Acts of the Bogus Legislature, Part Five

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4. Greeley’s pamphlet

The Legislative Assembly, fresh off the laborious work of replacing each incidence of the word ‘Missouri’ in the laws it copied with ‘Kansas’, turned themselves with great enthusiasm to the task of protecting slavery. This included criminalizing help to any slaves who resisted their slavery, with penalties up to and including death, and an especially thorough set or provisions to clamp down on aid to slaves who stole themselves. But past sections of the Act to Punish Offenses against Slave Property mostly implied that any form of antislavery activity that took place outside the confines of one’s own mind would run afoul of the law. Some clever lawyer or antislavery provocateur might find a way through all that to come up with a technically legal way to oppose slavery.

The proslavery men would not have that:

If any free person, by speaking or writing, assert or maintain that persons have not the right to hold slaves in this territory, or shall introduce into this Territory print, publish, write, circulate, or cause to be introduced into this Territory, written, printed, published, or circulated in this Territory, any book, paper, magazine, pamphlet, or circular, obtaining any denial of the right of persons to hold slaves in this Territory, such person shall be deemed guilty of felony, and punished by imprisonment at hard labor for a term of not less than two years.

The only political dispute of any significance that Kansas even had at the time revolved around just that point. The majority used its power, granted by stolen elections, to literally outlaw expressing any view but their own. Good luck running for office on the antislavery ticket. Public meetings to oppose the majority, like those in Lawrence, broke the law effective September 15, 1855.

But one did need a jury to convict people of all these crimes. A draconic code could find itself nullified by juries who refused to convict, just as any other laws might. Most infamously, all-white juries refused to convict people of lynching and other acts of terrorism by white Americans against black Americans for the better part of a century. The legislators knew that juries could frustrate their purpose and took appropriate precautions:

No person who is conscientiously opposed to holding slaves, or who does not admit the right to hold slaves in this Territory, shall sit as a juror on the trial of any prosecution for any violation of the sections of this act.

Justice in Kansas would, it seemed, not require the customary blindfold. Provisions like this still exist in jurisdictions that practice capital punishment, as it happens. People opposed to state execution don’t get to sit on juries for capital cases. This produces just the pro-conviction and pro-execution bias one would expect. To bring this back around to the nineteenth century, the people who bear the burden of that bias disproportionately have black skin.

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