The Transformation of Kansans, Part One

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Gentle Reeders, I’ve gone a while examining the details of Andrew Reeder’s flight and Charles Robinson’s capture. Then I turned to George Brown’s account of a possible armed robbery foiled near Lawrence. These extended sojourns always risk of losing the forest in the examination of trees, so let’s zoom out a little and look at Kansas’ brief history and current state, as recounted by Brown. Here, unlike in yesterday’s piece, he clearly intends we read him as reporting facts rather than evoking them through a the satirist’s art.

Now, May 10, 1856, Brown looked out on a Kansas where

Our men are arming themselves and training for war. Our women are formed into military companies, and are practising in the pistol-gallery. Our boys are making it a part of their necessary learning to shoot with the rifle and revolver.

When Macbeth murdered the king, Shakespeare had the earth shake and horses in stables devour one another to show us that nature itself rebelled at a regicide. Myths about the wild frontier aside, Brown managed the same without invention. Some boys would have learned shooting regardless, particularly if their families hailed from the slave states, but nineteenth century Americans don’t appear to have gone around armed to the teeth by custom. That Brown puts the training of children for war next to the involvement of women, who nineteenth century mores firmly insisted belonged nowhere near it, speaks volumes. If the world had not turned upside-down, then it had gone still gone wrong indeed to drive the women and children to arms.

Concern for women and children informs Brown’s entire piece:

Are our future statesmen to grow up under this influence? Have slaveholders no fear of consequences, when mothers sleep with pistols or knives under their pillows to protect themselves and their offspring from slaveholding violence or death? What effect must it have on the rising generation to see all this? To see their fathers dragged from their homes to a prison, or exiled to distant and unknown parts, cut off from all communication wit them. Or, listening to these tales as they fall from a mother’s lips, in their lonely and humble homes, who knows what resolves of future revenge may then and there be formed?

Brown ended with a threat: if the slaveholders proceeded on as they had, the sons of their victims would remember and hold them accountable in time. But anger and empathy run together here. The Slave Power had created a situation in Kansas where children might see their mothers hiding weapons under the pillow and their fathers slain or dragged away. If it would drive those children to revenge, then it would also traumatize them. Seeing your loved ones, the source of your security, violently seized or even murdered before your own eyes, could not fail to make a profound impression.

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