The Free State Strategy Through Proslavery Eyes

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

The move by a self-appointed, if later popularly ratified, group of men to ignore the lawful government of Kansas, form their own, declare themselves the state of Kansas, and petition Congress for admission to the Union deserves some further examination in itself. I have struggled to find a good word to describe what they proposed. By late September and early October of 1855 they had gone beyond idle talk and resolutions of mass meetings. Those prior acts, however much they outraged proslavery Kansans, stood well within the ambit of ordinary nineteenth century politics. Now they had gone past those limits, and would go further in time. What does one call the establishment of an unauthorized government and rejection of the established one if not a revolution?

Revolutionaries must expect that their opponents will resort to force to suppress them, seeing it as an imperative to defend the legitimacy of the state. States that tolerate such movements don’t remain states for long, after all. We might fairly say that the territorial government of Kansas had forfeited any claim to legitimacy many times over, but the remedy for bad state actions generally involves winning elections and changing the rules through established processes. To allow otherwise easily reduces legitimacy to the quality of having the greatest willingness and ability to prosecute one’s case through violence. Our natural sympathy with the free state movement’s politics, not to mention their real and compelling grievances against the territorial government, should not obscure just how radical a strategy they chose.

Proslavery Kansans, and their fellow “Kansans” who had mailing addresses in Missouri, already understood Kansas as in a state of crisis. The presence of abolitionists and antislavery people among them constituted something very much like a mortal threat. These people would not merely threaten slave property, in itself a valuable investment and so a compelling pecuniary interest, but also the specter of a murderous slave revolt. However much slavery’s advocates told themselves that they had happy, contented slaves few could miss that slaves did not actually enjoy their lot in life. They might not admit it even to themselves, but any human being could see a slave whipped and imagine what they would think if they changed places. Fear of being reduced to such a state informed their understanding of freedom and highlighted slavery’s righteousness: They enjoyed freedom because no stripes came off their backs. White skin kept them safe, so they must preserve its prerogatives even if that required some sacrifices of white safety and security. Dissenters must feel the full wrath of the state, and failing that the mob, or the slaves would rise and soon all whites would know endless calamity. If this sounds too strange to imagine, then think of how you would feel about a person teaching terrorists how to build a nuclear weapon. Both raise the prospect of total annihilation and so must provoke in those concerned similarly visceral fears. If a few must die, even at the hands of lynch mobs, and it saves thousands, then most of us call it a good day. How many Americans mourned the night we learned of Osama Bin Laden’s death?

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

With these fears in mind, the election stealing and legal tyranny make much more sense. They came from people who had worked themselves into a panic. But if they understood themselves as facing a crisis before, then the open establishment of an insurrectionist committee that rejected the authority of the legal state could only confirm their every fear. Not only did abolitionists plot in secret, they cast aside the masks and operated in the clear light of day. That might very well mean that they had some more nefarious deeds then usual planned. It certainly must move some proslavery Kansans who previously considered the danger under control, or at least managed, to look more favorably than they had before on strict measures to drive antislavery whites from the territory. If they didn’t agree with Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow before, they might now:

The security of our slave-property was not alone involved; our very lives were endangered. The negro-thief, the abolitionists, who induces a slave to run away, is a criminal of a far more dangerous character than the house-breaker, or the highway robber, — his crime of a far higher grade than that of the incendiary — it ranks, at least, with that of the midnight assassin. To induce a slave to escape, involves not merely to the master the loss of that slave, of that amount of property; but it brings in its train far more serious consequences. Other slaves are thereby induced to make like attempts; a hatred for their masters, whom they begin to regard as their oppressors, is thus begotten; and this, too, often is followed by arson and murder.

2 comments on “The Free State Strategy Through Proslavery Eyes

  1. “They enjoyed freedom because no stripes came off their backs. White skin kept them save, so they must preserve its prerogatives even if that required some sacrifices of white safety and security.” Bingo. And this sentiment, aka “Herrenvolk Democracy” (I’d even call it Democratic Authoritarianism) is what gave pro-slavery politics such durability among the southern white populace for so long. A lot of people fail to realize that fact because they equate pro-slavery with literal slaveholding, but it was far from that simple.

    • If the purpose of the democracy is to exalt one color or people by enabling its authoritarianism over another, and I think that’s a fair description of at least a good portion of state and national policy, then calling it Democratic Authoritarianism only makes sense. Finding things white Americans have done that aren’t in some way either expression of or reactions against it would probably take quite a search.

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