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.

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