Quitting the Legislature, Part One

John A Wakefield

John A. Wakefield

The convention at Lawrence stated its case, made its protests, and insisted on the fundamental illegitimacy of any legislature elected through such frauds as had occurred. Speaking for those committed to Kansas for the Kansans and free from slavery, they condemned efforts to set up a Democratic party, fearing it might split their movement, and called for the establishment of a proper free state organization. But each resolution aforementioned concerned things they should do or things they should not do. They ran short on immediate action. Not so the resolution calling on members of the legislature legally elected to resign their seats. Here the free state party could immediately demonstrate its influence. Anybody could throw together a public meeting, but their public meeting could get results. It ought to, since some of the fairly elected members bound for Pawnee attended the Lawrence convention. John Wakefield even chaired it.

But the convention asked politicians to resign seats which they won in a fair contest. They had exerted themselves considerably, and at some personal risk given how things had gone in the territory, and won through. One does not yield such gains happily, even aside the degree of ambition normal in office seekers. Furthermore, the Lawrence convention drew participation only from six of Kansas’ eighteen districts. Men from elsewhere, even if they agreed with the meeting’s principles, might not have felt compelled to heed its resolutions. Perhaps they could have found some way to work with the proslavery majority, using their influence to moderate its excesses. They didn’t yet know that they would all soon be expelled from the body regardless.

The call for mass resignation fell on deaf ears, an impressive feat considering it emanated from some of the same men called on to resign. Only one free state member, Martin Conway, did so. He wrote Andrew Reeder a letter stating his reasons, which the Herald of Freedom printed on July 14, 1855 with its endorsement:

The letter bears the impress of manhood, and is worthy the head and heart of its author. The voice of this letter is the voice of the masses in Kansas to-day.

Martin F. Conway

Martin F. Conway

The words have lost something over the decades but people once wrote like that in earnest.

Conway began with the basic issue of legitimacy, just as the men of the convention had:

I am impelled to this course by what I believe to be due to myself, to the sanctity of law, and to the rights and dignity of the people of Kansas. In holding and exercising the trust reposed in me by the qualified voters of the 6th Council district, I would be required to unite with the body of men who are to assemble at this place [Pawnee], on Monday next, as the Legislature of Kansas, and to engage with them in making laws to govern the people of this Territory. This I cannot do without lending countenance to the authority they assume to exercise.

Conway’s legal election and consequent participation

would thereby give, by direct implication, my own sanction, and the sanction of those whom I should represent, to the validity of its pretensions; I would acknowledge it to be the Legislature to which I had aspired, and to which the people had intended to elect me, when they cast their suffrages in my favor.

Participating would look great on the legislature’s resume, but not so much on Conway’s own. He determined that the people had not elected him for such things.

The materials I have don’t tell me if Conway attended the Lawrence convention, but he tendered his resignation dated June 30, the same day as it met. He hailed from the sixth district and men from that district did go to Lawrence. But his letter makes no direct reference to the convention. He could have written it after attending the meeting, perhaps even agreeing to serve as the token immediate resignation to show the movement’s resolve when the others took their seats to see what would happen. He might have had nothing to do with the convention and simply acted spontaneously out of shared principles. He might have just not wanted to risk his safety. A person in his position might have had any, or even all, of those reasons in mind. Absent more sources, which I’d love to see if anybody has them, I can’t say with any confidence.

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