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.

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