Understanding C. Stearns

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Parts 12, 3

I have spent some time wondering what exactly went through C. Stearns’ mind when he penned his letter to the Herald of Freedom. One can read them as the work of an antislavery man resigned to defeat, one resentful of some of the leaders of the movement, one trying to show proslavery neighbors with guns in hand that he had nothing to do with those Lawrence crazies, or even as a proslavery man writing entirely in bad faith. Last night I came across this passage from Edward Said’s Representations of the Intellectual at Corey Robin’s blog:

Nothing in my view is more reprehensible than those habits of mind in the intellectual that induce avoidance, that characteristic turning away from a difficult and principled position which you know to be the right one, but which you decide not to take. You do not want to appear too political; you are afraid of seeming controversial; you need the approval of a boss or an authority figure; you want to keep a reputation for being balanced, objective, moderate; your hope is to be asked back, to consult, to be on a board or prestigious committee, and so to remain within the responsible mainstream; someday you hope to get an honorary degree, a big prize, perhaps even an ambassadorship.

For an intellectual these habits are corrupting par excellence. If anything can denature, neutralize, and finally kill a passionate intellectual life it is the internalization of such habits.

Stearns wrote with a fair bit of intellectual condescension, much of which I have declined to quote.  He could find only venal and emotional motives to explain the antislavery party’s move to make their own state. The ringleaders wanted the benefits of public office. Passion drove them, not good sense. Faced with the total capture of the territorial government by proslavery men and their thoroughgoing attack on white freedoms, occasionally graduating to attacks on white lives as well, he advises his supposed allies to essentially take all that comes as if lives and freedom did not hang on the line.

I only know Stearns from this letter. If anybody knows more, I’ll happily hear it. But to judge from the letter, Stearns sounds very much like Said’s corrupted intellectual. I don’t think that he harbored secret antislavery beliefs. He certainly understood the situation well enough to fear the proslavery party’s wrath, something that will come out in future posts. But, despite his denials of “egotism” he clearly fancies himself a man who sees far more clearly than others. He even signed his letter “Yours for the supremacy of reason.”

None of that makes Stearns’ letter unimportant. He still represents diversity of opinion among antislavery Kansans. He might very well have put into writing the doubts many expressed in private but would not send to the papers. With the friends of slavery very much in ascendance and known to prosecute their case with violence, it hardly requires a coward or a fool to worry about how things might go badly.

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