Politics at Topeka, Part Three

William Phillips

William Phillips

Parts 1, 2

At Topeka, the free state constitutional convention decided that only white men should have the vote, if over the objections of the more radical among them. In ruling out suffrage for black men or women of any color, the majority probably understood themselves as defending the republic just as much as they did when they put in place a hefty residence requirement as a hedge against future invasions from Missouri. But amid those restrictions came a qualified, relative expansions of the franchise worth noting. First the constitution mandated

The payment of a tax shall not be a qualification for exercising the right of suffrage.

The proslavery legislature of Kansas had gone just the opposite way, requiring payment of a tax to vote. Going the other way on an issue like this cast the free state men as friends of the common white man, who might find the poll tax onerous as well as offensive, and delivered a rebuke to the bogus legislature.

Despite the convention’s insistence on white male, and only white male, suffrage, they found it in themselves to make provisions for a kind of honorary white man by allowing “every civilized male Indian who has adopted the habits of the white man” the vote. If one acted sufficiently white, then one could gain the privileges. This reminds us that while the whites of Kansas generally restricted political to themselves, they still lived on land that had rightly belonged to the Native Americans all of a year earlier. Some of it, in the form of various reservations, still did. There some had adopted white styles of agriculture and tried to do their best to get by in the world that white Americans made. If the promise of full integration existed more in theory than fact, invited white meddling in one’s life, and always came with hard limits, then some judged that it still beat the grinding cycle of of deprivation and removal with which white Americans marched across the continent. A white America that saw them as a mix of dangerous animals and frustrating impediments to progress offered Indians few choices.

According to William Phillips,

An amusing discussion occurred on this measure, relative to the words in the report, when drafted, “shall conform to the habits of the whites;” it being believed that some of the “habits of the whites” would make a rather singular basis for the elective franchise, or political power generally. It was suggested that the capacity to drink a pint of raw whiskey be deemed an evidence of “conforming to the habits of the whites.”

Kansas’ earlier inhabitants, some of whom had seen two or more past removals in their lives, certainly did not have to conform to the habits of whites to the point of depriving said whites of their lands. Nineteenth century Americans might believe in assimilating and so “taming” the people who occupied their land before they arrived, but they had their limits. One supposes they might look more kindly on a “civilized” Indian who chose to afflict Indians, but in all things the white man must ultimately come out on top. That, above all else, constituted progress.

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