Proceedings of the Big Springs Convention, Part Five

A bill announcing the Big Springs Convention

A bill announcing the Big Springs Convention

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

R.G. Elliott related his work and the power of James Lane’s spellbinding oratory at the Big Springs Convention, the latter of which overturning the former. Thus the free state party of Kansas had committed themselves to excluding black Americans from their future state and to developing an alternative government which would strike at once for statehood. But parties need platforms to organize around. They had a black code and a general opposition to slavery, but two planks do not a platform make. Furthermore, the antislavery position would complicate their efforts to gain recognition in Washington. They could hardly deny the position, but to win over more indifferent northerners who they would surely need they would do better to minimize it and focus their rhetoric around the abuse of white liberties.

Elliott reports that the committee on resolutions split in two branches. James Lane chaired the one charged with developing “a broad and substantial platform”. The other would “furnish explosives and projectiles for a defiant pyrotechnic display-elements too dangerous to be inserted in the platform and too radical to be imposed upon the masses.” These groups seem at cross-purposes, but Elliott has an explanation for the business: Andrew Reeder insisted.

The former governor, “rankling” over his “crucifixion” on “base and baseless accusation[s]” related to his land speculation and the Pawnee affair, wanted a chance to defend himself in the court of public opinion:

On the 30th of August Reeder was stopping at the American Hotel, in Kansas City, with his trunk packed in readiness to depart to his home in Pennsylvania, when Parrott also stopped there, on his way to a Democratic conference at Tecumseh. Reeder had expressed his indignation in a set of resolutions which he showed to Parrott, intimating his purpose of attending the convention at Big Springs and taking a parting shot at the legislature. So borrowing a valise from Colonel Eldridge, he set out for Lawrence, where an arrangement was made to handle his explosive by a select committee, so as not to encumber the platform. The resistant features of the resolutions were vainly sought to be modified in the convention by Parrott, Lane, and other conservatives, but the utterly atrocious features of the slave code, just recently made public, had worked the popular mind up to such a pitch that no language was too strong to express their indignation, and the resolutions were adopted with a defiant shout.

Here, as before, the proslavery men in their excesses radicalized their opposition. A moderate Kansan might dismiss some violence, however much it horrifies us, as something that a troublemaker had coming. We see that behavior often enough today. The laws that the bogus legislature chose to pass, however, bound all Kansans alike. Few considered their mere residence in the territory as sufficient cause for such measures.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Elliot went on to complain that the proslavery party then drew no distinction between the free staters’ binding platform and the Reeder-authored incendiaries. I confess wondering just who would. Both came through the same convention, with the votes of the same hundred men in their favor. The difference between them might have mattered to free state coalition-builders, but the convention asked Kansans of all stripes to vote for Reeder and so his personal vindication became at least an ex officio binding concern on them all. Furthermore, Reeder’s dismissal on grounds notionally unrelated to slavery made him the ideal totem for their appeal to the sanctity of white liberty. Here they had a martyr of the Slave Power, endorsed by the national Democracy not that long ago and untainted by sympathy with black Americans. Reeder perfectly fit the movement’s political needs.

 

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