William Clark could have gotten away with the crime of being antislavery on a steamboat full of Missourians. He had a close call when he stood up to defend his interpretation of the Bible against a man who insisted that the races must have had separate creations to make people so inferior as Native- and African-Americans, but it seems that once he gave his defense of Scripture things settled down. The polygenists constituted only a minority of Americans, so his audience likely understood Reverend Clark’s position as well within the bounds of acceptable discourse even if some of them disagreed strongly with it. Believing in a common ancestry for all humans didn’t require anything near so radical as thinking them equals, after all.
Discussion then turned to politics. The steamboat passengers conversed “apparently with the best humor.” The circle broke up and Clark
learned that some of them were members of that body of Solons which had been in session at the Shawnee Mission, re-enacting Draco’s bloody code for the benefit of the people of Kansas.
Clark hadn’t talked to just a random set of proslavery men; he’d hit the jackpot. Considering that even by September, the Kansas and Missouri proslavery party had built up a record of abusing antislavery Kansans he had cause to worry. He worried more when he saw people who had talked to him point him out to other passengers. Clark holed up in his room and hoped to ride things out. Come evening, he risked departing to write a letter.
While writing, three men seated themselves by me, referred in very flattering terms to the discussion of the afternoon, and gave me an invitation to lecture that evening before the passengers, on the same subjects, viz: the probable origin of the Indians, the capacity of the negro mind for improvement, and my religious and political views of slavery.
You’ve got some interesting ideas, Reverend. Why don’t you share them with the whole ship? Really, we all want to hear.
Clark didn’t buy it. He “positively refused” repeated encouragement, expecting that if he obliged he would end up in jail for inciting slave revolt on the grounds that the Polar Star had enslaved stewards. Later on, Clark heard one of the passengers say that if he’d done as asked, “they would have fixed him.”
The proslavery men didn’t give up there. Come morning, they held forth on the various perfidies of Andrew Reeder. Clark suggested that they take a wait and see attitude toward Kansas first governor.
Immediately a man, who had been looking intently at me, to whom I had not spoken during the passage, asked me what I said. As a matter of courtesy, I repeated my words, on which he gave me a blow on my face with his fist. Almost at the same instant, a person behind me gave me a blow in my side with a slung shot, almost depriving me of the power of breathing or self-defence, and during this time of my helplessness my assailant improved the opportunity of beating my face in the most brutal manner. A host of demons, let forth from Milton’s hell, could hardly equal in spirit the language, those choice spirits which were present, as they yelled -“Kill the —— Yankee! the —— abolition son of a —–!”