Quitting the Legislature, Part Two

Martin F. Conway

Martin F. Conway

Martin F. Conway quit the Kansas legislature before its first meeting, sending his resignation to Andrew Reeder on June 30. The Herald of Freedom printed that letter on July 14. He began with the reasonable argument that, as a legally elected member, taking his seat would imply that the other members also enjoyed legal election and thus constituted the legitimate authority in the territory. The proslavery legislature’s majority had done nothing of the sort:

It is a fact which has traveled the circuit of the whole civilized world, that this Legislature has been imposed upon the people of Kansas by force of arms. Those who compose it, and those whom they represent, and for whom they act, are alien enemies, who have violently seized the legislative powers of this Territory, and now seek to disguise the tyranny under the form of constitutional enactments. Their Legislature is substantially a provincial council, instituted and ordained by a daring and unscrupulous league in the State of Missouri and other parts of the South, to govern a people whose liberties they have ruthlessly stricken down. This fact has been placed beyond controversy by authentic details of concerted operations, looking to this end, and of overwhelming violence, at the recent elections, unparalleled in all our political history.

One can’t read this and not also think of the liberties that the people of Missouri had struck down in their own borders. Missouri law made black people into slaves. Now Missourians wanted to extend that law to Kansas and so enslave also white Kansans. But that did not mean that the free state men understood themselves as having a common cause with the slaves. The Lawrence convention affirmed the right of Missourians to have slavery untroubled within Missouri.

Very few white Americans anywhere had the ability, even for rhetorical convenience alone, to see themselves as genuinely sharing in the slaves’ plight. Instead, a protest like this appealed to white supremacy. The affront entailed not making people slaves, but making white people slaves. Individual Americans might differ on the former, but only a few extreme proslavery propagandists accepted even the possibility of the latter. White skin made a man free by a law written in blood on Chesapeake tobacco and Carolina rice plantations at the end of the seventeenth century.

Therefore

it would be either fraudulent or pusillanimous in me to respect this as the Legislature of Kansas. I am not willing to do it. — Whatever the timorous or the time-serving may suggest or advise, I shall do nothing of the kind.

One wonders if Conway had in mind the free state men who went to Pawnee and waited until the majority expelled them. Whether he held a grudge against his fellows or not, Conway had more to say about the legislature. He saw fit to

utterly repudiate and reprobate it, as derogatory to the respectability of popular government, and insulting to the virtue and intelligence of the age.

Conway understood that his resignation had consequences reaching beyond his personal virtue and how his presence would lend the Pawnee assembly legitimacy. If he just resigned and went home, he did fairly little. He resolved to do more:

Simply as a citizen and a man, I shall, therefore, yield no submission to this alien legislature. On the contrary, I am ready to set its assumed authority at defiance; and shall be prompt to spurn and trample under my feet its insolent enactments, whenever they conflict with my rights or inclinations.

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