An Antislavery Dissent, Part One

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

My sources for the antislavery resistance in Kansas skew heavily to the radical end. I do what I can with the materials available to me to highlight the less radical elements as well, but I have no good repository of moderate antislavery opinion from the time and place. While the proslavery party’s embrace of violence and suppression of white freedoms certainly radicalized many, and drove others previously sympathetic over to the opposition, not everybody took that journey so far as the Charles Robinsons or George Browns of the day. The constant emphasis on unity in the resolutions of antislavery meetings speak well enough to that. Nor did every moderate come to that place through acts of political opportunism, as James Lane did.

In the September 22 Herald of Freedom, published just after George Brown’s return from the Topeka Convention, latest of the free soil party’s move toward a state government and a subject of future posts, a C. Stearns wrote of his “utter dissent” from the idea that the Free State party should write a constitution and strike for statehood. Stearns’ letter predates the Topeka and Big Springs Conventions alike, but arraigns their project in general. Stearns began by affirming his own antislavery beliefs:

While I honor the motives that actuate the majority of those concerned in this movement, yet believing as I do, that it is fraught with lasting injury to the cause that lies nearer to my heart at present than any other, viz: the making of Kansas a free State, I must unqualified condemn this movement. This I do hesitatingly, for my experience here has convinced me that no man can obey the “light within,” and act as his conscience directs, in all things, without meeting with the common lot of all reformers, viz: ridicule and hatred.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Stearns went on to say that he wrote a lawyer he knew in Boston to get qualified opinions on the matter. His Boston friend understood the situation well enough, saying that free soil Kansans fought “against unscrupulous wickedness, armed with power.” The “utmost sagacity and discretion” would give them little help against a foe who controlled the territory. But the antislavery men of Kansas had a single great weapon at their disposal: the ability “to guide and arouse the Northern feeling.” He thus endorsed repudiation of the legislature. But Stearns and other Kansans should stop there:

I think a State Government, without a basis of sufficient population, would be a mistaken course. That defect would be held by all the nation, a sufficient, though it might only be the pretended reason, for rejecting you, and this would give the enemy the best side of the argument. By ignoring the Legislature, and organizing Territorially [sic], you keep all the principles of right, law, and statesmanship on your side. Whether you fail or succeed in your immediate purpose, this keeping right legally, as well as morally, is a great thing, if possible.

Easy for him to say off in Boston, but he did have a point. A wildcat state government offered up excuses for most any politician on the national stage to repudiate it. Congress set up a territorial government, not a bunch of random Kansans on their own authority. Usurpation of congressional power would give not just proslavery men a plausible reason to deny the free state men, but also any dubious northerner. Such politicians could then say that they didn’t have a slavery problem in Kansas, but rather a civil disorder that required suppression. Such language had answered resistance to the Fugitive Slave Act, as a Bostonian would know very well.

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