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.

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