Proceedings of the Big Springs Convention, Part Four

A bill announcing the Big Springs Convention

A bill announcing the Big Springs Convention

Parts 1, 2, 3

The free state party agreed, ninety-nine to one, that they should permit no black people in Kansas. They agreed to nominate Andrew Reeder to represent them in Washington. But the Big Springs convention drew together a heterodox group of Kansans, not all of whom had gone off to Lawrence twice in the past to condemn the enslavement of white Kansans. The idea hatched at the last Lawrence convention of forming a rival government and striking for statehood came before a committee at Big Springs headed by Lawrence resident R.G. Elliott. The convention’s chairman, Judge George W. Smith, and its resident political chameleon James Lane, expected that their friend Elliott would report out a recommendation along those lines. Elliott, who could count maybe twenty delegates at Big Springs who favored the measure, declined to do his friends that favor. Instead his committee reported the “untimely and inexpedient” nature of the proposal.

They did not take this well. When the committee’s report came before the convention at large, one of the radicals moved to replace the report with one reversing the committee’s verdict. The usual speeches in favor took place, with Lane waiting until the others had said their piece. Then the man himself stood:

rising to the occasion, under a shadow of threatened defeat, he gave an exhibition of that magic faculty by which he controlled primitive assemblages, convincing them against their judgment and bending them against their will. It was not measured oratory nor logical argument, nor was it an emotional harangue, but the blending of an accompaniment toned to the popular chord, with a dramatic presentation of the subject that materialized as a moving, tangible reality. His ideal was a state, not antagonistic, but harmonizing, rising legitimately out of the popular-sovereignty clause of the organic act; the rightful heir to sovereignty, with the territorial organization as regent.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Lane further suggested that Stephen Douglas “anxiously” awaited word of their exploits and Franklin Pierce stood “ready to sacrifice his right arm” to sustain them, correct his past errors, and save the Democracy.

These declarations have much more to do with Lane’s ambitions than any reality, but Elliott casts Lane as working actively to make himself the leader of a moderate faction separate from the Lawrence group. This fits well with reports of his behavior at the late Lawrence convention. By invoking the national Democracy and insisting he had its favor, Lane positioned himself as a national man rather than a sectional slavery or antislavery enthusiast. He could then use his middle position to mainstream those positions of the Lawrence radicals he favored among the more western contingent, while likewise using the westerners against those Lawrence-born ideas he opposed. In the long term, a record for that could go far in making him acceptable to the former proslavery party of a united Kansas.

Stephen Douglas

Stephen Douglas

To hear Elliott tell it, Lane converted the majority to the free state movement then and there. He generally paints Lane as the hero of the day, even while expressing his regrets over how things fell out. It may have happened that way, but I suspect that one speech convinces few people of much of anything. It seems more likely that Elliott at least slightly overestimated opposition to the statehood plan, that more at Big Springs stood uncommitted but open to convincing, and that the other speakers exerted a significant influence as well. Leaders can and do make a difference, but in the real world they rarely have such powers as to convert committed foes to their cause with a single speech.

But however it happened, the convention agreed with Lane and set aside Elliott’s report, deciding instead that the free state government and statehood proposal came both timely and expedient.

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