A Different Southern View of Kansas

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

The proslavery party within Kansas, abetted by their election-stealing Missouri neighbors, considered themselves fighting for the entire South. If slavery failed to take root in Kansas, it would soon fail in Missouri. The Missouri domino might then topple Kentucky’s or Arkansas’ slavery. Each slave state turned free would become another pair of antislavery votes in the Senate. With the House already lost, this would put slavery on a path to ultimate extinction and all the ruin that would bring.

The Missouri slaveholders, from Atchison on down, had good reason to fear the prospect of freedom along their property lines, felt the threat keenly. The rest of the South, and even some Missourians quite close to the Kansas border, did not necessarily agree. I have seen letters in the Herald of Freedom, sent anonymously, which testify to that. While interesting, I take them with some skepticism as I understand nineteenth century newspaper men had a habit of inventing anonymous correspondence and I have no good way to spot specimens of their craft.

But a piece from another newspaper presents fewer interpretative issues. The Herald of Freedom reprinted a piece from the St. Joseph Gazette on Kansas matters that testifies to a more disinterested perspective on the future of the nation’s newest and most contentious territory. George Brown, still free despite his late lawbreaking, ran it under the title “Extreme Legislation”:

This illustrious body of law-givers adjourned on the 30th ult., after a tranquil session of sixty working days having performed more legislation during that space of time than perhaps necessity or the wants of the people required. Most of the laws enacted were good ones, because they were fac-similies of Missouri Statutes; but whenever they deviated fro a fixed standard, we find them floundering about like Milton’s devil, when traversing Chaos. The Kansas slave law is a disgrace to the age in which we live-it fetters the press-takes away the liberty of speech, and the right of every free white person of good character to sit on juries.

We shouldn’t always take the proslavery Kansans at their word when they say that they served the cause of the whole South. The Gazette doesn’t want anything to do with the Assembly’s slave code. Southerners could even approve wholeheartedly of slavery, and in endorsing Missouri’s laws as Kansas’ example the Gazette seems to do that, and take exception to what the majority had done with their ill-gotten seats in the legislature. They might do so for any number of reasons. Some southerners followed John C. Calhoun’s idea that as a united minority, the South could exert a real or effective veto over the national government and so keep slavery safe even as the minority section. Others simply thought that Kansas would not take to slavery anyway, either from its northern climate or because better virgin land remained to turn into slave labor camps in Texas and Arkansas. And some simply saw the sacrifice of white freedom as at least too overt or too radical.

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

The Gazette expected that courts would soon set aside Kansas laws. Even if no court struck, then who would enforce such enactments? But even if the courts stood idle and sheriffs did their duty, that would only make things worse:

Whenever legislation is too harsh or rigorous it cannot command general approbation and support; and public sympathy is transferred from justice to the criminal, for the victim to too severe a law is considered a martyr. A cruel enactment may be compared to a bulldog-being so fierce he is kept constantly chained, and because he is never permitted to go at large, is of course no terror to the evildoer.

The Gazette concluded that Kansas judges and juries would err toward leniency, laws or otherwise. That asked a lot of jurist and jury sworn to affirm Kansas’ laws and which, by those same laws, excluded anybody of antislavery bent, but stranger things had happened. Endorsing laws costs us little, but looking in the eyes of their victims can change minds. Until then, someone else does the dirty work.

Advertisements

Your input is welcome

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s