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.

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