“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Part Two

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Full text. Part 1.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, on behalf of the Platte County Self-Defense Association, opened his statement of the group’s goals and beliefs with a striking admission. They genuinely did fear for themselves in Missouri if Kansas turned free soil. By putting abolitionists and their pauper Hessians, virtually white slaves, so near to Missouri’s not very black black belts, the Emigrant Aid Societies would embolden not free soilers in Kansas, not even necessarily Missouri’s slaves, but Missouri’s poor whites. They could get the idea that they would do better with no slavery about, break the racial solidarity on which the slave system depended, and bring about its overthrow. That would inevitably lead to diverse calamities, not the least of which involved slaveholders losing valuable human property.

The subversion of the free white nonslaveholder, whom the slaveholders needed on their side to keep the whole business running, came in part from the fear of a good example. If poor whites could free Kansas, why not adjacent Missouri? But that other roads led to abolition as well. Stringfellow claims that one fellow ran around the streets declaring that he’d like to burn the whole slaveholding town down.

Worse still, some whites might turn against them in the name of the almighty dollar. The practical route into Kansas involved a trip up the Missouri river, right through the black belt. The flood of white settlers coming up the river would pass through the towns there. They would need lodging, supplies, livestock, anything they couldn’t carry with them.

It seemed as if Weston were about to become the head-quarters of their operations. It was feared, and subsequent events have vindicated, that our fear was not without foundation, that among our traders and merchants there where those who at heart were against us; others who loved money so much more than their country, they would, for the gain from the abolition trade, encourage them to come among us.

Americans love their moral crusades, but we also love our money. If one could get rich selling goods to the emigrants, did one really care if the Emigrant Aid Society brought them so far or not? The cash spent the same either way.

Once these abolitionists arrived, they would find not just sympathetic whites in western Missouri:

There were among us, too, a large number of free negroes, most of, them, as usual, of bad character; their houses, the natural places of resort for abolitionists, at which to meet, and tamper with slaves, corrupt them, entice them to run away, and furnish them facilities for escape.

Stringfellow has an odd, or extreme, notion as to how many free blacks would constitute a large number. Platte County housed only 51, according to the 1850 census. That amounted to 1.79% of its black population. If fifty-one out of nearly three thousand worries him, then he must not think highly of the security of slavery at all. But he claimed all the same that the abolitionists had already gone to work:

About this time, a large number of slaves made their escape: three, from the neighborhood of Weston, were taken in Iowa, and free papers, with full instructions as to their route, were found upon them.

That hardly amounted to a crisis, but one can see how Stringfellow and others came to view the tide of history going against them. The abolitionist rhetoric about a war for Kansas, the natural insecurity of slavery, Missouri’s own distant and small antislavery movement, the tide of settlers, the profit waiting for a merchant willing to sell to an abolitionist, and free blacks as the thin end of the wedge must have come across like a perfect storm to smash slavery. A few runaways in that environment look very much like not an isolated incident, but the start of an avalanche.

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