The Friends of Law and Order, Part Two

Senator William H. Seward (Whig-NY)

William H. Seward

We left the Friends of Law and Order addressing the “Law-Abiding Citizens of Kansas” on the crisis that now faced Kansas. The abolitionists had come into their midst and threatened, with their fanatical hostility to the institution of the South, to bring the entire territory to ruin. Fair Kansas, blessed with natural resources and a glorious destiny, might fall into anarchy. The free state men had, after all, declared themselves in defiance of the law, set up their own government with its own elections and soon its own constitution. They fomented rebellion, which no state could tolerate.

These concerns obviously came from the proslavery party, but the men who wrote the address in the October 23, 1855 edition of the Squatter Sovereign did appeal to universal concerns:

It is not our intention at present to discuss the relative merits of the various political sentiments entertained by those whose doctrines are now linked together, for weal or woe, in the future fate of Kansas, the home of their adoption. The mass of our people have but one common interest, the general good and welfare of the people.

Forget the politics; we simply can’t have a two governments vying for the same territory. That augured civil war. Thus regardless of opinions on slavery or on the legitimacy of the legislature, good Kansans had to come together to fight the treason growing in their midst. Whatever they thought about it

The Legislature, which framed our code of laws, was according to the admission of the Governor of the Territory, a legally constituted body.

Although that Legislative Assembly may have erred and transcended its legitimate powers, yet we hold that their enactments are binding upon every citizen until they are by the proper tribunals decided to be invalid or unconstitutional.

Andrew Reeder, the same man who had just won election as the free state party’s delegate to Congress, had signed off on the legislature. He only changed his mind when it removed from his real estate investments in Pawnee. If he thought it illegitimate simply for its membership or its irregular elections, then he would not have so easily convened, praised, and tried to work with the body.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

The friends of law and order further argued that this technical, legal legitimacy entirely sufficed. If the legislature got a bit carried away, then the American system had remedies. New elections, court rulings, or even acts of Congress might correct it. But private sentiment could not:

If a different rule is to govern, why not let every man create within his own bosom a superior court to pass upon the validity and binding force of any law? Why have courts at all if they are not the proper tribunals to decide upon these questions?

So much for Higher Law doctrinesWilliam Seward could cry himself to sleep every night for all they cared. The anarchy that threatened seemed to come on a straight line from the New York Senator, through the antislavery movement, freight paid by the New England Emigrant Aid Company. Seward’s bellicose language on Kansas invited the connection. Thus

We have witnessed the declaration of open and avowed resistance, and we see in it a manifestation of a lawless and reckless spirit which will soon subvert the foundations of all law, and reduce us to the wildest state of anarchy and confusion, unless it is speedily arrested in its mad career. It counsels a dissolution of all social and political ties. It constitutes every man as the sold judge of the validity of all law […] open defiance to “the powers that be” is already proclaimed. It is needless to argue against the folly and wickedness of such conduct;- It is higher-lawism-it is Treason.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

This has a whiff of desperate exaggeration to it, but I don’t think we should underestimate their sincerity. Bonds of law included not just slavery, but marriage, property, and many other things that they understood as essential. These ties, legal and simultaneously social and political, held society back from the precipice. An attack on one thus seemed like an attack on all. Freeing the slaves would deprive white men of their property, bring about the specter of black men raping their wives and so violating the social bond of their marriages, and the slavery question threatened to sunder their political bonds as well. Free state and proslavery assemblies alike found it necessary to abjure the formation of parties affiliated with the national organizations in favor of bipartisan alignments for or against property in people.

If they really did believe slavery fundamental to society, and it seems clear that the proslavery men did, then all of this logically follows. They had built and aimed to continue building a civilization on the backs of black Americans. Tear away that foundation and what could stand?

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