Midnight murders, assassinations, burglaries and arson

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Wilson Shannon thought it best to use the military to suppress the free state movement in order to restore the proslavery order in Kansas. This, in turn, would prevent his territory sparking a general civil war. Armed bands of proslavery men might endanger that project, but nowhere near so much as the antislavery side would. Shannon believed that out of general conviction. John Brown’s murders made him, at least in the one narrow case, right. So the Governor called out the army and soldiers went about ordering anyone they found in a group under arms to go home.

Immediate reaction to the Pottawatomie killings outside government officials proved more mixed. Some proslavery individuals did leave the area after Brown did his bloody work, but the party didn’t give up. Actual Kansans might outnumber them, but they had plenty of men in Missouri, the Kansas militia, and territorial government to even the score. John Stringfellow’s Squatter Sovereign laid into the story with its June 10 issue, having missed the week before. A throat-clearing exercise under the headline Free State Party In Kansas got things going:

Midnight murders, assassinations, burglaries and arson seem now to be the watchwords of the so-called Free State party. While those rebellious subjects confined themselves to the resistance of the law, in their attempts to make arrests, and execute process in their hands, the pro-slavery party in the Territory was determined to stand by the law, and aid the officers in executing process, and the courts in administering justice.

Mind the past tense; Stringfellow did. “Every pro-slavery man” should stick to that, but times do change.

Self-protection -defense of one’s life, family, and property are rights guaranteed to all law abiding citizens; and the manner and mode of keeping off murderers, assassins, &c., are not confined to any very strict rules of law

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Proslavery men could, would, and should keep themselves strictly within the law. But faced with an emergency, a direct threat to their lives and property, they might color outside its lines. No one could fault them for answering to self-preservation instead of the statute book. Stringfellow couches this as a response to an emergency, and did write to answer Brown’s murders, but he could have just as easily made the claim two years prior. His brother did:

Though we fully recognise the duty of all good citizens to obey the law, to rely upon the law, where there is no law, the right of self-defence requires that we should resort to the strong hand for self-protection. We have no law by which the expression of abolition sentiments is made a penal offence, and yet it is a crime of the highest grade. It is not within even the much abused liberty of speech; but in a slaveholding community, the expression, of such sentiments is a positive act, more criminal, more dangerous, than kindling the torch of the incendiary, mixing the poison of the assassin. The necessity for a law punishing such a crime, has not, until now, been felt in Missouri. Until such a law is enacted, self-protection demands that we should guard against such crimes.

Benjamin Stringfellow placed the emergency point at the mere presence of antislavery men. John Stringfellow, who voted for laws that did make expression of abolitionist sentiments a crime, now had a more immediate reason to make the same argument.

 

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