Eager and Reluctant Revolutionaries

Paschal & Eudora Fish, courtesy of Wikipedia user Bhall87

Paschal & Eudora Fish, courtesy of Wikipedia user Bhall87

Parts 1, 2, 3

The adoption of the first of Charles Robinson’s committee’s resolutions by the Lawrence convention did not signal an end to dissent among the free state ranks. It did, however, win the approval of a party often forgotten in popular history. The Herald of Freedom reports that Paschal Fish, a Shawnee man, rose to speak:

I am glad to see all of you here; I am glad you are laboring to make good laws as your fathers did before you. I am well pleased, very well pleased all day long, with what you have done. I said I was in favor of a free State, and I am not backward to say it.

One can’t miss the distinctions here. Fish might share the politics of the white convention, but he knows all too well that they’ve come to decide their fate in Kansas rather than his. In his five decades, Fish had seen his tribe moved from Ohio to Kansas. Their settlement had to yield to white settlement. It might easily do so again. Indians, according to white Americans, simply had to give way. Such backward folk could not impede the inevitable progress of a more advanced race.

Fish’s statement rejects that idea both at its most literal level, declaring himself no more backward than anyone else, and politically. In adopting antislavery politics and participating in the white man’s convention, he acted as a progressive, forward-looking white man would. Fish had apparently long adopted that strategy. He operated a hotel , a ferry, and had worked for the Army at Fort Leavenworth. If anybody lived up to the nineteenth century humanitarian vision of Indians taking up white culture and integrating into white America, he did. So did many of his fellow Shawnee, who operated farms and otherwise acted just like white settlers. Contemporaries considered them barely Indians at all and credited the white blood in their veins.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Not everyone had quite Fish’s enthusiasm, though. The same Mr. Holliday that wanted Robinson’s resolutions referred to a new committee for revision had a good point about the convention’s activity to date:

Mr. Holliday says the action contemplated is not efficient enough. It is doing over and over again what has been done before. I endorse every sentiment embraced in those resolutions, and I go further, and am in favor of some which were suppressed in the committee recommending the formation of military companies for self-protection.

The had had resolutions before. They had had a convention before. This did not suit Holliday, who could point to just how little success the free state men had so far enjoyed. Couldn’t they see that the time for mere words had passed? But setting up formal military companies seemed still a bridge too far for most.

Martin F. Conway

Martin F. Conway

Even less provoked some qualms from Martin F. Conway, the free state man who quit his seat in the Assembly before it even met. His “brief remarks” argued

the impropriety of a movement for a State Constitution originating in a Party meeting; and maintaining that such an enterprise should be the work of the people at large.

Would they ever get anything done, save talking? One doesn’t lightly contemplate armed strife and the antislavery party deserve some credit for not rushing to it, occasional bursts of martial rhetoric aside, but in times like theirs attachment to procedural formalities and moderation can lead to utter paralysis. Holliday must have seen that among his fellows. With the record they had assembled, one struggles to argue otherwise.

Fairness demands, however, that we note the diverse and fragile coalition that the free state movement had. They might have benefited from haste, as Holliday suggested, but it might also have split the movement.

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