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?

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