Kansas: The Cure for Missouri’s Freedom

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Frederick Starr defended himself to the point of shaming the Platte County Self-Defense Association into admitting he did no wrong. Though an outsider-a Yankee no less!-he hewed carefully to the established norms for dealing with western Missouri’s enslaved population. He did just as they would have done in his place, so why had they brought him to their kangaroo court?

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow would not have that. He denounced all who would cheer Starr, damning them as people who thought slavery an evil that might someday end rather than a positive good to celebrate. The institution so blessed the South in part because it freed the section from the great curse of the North: free labor. Earning a wage made one worse off than a slave, as slaveholders treated their property with care while employers cared only to extract as much toil for as little wage as possible.

Stringfellow told this to a courtroom full of wage earners. They considered themselves much better off than slaves and most certainly did not appreciate the suggestion that some other man ought to own them for their own good. Having come to ruin Frederick Starr, they left with their wrath pointed right at Stringfellow. He spent several days running around telling everyone who would stop and listen that they misunderstood. Some secret abolitionist maliciously twisted his words. Stringfellow never meant to suggest that white men would benefit from slavery or that wage labor degraded them.

Stringfellow meant, as he later wrote in his pamphlet, that slavery made all white men equal. The wage labor system produced vast inequality, which everyone should loathe, but he dropped the suggestion that it degraded white laborers and instead focused exclusively on predatory employers. Trust him on it.

The Platte County Self-Defense Association had not gotten off to a great start. But if they couldn’t lynch Frederick Starr and instead ended up coming around in convoluted paths to a position not far from the one he gave, unsolicited, in his own defense then they could try something else. The internal subversion that Stringfellow feared could come through the lure of the almighty dollar:

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.

Maybe they had to leave Starr be, but the Platte County men could enforce a boycott against businessmen who served antislavery customers. It would take a mob committed to extralegal violence to make the plan work, but they could find that mob by looking in the mirror.

Weston’s merchants responded by forming their own mob that demanded the Self-Defense Association follow the law. If they had a grievance, it should go to the courts for fair trial. They accepted the presence of free blacks in the state. Law-abiding Missourians, whatever their opinion on slavery, had every right to full participation in the white man’s republic. And if Stringfellow, Atchison, and the rest wanted to break heads to prove otherwise then they could have their own heads broken in return. They too much money coming in to give up over slaveholders’ ideological crusades.

The Self-Defense Association retreated again, but their twin losses did not prove to them that they should give up. Rather they showed just how far Missouri had already fallen. Nothing they had done or proposed would have ruffled many feathers in the Lower South. Instead of fearing a future subversion of Missouri, they faced a Missouri that looked already subverted. Too many antislavery men had come in and corrupted the state’s moral fiber. They needed a secure base to consolidate from and then use to set Missouri back to rights. They needed Kansas more than ever.

Your input is welcome

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.