Resolutions of the Public Indignation Meeting, Part One

William Phillips

William Phillips

The Lynching of William Phillips: parts 123, 4, 5, 6, 7

John McNamara ends his version of William Phillips’ May 17, 1855 lynching with the man himself returning to Leavenworth at once and the men who lynched him waiting a few days for the popular indignation to cool off. Phillips did remain in Kansas, though I haven’t learned if he also remained in Leavenworth. Men involved in his lynching spoke freely of it in that very town to the Howard Committee a year later, but Phillips gave no testimony himself on the matter. Did the mob constitute a well-connected minority of Leavenworth’s people, while the rest silently fumed at their aggression?

Maybe, but it doesn’t take an overwhelming majority in favor of any sentiment to control on a larger population through terror. It takes only a committed minority, though powerful majorities have often engaged in similar tactics. Clichés aside, the powerful and weak both find uses for terrorism. Adam Fisher and Matthew France got the message come the special election on the twenty-first of May, even if the latter chose to ignore it. In fact, they could hardly miss it given that the mob published two sets of resolutions against Phillips and threatening attacks on others. The first appear in the Howard Report under the heading Public Indignation Meeting and date to the day that the mob told Phillips he must quit Kansas. A. Payne, the witness who provided the papers, presided over the meeting. James M. Lyle, of special election judge fame, served as secretary. They commence with this remarkable statement:

Resolved, That we regret the death of our esteemed fellow-citizen, Malcolm Clark, and most bitterly condemn the cowardly act by which he was murdered; but we would deprecate any violation of the laws of the land by way of revenge, and stand ready to maintain and defend the laws from any violation by any mob violence; that we do not deem the time has arrived when it is necessary for men to maintain their inalienable rights by setting at defiance the constituted authorities of the country.

They had yet to do the lynching when they voted on this resolution, but had clearly threatened Phillips in telling him to get out of Kansas or else. For that threat to have any credibility, it had to have force waiting in the wings. They did not then propose to violate any laws or rebel against lawful authority, but they reserved the right to do so when the time came.

And what might occasion such drastic action?

Resolved, That no man has a right to go into any community and disturb its peace and quiet by doing any incendiary acts or circulating incendiary sentiments; we therefore advise such as are unwilling to submit to the institutions of this country to leave for some climate more congenial to their feelings, as abolition sentiments cannot, nor will not, be tolerated here-and while we do not say what may be the consequences, for the peace and quiet of the community we urge all entertaining and expressing such sentiments to leave immediately, claiming the right to expel all such as persist in such a course.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Stephen Douglas hardly meant that by popular sovereignty, but it encapsulates the very reason the idea could never work: with the status of slavery undetermined, proslavery men would understand it as sanctioned until excluded by law. Antislavery men would understand it as excluded until sanctioned by law. The Kansas-Nebraska Act gave no consideration to this problem, nor even any guidance on how to resolve such a dispute. If the mob would not even permit discussion of the subject, and they could not as they believed just as B.F. Stringfellow did that

The security of our slave-property was not alone involved; our very lives were endangered. The negro-thief, the abolitionists, who induces a slave to run away, is a criminal of a far more dangerous character than the house-breaker, or the highway robber, — his crime of a far higher grade than that of the incendiary — it ranks, at least, with that of the midnight assassin. To induce a slave to escape, involves not merely to the master the loss of that slave, of that amount of property; but it brings in its train far more serious consequences. Other slaves are thereby induced to make like attempts; a hatred for their masters, whom they begin to regard as their oppressors, is thus begotten; and this, too, often is followed by arson and murder.

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