Proceedings of the Big Springs Convention, Part One

A bill announcing the Big Springs Convention

A bill announcing the Big Springs Convention

George Washington Brown, editor of the lately-suppressed Herald of Freedom, came to the free state convention at Big Springs on September 5, 1855. The meager accommodations proved no particular obstacle to the proceedings, which only took the one day. To hear Brown tell it, the convention got the turnout that its organizers hoped:

Delegates were there from every district, save the 16th, and a finer body of men are seldom seen together. The only fault we could find, there was too much talent among them, else too many persons who wished to distinguish themselves.  They came together from all sections of the Union. It was but natural, therefore, that there should be a minor difference of opinion upon minor questions, and that those divisions should engender discussion.

That surplus of talent did not, however, include an ability to record the speeches given. Brown apologizes for this. He had something wrong with his shoulder and so couldn’t hold a pen.

As to the differences of opinion, Brown went into more detail:

The people from New York, New England, and some from Pennsylvania and Ohio, were in favor of a State Constitution which should be silent upon the subject of a “black law,” whilst those from the Western States, very generally, were in favor of ingrafting the exclusion policy into the State Constitution. The committee, who labored long and arduously upon the question, finally agreed, with one dissenting voice, and made their report.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

James Lane reported out that platform. Out of a hundred delegates, only one voted against adopting a state constitution that forbade black Americans from living in Kansas. This likely represented the true consensus of free soil Kansans at the time. However much we might like to imagine them as modern racial egalitarians, such men did not carry the day. Rather the David Wilmots of Kansas, and those willing to compromise with them, did.

The proposed law makes sense from a strictly antislavery perspective. Concerned more with the wrongs slavery did to and the power it granted over whites than to its primary victims, one would want to keep it from Kansas. What better way to keep the land free from it than to forbid the presence of the race enslavers chose for their victims? This logic at best only follows from a callous, if common, indifference to the lives of black Americans. Furthermore, it comes informed by something rather more malign still: the firm conviction that black Americans had and deserved no rightful place on the continent. On these grounds, proslavery men often hurled charges of hypocrisy at their foes. The pretend humanitarians, so the argument went, so hated black people that they wished them gone. Gentle patriarchs, however, loved them and wished to keep them close.

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

The convention might have approved Jim Lane’s black law, “with little apparent dissatisfaction” and he admitted that a majority of free state men favored the provision, but Brown did not:

For ourself, we take this occasion to remark that the platform does not meet with our hearty approbation. We are opposed from principle to “every form of tyranny,” it matters not to which of the races it is extended-over the body and mind of man.” While resident of Ohio, we labored constantly to secure the repeal of what appeared to us an odious law-a law similar, in many respects, to that desired for Kansas. In Pennsylvania we rejoiced when our neighbors of Ohio triumphed with the right, in erasing those oppressive enactments from their statute books.

I don’t know if Brown ever approved of making black men voters, but he clearly didn’t care much for the idea of preventing them from becoming Kansans.

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2 comments on “Proceedings of the Big Springs Convention, Part One

  1. hawker40 says:

    And here we see something I’ve learned from history: There are no saints. Humans have flaws, some worse than others.
    But that is not the same thing as saying that there are no villains. The men of the Big Springs Convention may have been segregationist bigots, but they weren’t slave-owners, and opposed slave owning.

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