James Lane, former congressman who voted for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, former Kansas Democratic Party organizer, and at least arguably former proslavery man stood before the convention of free state men at Lawrence on the afternoon of August 14, 1855, and told them to adopt a moderate course. They should repudiate only the acts of the bogus legislature which subverted popular sovereignty, not the body itself or all its enactments. This middle road would, he imagined, avoid inflaming passions against them and might ease through the free state constitution they sought to write for Kansas.
The Herald of Tribune does not report the words said against Lane’s proposal, but it clearly did not go over well. The convention went on to consider resolutions recommended by its business committee, presented by chairman Charles Robinson. They commenced with a lengthy preamble telling anybody who somehow missed the previous year about the many woes they suffered at the hands of election stealing Missourian hooligans. Robinson proposed to the convention that they did not care for such treatment. They deemed the hijacked elections of March
one of the greatest outrages upon the laws of the land, and the rights of free citizens, ever attempted in this country; and the Legislature now in session on the borders of Missouri-the off spring of that invasion, and the inheritor of all its qualities of insolence, violance, and tyranny-as a living insult to the judgment and feelings of the American people, and derogatory to the integrity and respectability of the Federal authority.
Thus, the second proposed resolution held:
we indignantly repel the pretensions of that Legislature to make laws for the people of Kansas; that are regard it as acting entirely without the authority of law, not only in consideration of its having been elected against law, and in violation of the rights and will of the people, by armed men from a foreign State, but because its course, since its meeting and organization, has been utterly regardless of those conditions and requirements of the organic act, essential to a valid discharge of legislative functions, and such as has effected a complete forfeiture of any technicality of law by which, at first, it may have been supported.
By expanding the case against the legislature from the method of its election to include also its acts, and helpfully incorporate Andrew Reeder’s dispute with it into their grievances, the free state men could present their case as something not purely sectional, not purely about slavery, but rather as a general assault on the right of self-governance. That might give a senator or two representing the South sufficient cover to vote to admit a free Kansas to the Union. It further represented the views of a more moderate constituency within Kansas that honestly did not much care about slavery, or had even supported it, but came over to the free state side due to the proslavery party’s undemocratic methods.
If that did not appeal sufficiently to universal American values, then Robinson’s resolutions had more:
as men, born in a land of liberty, trained to the precepts of freedom, and alive to those inspiring sentiments which have prompted, in all ages, heroic resistance to tyrants; as descendants of those, who, in 1776, braved the power of the mightiest monarchy on earth, rather than submit to foreign thraldom, we repudiate this insolent attempt to impose upon us a government by foreign arms; and pledge to each other, as our fathers did of old, “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honors,” to a resistance of its authority.
Any hope for universal appeal had to come with qualification, though. The men at Lawrence could hardly have missed that the proslavery side employed the same totems, going all the way back to Benjamin Stringfellow’s claim that pauper mercenaries would seize Kansas from its rightful owners. We tend to forget one side or the other when remembering past controversies over what sort of country we have, or wish to have. In all such struggles the real debate hangs on not whether “American values” shall prevail, but rather which set of American values shall. Then some future generation can come along and agree with the victorious side, declaring it American and excommunicating the rest. Winners and losers alike write history, provided they survive, but however they won and whatever their cause we inherit the outcome and thus come to see it as natural and the other side as foreign every bit as much as the Stringfellows saw slavery as natural and the Robinsons and Wakefields saw freedom as the same.