When we imagines an antislavery group, we naturally fancy them racial egalitarians concerned with the horrific costs of slavery to the slaves. We expect Americans to preach racial egalitarianism, if only on the most superficial level. Our practice could still use much work. But people in the nineteenth century, though like us in many ways, did not live in our world and imbibe our norms. What we see as their shortcomings did not appear as such to most Kansans of the time. We might expect them to best approximate our sentiments when speaking of slavery itself, within the bounds of Kansas. Here they had good reason to launch a full-bore assault on the peculiar institution. Jim Lane’s platform does just that, in a way:
our true interests, socially, morally, and pecuniary, require that Kansas should be a free state; that free labor will best promote the happiness, the rapid population, the prosperity and wealth off our people; that slave labor is a curse to the master and the community, if not to the slave; that our country is unsuited to it; and that we will devote our energies as a party to exclude the institution and to secure for Kansas the constitution of a free state.
While Lane does make a moral condemnation of slavery, he specifically calls it a scourge upon only the master and the white community. It might, in fact, work out very well for the slaves. Maybe they need that kind of management and cannot prosper without it. This echoes proslavery writers who preached the virtues that slavery taught to the enslaved. They learned true white religion and true white civilization under the master’s lash. If that took a few stripes, then so it goes. Not blessed with the faculties granted to those who wisely chose white skin at their births, the slave required harsher tutelage. Even that would never make a slave into the equal of a white man, but slaves would realize a vast improvement all the same. That the slaves disagreed and resisted with slow work, broken tools, deliberately misunderstood instructions, by stealing themselves, and on occasion by outright violence did not enter into it. They just didn’t want to take their medicine. Resistance to brutality thus legitimated further brutality.
But Lane’s brief critique does have an element of truth to it. This comes not in the claims about Kansas’ suitability to slavery, as adjacent Missouri did just fine, nor in slavery’s economic backwardness. While generations of historians took that for granted, more recent studies have shown that slavery remained a tremendous fountain of stolen wealth for its practitioners. Consider instead the effect of habitual brutality upon other people. Every whipped slave requires a hand on the lash. If you see a person whipped for disobedience every day, if terrorizing people into compliance forms part of your daily experience, to some degree you internalize these things. As social animals, we pick up our norms from watching others. You get used to it. To minimize the stress of seeing it, you find ways to dull your natural empathy. You make excuses. You decide that you can’t do anything. We do not have it in us to begin the world anew. Participating yourself simply makes it imperative that you convince yourself of the necessity, even righteousness, of the violence much faster.
In a slave society, one grows up around this. The model of authority one imbibes must incorporate, to some degree, the use of brutal violence to secure compliance and demonstrate dominance. Not everybody will yield to these social pressure, but most people will. If they did not, a slave society could never develop in the first place. By learning how to manage slaves with violence and terror, one adopts a model that knows no color line. Violence against slaves receives its rationalization in necessity. They just have to learn that way, or horrors ensue. With that belief internalized what stops a person from applying the same methods to a white body that presents a challenge to slavery and so invokes the same potential horrors?
Nobody proposed selling Charles Robinson’s children, but his invocation of the slavery of whites has a grain of truth in it. Means of social control developed to preserve slavery would inevitably see use against whites who threatened the institution. They already had. When Robert S. Kelley came calling on Pardee Butler, he wanted Butler to endorse the whipping of a white man who questioned slavery. That level of abuse paled in comparison to what slaves endured daily, but it did pose a real threat to white Kansans. Any one of them gathered might become as the next Butler, or worse.