The Story of Steve Scalise is the Story of White America

How should we interpret a politician going up and speaking in front of a group? They do it all the time, both to large groups in public and small groups in private. They raise money for their campaigns by selling tickets and plates of often infamously questionable food to supporters, which generally come with a speech attached. Mitt Romney got in some hot water a few years back when one of the servers at such an event recorded what he really thought of the American people. But going on the television or having a fundraiser usually comes at the politician’s initiative. Politicians also make appearances by invitation of others. This often includes private groups.

When a politician accepts one of those invitations it must mean at least one of two things. The politician may seek the group’s support or the group has received the politician’s endorsement. Usually both situations apply to some degree. Groups simply don’t invite speakers antithetical to their own beliefs. It would be perverse, and hazardous to one’s career, for a politician to speak to a group diametrically opposed to his or her ideals as well. The obvious contradiction calls into question just what policies the politician actually prefers, just the same way as catching a vegan tucking into a steak would.

Steve Scalise, presently the third man in the Republican Party’s House leadership, spoke to a conference of white supremacists back in 2002. David Duke, the 1992 GOP candidate for governor of Louisiana, ran the group that organized the event. Had the white Louisianans had it to themselves to decide who won the race, they would have had Duke for a governor. His previous adventures included serving as Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. It beggars belief to imagine that Scalise, himself a Louisiana politician, did not know his name. Likewise Scalise could hardly have missed the message in the name of Duke’s group: European-American Unity and Rights Organization. They made no secret of such things:

The Iowa Cubs, a minor league baseball team, also told the Gambit Weekly that they were concerned about housing their players, which included several African Americans, at that hotel while traveling to Louisiana.

“I’m glad we’re staying away from it,” Pat Listach, then a Cubs coach, said in an interview earlier that month. “I wouldn’t have been comfortable staying there.”

The Duke group drew additional headlines nationally in the weeks before the Louisiana meeting. In mid-May 2002, USA Today reported that the organization was active in South Carolina and had “picketed” there to support the Confederate flag flying on state Capitol grounds.

Scalise pleads incompetence due to having only a single staffer at the time. This seems unlikely when even a baseball team from Iowa, hardly people with their finger on the pulse of Louisiana politics, caught on. If they could read USA Today, so could Scalise. But even if incompetence explains the speech itself, that still leaves us with the problem that between 2002 and now it seems he never revisited events and offered any kind of explanation. Only when caught by outsiders did he come forward and decide that EURO contradicted his deeply-held beliefs. Wouldn’t a person who genuinely felt that way have come forward sooner?

Scalise may simply not have cared one way or the other about the group. He insists that he would speak to anybody who invited him back in the day, whatever their beliefs. That sounds very open-minded of him, at least on the surface. The indifference, however, speaks volumes. If getting in bed with the Klan could get him what he wanted, Scalise would do so. He told us as much. How then does he differ from a rank and file Klansman? The distinction between a willingness to embrace white supremacy for political gain and harboring it in your heart seems rather academic. The votes fall the same way regardless. Scalise chose to go, eyes open, and take the money and court the endorsement of a convention of white supremacists.

We do not do ourselves favors by pretending such distinctions excuse politicians, past or present. Electing a black president didn’t make white supremacy go away. Neither did abolition, letting black athletes play professional sports, or civil rights laws. We tell ourselves stories about how bad things happened long ago and we do better now. They did and sometimes we do. Sometimes we don’t and sometimes we continue. Ulrich Bonnell Phillips declared white supremacy the central theme of Southern history, but he didn’t need the last adjective. White supremacy stands among our most ancient and important values, whether we like to admit it or not. I submit we should stop declaring victory and start doing something about it.

Maybe Scalise can help. He could resign his seat. He could resign his leadership position. He could use this chance to take a real look at himself and resolve to do better. He might even do those on his own, without anyone putting the screws to him quietly behind closed doors. I wouldn’t bet on any of that. One does not get far in politics and then easily quit the business. But he could do it.

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

So could his fellow white Americans. We don’t have a habit of rushing to do that either. Nor do we, despite what we tell ourselves, contain white supremacy in a tidy little box as a retrograde idea. We assume it. We take it for granted and let it guide our behavior. We see pathologies that afflict black Americans and explain them away as innate to blackness rather than imposed upon black Americans by white Americans. Why didn’t the slave work hard? Rascality. Dysaesthesia Aethopica. Why did they run away? Drapetomania. Nothing but madness could explain their behavior. Certainly nothing whites did could.

Why don’t black Americans today do as well as white Americans? Certainly we whites can’t share any of the blame. We could never have rigged the entire system to take from them the success they could manage just as well as we can and pocket it ourselves. Who would do that, except a bunch of white supremacists?

How about a bunch of white supremacists who pretend otherwise? Henry VIII, he of many divorces, annulments, and beheaded wives, confiscated England’s monasteries and promptly sold most of their lands off to wealthy men. This created a party eager to defend his religious settlement, as an England reconciled to Rome might have to restore that property to its previous owners. They bought in, literally.

Across the ocean, we do things the same way. The white hands that type these posts did not personally take anything from anybody, but received stolen goods all the same. White supremacy requires bad actors. It requires violence. It cannot thrive without one or the other. But it also requires people to buy in. Few of us want to do that in as many words, but we do it often enough all the same. It doesn’t require all of us to proceed with conscious malice; we have built a far more subtle machine than that. It lives on in the things we take for granted. Black people don’t do as well as whites. Things just work out that way. Black people have to fear the police in a way whites do not. So it goes. These things just all happen, or so we tell ourselves. That doing so requires us to assume black people simply deserve bad things in a way whites do not doesn’t come to mind, or at the very least that we have no power to do anything about it even when we have so much power to accomplish other things. We assume white supremacy, carefully hiding it from ourselves even as we do.

That concealment has shaped the politics of the decades since open racial hatred went out of fashion. Lee Atwater said it best in describing Republican strategy back in the 1980s, when the party adopted the banner of white power that the Democrats had reluctantly abandoned:

You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”

As a byproduct, blacks get hurt worse than whites. Things just happen; no reason. People behave randomly, without thought. We’ve abstracted away the motives, removed reality from the equation, and made it easier to buy in. We have carefully colorblinded ourselves and so proclaim that we have white supremacy problem.

That’s mighty white of us.

I would like to resign my whiteness. I did not create it; I did not run for the office of white man. But people give it to me and I don’t know that I can stop it on my own. The privileges transferred out of black lives and into mine move through other minds that I cannot control. Personally rejecting the benefits of whiteness will not stop me from enjoying them because they come in how others treat me better and still others worse. It took a society to create whiteness. It will take another to uncreate it.

We have that power. Griping of the more embittered and consciously malicious of us aside, we still control the levers of power, both political and social. We may have to share sometimes, but I don’t see our black neighbors waging a desperate battle to stop us. It would take more than a day. It would take a fight. We cannot, contra Paine, create the world anew. But no law of nature demands we continue as we have, unchanged and unchanging. We could do better every day and every year and, for once in our history, not leave the job unfinished.

That would not be very white of us; that would be resigning our whiteness in favor of human decency.

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A Free State Fourth, Part Eight

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7

Robinson’s red, white, and blue wardrobe choices eventually brought him back around to the free state party’s central problem. Whatever they did, they put themselves in opposition to and defiance of the established, legal government of the Territory of Kansas. Opposition they could risk, though dissent on the matter of slavery in slave states tended to provoke violent reactions. Open defiance of the state went a step further, especially when they also sought support from the executive in Washington.

But Americans had a perfectly good excuse for defying a legally established government, what with coming from a nation founded by traitors:

Persons may teach that the Declaration of Independence is a lie; that tyranny and oppression a thousand-fold more severe than that which our ancestors rose in rebellion against are right; that marriage is a mockery; that the parent shall not have possession of his own child, nor the husband his wife; that education is a crime; that traffic in human beings, the bodies and souls of men, is a virtue. All may be taught with impunity in this boasted land of ours, and those who teach such things must be recognized as gentlemen and Christians; but to teach that all men are created equal; that they have an inalienable right to life and liberty; that oppression is a crime, and that education, religion, and good morals are virtues-this is not to be tolerated for a moment. Tar and feathers, the gallows and stake, await all persons who dare express a belief in such dangerous doctrines, if we can believe our masters.

For a guy who pledged not to preach abolition to the crowd, Robinson chose his examples with a peculiar focus on the ills of slavery. The proslavery party did not propose breaking up marriages, taking children, preventing education, or buying and selling lives unless those marriages, children, educations, and lives belonged to black people.

By invoking those sins of slavery in the same breath as Robinson declared that the white men of Kansas now had their masters too, bent on enslaving them, he dealt in potent stuff. Such an argument could prompt snorts of derision. Everybody knew that the Missourians and their Kansan friends had no intention of breaking up white marriages, seizing white children, or anything of the sort. In bringing the contrast to mind, he might very well get back answers that he had gone off the deep end and only reminded people that slavery happened to people with black skin, not white. That might easily lead to the further conclusion that white Kansans had little to fear from the proslavery forces.

Robinson knew the risk and so immediately introduced a new reason to oppose slavery’s advocates and their mastery:

the whiskey-drinking, profane, blasphemous, degraded, foul-mouthed, and contemptible rabble that invaded our Territory at the late elections our masters? Never! never! I can say to Death, be thou my master; and to the grave, be thou my prison-house; but acknowledge such creatures as my masters, never!

Do you want to submit to a bunch of boozy, foul-mouthed, irreligious scumbags? If one must pick a master, at least find one with some class.

A Free State Fourth, Part Seven

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Charles Robinson did not, he declared, stand up on the Fourth of July, 1855, to preach abolition to the people of Lawrence. He slipped more than a bit into his speech and implied more all the same, but he kept his focus on slavery’s ill effects upon white men and the commercial development of Kansas. Abolitionists used those arguments as well, but he came short of what David Wilmot once called “morbid sympathy for the slave” in which his fellow abolitionists likewise indulged. His audience could appreciate Wilmot’s sentiment well enough. Many probably shared it.

But the proslavery party would acknowledge no such difference:

And who, or what is an abolitionist? Why everybody is an abolitionist, according to their dictionary, who dares to have an opinion of his own upon the subject of the rights of man in any respect differing from theirs. No distinction is made between the man who is opposed to the establishment of slavery in Kansas and him who is opposed to its existence in the States; between the man who would return him who had escaped to his master and him who would direct the fugitive to the land of liberty. Said one of the chivalry, whose name is suggestive of hemp factories, ‘Had I the power, I would hang every abolitionist in the country, and every man north of Mason and Dixon’s line is an abolitionist.’

I don’t know who Robinson quoted, but it sounds like he meant for his audience to get it. The hemp reference inclines me to think he quoted one of the Stringfellows, but I can only speculate on the matter.

Of course, one couldn’t really kill all the abolitionists. The proslavery men could shoulder the burden of their existence, provided it did not continue in Kansas. Robinson called that a demand for all to “bow down and worship the calves they set up.” He had as much enthusiasm for expulsion from Kansas as one might expect:

Made to leave! Gentlemen, look at that beautiful banner, think from whence it came, and of the motives which prompted its presentation, and then think about being MADE TO LEAVE your country, for no crime!

Robinson’s warm-up act involved the ladies of Lawrence presenting a flag to the local militia. Short of taking the thing and literally winding it around his body, one can’t get much more literal about wrapping oneself in the flag. Theatrics aside, the free state men lived in America too. They had as much right as any proslavery man to settle in American territories and move freely between them.

A Free State Fourth, Part Six

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Charles Robinson stood up before the Lawrence Fourth of July gathering and denounced the proslavery party as a band of slavers not content with forcing black slavery upon the country. They wanted to chain up whites as well. To convince his audience that he had not gone off the deep end, Robinson produced lines from proslavery papers where the authors proudly strutted about, declaring their mastery. Ships and houses might have masters, but men? Those with black skin had masters. To enforce their mastery, the proslavery men would make any utterance of antislavery beliefs a crime and outlaw every perpetrator. They said themselves that they would and had set up committees to watch for such transgressors and drive them from Kansas, or just kill them.

Robinson’s examples came from Kansas and Missouri, fittingly enough, but he made sure to add in others to connect the abuses the free staters had endured and expected to endure thereafter with slavery itself rather than simply the circumstances of one territory on the frontier. Thus he also delved into newspapers and sermons from farther abroad:

A Charleston paper from 1835 declared

‘the gallows and the stake’ awaited the abolitionist who should dare to appear in person among us.

The Augusta, Georgia Chronicle had it

The cry of the whole South should be death, instant death to the abolitionist, whenever he is caught.

The Columbia, South Carolina Telescope added

Let us declare through public journals of our country that the question of slavery is not and shall not be open to discussion; that the system is too deep-rooted among us, and must remain forever; that the very moment any private individual attempts to lecture us upon its evils and morality, and the necessity of putting means in operation to secure us from them, in the same moment his tongue shall be cut out and cast upon the dunghill.

A Parson Brownlow finished the tirade:

The true-hearted citizens of East Tennessee and property-holders ought to enter into leagues, and whip, black, and ride on a rail, irrespective of age, calling, family, association, every preacher, citizen, or traveller, who dares to utter one word in opposition to slavery, or who is found in possession of an abolitionist document. These are our sentiments, and we are willing and ready to help others to carry them out.

Robinson began in telling his audience that he would not preach abolition to them. He spoke concerning the plight of Kansas alone and would not ask them to oppose slavery elsewhere. With these lines he turned around and did so anyway. Though Robinson did not ask them to draw the inference, he clearly indicted slavery at large. Their own papers and showed that slavery required the end of white republicanism. It demanded extinguishing free speech and free lives along with the freedom and lives of the slaves. This held not just for slavery in Kansas or Missouri, but slavery everywhere it reached.

If Robinson’s audience would not follow the thinking to its natural end, then at least he couched it in their personal interests in Kansas. That could keep their minds on the destruction of white republicanism that brought them around to begin with, rather than put them off. If they did follow Robinson’s argument all the way, he might make a new abolitionist or two.

A Free State Fourth, Part Five

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

Even in light of how things had gone to date in Kansas, and stood to go in the future, Charles Robinson kept in mind that not everyone in Lawrence might go along with his radical take on the situation. Invoking the enslavement of whites risked pushing too hard, especially when a Massachusetts abolitionist did so. He might say that “we must become slaves ourselves” but providing some evidence would, entirely aside from simply fulfilling his obligation as a speaker, at least deflect some charges of New England fanaticism in heterodox Kansas.

What better place to look for such evidence than the proslavery press? Robinson wisely opened with lines from the Atchison Squatter SovereignThat paper’s editor, John H. Stringfellow, had more of a claim to mastery of Kansans than most, as he then sat in the Legislative Assembly. His brother wrote the border ruffians’ manifesto, Negro-Slavery, No Evil. The paper even came from a town named after the senator who did so much to ensure the admission of slavery into Kansas, David Rice Atchison. The man himself had come over to join in the election stealing fun back in March.

The Sovereign declared:

Our Legislature should make the publishing or writing of abolitionism an offense of high grade, but indictable and actionable, if loss is sustained.

Kansas had to gag its antislavery men, or at the very least make them pay should such talk infect someone’s slave with such madness as to steal his or her body from its rightful owner.

JH Stringfellow

John H. Stringfellow

And further:

Only one Free-soiler will get a seat in the Legislative Assembly, and he will be expelled unless he mends his manners very much.

Only one did get his seat. If by mending his manners, Stringfellow meant that he must abjure antislavery, he came away disappointed. Samuel D. Houston did not repent. Nor did the legislature expel him, given the impotence of one man to stand against its tide. But John Stringfellow could smile in the end all the same. Houston resigned his seat in protest.

Where better to proceed from the Squatter Sovereign than to the Platte Argus, Atchison’s own organ?

It is to be admitted that they (the Missourians) have conquered Kansas. Our advice is, let them hold it, or die in the attempt.

From the Argus, Robinson wound back into Kansas with the resolutions of the mob that lynched William Phillips.

That no man has a right to go into any community and disturb its peace and quiet by doing 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

William Phillips

William Phillips

Such people should leave at once, for

in the present state of public excitement, there is no such thing as controlling the ebullition of feeling, while material remains in the country on which to give it vent

They could not, they insisted, take responsibility for the ruin that antislavery men courted by speaking out. They could not take responsibility in the sense of taking blame, they might have said. They would very much take responsibility for meting out the punishment. They had a line of men almost camped out to buy tickets:

a vigilance committee, consisting of thirty members, shall now be appointed, who shall observe and report all such persons as shall openly act in violation of law and order, and by the expression of abolition sentiments produce a disturbance to the quiet of the citizens, or danger to their domestic relations, and all such persons so offending shall be notified to leave the territory.

The Missouri Argus said it plainly:

Abolition editors in slave States will not dare to avow their opinions. It would be instant death to them.

Rhetorical excesses aside, Robinson had it from the presses of the very principals of the proslavery party and their allies in Missouri precisely what they intended for Kansas. They aspired not to white male republicanism, unless one construes “white male” to include only proslavery men, but rather the dictation of slavery to Kansas above all other concerns. To dissent from their orthodoxy made antislavery men something less than white, less than male, less than members of the community. Such men deserved only the treatment accorded to outlaws.

A Free State Fourth, Part Four

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Parts 1, 2, 3

Wrapping himself in the flag, Charles Robinson damned the Missourians and their allies in Kansas for trying to impose despotic, impoverishing slavery upon then unwilling white men of the territory. If you did not agree with him, what business did you have celebrating the Fourth of July? Someone who dared dissent stood against the entire history of the Republic, harboring literally un-American opinions.

Robinson had more than patriotism and outrage at proslavery impositions, both those present and those expected to come given the complete control his enemy had of the territorial government.

Fellow-citizens, let us for a moment inquire who, and where, and what we are?

Who are we? Are we not free-born? Were not our mothers, as well as our fathers, of Anglo-Saxon blood? Was not the right to govern ourselves, to choose our own rulers, to make our own laws, guaranteed to us by the united voice of the United States?

The connection between a racial identities and nationalism has an intensely troubling history. If a race build a nation for itself, what does that say about the place of those not accorded membership, should they live within its bounds? They can only ever be visitors, never members of the community. The state exists to serve the race and carry out its will most especially on those imagined trespassers. By invoking such notions, common in the nineteenth century, Robinson implies a threat not just to the sanctity of white male self-government, but to their racial identity itself. The free staters had white skin and the right sets of ancestors. To submit would require them to take on the role of some other, lesser race.

Robinson told his audience where they stood by invoking the beauty of Kansas, “already building and blossoming like the rose.” They lived on the future’s bleeding edge, where wilderness gave way to civilization. Furthermore, Kansas situated them in the world’s center stage, midway between Mexico and British Canada, the Atlantic and Pacific, watered by the Mississippi’s greatest tributary. All the world’s trade would soon pass through their new land. Robinson did not have to go on and say that this would make them fabulously wealthy.

But free-born white Anglo-Saxons living at the world’s beautiful, and soon lucrative, center did not, in fact, live like kings on the make:

What are we? Subjects, slaves of Missouri. We come to the celebration of this anniversary, with our chains clanking about our limbs; we lift to Heaven our manacled arms in supplication; proscribed, outlawed, denounced, we cannot so much as speak the name of Liberty except with prison walls and halters looking us in the face. We must not only see black slavery, the blight and curse of any people, planted in our midst, and against our wishes, but we must become slaves ourselves.

And so Robinson makes the connection explicit: accepting Missourian domination reduced white men to slavery. If black slavery should have their hatred, as Robinson believed, then surely white slavery must have it all the more. His appeal here does not make common cause with the slaves, however much it damns slavery, but rather lays down a case for white racial solidarity. They, the white men, cannot accept the chains clamped upon them. Self-government belongs to the Anglo-Saxon Americans. Denying it to them turns the world upside-down.

One sees invocations of slavery to denounce any injustice or any form of unfreedom often enough, then and now. During the Revolution, South Carolinians refused to accept “slavery” even as they practiced the real thing with unparalleled enthusiasm. People have told me that the income tax, among many other things, enslaves us.

The actual slaves had ample reason to disagree. Any familiarity with the real thing burns away one’s sympathy for such rhetoric. Nobody would sell Charles Robinson’s children away from him. No one would whip him or them to improve their production, or cure them of the disease of stealing themselves from their rightful owners. The law would not sanction beating him to death in the course of “correction.” If a man raped his wife or daughter, he could find justice in the courts. We have ample words and ability to denounce for injustices that fall short of or otherwise differ from slavery. Not using it encourages seeing other suffering not as similar to that of the slaves, but that of the slaves as similar to lesser plights. We should know better.

A Free State Fourth, Part Three

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Parts 1, 2

Charles Robinson, a genuine Massachusetts-born abolitionist working for Eli Thayer, spoke to the free staters assembled at Lawrence for the Fourth of July festivities about how they could resist the imposition of slavery by the legal government of the state, casting disobedience to the established authorities not as a species of treason but rather as fidelity to American principles. In a country founded by a bunch of successful traitors, that made sense enough.

One could not miss some obvious parallels. An outside power really did seek to dictate how Kansans should govern themselves, imposing slavery on them by cross-border election stealing, by force and threat of violence. That they had local Kansans on their side as well complicated things, just as similar complications and similar violence marked the same situation during the Revolution. The construction of “Kansan” identity, like “American” before it, required ideological gerrymandering. A Loyalist simply did not count as an American and could be deposed from office and deprived of property by force. Many got just that treatment in the 1770s, a bit of dirty laundry that made for a much tidier revolutionary narrative.

The free state party hadn’t done anything like that, so far, but the proslavery party had forced people out of office and had used violence at the polls. They had their own version of Kansas to create, after all. Robinson and the rest of the opposition had noticed:

the people of Kansas Territory are to-day the subjects of a foreign State, as laws are now being imposed upon us by citizens of Missouri, for the sole purpose of forcing upon this Territory the institution of slavery

[…]

Is it politic, is it for our moral, intellectual, or pecuniary advancement to submit to the dictation of a foreign power in regard to our laws and institutions. This the question that deeply interests us all, and for the consideration of which this day is most appropriate.

Just as Washington fought British tyranny, so must they fight slavery’s tyranny. Robinson, his disclaimers about not preaching general abolition aside, took aim at the institution itself. He spoke for the right of free state Kansans to set their own course, without Missourian impositions, but wouldn’t let the audience forget that the enemy’s cause and enemy’s methods came from the same poisoned tree:

The foregoing are but a few paragraphs of the volumes that might be quoted to prove the blessings of liberty and the evils of slavery. Liberty, the goddess to whom this day is dedicated, showers upon her votaries peace and prosperity, intelligence and enterprise, morality and religion. The inspirer and guide of Washington and the patriotic fathers, may she become the presiding genius of our own beautiful Kansas! Slavery-the opposite and antagonist of Liberty, the ruin of nations, the impoverisher of States, the demoralizer of communities, the curse of the world, and child of hell-may she go to her own place.

If Missouri or Mississippi or any other state wanted to turn itself into an impoverished, miserable, accursed hell, they could knock themselves out. That the South boasted many of the nation’s richest men did not enter into things. Their capitalist acumen simply did not come up. Antislavery men could not acknowledge such things, unless they also wished to make a moral case against slavery itself. Then one could talk about ill-gotten riches, but in so doing look dangerously concerned with the well-being of people of the wrong color. Abolitionists might do that kind of thing.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

Robinson played it a bit safe there, but in all fairness most abolitionists did believe slavery brought poverty. If any at Lawrence disagreed, then what did they mean by coming to town to begin with?

On this day and this occasion we may speak freely, assured that no offense can be given by the strongest expression in favor of freedom, or in opposition to slavery, as no one who is in favor of the latter can join in the celebration of this day. No person who does not ‘hold these truth to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,’ can consistently participate in the festivities of this day. Nay, should we fail to speak in utter detestation of slavery, and to hurl defiance at the monster on this anniversary of freedom’s natal day, especially when the tyrant has already placed his foot upon our necks, why, the very stones would cry out.

Take it from the words of a slaveholder, if an occasionally and very quietly apologetic one, himself. If you believe in America, you must oppose slavery. Invoking Jefferson to defend freedom in Kansas brings a further special irony in that the man superannuated safe of Monticello strongly opposed the Missouri Compromise that the free staters aimed to revive in fact after the Kansas-Nebraska Act abolished it in law.

A Free State Fourth, Part Two

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Samuel Wood, holding a silk flag presented to him by the women of Lawrence and speaking for two militia companies, declared that if necessary he and his men would repudiate the acts of the bogus legislature that now ruled Kansas by force of arms. But even in such dire times, the free state party did not rush eagerly to that end. Levying war against the lawful government of Kansas Territory would make them traitors and might well bring the wrath of Washington down upon them.

Charles Robinson had another, complementary answer which might defuse any charges of treason. Past adventurers had led the Massachusetts-born doctor off to California, where he practiced medicine, published a newspaper, mined, and even ran a restaurant. Not exhausted by those endeavors, he also involved himself in land speculation and got shot in the chest for his troubles. Robinson survived and beat the man who shot him to death. That won him an indictment for murder, but one presumes the gunshot wound to his chest made a fair testimony in favor of self-defense. He served for a time in the California House before returning to Massachusetts to marry. He came to Kansas with his wife as an agent of Eli Thayer’s New England Emigrant Aid Society.

Robinson spoke to the Fourth of July gathering. I hoped to have his full speech, but my source lacks that page of the July 7, 1855 Herald of Freedom. Robinson wrote a history of his time in Kansas that includes apparently extensive extracts. Of necessity, and after several misadventures with my printer, I take my text from there.

While the echoes of the booming cannon are reverberating among our native hills, and the merry peals of the church-going bells are announcing to the world the rejoicings of a great and prosperous people, that their days of weakness, suffering, and thralldom are past, we are here in a remote wilderness, to found a new State, and to plant anew the institutions of our patriotic ancestors. It is a day to us of peculiar significance. While we would pay tribute of respect to that period which, in the annals of this nation, will ever be regarded as most sacred; while, with one accord and one voice, we worship in the Temple of Liberty, uncontaminated by party distinctions or sectional animosities, and unite in the endeavor to raise some fitting memento of a nation’s gratitude for the declarations of that day, the most glorious in the history of a mighty people, we should also gather lessons of instruction from the past by which to be guided in the erection of a new state in the heart of this great Republic.

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

That patriotic opening comes with the usual selective attention. Robinson declares them without party distinctions, but Wood’s speech and Robinson’s own revolve around a party distinction, between the proslavery men who have taken Kansas for their own and the free state men who want to take it back from them. While the free staters had some Missourians among them, and more as time went on and the proslavery party dictated more and more to them, their cause hardly avoided sectional distinctions. The entire dispute revolved, ultimately, around what section Kansas belonged with. But in one sense, they did have bipartisanship. Democrats and Whigs united in opposing the bogus legislature, even if no shortage of more proslavery Democrats also held seats in it.

Robinson knew the these complications well enough, proceeding to sweep them up in a narrative of diverse colonies uniting together in “common cause against the indignities and outrages heaped upon a part of the country.”

No sacrifice was counted too dear to secure to the people of these United States the right to govern themselves, to choose their own rulers, to make their own laws, and worship God in their own way.

Robinson suggested the Kansas take their own E plurbus unum lesson from that. The Missourians had imposed upon them, taking up the role of latter-day redcoats serving the cause of slavery. But Robinson, an abolitionist raised by abolitionists did not demand his diverse audience

listen to arguments of abolitionists, or for abolitionism. I wish not now to wage war upon slavery or slave-holders in any State of this Union, or to interfere in any respect with our neighbors affairs, but it is for ourselves, our families, our own institutions and our prosperity-it is for Kansas I ask your attention.

Men like Robinson did have to walk that fine line. Even in Kansas, even staring down the full-bore of border ruffianism, most free staters did not consider themselves abolitionists. They cared relatively little for slavery in Missouri or anywhere else, save within Kansas. They might not even care about its fate within Kansas, but found the tactics of their proslavery neighbors abhorrent to the spirit of white republicanism.

A Free State Fourth, Part One

Samuel Newitt Wood

Samuel Newitt Wood

As the legislature met in Pawnee, some of Kansas’ free state party gathered in Lawrence once more to celebrate the Fourth of July. The Herald of Freedom reported the festivities on the seventh:

we were surprised to see the streets looking as much like those of a thronged city-with far less noise and confusion than older towns get up on these gala-days. Arrivals commenced the night preceding-so did the discharge of fire-arms. And as a matter of course every body was wakened in the morning, by the same music. Would it, otherwise, have been the fourth of July?

They even invited the Delaware and Shawnee to join in the fun, though likely only the Indians appreciated the irony of that. The American government did far more to harm them, including forcing them to come to Kansas, than any British administration had.

The ladies of Lawrence presented the local militia company with a fine silk flag. The presenter, a Mrs. Gates, said the usual patriotic things. Samuel Newitt Wood then spoke on behalf of the companies gathered:

Ladies, it was no idle fancy that induced us to form these companies. Consequently, cowards I trust have not joined us.

In the nineteenth century, men did form and join militia companies on a lark. It provided an excuse to go hang out with the boys, get drunk, and make a spectacle of oneself now and then. Wood, an Ohio-born Quaker who met his wife while working on the Underground Railroad and came to Kansas with every intention of preventing slavery’s spread, had not signed on to lubricate himself. Events in Kansas had gone against the free state men, which hardly set the stage for some mere manly posturing.

It is well known that, as a people, we have been subjugated by rulers foreign to our soil; that a government has been forced upon us by the usurpers of our rights, contrary to the wish of the governed; that the tree of liberty which our fathers planted 79 years ago, has in Kansas been trampled to the earth, and we left under the blasting, withering influences of oppression, surrounded upon the north, east, and south by our oppressors, and on the west by those who can take little or no interest in our affairs.

In one of those oddities arising from the gulf between physical and human geography, the proslavery party generally ran strongest in the north of Kansas, nearer the Missouri river, then in the territory’s settled south.

We have been oppressed, but not conquered; and now with the calm though firm determination of men who have counted the cost, we tell those tyrants BEWARE!

And should a sanguinary conflict be forced upon us, I know I speak for the character of every solder who has or may rally under these talismanic stars and stripes, they will demean themselves like men. This flag and the sacred cause it represents will by them never be deserved or dishonored. Surrender this flag! No, never, whilst one of our men is able to bear it above the carnage of a battlefield, or falling, grasp its folds with their hands for a winding sheet.

One can, and sometimes should, take such bellicose speech as simply the norm for the situation. Wood, however, came to Kansas already committed to the fight. Furthermore, with the territorial government firmly in the hands of the proslavery men one need not produce a crystal ball to see that things could easily take further turns for the worst. No one in authority back in Washington seemed interested in helping them. Armed resistance had to look more likely, and certainly more defensible, in such times.

The Free State Predicament

JH Stringfellow

John H. Stringfellow

Andrew Reeder, contrary to the dreams of men like John Stringfellow, never made for much of an abolitionist while governor. He had a keen eye, and a gun or two, for the personal danger that anything less than complete cooperation with every proslavery initiative had put him in, but that only went so far. He remained the man who had said before he came out to Kansas that if he could have afforded one, he would have bought a slave to bring along. When he opened the legislature, Reeder’s remarks included this telling passage:

There are many specific subjects of legislation, some of which are expressly referred to you by the bill organizing our territory, and others spring from the necessity of our community. Prominent among them is the question whether we shall build our government upon the basis of free or of slave labor. […] The provisions of our territorial organice act secures us this right, and is founded in the true doctrines of republicanism. It may be exercised in various degrees and in various ways, and whenever it is called into action it cannot legitimately be attended with that excitement which is incident to the agitation of the slavery question in the direction of an attack upon constitutional rights. An agitation of that kind, such as we have seen industriously prosecuted in the past history of our country by the destructive spirit of abolitionism, can never be productive of aught but evil, and is calculated in an eminent degree to obscure the glories of the past, to evoke the foulest spirit of discord among the citizens of our common country, and also to mar our brilliant future, if not to endanger the existence of our cherished union.

Fortunately, Reeder declared that both sides had an equal footing to make their case. Every white man had the right to argue his position and then the legislature could decide. The Andrew Reeder of July 3, 1855, might have believed that. He would accept either a free or a slave Kansas equally well.

Martin F. Conway

Martin F. Conway

Actual antislavery Kansans had a more serious problem and no such disinterest in the legislature’s verdict. Even before the legislature purged their minority, Martin Conway had resigned and others had convened at Lawrence. In both cases, the antislavery men rejected the legitimacy of the legislature, denying its moral authority to pass laws binding upon them. All that happened at the start of July. By the month’s end, the purged legislature had gotten rid of the one antislavery man they could not expel. That and their ability to override Reeder’s vetoes gave them virtually absolute control of Kansas.

Sitting out elections and declaring the laws produced by the men who claim their seats from those election returns makes for good political theater. It invites people from outside the immediate situation to stand up and take notice. But it also invites one’s opponents to use their supermajority to achieve radical ends. The bogus legislature would sit for two years. In that two years they would have a free hand to shape Kansas to their liking. The proslavery party would enjoy not only the power to lay down ordinary legislation, however much the free staters might try to ignore it, but also to dictate who could and could not come to the territory’s constitutional convention. Without free state involvement, they would have no trouble at all in stacking the convention with their own men and so ensuring Kansas come into the Union as a slave state.

Clearly they could not just stand by and count on passive resistance. If they did that, they might as well close up shop now and start voting the proslavery ticket unanimously. They would get the same thing in the end. Even as the Assembly and Andrew Reeder embarked on their struggle, which would drag on into the middle of August before Reeder received notice that Pierce had dismissed him, they knew they had to do something. But what?