Acts of the Bogus Legislature, Part One

Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley

The free state men had their Fourth of July meeting and protest. Neither warmed the hearts of the Kansas Legislative Assembly. Flush with their triumph in purging their last dissenter, confident in their ability to override each of Andrew Reeder’s vetoes, they got to work. The laws would not write themselves. Alice Nichols describes the Assembly’s remarkable industry in Bleeding Kansas:

It was a laborious task. They had to go through the whole Missouri code and substitute ‘Territory of Kansas’ for ‘State of Missouri.’

One can look at this as proof positive that Missouri controlled Kansas. The vassal territory, conquered province, or whatever metaphor the Charles Robinson and friends preferred at the moment, must naturally adopt the laws of its masters. They had a point, but territories often adopted the codes of their neighbors this way. Nobody came to Kansas with a voluminous law library. Large numbers of books do not travel easily. Those most available on the ground would naturally come from just across the line in Missouri. Furthermore, as most Kansans had until recently lived in Missouri, they knew them better. The same concerns had prompted Missouri’s first lawmakers to import their own code from elsewhere. Why reinvent the wheel?

That said, the Missouri code’s included slavery did not deter the legislators in the slightest. Slavery did, however, prompt from them a special response. In voting through the Missouri statutes one by one, they found that the Show Me State simply did not protect slavery well enough. Remarkably, their proslavery patrons had gone soft. Thus they resolved to innovate. The results of their work attracted wide notice outside Kansas. Horace Greeley published extracts from them in a pamphlet titled The Border Ruffian Code in Kansas, from which shall I take their text.

Greeley commenced by reminding his readers how these laws came into force, declaring them the work of a body

notoriously forced upon the people of that Territory, at the hands of invading ruffians from Missouri, using persuasive arguments of the Bowie-Knife and Revolver

He turned then to the obvious beginning, quoting from “An Act to Punish Offences against Slave Property”:

every person, bond or free, who shall be convicted of actually raising a rebellion or insurrection of slaves, free negroes, or mulattoes, in this Territory, shall suffer death.

John Brown

John Brown

This provision, section one of the act, runs much the same as laws in other slave states. While thus not much of an innovation, one should consider it in light of what proslavery men considered rather mundane antislavery positions dangerously close to the offense above. The slaves, they would tell you, accepted their lot in life. They even liked it, until some abolitionist put thoughts in their heads. The law would condemn John Brown surely enough, but might also condemn any prominent antislavery man. But strictly read, it applied only to leaders of such rebellions. Those who helped them had to wait for the next section to receive their punishment:

Every free person who shall aid or assist in any rebellion or insurrection of slaves, free negroes, or mulattoes, or shall furnish arms, or do any overt act in furtherance of such rebellion or insurrection shall suffer death.

In both sections, the law states that every free person who broke the law must die. That mandatory death sentence could come for the John Browns of the world, but also for “any overt act” to such ends. That could mean almost anything. What could one say or do to oppose the spread of slavery that would not look, to the proslavery men, like fomenting an insurrection?

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