An Antislavery Dissent, Part Five

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Parts 12, 3, 4

So far, Stearns has taken to the pages of George Brown’s Herald of Freedom to give his fellow antislavery men only reason to delay and do nothing, along with the implicit suggestion that they ought to rid themselves of venal fools who led them. Not all of those reasons come from blind fear or rock-ribbed conservatism. It only stood to reason that the proslavery men would seek ways to punish their foes and use the nascent insurrection as just cause. The delegate election really would come before a state government could properly form. But with all that considered, what did Stearns want them to do?

On the day of election of Delegate to Congress, let copies of a petition to Congress be offered to every voter for him to sign. Let this petition state formally that the present Legislature of the Territory was elected by voters from Missouri, and had trampled under foot the authority of the United States, in refusing seats to men declared elected by the Governor-kin receiving members without their presenting the Governor’s certificates, and in adjourning from the place appointed by the Governor, to a part of the Territory not formally under the jurisdiction of the United States. That said Legislature had “abridged the freedom of speech and of the press;” and has enacted odious laws to which we never can submit. We are therefore left without any legal protection as a people and our dearest rights are wholly unguarded, and we, not knowing what more proper steps to take, do humbly ask the General Government to interfere in our behalf, either by enforcing the principles of the Nebraska-Kansas bill, or by some direct legislation suited to our case.

That doesn’t sound like an awful idea, even if it runs heavy to things that the free soil men had done often enough before with their conventions and resolutions. But for a man so attuned to practicalities and the eagerness of proslavery Kansans to attack their antislavery foes, he picked an especially odd place to circulate petitions. His plan required that election officials, now appointed by the legislature, would permit petitions to circulate. It required free soil men to go to the polls, an option which exposed them to the real threat of violence. Then it required the proslavery men who would probably flood in from Missouri, as well as locally, to permit the petitions to go around. What, in the entire history of Kansas as an organized territory, led C. Stearns to think any of those things likely to transpire, let alone all of them together?

Furthermore, the principle the Kansas-Nebraska Act meant different things to different Americans. To one party, popular sovereignty meant that the people could choose by affirmative act of their legislature to vote slavery in, but it did not exist within Kansas until that point. They had precedent and sound reasoning on their side. To the other party, popular sovereignty meant that the people could choose similarly to vote slavery out, but that it existed until a law banning it passed. They also had precedent and sound reasoning to cite. Asking Congress to enforce its law could bring either outcome, or neither as the body deadlocked. Congress passed that buck in large part because it had come to loggerheads on the issue and the ambiguity of popular sovereignty allowed swing votes to read it either way. Maybe Stearns hoped that proslavery excesses would shake those moderates loose and make them legislate clarity instead of smoke and mirrors, but the prospect of that seems as dim in late 1855 as it had in the spring of 1854.

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