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.

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