The Kickapoo Pioneer Calls for Help, Part Two

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Part One

The Kickapoo Pioneer sounded desperate. Faced with a rising antislavery movement that had a provisional government for Kansas already in operation, a constitution written and soon up for ratification, a secret military order revealed, and well-heeled Yankees footing their bills, its pages called the situation a crisis. The abolitionists threatened to undo all the proslavery good that Kansans and Missourians had managed. The South had the men and boldness to step up and save things, but proslavery Kansas could not do it alone.

George Brown reported all of this in the November 17 Herald of Freedom, adding in his own commentary:

the editor brays piteously for help. Power is departing. The handwriting is seen upon the wall. Pro-slavery men, do come immediately to Kansas, and rally around the black flag, else all your hope will perish, and all your money will be lost which you have expended in sending enemies into Kansas to wrest from the “abolitionists” their liberties. The fertile plains of Kansas are literally black with opponents of slavery. They come in wagons, they come by steamboats, they throng our public thoroughfares, they are seen in every department of life, and something must be done to stay the tide-this avalanche of Freedom, else all, all is lost.

Brown knew how to gloat, even if all the antislavery party had done in Kansas rested on the weakest legal foundations. No Congress authorized the free state movement. So far as the law cared, Wilson Shannon and the legislature stolen fair and square back in March governed the territory. But he could turn the Pioneer’s distress to his own purposes. Antislavery whites beyond Kansas’ borders could read from his piece that whatever they had heard, Kansas had a clear future as a free state. Thus the more cautious might hazard it instead of Nebraska.

Twice Brown invokes blackness and both times he does it on multiple levels. To nineteenth century Americans, the black flag meant no quarter and war to extinction. Pirates, the enemies of all mankind, flew the black flag. So did guerrilla bands. By tying the flag to proslavery men, Brown named them as similarly enemies to all and asserted that they would not have any scruples about any atrocity that would secure their goals.

The black flag bore the imagined color of the slave and Brown painted Kansas that hue with antislavery people as well. In the nineteenth century, you called your opponents black to associate them with evil. They used negro as a neutral term for African-Americans. Calling opponents of slavery black thus constituted a kind of double slur, first tying them to evil and then proclaiming them like unto both in a way inferior to enslaved people. Therefore, proslavery Americans could twice damn the emerging antislavery party as “Black Republicans”. By turning the insult back on them, Brown essentially said that not only did freedom prevail but also imply that it lived up to all the fears that it augured to the proslavery mind. The white South could rush to Kansas if they liked, but they would find a territory already lost to them.

Eli Thayer

Eli Thayer

This confidence opens Brown to the charge that he, like the Pioneer, wrote to solicit for aid from abroad. Brown’s piece accompanies a profile, with a picture, of Ely Thayer. It carries with it a confidence that Brown probably did not feel as fully as he let on, given the late exposure of the Kansas Legion. If the free state movement had made progress, then it remained an illegal group that had essentially declared itself legal and asked Kansas to agree. That Kansans did agree in large numbers did not erase those Kansans who did not, nor their allies in Missouri. If Brown did not nightly expect that a proslavery posse would ride to his doorstep and arrest him for his antislavery publications, then he had to know that it could happen. Should it come to pass, then he would either go quietly or unpredictable violence might ensue. Maybe he had ice water for veins, or sufficient confidence to laugh off the real threats, but his gloating carries at least a hint of trying too hard.

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