Proceedings of the Big Springs Convention, Part Three

A bill announcing the Big Springs Convention

A bill announcing the Big Springs Convention

Parts 1, 2

The free state men must unite or face continued defeat. Thus they convened at Big Springs with that aim in mind above all others. The practical necessity of unity led George W. Brown and others to accept resolutions, favored by an overwhelming majority of the convention’s delegates, to write a ban on the entry of black Americans into Kansas despite their personal reservations. But if they resolved that difference with some ease, given the scarcity of racially progressive free state men, then another raised more serious questions about their unity. What should the free state movement do next? All agreed on a party and on nominating Andrew Reeder for delegate to Congress, but not everybody rushed to sign on for the Lawrence radicals’ plan to create a rival government.

The convention appointed a committee to review that proposal and generate recommendations. Here George Brown’s bad shoulder does not leave us with a lacuna in the sources. The chairman of that committee, R.G. Elliott, wrote down his recollections in a paper he read to a meeting in Lawrence in 1902. I found it in Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, Volume 8.

after a night’s consideration and much outside inquiry, [the committee] reported unanimously, over their signatures, against the proposition, summing their conclusions in the phrase “untimely and inexpedient.”

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Looking back down the decades, Elliott considered his judgment accurate in light of later events but not entirely adequate. In 1902, he remedied the lack of his younger self by calling the move for a wildcat free state government “absurd.” Even without the benefit of hindsight, Elliott’s committee had good reason to look askance at the plan:

Among the many reasons for the committee’s judgment, the most cogent was the want of popular support, the sole foundation for a political organization. Among the more than 100 delegates, not one could be found who favored the proposition, except those, less than a score, who had been initiated into the movement at Lawrence. It was with a feeling of deep regret that both Judge Smith and Colonel Lane heard the adverse report. Both, relying on an intimate friendship with the chairman of the committee, had been confident of the approval of the measure.

Lane, late of black exclusion law fame, requires no introduction but I confess that I don’t think I’ve heard of Smith before. According to Charles Clark’s directory of free state men, Smith shared leadership duties in the early free state movement. He remains obscure in my sources: Etcheson’s Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era mentions him only as a free state man imprisoned and then sent East on his release to publicize the plight of antislavery Kansans. He does not appear in Rawley’s account of the convention in Race and Politics, nor Nichols’ Bleeding Kansas. 

I mention this because it seems I’ve made an error. I did not read the fine print on the bill accompanying this series of posts well enough. It lists Charles Robinson as chairman and I mistakenly read that as calling him chairman of the Big Springs Convention, rather than of the free state committee at Lawrence. The error came to my attention in reading what Clark had to say about Smith, who actually served in that role. The biographical sketch Clark cites, in volume ten of Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, makes that clear. I messed up. Sorry.


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