An Endorsement from Charles Stearns

The Stearns home in Lawrence

The Stearns home in Lawrence

When the free state party threw elections to seat their new government, they also chose a ticket. One might expect that ticket to run uncontested, considering that the obvious opposition refused to recognize the elections except to disrupt one. But two groups broke from the free state ranks and ran their own tickets: under the banners of Young America and Anti-Abolition. George Brown ran news of both with evidence that both had made false statements to justify their entry to the race. He concluded his piece by instructing readers to make their reply to such chicanery at the polls, but Brown also referred them to a letter he ran on the same page, from one C. Stearns.

Longtime readers might recall Stearns as that puzzling fellow who appeared sincerely antislavery but tied himself into knots over free state strategy. At the time, I knew nothing about Stearns save the content of his letter and thus could only speculate on what drove him. I know a little more now.

According to the editor of Edward Fritch’s letters (PDF), John Peterson, Charles (who I have also seen called Clark) Stearns

an abolitionist and free-state crusader who loved controversy, was continually at odds with the Emigrant Aid Company. After parting with Edward toward the end of march, stearns and a new partner, Geoerge C. Willard, opened the Robinson House, which was the Republican House [Stearn’s prior hotel] under a new name and with higher prices. In advertising their new venture, Stearns and Willard expressed the hope that past patronage would continue but did not promise “to hold their tongues about the sins of the Emigrant Aid Company.”

Stearns wrote to the Herald of Freedom declaring his innocence of all things political, as they did not concern vital matters like the contents of Scripture. He thus needed information: Should he consider the ticket nominated at the free state Convention “an abolition ticket” and did the Anti-Abolition ticket really oppose abolitionism?

Presuming the answer to both questions a firm yes, Stearns proceeded to dissect the tickets:

On reading the two tickets [Convention and Anti-Abolition] I perceive the names of five individuals upon both of them. Now as this is nearly one-half of all the names, it occurred to me that if the former ticket was abolition, the latter could hardly be a tee-total anti-abolition ticket; unless the old saying , “a man is known by the company he keeps,” is so far changed as to mean “a man is really in character what his comrades are.” In other words, five men, who are abolitionists when nominated on one ticket, become strong anti-abolitionists, when placed upon another.

Stearns credited the “sudden transformation” as coming through a proslavery tint rubbed off on them by “passing through the hands of the getters up of the new ticket.” But the changes did not end with proslavery boosters leaving greasy fingerprints on their new candidates.

Mr. Elliott, one of the principal supporters of the new ticket, must be a strong anti-abolitionist. Well, “the times change” and men change with them, I suppose; but this same Mr. Elliott, together with myself and a few others, one year ago, strongly condemned the leading nominee, of what Mr. Elliott now terms the “abolition ticket,” because he was not abolition enough.

Elliott might have been young and prone to experimentation, of course. Antislavery politics could be a phase, like those lamentable episodes from our own youth. Denied by his time of birth rock music or dramatic hairstyles, bar the nineteenth century’s fascination with novel facial hair, he might have only had opposing slavery left to him.

Stearns, his proclaimed innocence aside, did not buy all of this for a second:

For my part, I shall not support the first ticket [Convention free state] for the reason that it is not an abolition ticket, and of course not the second, because it carries a lie on the face of it, as I have above explained.

This all made for a backhanded endorsement, but a well-aimed and credible one. Stearns had a reputation for opposing the free state establishment, which he repeated here. But in the course of doing it he undermined the very grounds on which the Anti-Abolition ticket contended. You don’t want abolitionism? Vote for Charles Robinson and company. They’re no abolitionists, and Charles Stearns should know.

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“We shall have a bloody time out here”

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce

Franklin Pierce called the free state movement revolutionary, tending toward insurrection, and ordered its members to disperse. In the certain event that they would refuse, he placed the Army at the disposal of Kansas’ proslavery government to suppress them. Forget the local militia, or even the Missouri militia, the actual United States Army would ride out of its forts and put an end to Kansans’ experiment in self-government. To oppose them by force would make the free state movement traitors in the eyes of large numbers of Americans. That very fear had helped curb proslavery militancy, if just barely, back in December. Charles Robinson had similar apprehensions, which the presidential proclamation could only rouse from whatever abeyance they might have settled into since the middle of December.

Free state Kansans did not miss Pierce’s meaning. Edward Payson Fitch, a Massachusetts native, had come to Kansas in the third group of New England Emigrant Aid Society settlers. Transcriptions of his letters (PDF) made it into the Spring, 1989 issue of Kansas History, along with an account of his life. Fitch wanted Kansas kept clear of slavery and if he could set up a prosperous farm and get rich on real estate speculations too, so much the better. He came to Lawrence and taught school for a time, invested in land, and partnered with Charles Stearns in the Republican House. That establishment constituted a sod hut with canvas for a roof. You could sleep there for ten cents a day, but it cost fifty more if you wished to eat too.

On February 24, Fitch wrote his parents back in Massachusetts. He had good news to report:

I have been to meeting twice to-day. It is growing warmer and we have meetings more regularly and shall continue to if we are not all killed.

They might all die tomorrow, but at least he got to church. His failure to attend, sometimes for lack of meetings at all and sometimes otherwise, features into prior letters. Fitch looked forward to the meeting of the free state legislature come March, which would put Pierce’s threats to the test. Fitch would turn twenty-three on March 8 and one can read a young man’s bravado into this. But he had put himself in harm’s way to defend Lawrence and the President of the United States really had threatened military force against his party, a fact which he reminded his parents of:

Pierce says we are traitors so of course the Missourians are to put us down but if they try it we shall have a bloody time out here. God Grant that it may be avoided.