An Antislavery Dissent, Part Three

James Tallmadge, Jr. (D-NY)

James Tallmadge, Jr. (D-NY)

Parts 1 and 2

C. Stearns told Kansas radicals like George Brown and Charles Robinson that they needed to cool down. Their plan, then pending and subsequently voted through at Big Springs, to organize a government of their own, raced past good sense and straight into self-destruction. They would not, he supposed, have such an interest in doing so except that many of them saw themselves occupying offices in the new government. Further, and less insulting, the free state movement simply did not have time to write a Constitution before the delegate election at the start of October. But what if they pulled it off? Stearns expected that to go worse than achieving nothing:

if we form a Constitution now, we run the risk of having the “Black Law” engrafted upon it. If this is done, farewell to all our hopes of admission into the Union. Foul as is that Union, slaveholders and all, have always rejected such Constitutions as contrary to that of the United States. Henry Clay successfully opposed the admission of Missouri for that reason. Sumner, Hale, Giddings, all radical anti-slavery men, would oppose such a bill to death.

However little we think of Stearns’ strategy of delay, he had the black law issue right. The free state movement voted overwhelmingly to ban all black people from Kansas once they had their state government established. Stearns did, however, rather selectively remember the Missouri crisis in implying that Missouri came before the Congress with a black law in its constitution and asked admission. Rather instead, James Tallmadge, Jr., of New York, proposed making the exclusion of future entrance of black Americans into Missouri as a condition of its statehood. This, among other provisions, aimed to set Missouri on the road to emancipation in the decades ahead. Tallmadge’s proposals ignited the crisis that Clay then settled with the Missouri Compromise, of late repeal fame.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

His questionable history aside, Stearns declared that a free Kansas with a black law poison pill could show up with hat in hand, beg the Republicans to support its admission, and receive no takers. Obviously the national Democracy wouldn’t go out of its way to help them after creating the whole Kansas mess. The free state men would have nowhere to go.

With a reasonable danger laid out, Stearns moved once more to the implausible. He argued that the proslavery men might not entirely loathe the free state party, save for a pair of Stringfellow or Kelley here and there. But even if they did

it proves to me that their usual sagacity has not forsaken them, but they can see farther ahead than some of us can, and hope by seeming to oppose this project to blind our eyes, and induce us to advocate it still more strenuously. At any rate we must have penetration enough to ascertain the bearing of our projects upon our destiny, without being obliged to ask our opponents what they think of those projects. If we pursue the opposite course of always questioning the pro-slavery party as to their opinions on our meetings, they will certainly know enough to appear angry at a step which they are glad to see us taking.

Do they know that we know that they know that we know? One could follow that train of logic to the point of utter paralysis. Stearns seemed to prefer that to all other outcomes. I would from that take that he in fact did not have any real interest in preventing Kansas from going over to slavery, but far too often I’ve seen people begin with good premises and tie themselves into impotent knots with the same kind of argument. Somehow magnificent brilliance descends upon one’s foes, which helpfully makes one’s own struggle all the more heroic despite its doom. But these advanced placement elegies assume the brilliance of one’s foes in a world where we, the unspectacular, vastly outnumber the Machiavellian savants.

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