bench, did not regard the guarantees of the Constitution as applying to the laws of states. The Fourteenth Amendment briefly changed all of that, but the Supreme Court saved the nation from the scourge of the Bill of Rights by ruling otherwise not long thereafter. Later courts have, in the past century, thankfully gone the other way. But some Americans did insist that the Constitution’s guarantees ought to apply to the states. No less an authority than John C. Calhoun held that the constitutional right to property protected slavery and should take precedence over any contrary state law.

Antislavery Americans argued over whether or not the Constitution itself protected slavery, with those like William Lloyd Garrison arguing that it did and so deserved abolition and a good burning but others of a less radical stripe preferred a reading of the document which cast it as a work that set slavery on and looked forward to its eventual extinction. Trying to read the document in context, I don’t myself find a clear answer either way. That ambiguity cleared out ample space for both understandings and probably greased some wheels during ratification. Parts of the Constitution clearly affirm slavery, such as the prohibition on outlawing the Atlantic slave trade for a quarter of a century, but they run together with equivocal compromises like permission to do so thereafter. The infamous Three-Fifths Clause did recognize slavery, but did not give the slave states all the recognition they wanted for it. Furthermore, by counting slaves as “all other persons” rather than as property, the framers left open the question of whether or not the property protections in the Bill of Rights applied. The separate listing implied that slaves did not exist as property under federal law, even if they did under state law, but implication went only so far. 

This question overlaps with, but differs from, the question or whether the framers as a group, or as individuals, or the conventions that ratified the Constitution, understood it as a proslavery or antislavery document. Likewise it does not subsume the question of whether the government created by the Constitution served more consistently the interests of slavery’s extension or extinction. None of those inquiries has a succinct, short, and complete answer save for “it depends.”

George Brown Breaks the Law, Part One

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Kansas’ free state men had their convention. They organized a party, wrote it a platform, and called their own election for delegate to Congress set one week after the legislature called its election for the same office. Andrew Reeder would, if they had their way, go back to Washington. They further agreed that they must make their own government for Kansas, as they would find no relief in the one that the border ruffians had filibustered in against them. This took the antislavery party some distance past the achievements of prior conventions. Having a convention that made real gains rather than simply expressed their rhetoric apparently suited the party well, as they aimed to repeat the experience with another convention. September 5, 1855 saw them gather at Big Springs. There they called for a gathering at Topeka on September 19.

The territorial government had brought them to this juncture with its radical laws for the defense of slavery. Those laws entered into force on September 15. They provided that

If any free person, by speaking, or by writing, assert or maintain, that persons here have not the right to hold slaves in this Territory, or shall introduce into Kansas, print, publish, write, circulate, or cause to be introduced into this Territory, written printed, published or circulated in this Territory, any book, paper, magazine, pamphlet, or circular, containing any denial of the right of persons to hold slaves in this Territory, such person shall be deemed guilty of felony, and punished by the imprisonment at hard labor for a term of not less than two years.

On the 15, the “fatal day”, George Washington Brown quoted that law in the Herald of Freedom. He then continued:

With a full consciousness of the penalty that awaits us, and the oath of Gov. Shannon that every law enacted by the “Barons” of Kansas shall be enforced to the letter, we, on the 15th day of Septemeber, 1855, of perfectly sane mind, and with a full knowledge of the requirements of the law, do “write, print, publish and circulate in this Territory” a “paper with the emphatic “denial of the right of ” any “person to hold slaves in said Territory,” any law or enactment of the Barons of Kansas, or anybody else to the contrary, notwithstanding.

At least one who fancied himself an enforcer of the law took notice. Robert S. Kelley’s suppression of the paper arises from this issue. I realized in the course of other research that I neglected to share the offending details in my repeated trips back and forth across the fall of 1855.

Brown went on. He published a paper, so he could easily circulate that. But he had another item in his inventory which he considered at odds with the law.

The Bible-a book held in great repute by some men-copies of which we have for sale-declares that God commanded Moses to “proclaim Liberty throughout all the land, to ALL the inhabitants thereof.

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

Furthermore, if Kelley could brag about how vile he found Brown’s work then Brown could brag about doing this. He took “great pleasure” in distributing copies of the Bible. Indeed, the editor had instruction from the Almighty to “loose the bonds of wickedness, undo heavy burdens, and LET THE OPPRESSED GO FREE, and break every yoke.”

Not content with making himself into a man on a holy mission, Brown fancied himself a patriot as well:

The Declaration of Independence-a time-honored document, but not under bans in Kansas-tells us that “all men are created free and equal.” We enunciate, “write, print, and publish” that sentiment, and endorse it to the fullest extent, although it is a virtual “denial of the right to hold slaves in Kansas. We shall be happy to circulate that ancient State paper, and will respectfully recommend some of the Barons to adopt some method by which they can get an understanding of it. Perhaps their neighbors can acquaint them with its teachings if they are so unfortunate as not to be able to read it for themselves, as we are told is the case with some of their number.

The crack about literacy has some basis in fact, incidentally. While politicians surely knew their letters well enough, the South lagged behind the North in schooling. Statewide public school systems did not exist in most of the slave states until Reconstruction. This had the expected consequences for literacy, which I shall delve further into tomorrow.