The Topeka Appeal, Part One

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

At the end of September, 1855, Kansas new free state party gathered in Topeka and did the necessary work to proceed with their plan to make their own state government and ask Congress to admit it instead of the proslavery government that their Missourian neighbors had imposed upon them. They established a provisional government in the form of an executive committee and conveyed upon it power to administrate the elections for a proper constitutional convention. That duty included naming polling places and election officials. None of that would do any good if Kansans stayed at home. Thus the convention empowered a band of official promoters and propagandists. They would go back to their homes and spread the news in their papers, handbills, and so forth. Each writer could make his own appeals, but James Lane’s executive committee also approved an official proclamation to circulate.

Addressing itself “To the legal voters of Kansas”, the proclamation declared

the territorial government, as now constitute for Kansas, has proved a failure: squatter sovereignty, under its workings, a miserable delusion; in proof of which it is only necessary to refer to our past history and present deplorable condition.

Lane did not open up with fireworks against slavery, but the condemnation of popular sovereignty came over the signature of a man who voted for just that doctrine a year prior. The free state movement continued to endorse the principle of the Kansas-Nebraska Act as well. Thus one might wonder about the rhetorical shift. But the indictment comes with the important qualifier that the doctrine, as practiced in Kansas, made for that “miserable delusion.” It might work fine in Nebraska, New Mexico, or some other place. Only the experience of Kansas impeached it. Committed antislavery men who adopted popular sovereignty for the complaint that proslavery forces could not prevail even using their own tool could sign on to that and ignore the qualifiers. Those more aggrieved specifically at the circumscription of white self-government could in turn take from the lines that they had not joined up with a band of crusading abolitionists.

The familiar litany of sins came next:

Our ballot boxes have been taken possession of by bands of armed men from foreign States; our people forcibly driven therefrom; persons attempted to be foisted upon us as members of a so-called legislature, unacquainted with our wants, and hostile to our best interests, some of them never residents of our Territory, misnamed laws passed, and now attempted to be enforced by the aid of citizens of foreign States of the most oppressive tyrannical, and insulting character; the right of suffrage taken from us, debarred from the privilege of a voice in the election of even the most insignificant officers, the right of free speech stifled, the muzzling of the press attempted

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

That covered most everything. Few in Kansas had probably missed the details, but not everyone lived in Lawrence or read the Herald of Freedom. Furthermore, it couldn’t hurt to bring them all to mind when asking Kansans to consider the radical step of a wildcat constitutional convention in defiance of the legal government of the territory. Such appeals had a long history in the United States, which the proclamation happily brought to mind:

longer forbearance with such oppression and tyranny has ceased to be a virtue; and, whereas, the people of this country have heretofore exercised the right of changing their form of government when it became oppressive, and have at all times conceded this right to the people in this and all other governments

Unlike many similar declarations, the committee didn’t see a need to call out Jefferson or the spirit of ’76 by name. Echoing the argument of the Declaration served well enough on its own. If anybody missed it, George Brown also sold copies out of his office.

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