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.
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.