The Big Springs Convention

A bill announcing the Big Springs Convention

A bill announcing the Big Springs Convention

The free state movement in Kansas, however often defeatedoutlawed, and subjected to freelance violence, had yet to give up the ghost. Twice free state conventions met in Lawrence and passed resolutions condemning the proslavery party for its trampling of white self-determination. But with their last questionable ally in the territory’s government, Andrew Reeder, dismissed and replaced by Wilson Shannon, they had enough to do more than write protests. Excluded from Kansas’ legal government, they could exercise no influence at all in its formation. They could not hope that the proslavery men would have a fit of magnanimity and let them into the political process at some decisive moment. Thus they appealed to the example of their revolutionary forefathers and declared independence from the territorial government. It would not govern them, but rather a government of their own creation would.

This meant, of course, that they had to then create that government. To do otherwise would make them look like a band of anarchists and hardly endear them to the nation at large, which would have to ratify their work by admitting their Kansas into the Union some time down the road. That would require yet another convention, as even many who attended the mid-August Lawrence convention considered it more a party meeting than a general assembly of Kansans. In Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era, Nichole Etcheson adds the further wrinkle that the convention would not take place in Lawrence as more moderate Kansans, often hailing from the more western states, might find such a setting amid antislavery radicals uncongenial. Thus Kansans met at Big Springs, which Alice Nichols describes in Bleeding Kansas as “a four-cabin trading-post stop on the Calfiornia Road west of Lawrence” where

Split-log benches were filled. Every tree had its leaner. Free-soil delegates and onlookers had come in spring wagons, lumber wagons, carts, in rockaways and buggies, on horeseback, muleback, and afoot. They had come to devise such measures and means as would, in their opinion, best serve the free-soil cause and their own interests.

Between Big Springs and Pawnee, territorial Kansas seems especially afflicted by inadequate facilities.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

But the announcement bid “all people who are favorable to a union of effort, and a permanent organization of the all the Free State elements of Kansas Territory” to elect delegates on August 25 to come to Big Springs on September 5th. The people came, generous accommodations or not. The Lawrence radicals appeared, despite some initial reluctance about the possibility of erecting too big a tent. James Lane, still in the process of his conversion, addressed the crowd. They all came committed to organizing their party, writing a platform, and nominating a delegate to Congress.

George Brown’s Herald of Freedom reported their work. In reading this, I initially thought that Robert Kelley might have had the September 8 Herald on hand to refuse in his September 7 letter. The timing makes that possible, but barely. Brown attended the convention on the 5th and could have set his type and printed on the 6th, or possibly late on the 5th, and had his papers in the mail to subscribers. Thus Kelley could have had the report to cite as the straw which broke the camel’s back. But that expects a great deal of the transportation infrastructure in Kansas. I’m afraid I don’t know enough about it to say if it could deliver. If anyone does, I’m glad to hear it. All the same, Brown’s reporting of the convention doesn’t appear any more incendiary than anything else he’d previously written. Thus I think it more likely that Kelley saw the Assembly’s gag law come into effect and took advantage at his first opportunity, convention reporting or otherwise.

Update: A previous version of this post named Charles Robinson the convention’s chairman and Brown’s Herald of Freedom its official reporter. Both declarations came from an erroneous reading of the sources. Further scrutiny has revealed that George W. Smith chaired the convention and if the Herald had an official role, rather than just doing ordinary reporting, I haven’t seen evidence of it.

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