A Memorial for a Free Kansas, Part Three

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Parts 1 and 2

Knowing full well that appealing to Congress for redress because the Missourians and their allies sought to impose slavery on Kansas would win them no new friends, the free soil men who wrote the memorial had other ideas. If the Kansas-Nebraska Act meant that the people of the territory got to decide for themselves for or against slavery, then the Missourians gave them ample cause to protest. No one could conceal the massive fraud at the ballot boxes. If the Kansas-Nebraska Act ended the last sacred compact between the sections, the Missouri Compromise, then surely it replaced that with a new one. North and South together agreed, if with great controversy, that the people of the territories now stood sovereign in their choice of labor system. Yet here came the Missourians, charging across the border with guns, threats, tar and feather. Surely Congress, having agreed to popular sovereignty, could not accept that. For Washington to stand idly by would transform the meaning of the new settlement entirely, from a fair contest which both sides accepted, to something else entirely.

That bill is made to mean popular sovereignty for them, serfdom for us. The doctrine of self-government is to be trampled under foot here, of all other places in the world, on the very spot which had been hallowed and consecrated to its most signal vindication. The altars which have been reared to it on this chosen ground, and around which at least the democracy of the whole Union had sworn allegiance, and to which we had come as pilgrim worshippers in the wilderness, are to be ruthlessly demolished. The compact is to be basely broken, and the ballot of the freeman (in effect) torn from our hands, almost before the ink of the covenant is dry. Not only, too, is the principle of popular sovereignty to be blotted out, but more than this, even the object of the contest is to disappear. The question of negro slavery is to sink into insignificance, and the great portentious issue is to loom up in its stead, whether or not we shall be the slaves, and fanatics who disgrace the honorable and chivalric men of the south shall be our masters to rule us at their pleasure.

The memorial came far short of Charles Robinson’s recitation of slavery’s evils, but used the same theme of white men enslaved. Having dared that far, the authors at once pull back and appeal to the loftier sentiments of the wider South. Surely they could not countenance this and would discover in themselves some principle beyond the greater glory of slavery?

They could have found such an audience. Missourians might care desperately about Kansas, but to the rest of the South the new territory stood on the extreme northwest corner of the world. Far greener pastures remained in Texas, in Arkansas, and in time probably in some new acquisition from Mexico. They didn’t need Kansas like the Missouri slaveholders did. So the free soilers reached out to both sections:

We want the men of the north and the men of the south to protect us. Through yourselves, their representatives, we appeal to their honor, to their justice, to their patriotism, to their sympathies, not for favors but for rights-not for trivial rights, but for the dearest rights guarantied to us by the Declaration of Independence, by the Constitution of the Union, and by the law of our organization, by the solemn compact of the States, and which you pledged to us as the condition of our coming here.

Sam Houston (D-TX)

Sam Houston (D-TX)

They still had faith in the old Union, even in the section with which their adversaries aligned. Painting the border ruffians as isolated fanatics, much the same way southerners liked to describe abolitionists, they insisted they could not

believe that the States of the South will sanction the outrages that have been perpetrated upon us, or will allow them to be continued.  And, although we might reason the matter as a question of policy, and show that it is contrary to the laws of nature and society, and opposed to all human experience, that good can come from such an evil, (although we might prove that it is “sowing the wind to reap the whirlwind,” and that the reaction will be fearful,) yet we feel that this is unnecessary, that it is enough to appeal to their honor and their sense of justice, and to reply upon their plighted faith.

Some former Missourians, alienated by the great fraud, might have had a hand in these passages. Even if they did not, an awareness that fence-sitting neighbors would inevitably read the document would have argued for some well-placed flattery. The free state men came to their position by many roads. They could look over their shoulder and see room for others on the same paths. It did not take a New England abolitionist to see the border ruffians’ conduct as outrageous. Sam Houston prophesied such strife when he opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act to start with. There might yet be other Sam Houstons to come to Kansas’ relief. By making an appeal on such terms, the memorialists could give them rhetorical cover to buck the prevailing sentiment of the section. They could stand on the Union, on self-government, and rebuff accusations that they’d gone over to the abolitionists in secret.

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