The Lawrence Convention

John A Wakefield

John A. Wakefield

The attack on Andrew Reeder by Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow constituted a new escalation in Kansas-related violence. A proslavery man had now raised hand and drawn pistol not just against a fellow civilian, but against the lawful governor of the state. Coming as the attack did just days before the opening of legislature, where his brother John would soon sit, Stingfellow’s assault served notice to any who had not already gotten the hint that the proslavery party would not content itself with holding a controlling interest in Kansas. Rather they must have it all.

But one hardly needed a crystal ball, or to read the Squatter Sovereign’s proclamations on the necessity of purging the territory, to know that the proslavery men would not read their dominance of the legislature as cause to compromise. Nor would they feel any timidity about turning their new powers upon the free state Kansans because they came by that power dishonestly.

The free staters could count. They knew very well that they would face a proslavery majority intensely hostile to them and their interests, whether it allowed their victors from the May special elections to sit or not. This put them into a difficult situation. Even before the legislature purged all its free state members save for Samuel Houston, it had the paradoxical combination of legal legitimacy and actual illegitimacy. By all the laws of the nation, its members had won their seats. They won them illegally, but had the certificates of election all the same. When they gathered on the second of July, they would take those seats and proceed to legislate even if they represented the wishes of only a minority of actual Kansans. That kind of thing might fly in South Carolina, where the political class imbibed a kind of hostility toward democracy that would have impressed some of the more authoritarian men of the century previous, but it would not suit most other corners of the United States at mid-century.

JH Stringfellow

J.H. Stringfellow

What could they do? They had a legislature simultaneously legitimate and illegitimate. They sent a protest to Congress, insisting that the popular sovereignty proclaimed in the Kansas-Nebraska Act required defense against Missourian invasions that proposed to “enslave” free, white Kansans. Congress did not oblige. On June 8, free state citizens gathered in Lawrence and discussed the problem. The June 30 Herald of Freedom reports

An animated discussion was kept up till a late hour. Prior to adjournment a committee was appointed to invite the several representative districts in the Territory to send five delegates from each to an adjourned convention to be held in Lawrence on the 25th of June, “to take into consideration the relation of the people of this Territory bear to the Legislature about to convene at Pawnee, &c.

Delegates came from the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and ninth districts. At an informal morning session, they appointed John (parts 1, 2) Wakefield (parts 1, 2, 3) their chairman and Jesse Wood secured a place on the committee of permanent officers. Both men would take their seats in at Pawnee exactly a week later. The legislature would expel them two days thereafter.

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

With their officers appointed, the convention proceeded that afternoon to writing and voting through resolutions. They stated the problem bluntly:

certain persons from the neighboring State of Missouri, have, from time to time, made irruptions into this Territory, and have by fraud and force driven from and overpowered our people at the ballot box, and have forced upon us a Legislature which doe snot represent the opinions of the legal voters of this Territory; many of the members of said Legislature not being even residents of this Territory, but having their homes in the State of Missouri; and whereas, said persons have used violence toward the persons and property of the inhabitants

The named officers of the convention could have come straight from the pages of the Howard Report. These men had not merely seen things done, but in some cases had personally suffered assault, intimidation, and destruction of property. They knew the score and resolved to do something about it.

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