The Rioter and the Revolutionary

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

When the free state movement reached beyond the letter, and sometimes also spirit, of the law they generally did so in full knowledge of the fact. They made arguments from constitutional principles and from the Kansas-Nebraska Act, but did not also shy away from invoking more nebulous, revolutionary-era ideas to justify disregarding any written law. If they must go that far, and it seemed that they soon must, then they would don their tricorn hats and throw the tea overboard. George Brown had already done as much on his own behalf. They imagined an oppressive Britain in Missouri, which extruded a perfected tyranny beyond its limits into virgin Kansas, so recapitulating the revolutionary experience.

The proslavery men, with their own disregard for law, for the rights of white men, transgressed with similar knowledge. Benjamin Stringfellow lamented that the law in Missouri did not empower the state to properly suppress antislavery whites and admired the Kansas legislature he and his friends stole, where his brother sat, for showing the Show Me State the way forward. When they gathered in mobs to destroy property, terrorize, and lynch that likewise supplied the law’s deficiency. They applied the same revolutionary justifications as their foes used, albeit with more ready violence and in service of opposing ends.

A few weeks ago, I read this as a fairly tedious exercise in patriotism. Few Americans seem to think that the founders would disagree with them on anything more substantive than the wisdom of wearing knee-breeches and powdered wigs. But inspired by late events and abetted by a happy coincidence in gaining possession Pauline Maier’s 1970 article Popular Uprisings and Civil Authority in Eighteenth Century America, I undertook a closer examination. Maier highlights not the simple presence of the rioting mob in the eighteenth century, but rather its place as an integral element in the politics of the age. She says of these mobs:

they carried different connotations for the American Revolutionaries than they do today. Not all eighteenth-century mobs simply defied the law: some used extralegal means to implement official demands or to enforce laws not otherwise enforceable, others in effect extended the law in urgent situations beyond its technical limits. Since leading eighteenth century Americans had known many occasions on which mobs took on the defense of the public welfare, which was, after all, the stated purpose of government, they were less likely to deny popular upheavals all legitimacy than are modern leaders. While not advocating popular uprisings, they could still grant such incidents an established and necessary role in free societies, one that made them an integral and even respected element of the political order.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

I would not at this point call the free state movement a mob. To my knowledge, they have done no violence worse than isolated fistfights. But they did propose a kind of popular uprising in two senses that echo the ends of Maier’s mobs. The defiance of the law requires no further explanation, but their recourse to constitutional and other legal arguments fits easily into Maier’s end of extending the law in an urgent situation.

Calling the proslavery forces a mob or mobs requires no particular caveats. They had done violence, and threatened quite a bit more. But they too understood themselves as extending the law in the face of a crisis. Their mobbing, lynching, and destruction of property implemented official demands for the protection of slavery. Benjamin Stringfellow made as much explicit in Negro-Slavery, No Evil. His brother’s newspaper endorsed similar actions, and Robert Kelley’s seizure of copies of the Herald of Freedom cast him as an ex officio policeman enforcing yet unenforceable law, with an eye to gathering a mob to do so if necessary.

Maier’s mobs came and went a generation or more before the birth of most anyone in Kansas in 1855, but some kind of historical memory of them or their more recent descendants seems to have informed both sides in the Kansas dispute. Her eighteenth century mobs further lost much of their luster to Americans living under a government that they imagined expressing the popular will and so integral to them rather than an emanation of distant London. But the antislavery party considered themselves under a foreign government, based in Missouri. The proslavery party did something similar, imagining that Northern business interests had invaded them from without in the person of the Emigrant Aid Societies and their pauper mercenaries. No era perfectly repeats the experience of another, but I think that both parties fairly understood themselves as in a situation close enough that invoking the revolutionary past comes out of more than patriotic posturing.

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