“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Part One

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

The Platte County Self-Defense Association, founded in part by David Rice Atchison and his lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, established itself to warn off and battle people coming to settle Kansas under the auspices of the various Emigrant Aid Societies that sprung up to plant free soil settlers on the newly opened land. I did not have much luck finding the words of the Emigrant Aid Society supporters online, but the internet smiled upon me for their opponents. In 1854, Stringfellow himself wrote a pamphlet titled Negro-Slavery, No Evil. As it concerns the Platte County group directly, Stringfellow declares his work a kind of manifesto:

In obedience to a resolution adopted by the Platte County Self-Defensive Association, we proceed to lay before the public the immediate causes which led to the formation of the Association; to explain its purposes, and to suggest the means, which seem to us proper to be adopted by the citizens of the slaveholding States, to defeat the designs of the abolitionists.

One cannot get much more official than written on the order of the association by one of its principals. In doing so, Stringfellow wrote not just a specific defense of their actions and statement of motives, but also a general defense of slavery itself. That involved exposing

fully the dangers to which slave-property in Missouri, and especially on the borders of Kansas, is subjected; to arouse the attention of all good citizens, not of slaveholding States alone, but of the whole Union, to the results which must follow, if the abolitionists succeed in their purposes; and, if possible, to suggest means by which those results may be prevented.

It all goes back to the group’s name. They understood themselves not as imperialists, or even necessarily favoring expansion of slavery for its own sake, but rather as a besieged minority at the mercy of millionaire New England abolitionists. They thus had to band together to prevent the enemy from gaining a foothold so near to their homes and human property. The ultimate end of the Emigrant Aid Societies involved not a free Kansas, but rather using a free Kansas a means to overthrow their exposed slavery regime in Missouri. Offensive acts in Kansas constituted defense of Missouri. The Emigrants they opposed hardly deserved the name:

Were these miscalled “emigrants” poor and honest farmers, seeking a home and the advantages of a new country for themselves and families, we might applaud the charity of those who originated the scheme: were these associations fair means of deciding the contest between the friends and opponents of negro-slavery, we might admire the energy of the abolitionists: but when we find these miscalled emigrants really negro-thieves, their purpose not to procure a home in Kansas, but to drive slaveholders therefrom; that they are not freemen, but paupers, who have sold themselves to Ely Thayer & Co., to do their masters’ bidding; who hesitate not to proclaim that they are expert in stealing slaves; that they intend to follow their calling, self-defence requires that means equally active, equally efficient, should be adopted by those who are threatened.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

The defenders of slavery leap to call whites slaves, understanding it as a sort of ultimate pejorative. Those paupers sold their wills and bodies to Thayer and his millionaires. They had masters who owned them. The same situation, when imposed by force upon blacks mysteriously endowed them only with blessings. Stringfellow does not miss the contradiction entirely. It concerned many of slavery’s defenders. He will explain why blacks uniquely benefit from slavery later on.

Situated on the border of Kansas, we were the first to receive the attack. Those among us, who had hitherto been restrained by fear, emboldened by the prospect of such efficient aid begun openly to avow their sentiments; the timid, became freesoilers; the bold, abolitionists. The emissaries of the “Emigration Aid Societies” were arriving; they were boasting that “they would shortly be the strongest, and then they would drive slaveholders from Kansas!” They declared that “they had run off slaves, would run off more, and would, finally, drive slaveholders from Missouri!”

The Emigrant Aid Societies would send white slaves to Kansas to overthrow Missouri slavery. But take note of who Stringfellow thinks those interloping thralls of Yankee millionaires would embolden. He refers not to black slaves, but free whites. He fears the destruction of white racial solidarity. If free whites get the idea that they have the freedom to oppose slavery, they’ve had a bad example just as the slave inspired to revolt would have. How would white slaveholders in a free white man’s republic battle against a grassroots effort by free whites to end slavery? Just that kind of movement had banished slavery from the North.

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