Parties at Topeka

William Phillips

William Phillips

William Phillips pointed out the diversity of the men who gathered at Topeka to write Kansas’ free state constitution. They came from diverse states and parties, agreeing only that Kansas needed a constitution, needed it now, and likely would have no other hope to free itself from rule by Missouri-backed proslavery despots. He viewed the assembly as no worse than any other and took its variety of viewpoints and degrees of plasticity in morals and principles as a strength. The reports of conventions and other mass meetings in the nineteenth century can give the impression that wise elders gather, give solemn speeches, and then judiciously vote their consciences. Newspaper accounts orbit around the official proclamations and so necessarily emphasize consensus, if with occasional notes of controversy. Phillips’ account, in his Conquest of Kansas, goes into enough detail to avoid such perils.

From the general confusion of demographics and sentiment, Phillips grouped the delegates in three broad groups that he considered roughly equal in number.

First, there were the stern men of unyielding principles, who realized the full responsibility of the struggle in Kansas; and, in doing so, felt the necessity of making the interests of the cause the only consideration until a happier state of things could be brought about.

One immediately thinks of abolitionists like Charles Robinson here. I suspect Phillips did as well, but he cast a somewhat broader net than that. His classification comes down ultimately to strategy. The free state movement had keeping slavery from Kansas as its common denominator. Keeping that “the only cause of consideration” would retain the movement’s unity, but might very well do so at considerable cost. Not every free state radical would also make for an antislavery radical. Though Phillips groups them together, more racist Kansans could and would force concessions from the more egalitarian peers.

Then there was a class, mostly young, who, while deeply sensible of the interests of Kansas, were not entirely oblivious to their own. These men were true citizens and first-rate free-state men. They were determined to do their duty by the country, and that Kansas should go ahead as a free state, and that they should go ahead with it. They were not anxious about any present emolument, as the facilities for obtaining it were moderate, very; but, aware that Kansas had to cut her future greatness out of her present “raw material,” were anxious to be manufactured into the great men aforesaid.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

These men wanted in on the ground floor of Kansas, hoping to rise to wealth and influence with it. The free state movement had no offices to sell to them at the moment, but might in the future. We can, in our cynical age, take them as self-interested opportunists. I think we mistake them in doing so. While we know that down the road the free state men won through, they did not. By aligning themselves with an insurrectionist movement, in open defiance of the law of the territory and, arguably, the nation they took a significant risk. They could have played it safe and aligned with the proslavery party. That group controlled Kansas at the time and had in its hands patronage to dispense. If those hungry for offices, wealth, and fame wanted only those they they would have done better to condemn the free state movement than join it.

The third class was one more difficult to describe. It consisted of politicians who were-no, not broken down, as that they only would have been if they had stayed at home; but, in short, of “men who had seen some little of their countries service.” Some of these gentlemen came to Kansas without any ostensible occupation, but all of them had “served their time” at working in wire. As manoeuvring is an essential part of legislation, now-a-days, they were highly useful. They were determined not to let the press of more important business permit them to neglect the proper formation of parties in the territory.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

We come to the necessity of experienced political hands. Phillips describes them as electioneering with everybody. They approached anybody and offered to explain the situation, wooing the less sophisticated with flattery. Any white man could seem like a clever lad of sound judgment, one that the territory’s government could not do without. Come along and stand for office. If the candidate then felt obliged to his patron, so much the better. If “the victim” declined, then he need not worry. His new friend would see to such matters.

Our politicians are adepts at that trick. Like Satan, they make free to offer “all the kingdom in the world” to those who will “fall down and worship them.”

What sort of men of wealth and taste did Phillips put in the latter group? He did not give a full roster of each party, but it surely amounts to more than a coincidence that he summarized James Lane’s political career so closely in describing them.

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