A Memorial for a Free Kansas, Part One

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

From internal evidence and its location in the Howard Report, it appears that the free staters produced a petition to Congress sometime in the summer of 1855. I can’t say if they wrote it up in Lawrence at or about the Fourth of July, or if it came some time thereafter. Unless I’ve missed it somewhere, the document comes with no clear date. Nichole Etcheson uses the memorial in Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era right after speaking of Robinson’s speech. Neither Rawley’s Race and Politics: Bleeding Kansas and the Coming of the Civil War nor my now-dry copy of Nichols’ Bleeding Kansas reference it at all. But I think it provides an interesting counterpoint to Robinson’s words.

Robinson spoke to Kansans in Kansas and carefully turned the tension between abolitionist and antislavery man to his advantage in a fiery speech that preached bold defiance of slaveholder tyranny. The memorialists, writing for a Washington audience that of necessity would include proslavery men, would probably not have dared flirt with abolitionism even if they had such inclinations. They faced the same problem, but approaching readers who would have the power to do something within the law for their relief they cut back on the enthusiasm for revolt. Instead, the authors focused closely on the usurpation of their government by force and fraud, in defiance of the law:

As freemen we were invited, as freemen we came, and as freemen we expected to live. But we address you now as an outraged and subjugated people, disfranchis and enslaved, stripped of our dearest rights, and governed by a set of master foreign to our soil, and responsible only to their own lawless will.

A chronicle of outrages followed, running from the election for territorial delegate onward. The Missourians came on bands, with appointed leaders and clear organization, armed and provisioned for their war against the white man’s republic. The first time, Kansas stood by and let it happen.

Bitter and mournful experience has taught us, however, that this was no isolated act, no temporary ebulition, but the commencement of a well matured and settled plan, by a large portion of the people of one of the States of our Union, permanently to enslave us and constitute themselves our masters.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

They learned that in the March elections, which brought not just the same bands again but also some cannons for their use. The Missourians surrounded the polls and made dire threats. They carried out several. They set aside the oath Andrew Reeder proscribed for judges and voters, ignored his instructions, and intimidated his judges of election until they yielded or resigned. After insisting that they would not recount every detail, the memorialists spent a good two pages of their six on the subject. In winding down from that parade of misdeeds, knowing that senators would read their petition, the authors could not resist an especially pertinent detail. The senators might just recognize one of the characters in their story:

their [the Missourians’] leader and captain being a distinguished citizen of Missouri, but late the presiding officer of the Senate of the United States, and who had a bowie knife and revolver belted around him, apparently ready to shed the blood of any man who refused to be enslaved.

They knew what David Rice Atchison did last spring. If a senator could cause this trouble, surely the Senate might stir itself to remedy the situation. Failing that, perhaps the House and its northern majority would come to their rescue.

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