The Platte County Men Strike

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Just over the line in Missouri, the Platte County Self-Defense Association stirred itself to life over the summer of 1854. Sunny forecasts for a free Kansas would not deter the hard-drinking, hard-fighting men of the Missouri frontier. They had every natural reason to expect their victory in Kansas. But B.F. Stringfellow had named another enemy aside abolitionist pauper mercenaries in the group’s manifesto:

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!”

Internal subversion destroyed slavery in the North. It could turn the institution out of Missouri, most especially if a free Kansas emboldened Missourians who already had private reservations. Open dissent could bring emancipation and so they must fight it at every turn. When preserving slavery conflicted with the needs and designs of the white man’s republic and the white man’s cherished rights to all things slavery, the republic, the white man’s rights, and even the nation’s laws must fall before it.

Western Missouri had those dangerous dissenters close on hand. It also had the Platte County men to do something about it. William W. Freehling reports on their efforts in The Road to Disunion, Volume Two: Seccessionists Triumphant:

On July 21, 1854, the Self-Defense Association forced a Massachusetts man out of the county. They thought he wanted a free Kansas, you see. Then came a drunkard who, according to the testimony of a lone black man who could not have legally given it in a Missouri court, aided fugitive slaves.

Then on the 29th, flush with the previous successes, Atchison and Stringfellow’s band descended on Frederick Starr, a reverend New England man who quietly supported antislavery efforts in Missouri. They seized Starr and demanded his confession. One imagines them, touching the common strings of militant paranoia, demanding to know if Starr was, or had ever been, a member of the abolitionist party.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

The Platte County Self-Defense Association had the misfortune to prey upon a quick-witted man with a flair for the dramatic. He dressed himself in a white pair of pants and a clean shirt, gathered his friends, and marched to the courthouse to hear the charges against him. The mob promptly indicted him for teaching slaves to read, for helping blacks buy their freedom, and riding beside blacks in his carriage.

Starr pleaded guilty on each charge, and then defended himself. He had taught slaves to read, but only with their owners’ leave to make them into better Christians, as was his religious duty. Better Christians would, if freed, then make better citizens. Starr’s ersatz prosecutor pressed the point: Had he always had the owner’s permission? Yes, he had. His prosecutor, John Vineyard, then admitted Starr did no wrong.

But what about helping slaves buy their freedom? Starr had done it, he said. The law allowed slaves to work for wages, if their masters permitted. The law allowed a master to sell a slave to anybody, even the slave himself or herself. Vineyard again had to admit Starr did no wrong.

And yes, a black rode beside Starr. Only Yankees flinched from black company. Every true son of the South knew blacks as part of the family, intimately connected with them and woven into the fabric of white lives. Why, Vineyard himself rode with his slaves. Couldn’t Starr do the same? Vineyard backed down again and moved to acquit. The Self-Defense Association concurred and Starr celebrated by rubbing it in.

He declared emancipation a slaveholder’s business, not one for other people. Native southerners, not Yankee interlopers, would decide slavery’s fate. But, if they did opt for manumission, outsiders like Frederick Starr himself could help prepare blacks for freedom and eventual colonization back in Africa.

This had not gone at all to plan.

A View of Kansas, Part Two

Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley

The Chicago Democratic Press’ correspondent, who Horace Greeley kindly reprinted for us, gave the reader ample reason to go to Kansas. While not perfect, it offered good land and tolerable weather. The nearer portion of it had all the timber one would want to make homes, barns, fences, and all the rest of a successful farm. Even the Indians, from whom one would take the land, seemed almost like white people with their successful farms.

One might take from the Chicago paper’s name that it leaned Democratic. From that one might also conclude that as the Kansas-Nebraska Act came out of a Democratic Congress and Democratic administration, the paper would stop there. Greeley might have printed its words regardless, since they would entice antislavery men to go off to Kansas all the same. The article did commence with careful neutrality, avoiding slavery entirely. But it came at last to the subject:

The course which the officers of the government feel bound to pursue is producing much ill-feeling among the emigrants. They are hardy and enterprising, and seem determined each for himself to preoccupy a large slice of this new and valuable territory. Desperate efforts are being made by the Missourians to induce slaveholders to go there, but the balance of feeling is against it. Many of the most intelligent slaveholders admit there is no chance for them. This should not lull our northern people for a single moment, and they certainly should not be deterred by the blustering of the Missourians from going there.

Yes, the men from Missouri made dire threats. They said they would run off antislavery settlers, violently if necessary. They had every advantage geography could offer and a good head start. But slavery did not travel easily. Not every Missouri man came over committed to bringing it along and few wealthy planters would risk valuable human property on land that might soon go free. The Democratic Press continued:

We look upon it as a patriotic duty, for our young men especially, to settle this territory and make it a free State, thereby removing forever the greatest obstacle to the permanence and future prosperity of the American Union. It will confine Slavery to definite limits. The northern people would respect their rights under the Constitution, and leave them to enjoy their “peculiar institution” till their interest and their duty should conspire to lead them to abolish it. The peace, we fear, the very existence of the Union is at stake in the settlement of this great question. Let all who love their country be ready to “be up and doing” when the time for final action shall arrive. The safety and glory of the country is at stake, and we know there are thousands of strong arms and warm hearts ready to enlist in this enterprise. There is no fear for Nebraska. Let Kansas be settled with freemen and we are done with the fearful agitation of the Slavery question forever.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

Save Kansas; save the Union.

The appeal stands out in part for coming from a Democratic paper, and a Chicago one at that. Douglas’ dream of revitalizing the party in the North by taking slavery off the table seemed no closer to reality. When he tried to rescue it in Illinois, he found Chicago unsympathetic. Then a speaking tour to rehabilitate himself ran hard up against Abraham Lincoln. Northerners, even Northern Democrats, refused to get over how he sold them out to the Slave Power. Some of them would go so far as to make a new political party over it.

A View of Kansas, Part One

Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley

In the same June 29, 1854 issue where Horace Greeley printed Abelard Guthrie’s accusations against David Rice Atchison, he printed other news of Kansas. The latter, originally printed in the Chicago Democratic Press, gives an interesting view of Kansas in the summer of 1854. The correspondent traveled up the Kansas River 120 miles, so he knew a fair stretch of it from his own eyes. He begins by advertising the land’s virtues, always a good way to entice people to come:

the soil is very rich and productive and the country exceedingly beautiful. Along the river extending for a few miles on each side the country is densely timbered, and so also are the borders of the small streams which empty into the river from either side. On leaving the margins of the streams the country is high rolling prairie. The soil is good, but the want of timber and water will be found a serious drawback to the rapid settlement of that portion of the Territory. The climate while he was there was bracing and healthy, but those who reside in this country, complain that it is very fluctuating and changeable.

Though not perfect, Kansas had good lands. Wouldn’t you come help save it from slavery and take your slice of the American dream?

The Shawnee Indians own the territory on the south side of the Kansas for some two hundred miles west of the Missouri. Our informant says they are very considerably advanced in civilization, and that he was very comfortably entertained while traveling among them. They devote their attention to agriculture and many of them have large and very fine farms.

Too often, American Indians just fall out of historical accounts. We imagine the plains as empty. If we imagine Indians at all, they live farther west and roam about. Indians running their own farms and otherwise behaving largely like the white settlers we imagine venturing off into empty land to put it to use come across as a foreign concept, with the possible exception of the Cherokee. That says more about us than them. Nineteenth century Americans moving into Indian lands knew better.

Those Shawnee

appear not a little uneasy and restless under the passage of the Territorial bill. Many of them have been cherishing the hope that ere long they would be endowed by Congress with the rights of citizenship. They dress, live and act like white people, and declare their determination not to sell their lands on any consideration whatever.

The Delaware, on the other side of the river, lived similarly. The Democratic Press’ informant, however, pronounced them

not so intelligent and as far advanced in civilization as the Shawnees.

So far as white settlement went, confusion reigned. Though the lands stood open to white settlement per the Kansas-Nebraska Act:

Indian title tot he lands is not yet extinguished, and when our friend left Fort Leavenworth the United States Marshal was engaged with a posse driving the squatters and emigrants out of the territory. Many, however, were pushing onward beyond the Fort to the borders of the great plains, where they hoped to be beyond the reach of the Marshal.  The country is not yet open to settlement, and cannot be till the Indian title is extinguished, This will no doubt be effected as rapidly as possible; but the philanthropist will ask where can the poor Indians go? That questions suggests sad and solemn reflections.

Indeed it did. The Shawnee reservation in Kansas shrank in 1854 and was split into individual plots in 1858. Some Shawnee fought in the Civil War and hoped their service would bring them restored property. They found instead that homesteaders had occupied much of it in their absence. Some of them later ended up in Oklahoma, where they joined the Cherokee tribe and remained recognized solely as a part of it until 2000.

“I am for resistance-I care not to what extent.”


Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley

Eli Thayer’s abolitionist army descended on Kansas, but men from Missouri had every advantage. They lived right next door to Kansas. They’d slipped over the border long before any law permitted them to do so. They had all the warning they needed that free soil settlers would come and used that warning to form groups devoted to keeping them out of Kansas, like Atchison and Stringfellow’s Platte County Self-Defense Association. Missourians crossing the border might not all care for slavery, in Missouri or elsewhere, but enough of them saw Kansas as theirs to readily ally with the proslavery men. If the natural advantages did not prove sufficient, then threats of violence might. If threats of violence did not suffice, actual violence could follow.

How could Thayer’s and other free soil settlers expect to claim Kansas as their own against all this? They appreciated their predicament keenly, both in the cities of the East Coast and out on the frontier. In his June 29, 1854 edition, Horace Greeley printed a letter from Abelard Guthrie, a Benton Democrat wrote to detail some of the preliminary skulduggery:

So it seems the foul deed has been consummated, and this beautiful Territory, for whose benefit I have spent so much time and money, is surrendered up to the full power of Slavery. But the outrage is not to stop here. It is but one link in the chain of insult and injury offered to the people of the free states.

Before the Missouri Compromise repeal hit Congress, the body considered a bill to buy up some land from the Indians living in the area. Congress appropriated fifty thousand dollars for the job and then the matter hung in abeyance. Only after the repeal became part of the Kansas-Nebraska Act did things move on that front.

and then, instead of a Commissioner being sent to treat with the Indians in the ordinary way, delegations from each tribe have been hurried off to Washington, and the treaties there made, so that neither the tribes at large nor the public know anything of the conditions of these treaties.  The Indian Agents, the Senate, and the particular friends of the Administration alone know what is going on. These individuals circulated the story that no citizen would be allowed to take claims or settle on the lands ceded by the Indians to the Government, until the full surveys were made and the lands offered at public sale.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

All of that might sound irregular and worrisome, but not much to generate outrage. However:

In the meantime, Senator ——– sent a private telegraphic dispatch to his friends to go and take possession of the most desirable locations. This information was circulated secretly, and thousands of the pro-slavery party swarmed over the country before those not in the secret were apprised of what was doing. These men, I understand, have banded together to prevent the settlement of anti-slavery men in the country. Several meetings of these “clubs” have been held in Missouri, and anti-slavery men have been denounced with fierce threats.

Greeley helpfully makes it clear to anybody who missed the obvious inference that David Rice Atchison sent the telegram.

Guthrie asked if the outrages would ever end. A Senator actively conspiring to deny land to free state men? Arranging misinformation so they think the lands ceded by the Indian tribes had to wait on survey before claims, while telling his proslavery friends to rush in and take them up? Guthrie wouldn’t stand for it:

Will the people of the free states quietly submit to these wrongs and insults-to be mere vassals of the slave power? I am for resistance-I care not to what extent.

Italics in the original.

With violent threats already on the table, Guthrie had to know full well that others would read in his commitment to resist a commitment to violence. If proslavery men imagined that antislavery men wronged them, so antislavery men imagined the same thing of proslavery men. If proslavery men would fight for Kansas, so would antislavery men.

Update: The previous version of this post gave the wrong date for the issue of the Tribune.

David Blight & Frederick Douglass on Memorial Day

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

I forgot this existed some time ago, but a friend reminded me today. Here’s David Blight on the first Memorial Day. The very, very short version is that black Americans appear to have invented Memorial day. You can find Blight’s whole course here. The individual lectures have pretty good transcripts available on their respective pages.  If the video isn’t your thing, here’s the relevant part from the transcript:

And the very night of that ceremony, which was the 14th of April, they held a banquet of a sort in a building that had a roof on it, back in Charleston, and that was the very night, of course, that Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theater in Washington. But the black folks of Charleston had planned one more ceremony. That ceremony was a burial ceremony. It turns out that during the last months of the war the Confederate Army turned the planter’s horse track, a racecourse — it was called the Washington Racecourse — into an open air cemetery — excuse me, prison. And in that open air prison, in the infield of the horse track — about 260-odd Union soldiers had died of disease and exposure — and they were buried in unmarked graves in a mass gravesite out behind the grandstand of the racetrack. And by the way, there was no more important and symbolic site in low country planter/slaveholding life then their racetrack.

Well, the black folks at Charleston got organized, they knew about all this. They went to the site. They re-interred all the graves, the men. They couldn’t mark them with names, they didn’t have any names. Then they made them proper graves and they built a fence all the way around this cemetery, about 100 yards long and fity, sixty yards deep, and they whitewashed the fence and over an archway they painted the inscription “Martyrs of the Racecourse.” And then on May 1st 1865 they held a parade of 10,000 people, on the racetrack, led by 3000 black children carrying armloads of roses and singing John Brown’s Body, followed then by black women, then by black men — it was regimented this way — then by contingents of Union infantry. Everybody marched all the way around the racetrack; as many as could fit got into the gravesite. Five black preachers read from scripture. A children’s choir sang the national anthem, America the Beautiful, and several spirituals, and then they broke from that and went back into the infield of the racetrack and did essentially what you and I do on Memorial Day, they ran races, they listened to sixteen speeches, by one count, and the troops marched back and forth and they held picnics. This was the first Memorial Day.

African-Americans invented Memorial Day, in Charleston, South Carolina. There are three or four cities in the United States, North and South, that claim to be the site of the first Memorial Day, but they all claim 1866; they were too late.

Since I’m here and on the subject, Andy Hall has Frederick Douglass’ Decoration Day speech of 1871 over at Dead Confederates:

When the dark and vengeful spirit of slavery, always ambitious, preferring to rule in hell than to serve in heaven, fired the Southern heart and stirred all the malign elements of discord, when our great Republic, the hope of freedom and self-government throughout the world, had reached the point of supreme peril, when the Union of these states was torn and rent asunder at the center, and the armies of a gigantic rebellion came forth with broad blades and bloody hands to destroy the very foundations of American society, the unknown braves who flung themselves into the yawning chasm, where cannon roared and bullets whistled, fought and fell. They died for their country.

We are sometimes asked, in the name of patriotism, to forget the merits of this fearful struggle, and to remember with equal admiration those who struck at the nation’s life and those who struck to save it, those who fought for slavery and those who fought for liberty and justice.

I am no minister of malice. I would not strike the fallen. I would not repel the repentant; but may my “right hand forget her cunning and my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth,” if I forget the difference between the parties to hat terrible, protracted, and bloody conflict.

The speech naturally invites comparison with Douglass’ Fourth of July speech. I don’t know that Douglass ever quite got over that; I don’t know that anybody could. Perhaps they shouldn’t. Regardless, the nation went out of its way to give him little reason to forgive and forget as the 1800s rolled on. But Douglass had in mind the narrow subject of men who gave their lives in ending slavery, not broad American patriotism.

As history rarely runs low on disappointments, Andy also brings word of how Arlington National Cemetery has neglected a section full of the graves of black soldiers and civilians to the point where many have simply vanished.

The Invasion of Kansas

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

Into lawless Kansas came lawless men of Missouri, squatting and staking claims well ahead of official sanction. Many just wanted the land, but others cared less for the land and more for consolidating Missouri slavery. The two groups could make common cause against outside interlopers floating into Kansas on the five million dollars raised by Eli Thayer’s Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society. Both sides declared war. Kansas would have its popular sovereignty, just as soon as the right thumbs pressed down on the right scales.

The men of the Missouri hinterlands had reason to fear Yankees taking up what they considered their rightful futures. Eli Thayer and his counterparts in other states really had gathered funds to send men from other states into Kansas. If Thayer never had his five million dollars of capital, he made it up in rhetorical heft by refounding his society as the New England Emigrant Aid Society. They did not have the cash then and there, but Thayer’s first group arrived at the future Lawrence, Kansas. That tiny army of thirty pitched their tents and acted for all the world like they intended to stay, more than one could say for certain Missouri men with an intense interest in the future of slavery in Kansas.

The thirty person revolutionary vanguard of freedom, or pauper mercenaries, or ordinary Americans who would take the help to get the land and accept some antislavery politics that came with it if they must, left Boston with the blessing of a cheering crowd. They received similar accolades along their way. Even if not for the very heightened defensiveness that Missouri’s slaveholders possessed, they couldn’t have helped but see something like the whole North marshaled against them. Four other parties followed, bringing seven hundred and fifty antislavery settlers into Kansas. More would surely come.

The view from the North formed a mirror image of all that. They saw false Missouri settlers rush over the line, stake out claims, and make dire threats about running every antislavery man out of the territory. Many did that without bothering with such niceties as actually settling there. They laid claim to lands they did not propose to use, entirely to spite decent northerners. Those threats could come up close and very personal, as they did when some proslavery men walked into Lawrence, armed, and tendered an invitation for the residents to quit the territory at once.

They might have gone. They lived just over the edge of the world, in a hard land with few possessions, few homes, and only the hope of doing well for themselves. If a gang of armed men walked up to most of us and told us to depart in that situation, I doubt most of us would resolutely stay. But white Yankees had as much right to the nation’s commonwealth as white sons of Dixie. Neither cared much for sharing their futures with black Americans, of course. Keeping slavery out of Kansas usually also meant keeping blacks out.

The alleged abolitionists with their alleged racial egalitarianism stayed, the leading edge of a flood of humanity from both sections that picked up as the summer wore on. They filled the steamers running from St. Louis. Ferry owners got rich carrying them across the river. By September, enough had arrived to set up and operate two newspapers. They predictably aligned themselves over the question of the territory’s future. The Herald of Freedom came with its owner, his printing press, and his subscriptions.

G.W. Brown’s first issue commenced with a description of the trip up the Kansas river, which says something about his intended audience. Did people who just arrived in Kansas need a travelogue? Probably not. They could just go for a walk. Subscribers back in the North, however, might consume it with interest and decide that they themselves ought to come. But we needn’t judge the paper’s politics by its name, its section of origin, or where its subscribers lived. The first page of the first issue includes three selections of poetry, the first declaring that

No crouching slave shall ever curse our consecrated ground.


And there alone free labor in humble trust shall kneel.

Italics in original.

The second, the Freemen’s Song, tells us still more:

From our mountains in the North,

Freedom’s legions sally forth.

Shouting o’er the trembling Earth

Death to Slavery!


Ere a score of years be past,

Slavery shall breathe her last;

Spike the colors to the mast,

Hurrrah for Liberty!

One can see why Stringfellow, Atchison, and company got so worked up but it would do to keep in mind that the prospect of a free Kansas had them spitting nails and breathing fire well before any of this. That Brown had close financial ties with Thayer’s enterprise only proved their point.

Back to Kansas

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Some time has passed since I plunged down into the horrors of Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow’s Negro-Slavery, No Evil. It would do to revisit the field on which he and his compatriots, and their antislavery opposites coming with Emigrant Aid Society funding, intended to wage some sort of war for the future of Kansas. William H. Seward and Stephen Douglas said as much. Out on the frontier, local white Missourians had ample reason to side with their slaveholding neighbors. They also had every advantage geography offered and only a line on the map separating them from Kansas. Why not filibuster it?

The Kansas-Nebraska Act got Franklin Pierce’s signature in the last days of May, 1854. From that point on, white men could rush in and stake their claims. They entered a land that had government only on paper. Pierce did not choose the first governor for the Kansas Territory until the end of June. That governor, Andrew Horatio Reeder of Easton, Pennsylvania, would not arrive in Kansas to exercise the duties of his first ever federal office until October 7. Until then, the law in Kansas could very well depend entirely on how straight and eagerly one shot. 

David Rice Atchison, who had done so much to ensure that he and others like him could take slavery into Kansas, came out and said as much, telling his audiences

you know how to protect your own interests; your rifles will free you from such neighbors. … You will go there, if necessary with the bayonet and with blood.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Stringfellow’s law partner pledged to personally hang any antislavery settler he could lay hands on. The rhetorical fireworks in Washington had their equivalents on the frontier in the person of men on hand and willing to make the war of words a war of bullets.

Why not? Law might restrain them, but Stringfellow deprecated it:

Though we fully recognise the duty of all good citizens to obey the law, to rely upon the law, where there is no law, the right of self-defence requires that we should resort to the strong hand for self-protection. We have no law by which the expression of abolition sentiments is made a penal offence, and yet it is a crime of the highest grade. It is not within even the much abused liberty of speech; but in a slaveholding community, the expression, of such sentiments is a positive act, more criminal, more dangerous, than kindling the torch of the incendiary, mixing the poison of the assassin. The necessity for a law punishing such a crime, has not, until now, been felt in Missouri. Until such a law is enacted, self-protection demands that we should guard against such crimes.

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

He did not do so alone. Missouri men had gone over the border and staked their claims to the best land well before any law authorized them to do so. They had no one on the ground in Kansas ready to stop them. Nineteenth century Americans understood only the third of Kansas nearest Missouri as worth much to settle, and that even there the worth of the land depended very highly on a few convenient rivers to push back the great American desert. They had every reason to think they could steal the good land out from under any abolitionists and other outside interlopers before they arrived.

Then when Anthony Reeder appeared, the proslavery settlers could hand him a Kansas with its future already decided. Given his stated impartiality leaned far to the South, Reeder would only have to use his broad powers to consolidate the fait accompli. Eli Thayer’s aided emigrants could take their aid and go home or, failing that, accept that they’d come to a slave territory and change their tune appropriately.

Doing right by past and present alike

Gentle Readers, you should not miss Ta-Nehisi Coates’ lengthy piece on the history and persistence of white supremacy in the American housing market, its consequences, and what we could do about it if we decided as a nation that we cared enough about those things. He takes as his example how another nation with a horrifying, atrocity-laden history of mistreating some of its citizens made an effort to do right by them.

Reading it reminded me strongly of Jourdan Anderson’s letter answering his former owner. The owner wanted him to come back to the plantation to work and Jourdan agreed, subject to some reasonable conditions:

we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor’s visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams’s Express, in care of V. Winters, Esq., Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future.

The Agency of Black Americans

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass

Most of what goes on this blog relates to political history. My education and interests run strongest there. A political history naturally focuses on political actors. They typically include elected officials, influential newspaper men, public intellectuals, and other people of that sort. This omits the vast multitudes of humanity from the story as anything more than a sort of bit of the environment. To the degree that ordinary people enter the narrative, they generally do so as collective masses expressing their opinions through generalization. Of necessity, we tend to use public figures as their spokesmen.

All of that goes only so far. In nineteenth century America, the traditional field of political actors includes fairly exclusively white men. Women did not vote. Black men did not vote anywhere outside New England. Nowhere did any black person or any woman hold elected office. A few enter the story anyway through their conspicuous deeds, most famously Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman. To their number we could add other fugitive slaves and their sensational stories, people like Ellen and William Craft, Anthony Burns (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6), Shadrach Minkins, and Thomas Sims.

One might hold, as E.B. Long does in the appendices to his The Civil War Day by Day, that the nation’s slave population amounted to “more-than-interested spectators, and occasionally participants.” I follow William W. Freehling in considering their acts and agency an often overlooked aspect of antebellum America. Slaves had no votes, but they voted with their feet all the same. Without runaways, one has no fugitives and thus no fugitive slaves to inflame the Border South and inspire resistance in the North. Slaves might have lacked conventional political character, but their actions had great political impact.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

The fear of fugitives and their abolitionist enablers establishing themselves in Kansas spurred men like David Rice Atchison, Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow, and groups like their Platte County Self-Defense Association into action. The proslavery extremism that opened Kansas and the rest of the Louisiana Purchase to slavery via the Kansas-Nebraska Act in turn inflamed the North and inspired the founding of Emigrant Aid Societies. Those in turn convinced the slaveholders in western Missouri that they had a real menace on their hands which justified extreme action.

All of this loops back to black Americans seeking their freedom and white Americans bent on keeping them slaves. That struck very close to home for western Missouri’s slaveholders. Exposed, living amid both slaves and whites who sometimes openly questioned slavery and wished it gone, living in a state that had very recently had a senator who avowed that proslavery extremism threatened the Union, they had every reason to feel insecure even before antislavery Americans declared their intent to seize Kansas for freedom.

But at least one more slave had her own role to play in working Missouri’s slaveholders into a fever. An enslaved woman named Celia and her possible lover, George, murdered her owner and likely serial rapist. They then burned the body. That could have happened to any slaveholder. Who knew what really lurked behind the eyes of their human property? Worse still, while white Missourians caught and hanged Celia, George escaped the state. If the abolitionists took Kansas, they could only inspire more such acts. Four slaves ran from Platte County two days before the Platte County Self-Defense Association formed, further underlining their peril.

Much of antebellum history involves whites acting upon blacks. We can easily slip into viewing this as E.B. Long did, but it behooves us to remember that the protection and expansion of slavery came into the minds of slaveholders because their treasured institution required the suppression of black agency. Whites could and did do horrible things to slaves, but they did those things to keep their control over black lives. Every controversy over slavery amounted to that, ultimately. Black agency proved impossible to completely erase and so the next radical step had to come and come again or the whole edifice would crumble.

“We love the white woman so much…”

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

“Negro-Slavery, No Evil.” Full text. Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

The Bible on Slavery, Hebrew and Christian Scriptures

Defense of Slavery, Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10

Gentle readers, we have almost finished with Stringfellow’s pamphlet. I could certainly extract more meaning from it, but I think I’ve captured the high points. Much of what remains involves a reiteration of past points. But Stringfellow, after listening the benefits of slavery to the black and white man, comes around to consider just how wonderfully white women benefit as well. In so doing, he expresses some exceptionally horrific ideas. I will reach them in full toward the end of the post. If any of you find discussion of sexual violence especially traumatic, please don’t ruin your day here.

Slavery, Stringfellow asserted

ennobles woman. Relieved by the slave from the abject toil, the servile condition to which the white woman is so often subjected by necessity where negro slavery does not exist, and which strip her of woman’s greatest charm, modesty; which make of her the rude drudging, despised servant of a harsh master; the white woman becomes, as she is fitted to be, not the slave, but the queen of her house, fit mate for a sovereign.

Virtuous, modest, sensitive, retiring, her only ambition to merit the love of her husband, her only pride to point to her children and say, “these are my jewels”; worshipped in her sphere, her gentle sway undisputed, the white woman in the slave-holding States needs no conventions to give her, her rights. Whether she be the mistress of a mansion, or the humble tenant of a cabin, to her the seat of honour is ever accorded — at home or abroad, every son of the south deems himself her champion.

Women, as decent, reasonable, male person knew very well, had only one rightful use: as help-meets to their husbands. Slavery permitted white women that role by taking from them many toils which they had to endure in the free states. But slavery gave them more than just occasion to fulfill their divinely ordained role. It saved them from far worse horrors:

Negro slavery has a further effect on the character of the white woman, which should commend the institution to all who love the white race more than they do the negro. It is a shield to the virtue of the white woman.

So long as man is lewd, woman will be his victim. Those who are forced to occupy a menial position have ever been, will ever be most tempted, least protected: this is one of the evils of slavery; it attends all who are in that abject condition from the beautiful Circassian to the sable daughter of Africa. While we admit the selfishness of the sentiment, we are free to declare, we love the white woman so much, we would save her even at the sacrifice of the negro: would throw around her every shield, keep her out of the way of temptation.

Providing black women as slaves to white men gave them someone acceptable to rape, thus sparing the virtue of white womanhood. Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow wrote that for public consumption. He had it published. It came out as the official manifesto of the Platte County Self-Defense Association. The members approved it. They all knew very well what the words meant and accepted them as a statement of their principles for anybody in the nation to read. They might not like to talk about rape, but they accepted that it happened and preferred it happen to slaves.

Abolitionists damned the whole South as a great brothel, filled to the brim with degenerate masters forcing themselves on their human property. After pages of carefully answering antislavery arguments, Stringfellow comes up dry. He says it himself: “we love the white woman so much.”  Just them. Nothing of the sort should befall a white woman.

Sojourner Truth

Sojourner Truth

I can think of no better answer to this than that Sojourner Truth gave in other circumstances a few years before:

That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ar’n’t I a woman?

Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ar’n’t I a woman?

I could work as much and eat as much as a man – when I could get it – and bear the lash as well! And ain’t I a woman?

I have borne thirteen children, and seen most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain’t I a woman?