Acts of the Bogus Legislature, Part Three

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Parts 1 and 2

The bogus legislature set down laws, effective September 15, 1855, sacrificing virtually every other civic freedom white men enjoyed in the service of the one controversial freedom that many white Kansans did not want: the right to own slaves. Like the slave states, they mandated death for any who led or assisted a slave revolt. Further sections expanded the definition of assisting slave revolts to include any form of antislavery activity that extended beyond the privacy of an antislavery person’s mind. One could not speak or write against slavery in any way. One could not import writings from outside of Kansas that opposed slavery. Breaking any of these laws meant death.

These provisions, at least theoretically, targeted slave revolts. Proslavery men understood a slave revolt as inevitably leading to some kind of apocalyptic race war, so from their point of view the death penalty made perfect sense. They saw it in much the same way we might see a nuclear or biological terror attack and so worthy of the most extreme sanctions.

But the majority in the Assembly had some sense of proportionality, even if they hid it well. They conceded that not every possible antislavery action constituted supporting a revolt. An individual slave who stole himself or herself did not constitute an uprising. Absconding did not require violence against whites. It threatened slavery’s security, but one self-stealing slave did not a race war make. Likewise, neither did encouraging one to escape. Thus:

If any person shall entice, decoy, or carry away out of this Territory, any slave belonging to another, with intent to deprive the owner thereof of the services of such slave, or with the intend to effect or procure the freedom of such slave, he shall be adjudged guilty of grand larceny and, on conviction thereof, shall suffer death or be imprisoned at hard labor for not less than ten years.

The Fugitive Slave Act, in all its oppressiveness, did not condemn anyone to death or to any years at all of hard labor. Its penalties came in the form of fines. In Kansas, you would get at least ten years and might find the hangman calling…but at least the law did not mandate the execution. One need not mastermind a slave’s escape to warrant such punishment either. A virtually identical section applies identical penalties to mere accessories. Surely with a mind to their neighbors in Missouri, the legislature extended the death or minimum of a decade of hard labor punishment to those who brought slaves fleeing their masters into Kansas from without.

These offenses all assume that one knew what one did. If one helped a slave who simply might have absconded, then one might simply have made a mistake. Thus the honest mistake of aiding, assisting, harboring, or concealing a slave who may have run off without knowing that the slave had won a the guilty party a term of five years at hard labor.


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