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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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.

Dueling at Topeka, Part Two

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Despite Charles Robinson’s best efforts, we left James Lane and G.P. Lowry with a duel scheduled for eight the next morning. Lowry said something about Lane and a Mrs. Lindsay. Robinson declined to give details, save to say that it involved some scandal and he had helped Lane settle up with Mr. Lindsay. Robert Collins’ biography, Jim Lane: Scoundrel, Statesman, Kansan refers to Lane’s “lecherous” reputation in conjunction with the Lindsay affair. He also relates an episode with a “Mrs. Buffum” who asked pay for her services which Lane could not provide. Disenchanted with the transaction, she drew a pistol, challenged Lane, and chased him through the streets. Collins goes on to say that both stories “came with little proof”. True or not, Lane apparently took the Lindsay rumor as serious enough to warrant a public resolution. Lowry apparently felt confident enough of the matter to wager his life on it, or at least that he wanted others to think he would.

Challenge and acceptance could in themselves satisfy would-be dueling partners. Both showed the world that they felt strongly and would risk injury, so whatever agreement they came to thereafter deserved some respect. But neither man backed down. The night passed and in the morning, Robinson relates that

a message appeared and desired to change the hour from eight o’clock to eleven o’clock. This evidently was the beginning of a back-down, as the convention would be in session at that hour, and most likely Lane would have some friend posted to stop the duel.

These things had a ritual to them. A notionally outside interruption to events could serve to call the thing off. Robinson probably didn’t need hindsight or a deep knowledge of dueling culture to recognize delaying tactics when he saw them. Nor did Lowry, who accepted the change. The convention commenced and half an hour before the time appointed, Lane rose and gave what Robinson called “one of his windy harangues”. He spoke until the time came, then closed, claimed his hat, and started for the duel.

Instantly Judge Smith arose, in great apparent agitation, made the announcement that he had learned a hostile meeting was in contemplation, to which some members of the convention were parties, and he desired “to move the adoption of the following resolution,” which had been previously prepared in due form. This resolution apparently created a great sensation, and proposed to expel any member of the convention who would be a party to such a meeting, either as principal or second.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Such a resolution could give both men a face-saving way to back down. They had a higher charge to their constituents and a duty to Kansas, for which they could sacrifice their grudge. The convention approved unanimously. Robinson, accepting that he had acted as Lowry’s second the night previous, chose “to conform to the resolution” and so passed his role to J.F. Legate.

Legate was in his element, and demanded a fight or an ignominious back-down and apology on the part of Lane. It is needless to say the apology and back-down came to the full satisfaction of the challenged party. This was the first and last duel in Kansas

This kind of ritual brinksmanship and choreographed de-escalation occurred often enough in duels. It seems that the challenge and acceptance formed not the immediate precursor to the clash of arms, but rather one step of several along the road to a non-violent resolution. People really did duel one another from time to time, as Andrew Jackson and Thomas Hart Benton did, but the theater of honor could serve in lieu of the field of honor easily enough. If that theater sounds like the stage for an absurd, swaggering farce with far too much risk of going wrong to us, then it prompted eye rolling and shock from some quarters at the time as well.

Dueling at Topeka, Part One

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

James Lane managed to exact his pound of flesh in the Topeka convention’s acceptance of popular sovereignty, however little Charles Robinson and his Republicans liked it. In that respect, at least, the convention would sound as Democratic as its members. But this did not satisfy him. Robinson reported in The Kansas Conflict that Lane also had the convention’s chair to serve as vindication against rumors swirling about. The rumors failed to cease and Lane thus required more satisfaction. As Robinson had it, with his customary charity toward the ex-congressman from Indiana, “he must put a gag in every man’s mouth.”

G.P. Lowry, late of the Kansas Legion and once Andrew Reeder’s private secretary, came up to the attic of the Chase House. There he found Robinson and his fellow abolition-minded Republicans. Lowry related that Lane had challenged him to a duel. Would Robinson serve as his second?

Robinson, who refers to himself in the third person throughout his account

was indignant that the Free-State cause should be tarnished by such transactions, and said it must not be permitted. He utterly detested duelling, knew nothing of the code, and would have nothing to do with it.

One wonders how much of this Robinson put on for posterity. The actual job of the seconds in a duel involved as much negotiation to prevent the duel as it did facilitation. He might genuinely not have known, but he proceeded to act as a second all the same:

thinking he could shame Lane out of the business, [Robinson] went to the Garvey House attic to see Lane. there he found him trembling with fear, or shaking with the ague, so as visibly to move the cot on which he lay. On being reproved for bringing disgrace upon the party, he said Lowry had been repeating the scandal about himself and Mrs. Lindsay, and he had determined to put a stop to it at once and forever.

Lane determined that then, but Robinson reports

Notwithstanding Lane had gone to Robinson’s house early in the morning and begged of him to assist in preventing Lindsay from shooting him, and though Robinson had endorsed a note to effect a settlement, yet not Lane would try to make believe there was nothing to the matter, and he was bound to stop all such talk. After dwelling upon the folly of such a course, saying that if he should kill Lowry, it would not stop the scandal nor vindicate him in public estimation, and if Lowry should kill him he would fare no better, Lane replied that he could do nothing about it, as Parrott was his second and the whole matter was in his hands.

If Lane sounds unstable, perhaps he should. His battle with depression ended in an 1866 suicide. Robinson might have embroidered the account to make him look worse, but the mix of self-sabotage and avoidance rings true to this fellow sufferer. We can’t know Lane’s mind, but he might have settled with Mr. Lindsay and then thought matters concluded until Lowry said something. Lane could have then thought he could never escape from the scandal, unless he did something drastic. Anything to get out of it all could have sounded good in the desperate heat of the moment.

Robinson’s pleas did not move Lane. The parties found a Major Robert Klotz to “superintend” and set the time for eight the next morning.

Unpacking States Rights

John C. Calhoun

John C. Calhoun

One often hears that nineteenth century Americans believed in states rights. With these two words we answer a multitude of questions: What policy position characterized white Southern opinion in the antebellum era? States rights. Why did white Southerners object to bans on slavery in the territories? States rights. Why did white Southern states secede in 1860-1? States rights. Why did white Southerners fight the Union? States rights. Uttering the two words absolves one from any obligation to further inquiry. States rights simply constitute an end unto themselves. They slice; they dice; they explain all American history for however many payments of $19.95.

One can find nineteenth century Americans making all of those claims and if one settles for a superficial reading, then they suffice. Looking at them in light of their authors, their times, their circumstances, and the broader history of the nation tells a rather different story. Only the rights to institute, expand, and defend slavery excited much interest in the antebellum South. Attempts to exercise state sovereignty against the federal government otherwise garnered this answer:

The States of Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa, have enacted laws which either nullify the Acts of Congress or render useless any attempt to execute them. In many of these States the fugitive is discharged from service or labor claimed, and in none of them has the State Government complied with the stipulation made in the Constitution. The State of New Jersey, at an early day, passed a law in conformity with her constitutional obligation; but the current of anti-slavery feeling has led her more recently to enact laws which render inoperative the remedies provided by her own law and by the laws of Congress. In the State of New York even the right of transit for a slave has been denied by her tribunals; and the States of Ohio and Iowa have refused to surrender to justice fugitives charged with murder, and with inciting servile insurrection in the State of Virginia.

Thus, South Carolina declared the ends of the Union frustrated and its obligations therefore void. The Carolina secessionists pointed to the Constitution, chapter and verse. The free states had undertaken obligations that yielded their sovereignty to the Union on the matter of slaves who dared steal lives from their rightful owners. One can’t argue otherwise, as the Constitution says so right here:

No Person held to Service or Labour in one State, under the Laws thereof, escaping into another, shall, in Consequence of any Law or Regulation therein, be discharged from such Service or Labour, but shall be delivered up on Claim of the Party to whom such Service or Labour may be due.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

The free states dared nullify federal law. They did so not in some vague or ambiguous area, but where the Constitution explicitly denied them any such power just as it stripped from the states the power to set tariff rates. By breaking faith with their constitutional promises, in this and other matters, the free states had dishonored themselves and forced South Carolina from the Union.

One could go on with this hypocrisy. It would take an arduous search to find an invocation of states rights free from it, if one exists at all. Northern states did claim they had rights to nullify this law or that, most famously Wisconsin when it nullified the Fugitive Slave Act, but they also asserted that they lacked the any such power. Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. recounted many such examples in his essay The States Rights FetishNearly a century has come and gone since he wrote and that makes his history downright antique. One should read it with considerable caution. But that said, I don’t think one can argue with the facts he cites.

Beginning with the wellspring of states rights rhetoric, the Kentucky and Virginia Resolutions of 1798-9, Schlesinger points out that Jefferson and Madison drew them up as works of political protest. The Federalists in Congress had trampled what we would call civil liberties with the Alien and Sedition Acts. This trampling applied rather selectively to people of Jefferson’s and Madison’s political party. From New England, where the Federalists had control of the legislatures, condemnations rained down. The Constitution vested the power to judge a statute’s constitutionality in the federal courts, not the state houses. That we might agree with Jefferson that the Federalists had gone so far should not blind us to the partisan concern.

Then Jefferson’s party gained control of the government in 1800. Jefferson’s and Madison’s policies harmed the New England shipping industry. The New England legislatures then discovered that they did, in fact, have the power to judge the constitutionality of federal laws:

In February, 1809, the Massachusetts legislature resolved that the embargo measures were, “in many respects, unjust, oppressive and unconstitutional, and not legally binding on the citizens of this state,” though the citizens were counselled “to abstain from forcible resistance, and to apply for their remedy in a peaceable manner to the laws of the commonwealth.” The Connecticut legislature resolved in a similar spirit that it would not “assist or concur in giving effect to the … unconstitutional act, passed to enforce the Embargo.”

The War of 1812 brought the notion that state militias should come into federal service, under the command of federal officers. Connecticut put on its best South Carolina act in response, declaring

the state of Connecticut is a FREE SOVEREIGN and INDEPENDENT state; that the United States are a confederacy of states; that we are a confederated and not a consolidated republic

James Madison

James Madison

The issue of the Bank of the United States brought such talk to Pennsylvania and back down to Virginia. Who took the other side?

The federal government found an outspoken friend in South Carolina and a somewhat unexpected defender in Massachusetts. In resolutions of 1821 and 1822 both states asserted the full right of Congress to enact laws establishing a national bank with branches in the several states, and Massachusetts, with an odor of self-righteousness, explicitly championed the right of the United States Supreme Court to settle all questions involving the constitutionality of legislation.

The same South Carolina would discover that states had the right to nullify federal laws after all, aiming the power at the tariff. With all of this talk about sovereign states and nullification, one would assume that other states rushed to the Palmetto State’s banner but

they sought in vain for friends and defenders where they had every right to expect them. In the first stages of the controversy, Ohio and Pennsylvania, both former expounders of the state rights position, expressed their belief that the tariff was entirely constitutional. Event hose states of the South which had earlier declared a belief in the unconstitutionality of the tariff system were not willing to follow the logic of South Carolina into nullification. […] Mississippi adding, with myopic vision into the future, “we stand firmly resolved … in all events and at every hazard, to sustain” the president in “preserving the integrity of the Union-that Union, whose value we will never stop to calculate-holding it, as our fathers held it, precious above all price.”

Easy enough to say with an enslaver in the White House.

Schlesinger goes on: Massachusetts condemned the annexation of Texas and resolved to ignore the resolution that carried it into force. Vermont, Ohio, and Connecticut agreed. Schlesinger then moves on to Wisconsin’s aforementioned nullification. Not taking the Supreme Court decision as binding, the state

resolved in 1859, on the verge of the war to preserve the Union, that the several states which had formed the federal compact, being “sovereign and independent,” had “the unquestionable right to judge of its infractions” and to resort to “positive defiance” of all unauthorized acts of the general government.

Andrew Jackson

Andrew Jackson

What does all of this amount to? One can read the various proclamations as evidence of a robust antebellum conviction that the states had the rightful power to judge federal laws unconstitutional and nullify them on their own authority. States both North and South claimed it. But states of both sections, the same states often enough, also condemned it and declared it treasonous. It seems, to judge from consistent patterns of behavior rather than isolated rhetoric, states had the right only when and only to the extent that they lost the most recent round of elections and resolved not to accept that verdict nor to wait for their redress in the next canvass.

Stripping away the constitutional rhetoric and high theory, states rights boil down to just that. Even in the most generous reading, a consistent states rights sentiment would amount to the conviction that state governments have greater propensity to enact policies that one prefers than the federal government. Nothing about the state or federal governments makes one or the other inherently more virtuous. We can find in the past actions equally praiseworthy and horrifying from both. For every abolition of slavery and segregation, we have a Trail of Tears or Japanese-American Internment.

In this light, the regular changes in position on supposedly bedrock constitutionalism become entirely comprehensible. Whether Massachusetts in 1809 or South Carolina in 1860, the cry of states rights expresses no more than the partisanship of the losing party to an election. Its universality likewise comes as no surprise, given that everyone who prevails in an election requires another who did not.

The victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

The victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

This brings one back around at length to one of the standard answers to neo-Confederates: states rights for what? Nobody wants any kind of abstract, unspecified states right or state sovereignty in itself. Rather one seeks them in order to achieve various ends which appear then impossible at the national level. Stripping all context from assertions of state power and rendered them into constitutional esoterica does nothing but impede our understanding of the past.

I suspect the authors of such arguments intend as much. By taking the politics out of political arguments, we hide from ourselves and others the information necessary to make informed judgments. So blinded, we inevitably come to the conclusion that past Americans simply had some kind of good faith dispute over the letter of the law which, thanks to some irresponsible actors, turned into a war. It would not do to pay attention to the main behind the curtain, whatever he does to his slaves. We must instead comment only the color of the drapes and the manly vigor he demonstrated in choosing it.

This policy or that, before the Civil War or after, violates states rights. Anti-lynching laws? States rights. Integration? States rights. Civil Rights? States rights. Obamacare? States rights. Same-sex marriage? States rights. If we can give it a name, we can invent some right of a state to block it. Curiously, the rights of the people never seem to get much airtime in these discussions.

Those who propose to argue for states rights as a good in themselves ask us to believe that they would change their position entirely if only a state did the work instead. In this fantasy, South Carolina would have abolished slavery in 1860, if only Lincoln had lost. The South would have integrated, but then the Supreme Court and Lyndon Baines Johnson made a federal case out of it.

Out in the real world, people do violence to others and their victims feel the pain and pay the cost more dearly than any rarefied constitutional doctrines. Whether malefactors draw pay from Washington or Lansing or Columbia, their prey suffer the same. Yet the latter-day speakers of the high-class rebel yell would have us always pay no mind to the man behind the curtain or to those he afflicts. We must say nothing about any of that, confining ourselves to commentary on the color of drapery he chose and the manly virtue he displayed in the choice.

Americans did not embrace states rights in the Secession Winter to defend themselves from tyranny. Winning an election does not make a tyrant any more than losing it does not make one virtuous. The white South flocked to the banner then to save themselves from the consequences that losing the election posed to the institution of slavery, going so far as to assail in their Dear John letters to the Union exercise of the very rights they simultaneously claimed. They did not rediscover their ancient faith in the late 1940s, but rather raised up the old banner in the name of white supremacy once again. By pretending otherwise we might make things more comfortable for ourselves, but in doing so we only outsource the costs to others and so make ourselves accessories to and accomplices in their deprivations, great and small.

Politics at Topeka, Part One

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

On October 23, 1855, delegates of the people of Kansas met in convention at Topeka to write a constitution. They had no lawful authority, but as many had attended their questionable election as had voted in the election that the legal government of the territory called for a week prior. If one subtracted Missourians who had no right to vote in Kansas but did anyway, the convention could likely claim a healthy majority of Kansans in support. They came from near every state in the Union and included men born in England and Ireland. William Phillips waxed eloquent for a paragraph about their antecedents. Charles Robinson had a more qualified view of the delegates’ excellence. In The Kansas Conflict, he writes

The convention to frame the constitution met as provided, and the game of personal politics opened at once. The play was serio-comic from the first, often verging upon the tragic or ridiculous. The only officer of importance to be elected was president of the convention. To this position Colonel Lane, of course, aspired. As an evidence of his resources and political ingenuity, he based his claims to the highest office in the gift of the members on a damaging scandal. He asked for votes as an endorsement and vindication of his character. The Free State of October 29th makes this comment:

“It will be seen in another column that the constitutional convention has met and elected its officers. They, of course, put in the chair a certain individual, in order to counteract the effect of a true report that was abroad that might injure him, and as he declared that he would sink to hell rather than be defeated, we are rather afraid he will ‘sink’ anyhow, notwithstanding his success.”

Phillips doesn’t mention any rumors chasing Lane around Kansas in relation to his convention presidency, but he also wrote in late 1856 when Lane still lived and Kansas remained contested. Robinson wrote in 1892. He would have felt far less pressure to gild the reputation of a dead man. (Lane shot himself in the head in 1866 and died from the injury ten days later.) With Kansas matters settled, he likewise would have had little need to present a united front. But on the other hand, Robinson clearly did not think well of Lane at all. He led the Republicans of Kansas and Lane the Democrats. Phillips could have dismissed the scandal on political grounds, but Robinson could also have dusted it off to settle old scores.

William Phillips

William Phillips

In any event, Robinson reported that the convention divided almost at once between conservative and radical factions.

The first had headquarters at the Garvey House, and the second at the Chase House. Slate-making was at once inaugurated at the Garvey House, while the radicals at the Chase House accepted the situation with good-nature, as they were willing to forego all honors and emoluments of office if they could only secure a free State.

I suspect that Robinson’s group would have liked a few offices for themselves. But if they did not accept losing out on patronage quite as gracefully as he chose to recall, then Phillips describes them as willing to accept a fair amount of compromise and rather less interested in offices than Lane’s. We need not choose between praising their purity or damning their corruption. Robinson’s contingent could have an interest in offices, which he downplayed in later years, and still care more about keeping slavery from Kansas than securing those offices.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Issues played their part. Of these, Robinson first names a resolution “endorsing squatter sovereignty and Democracy generally.” Given his capitalization and the context, it sounds like Lane wanted to make the convention into an explicitly Democratic gathering. By endorsing popular sovereignty, he would align his party with the national party mainstream and keep consistent with his own vote in favor of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Robinson even has his group bringing out “old campaign literature” to make the point. Lane made this into a test: If you would not sign on to his resolution, you could not have a place on his slate. Thus those who had ambitions for office must reconcile themselves to running, officially or otherwise, as Democrats.

The other issues deserve their own posts, which shall come next week.

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.

The Topeka Conventioneers

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

The free state movement elected their delegates to Topeka alongside Andrew Reeder, their delegate to Washington. They came together with the usual mix of opportunists, men of principle, and opportunistic men of principle. Unlike many past gatherings, these men would have more to do than vote on resolutions and make speeches. Nor had they simply selected themselves or won appointment entirely through small local cliques, as more informal mass meetings had allowed. The free state movement called a general convention, announced well in advance. They came to write a state constitution that those outside Kansas would necessarily read as a grand statement of principles as well as a practical plan of government. Such a charge elevated their work above the level of pure rhetoric, even if the document would have questionable legal status. Its import further suggests that the voters would send the men that enjoyed their full confidence, or as close to it as they could manage. Thus at Topeka something like a snapshot of free state Kansas assembled on October 23, 1855.

The Daniel Wilder’s Annals of Kansas provides an incomplete roster of the convention with name, age, occupation, politics, native and home states. It lists thirty-six and then names another fourteen as absent. Further entries in the Annals indicate that some of them simply arrived late, with the initial roll call finding only twenty-one present. Those missing at the start include George Washington Brown and Henry Burgess. None of the late arrivals have their information on Wilder’s convenient table, but he recorded details on more than half of them.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

James Redpath, a reporter for the Missouri Democrat and resident of St. Louis provided the novelty of a genuine, if not very eastern, outsider taking part in Kansas affairs. He listed his affiliation as Democratic and emancipationist. The convention elected the twenty-two year old, second youngest of its members, its reporter. Thirteen others, including the convention’s secretary, assistant secretary, and both clerks, had not seen the dark side of thirty.

Those longer in years had their contingent, with Massachusetts physician Amory Hunting coming in at sixty-one and John A. Wakefield not far behind at fifty-nine, but only four others had seen more than five decades. They and some men in their forties and late thirties pulled the convention’s average age to just over 35, neglecting the fourteen members the Annals don’t tabulate, but in general the group looks fairly young. According to Alice Nichols’ Bleeding Kansas, they had that in common with the bogus legislature, “more than half of them under thirty and most of the others not much older.” The assembly passed over Wakefield (59), as well as W.Y. Roberts (41), to elect James Lane (33) president. With his past seat in Congress and reputation as a moderate, Lane had more than age to recommend him.

John A Wakefield

John A Wakefield

The members politics ran the gamut. Seventeen on Wilder’s list, including Lane, named themselves conventional members of the national Democracy. James Redpath called himself a Democrat and emancipationist. Only one, Herald of Freedom reporter Samuel F. Tappan, declared himself an abolitionist. Charles Robinson settled for “Independent.” Six claimed the Republican title and six more still carried a torch for the Whigs. Two signed up as “Freesoil” men and one more as Free State. A. Curtiss, a Kentuckian lawyer, implausibly declared his politics “None.” Overall this makes for a Democratic convention, if not overwhelmingly so. This too they had in common with the bogus legislature, which condemned any attempt to form a Kansas Democracy as a distraction from the proslavery cause but regularly availed itself of normal Democratic party rhetoric.

But wherever they came from, whatever their other politics, however old or young, they came to defy the legal authority of Kansas, write their constitution, and throw themselves on the mercy of the Congress for relief from the violence, terror, tyranny and general mockery of the white many’s republic that the proslavery forces had foisted upon them. If they agreed upon nothing else, they agreed on that.

The Other Election of October 9, 1855

William Phillips

William Phillips

On the ninth of October, 1855, the free state movement had their first proper election. With 2,849 votes, they named Andrew Horatio Reeder, late governor of Kansas, their delegate to Congress. This came a week after the Kansas Assembly’s election put John Wilkins Whitfield in the same post that Missourians had stolen for him in 1854. The proslavery candidate came in with 2,721 votes. That suggests that Reeder could have won a fair contest against Whitfield, if narrowly. The numbers argue for a closely divided Kansas, not one increasingly sympathetic to the free state movement due to the Slave Power’s undemocratic impositions.

In his Conquest of Kansas, William Phillips took issue with the official totals:

On the 1st of October, Whitfield received some three thousand votes for delegate, at the election fixed by the Bogus Legislature, and received a certificate from Governor Shannon. There is no question but what over two thousand of the votes were illegal votes. By the report of the committee upwards of eight hundred of these have been proved to be illegal; but the committee did not institute a very thorough search into this election, deeming it more important to investigate the March election. In the different precincts the people voted for delegate, throwing twenty-eight hundred and sixteen votes for Reeder. In some precincts, such as Atchison, Kickapoo, Shawnee, Church, and one or two other pro-slavery points, no vote was allowed to be taken.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

If Phillips did not have a grudge against the proslavery men for his tarring, feathering, and selling at auction then he carried the virtue of forgiveness to truly self-destructive heights. But absent his personal animus, the fact remains that the Howard Report goes into nearly exhaustive detail on the March elections. Each precinct, save a few combined, has its own list of witnesses and summary of events. The delegate elections come together in a single section with no more witnesses than the committee questioned in a particularly populous district for the prior canvas. The report further groups the delegate elections together with its general summary of the free state movement and contents itself with several tables of returns to account for the proceedings.

Further undermining the appearance of an even contest in Kansas, voters cast their ballot for more than a congressional delegate on the ninth of October. Per the rulings of the Topeka convention of mid-September, they also voted for delegates to a constitutional convention. None of my sources give a detailed breakdown of how those votes went, but it seems likely that those who would come to the free state election to vote for Reeder supported his party’s other activities as well. The convention delegates came together at Topeka on the twenty-third of October. Phillips deemed them

the most respectable body of men, in point of talent, that ever convened in Kansas; indeed, it would have compared favorably with legislative bodies anywhere. Talent and the weak vanity which apes it were there; true virtue and a more plastic school of morality; patriotism and number-one-ism; “outside influence” and a lobby; sober, staid, business habits, brandy, temperance, whiskey, prayers by the chaplain, profanity, and oyster-suppers. It lacked none of the great essentials.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Phillips’ sarcasm deserves a smile, but it speaks to a deeper and often inconvenient truth. It took a village to raise a free Kansas, or rather the project required the cooperation of diverse and often antagonistic interests and personalities united on the sole point that the proslavery party had done Kansans wrong and they could not look to its territorial government for relief. If some of them had his admiration, others did not. Like any group they came with the usual mix of principle and self-interest, abstemious and dutiful alongside hard-drinking, cynical political operatives. Neither the Charles Robinsons nor the James Lanes of Kansas could command a majority alone.

The Economist Strikes Again #Economistbookreviews

BaptistweetLast fall, The Economist published a review of Ed Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told which one could fairly summarize as, in its own words, as follows:

Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.

The publication, under what must have been a bewildering assault from the foreign forces of sound historical practice, intractable facts, and basic human decency, later withdrew that review and published a begrudging apology. Slavery, the anonymous author told us with his feet to the fire, did not amount to a good time had by all. The magazine’s review sparked an interest in its record on such matters. Greg Grandin, the victim of a very similar review earlier on 2014, dug all the way back to 1860. The long dead writers of the time deemed a high tariff a greater evil than slavery. The Economist could have used the occasion of fifteen decades’ remove to reflect upon its history and consider how it had come to publish such a blinkered, blatantly racist piece. I harbored a small hope that it might.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has a book coming out, its publication moved up to this month for, I imagine, the obvious reasons. His book takes the form of a series of letters to his son offering advise and insight on the struggle inherent in living in America while black. Given the content, it would provide a wonderful opportunity for The Economist to show that it had learned something, even if only that the one anonymous reviewer who laid into Grandin and Baptist ought not receive further assignments. I don’t know who wrote the review of Between the World and Me. Given its different content, it might have gone to another staff writer. Whoever wrote it chose instead to follow the magazine’s hallowed tradition of white supremacy. One supposes the same person as last time signs the checks, but what one does for pay often comports well enough with what one thinks right in these things.

Thus The Economist informs its readers that the fear that pervades Coates’ inner life

is the product of 250 years of whipping, burning, shooting and locking up black people. “In America,” writes Mr Coates, “it is traditional to destroy the black body—it is heritage.” This is all necessary, he says, to maintain “the Dream”, which is capitalised throughout the book and, along with “the body” (usually Mr Coates’s own), appears on every other page. The Dream is not defined so much as described: it smells of peppermint and tastes of strawberry shortcake; it lives in suburban streets with tree houses in the gardens. This all makes some poetic sense but, shorn of ornament, its implication is that in order to have dreamy Greenwich, Connecticut, Chicago’s housing projects must also exist. Racial mixing in the suburbs over the past two decades suggests otherwise: real life is not so Manichean.

I suspect Coates would say that Greenwich Connecticut was built on the back of the nearer housing projects. This claim comes burdened with facts of how advantages compound themselves down the generations, to say nothing of how housing policy precisely did just that on racial lines. I presume that such proletarian accoutrements clash far too badly with a business suit for The Economist to tolerate. Nor have the writers sullied themselves with knowledge of the workings of comparative advantage. But I am unfair to so indict them, as one cannot expect the writers or editors of The Economist to be familiar with work done on the subject by a discipline so foreign to their experience and interests as economics.

The anonymous author, his answer to the white sheet hanging in his closet, would have us know that the fact of small increases of diversity in the suburbs prove the injustice has ended. It also, I imagine, ended with the election of a black president. It ended with the Thirteenth Amendment, or the Fourteenth. It ended with the Voting Rights Act. It doesn’t matter when any more than facts matter, it simply must have ended so we need not discomfit ourselves. We can only mention past injustice in order to declare ourselves perfected.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

The disdain drips off the screen. I can’t read this and not see this subtext: Upper-middle class whites tolerate miscegenation, so what more can Coates possibly ask? Have they not sacrificed enough for his people? Nineteenth century authors would have included reference to how blacks learned the arts of civilization and Christianity from their kindly white tutors. If The Economist doesn’t care to include those claims, though it did in its review of The Half Has Never Been Told, then it doubles down with irony:

Mr Coates does not spare well-intentioned individuals for their part in maiming black bodies, however indirect that may be. In a passage that is sure to bring him some notoriety, he describes how he looked on the plumes of smoke over Manhattan on 9/11, shortly after an unarmed college acquaintance had been murdered by an undercover policeman. “I could see no difference between the officer who killed [him] and the police who died, or the firefighters who died. They were not human to me. Black, white, or whatever, they were the menaces of nature…which could—with no justification—shatter my body.” The honesty deserves some praise, but what it reveals does not.

Mr Coates urges his son to remember that slavery was not an indefinable mass of flesh but “a particular, specific enslaved woman…who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favourite cousin.” The same can be said of those who did the enslaving. By spreading blame so widely, Mr Coates eases the consciences of those who fastened the chains, tightened the noose, wielded the billy club and the people who told them to do it.

We must now believe that a realistic fear of white authority figures charged with the use of violence by the state, who often execute that charge with pride and to great celebration within white America, comes back around and justifies the brutality. Eric Garner feared the police, so when they strangled him to death he had it coming. He could have also smiled at a white woman. Do we know that Ta-Nehisi Coates has not? The Economist would have us believe that he helps create the problem and, indeed, the magazine can’t be asked to recognize any present problem except to blame black Americans.

The Economist concludes:

When talking about race, Barack Obama often says that anyone who doubts that there has been progress in America should put the question to a black man who lived in the south under Jim Crow. Then he adds that, despite this, the country is still struggling with racial troubles that did not vanish with the passing of the Civil Rights Act. This is right. Mr Coates has written a powerful book that reveals how being the parent of a black teenage boy in America is to be visited by night terrors about his survival. He is also correct to point out that there are echoes of slavery in America today. But they are echoes, rather than the thing itself, and that means there is also hope that the recent violence that spurred the book’s publication may one day be abolished too.

Ultimately I can think of no better answer to The Economist than Coates’ own. He anticipated it:

That Sunday, on that news show, I tried to explain this as best I could within the time allotted. But at the end of the segment, the host flashed a widely shared picture of an eleven-year-old black boy tearfully hugging a white police officer. Then she asked me about “hope.” And I knew then that I had failed. And I remembered that I had expected to fail. And I wondered again at the indistinct sadness welling up in me. Why exactly was I sad? I came out of the studio and walked for a while. It was a calm December day. Families, believing themselves white, were out on the streets. Infants, raised to be white, were bundled in strollers. And I was sad for these people, much as I was sad for the host and sad for all the people out there watching and reveling in a specious hope. I realized then why I was sad. When the journalist asked me about my body, it was like she was asking me to awaken her from the most gorgeous dream. I have seen that dream all my life. It is perfect houses with nice lawns. It is Memorial Day cookouts, block associations, and driveways. The Dream is tree-houses and the Cub Scouts. And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies. And knowing this, knowing that the Dream persists by warring with the known world, I was sad for the host, I was sad for all those families, I was sad for my country, but above all, in that moment, I was sad for you.