“Fear & excitement”

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow’s Squatter Sovereign advised that good proslavery men must somehow silence their antislavery counterparts. John Brown’s murders proved the point and he did not shy from connecting them to anyone who gave them aid and shelter, however uninvolved in the killing itself. That didn’t mean they should go out of their way to murder people in the dark of night, but then the proslavery party had the territorial government on its side. They didn’t need to skulk about quite so much as Brown and company.

They didn’t need Stringfellow’s advice or permission to get going either. A resident of Osawatomie wrote his Cousin Sidney on Wednesday, May 28,

Osawatomie is in much fear & excitement. News came tonight that a co. of Georgians and Alibamians were coming to make this their headquarters. All work is nearly suspended, the women are in constant fear.

Jefferson Burford’s Georgians and Alabamans already camped nearby. It wouldn’t take much to move them in and they had come all this way to murder abolitionists. Seeing what could come their way, the residents of Osawatomie and the vicinity got together in a public meeting which published conciliatory resolutions. (I haven’t been able to find a copy, Gentle Readers.)

Those resolutions received the unanimous acclaim of the meeting, but in person the members differed on whether Brown and his men had committed a grave offense or acted in some kind of tragic self-defense. Certainly the local proslavery men had not made for the best of neighbors, but efforts to show that Brown knew of the Shermans’ threats against Squire Morse and others have yielded no clear evidence that he did. If he had those incidents specifically in mind, he wouldn’t have hesitated to bring them up. Rather he seems to have acted from a general conviction that the free state party needed to avenge itself and terrorize their enemies. His heroic act of murder would do that open the floodgates of antislavery anger.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Brown may well have gotten the latter, though it’s hard to separate the impact of his killings from the sack of Lawrence. Later on, free state leaders like Charles Robinson said that they always had a considered position in favor of armed nonviolence. The events of the Wakarusa War and the sack of Lawrence demonstrated that not everyone agreed with that. Robinson often struggled to contain the more militant antislavery Kansans, who counted more than just Brown and his intimates among their number. They never liked all this backing down and talking things out. The fall of Lawrence and Robinson’s arrest removed the leading voice for a more diplomatic solution from the board, at least for a time.

Furthermore, even though Robinson paints himself as the consistent man of peace and had a reputation to back it, his party consistently explained their preference for diplomacy as situational. They did not want to strike the first blow, nor strike United States troops. Keeping their noses clean helped politically, at least so long as political violence in Kansas remained intermittent and small-scale. If the fate of Lawrence hadn’t changed that permanently, then Brown’s murders may well have done the trick. As long as no one on your side goes hunting the enemy, refraining feels normal. Once someone has, the question must naturally arise for men reared in nineteenth century masculinity as to why they haven’t themselves gone in? Were they cowards? Boys playing soldier? Women? Even if they had a sincere objection to the use of force before, the proslavery reaction would make Brown’s claims of self-defense more plausible to others in retrospect. Now they really did have proslavery men coming for them, so they had best stand ready.

Your input is welcome

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.