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.

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