Resolutions of the Law and Order Party, Part One

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Shannon goes to Leavenworth: parts 1, 2

Wilson Shannon went off to the Law and Order Convention at Leavenworth, where he presided and won the crowd with a rousing speech in defense of the laws of Kansas. He notionally represented Douglas County, home of the infamously free soil Lawrence. This news would have made an unwelcome surprise for most of the people living in the county.

A nineteenth century public meeting would hardly pass without resolutions. Writing and approving such resolutions constituted their main business, aside from the speeches and liberal helpings of food and drink. The Law and Order men did not make themselves an exception. As one would guess from their chosen name and past resolutions calling the convention, they framed themselves as thoroughly establishment gentlemen

believing the constitution of the U.S. and the Law passed in pursuance thereof, are sufficient for the protection of our rights, both of person and property, and that in the observance of the same, are vested our only hopes of security for Liberty and the Union, and that we will maintain the same at all hazzards.

Out of context, this all comes across as bland conservative piety with a bit of vigorous nineteenth century manhood at the end. They may as well have endorsed the hallowed platform of Mom and Apple Pie. But none at the time could have missed that they invoked the Constitution to specifically link it to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, from which the legislature derived its authority. By extension, the works of the legislature had the same imprimatur. Fraudulent elections or not, proslavery men commanded the recognized, legal authority in the Territory of Kansas. Their power thus reached back up through the Kansas-Nebraska Act to the Congress and the Constitution that established it.

Invocation of constitutional niceties went only so far. No less then than now, we all fancy the Constitution to read precisely as we intend to do, forbidding any other course. Thus they further endorse the laws of Kansas as adequate to secure their rights, including property rights. By this they may have also meant rights to their homes, land, and conventional belongings, but also their right to what people of the time called property in man. This, they would maintain “at all hazzards.”

There too, the subtext of the resolution extends beyond conventional piety. The convention made this clear in its next resolve, which declared that in every form of government

Monarchial, Aristocratical, Democratic, or Republican, the liberty, the life, and the property of no individual is safe unless the Laws passed by the properly constituted authorities are strictly and freely obeyed.

As little as we care for their actual ends, the law and order men have a point. Even the finest laws written with the most careful sensitivity to human rights do no more than entomb what they propose to defend if the people fail respect and obey them. This holds as much true for laws abolishing slavery as for laws instituting it. Thus:

we hold the doctrine to be strictly true, that no man, or set of men are at liberty to resist a law passed by a legislative body, legally organized, unless they choose by their actions to constitute themselves rebels and traitors, and take all the consequences that legitimately follow the failure of a revolution.

William H. Seward in 1851

William H. Seward

The free soil men would probably answer back that they obeyed higher obligations, perhaps even William H. Seward’s Higher Laws for the real radicals, but also that they did so firmly seated in the American tradition of protest. They rebelled against an illegitimate authority and its tyrannical actions, whatever the legal forms of legitimacy. The made themselves into rebels against it, but by no means traitors to the United States. One can go back and forth like this indefinitely, with both parties insisting that they cast the tea over the side while the other passed the Stamp Act.

We should not, however, understand their expressions of fidelity to American tradition as insincere. Both parties understood themselves as defending the right and good against great peril. The free state movement had erected an illegal shadow government which acted in all the ways it could as though it had legal power over Kansas. This might sometimes make for an idle show, but we should not forget that they also had an armed militia and one of its members, Samuel Collins, had just tried to kill a proslavery man. This had the look of a genuine crisis as much from a proslavery perspective as the opposite.

 

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