Acts of the Bogus Legislature, Part Two

Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley

The bogus legislature decreed that anybody leading or assisting in a slave revolt, or doing anything to foment one, must die. In this they followed the lead of the slave states. By declaring that “any overt act” to such ends qualified for the purposes of the law, they made it so broad that almost anything might get one executed. Lest one miss that obvious inference, they went on in the third section of their Act to Punish Offenses against Slave Property to detail some of the overt acts that could earn one the hangman’s noose, as reprinted in Greeley’s pamphlet:

by speaking, writing, or printing, advise, persuade, or induce any slaves to rebel, conspire against, or murder any citizen of this Territory, or shall bring into print, write, publish, or circulate, or cause to be brought into, printed, written, published, or circulated, or shall knowingly aid or assist in the bringing into, printing, writing, publishing, or circulating in this Territory any book, paper, magazine, pamphlet, or circular, for the purpose of exciting insurrection, rebellion, revolt, or conspiracy on the part of the slaves, free negroes, or mulattoes, against the citizens of the Territory or any part of them, such person shall be guilty of felony, and shall suffer death.

John Brown

John Brown

Virtually no white abolitionist, save John Brown a few years later, preached slave revolt. The proslavery men chased phantom conspiracies, but believed them real all the same. Antislavery politics, to a great many of them, constituted in itself conspiracy to incite revolt. The paranoia inherent in knowing full well that slaves do not care to remain slaves and require force and terror to keep them in bondage demanded no less. Thus they must execute anybody who spoke or wrote against slavery.

But they did the slave states one better. Even South Carolina did not demand the death of people who brought into its bounds antislavery materials from without. Rather the postmasters in it and other southern states simply seized and destroyed such mail. The Bogus legislature proposed to kill people for the crime of no more than carrying a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin into Kansas or receiving for their own use an antislavery newspaper.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Provisions like this make it very clear just what the antislavery men meant when they highlighted the contradiction between slavery and white freedom. If they needed such laws to keep their slaves, then where did the slaveholders leave free white men? What freedoms did they have, save for the right to own slaves itself? They couldn’t even discuss the chief political issue in Kansas politics, lest word get out and the hangman come running. Meetings and speeches like those at Lawrence on the Fourth of July certainly could not continue under such a regime.

The despotism imposed upon the slaves would, if in a far less severe form, also come free whites who dared dissent from proslavery orthodoxy. Charles Robinson didn’t have the degree of authoritarian imposition anywhere near right in insisting that the proslavery men would enslave antislavery whites along with all blacks, but he captured the essential fact that freedom to own slaves required the sacrifice of other cherished freedoms.

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