Politics at Topeka, Part Two

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

We left the Topeka Convention split into ersatz parties. The body concerned itself with writing a constitution for Kansas, which they would send on to Congress for deliverance from all the proslavery men had imposed upon them. To write a constitution, the revolutionaries had to decide on its contents and there differences between them appeared. Charles Robinson’s more radical abolitionists met at the Chase House. James Lane’s moderates gathered at the Garvey House. Both seem to have collected in the attics. Both also had their frustrations. Lane had his scandal and abortive duel.

Robinson’s Republicans had a less conspicuous failure. Given Kansas’ history of election stealing, going all the way back to the first election held in the territory and continuing as recently as the month of the convention, October of 1855, the question of who could vote in Kansas might seem like one easily settled. People from Missouri most definitely could not. The Topeka Constitution specified that every voter in the free state Kansas must

have his habitation, domicil, home, and place of permanent abode in the State of Kansas, for six months next preceding the election at which he offers to vote; who, at such time, and for thirty days immediately preceding said time, shall have had his actual habitation, domicil, home, and place of permanent abode in the county in which he offers to vote, and who shall have resided in the precinct or election district for at least ten days immediately preceding the election

Voters had to live in Kansas, really live there rather than just make a claim or swear to intention to settle. The six months in the territory would exclude the usual border ruffians. The requirement to live a month in the county and ten days in the district would curb any attempt by proslavery Kansans to steal elections by internal movements.

The first of Robinson’s frustrations, is probably the one he expected the most, came here. The Constitution specified the voters came in only two kinds: white males and “every civilized male Indian who has adopted the habits of the white man”. Robinson reports that

A small segment of the members were thrown completely outside of all healthy political organization by voting for negro suffrage. Their names were R.H. Crosby, G.S. Hillyer, Amory Hunting, O.C. Brown, Richard Knight, Phillip C. Schuyler, and C. Robinson.

Seven votes out the fifty men elected to go to Topeka might not thrill modern sensibilities. If some others supported the principle of equal suffrage, they did not consider it worth marking themselves out as dissenters by voting with Robinson and company. Still, but nineteenth century standards, even the small turnout looks a bit admirable and certainly forward-thinking. Some of the same seven, whom Robinson doesn’t name, went still further:

as if to make their political damnation sure, [they] voted to strike out the world “male” as well as “white” from the constitution.

Sarah Grimké

Sarah Grimké

They deserve some credit from us for that, but it speaks to more important facts than our moral estimations of the long dead. The abolitionist movement had a large overlap with the nineteenth century women’s movement. As a movement concerned with public morals and reform, abolitionism occupied a gray space in the normally separate spheres of nineteenth century male and female life. Politics remained a world for men, but in their role as moral educators women could take a position within it all the same. Many availed themselves of that opportunity, just as they did with the temperance movement. We should thus understand the motion as an expression of solidarity as well as personal sentiment.

This in turn led to proslavery men castigating abolitionists as weak men dominated by the “weaker” sex. The women themselves received extensive condemnation, damning them as emasculating shrews who sought to force Southern manhood into “submission,” a duty that fell exclusively upon women and slaves. Likewise proslavery men cast them as hysterics who could not comprehend the nuances of politics. They further resorted to crude jibes at their appearance and speculation as to how traveling lecturers really made their money. If all of that sounds depressingly familiar, it should. A century and a half without slavery and a century with women voting have not freed half the species, our mothers, sisters, daughters, and other loved ones from the same sort of scorn for daring presume themselves as good and their opinions as worthy of consideration as those of a man.

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