“The prosperity or ruin of the whole South” A Closer Look at David Rice Atchison, Part Three

David Rice Atchison (D-MO)

Parts 1, 2

Proslavery Missourians and antislavery Kansans had a parallel series of conventions in their respective jurisdictions. We left David Rice Atchison, late senator from Missouri, firmly turning down the effort to turn one into the start of his reelection campaign. Bourbon Dave had given up on Washington, at least in the near term, in favor of saving Kansas for slavery. Through it, he would also save slavery in Missouri, Arkansas, and Texas, and spread it to the other territories.

In the summer of 1855, almost everything turned out to Atchison’s liking. His border ruffians had secured the Kansas legislature for their own men. They ousted Andrew Reeder, who had defied them. Between governors, Daniel Woodson filled in and he had already proven his proslavery bona fides. That Franklin Pierce passed him over to appoint Wilson Shannon did not thrill the Missouri border, but Shannon soon earned the endorsement of Atchison’s Kansas-based organ, the Squatter Sovereign. The fall brought invitations for Atchison to go east and speak for the cause, as he had probably done during the winter. He declined them, citing obligations at home, but answered with a letter that made his case.

We (“the border ruffians”) have the whole power of the Northern states to content with, single-handed and alone, without assistance and almost without sympathy from any quarter; yet we are undismayed. Thus far we have bewen victorious and with the help of God, we will still continue to conquer. … The contest with us is one of life and death, and it will be so with you and your institutions if we fail. Atchison, Stringfellow and the “border ruffians” of Missouri fill a column of each abolition paper published in the North; abuse most foul, and falsehood unblushing is poured out upon us; and yet we have no advocate in the Southern press-and yet we have no assistance from the Southern States. But the time wilol shortly come when that assistance must and will be rendered. The stake the “border ruffians” are playing for is a mighty one. … In a word, the prosperity or ruin of the whole South depends on the Kansas struggle.

Atchison’s biographer added the emphasis, which neatly encapsulate’s the ex-senator’s view of the question. He certainly wrote it to exhort and guilt his fellow southerners into action, but he believed it too. Those who invited him might never have expected Atchison to turn up -such invitations often served more as a way to request a public letter- but even if they did he had work to do and probably didn’t think Kansas could spare him. The rise of the free state movement in the fall proved Atchison right.

Daniel Woodson

To answer that threat, establishment figures in Kansas tired to take a moderate tone with their Law and Order party. They positioned themselves as moderate alternative to Atchison’s hooliganism in November. At the end of the month, Franklin Coleman killed Charles Dow. The ensuing strife put those hopes to rest. Daniel Woodson wrote straightaway to Kelley and Stringfellow at the Squatter Sovereign, who he could depend on to pass word into Missouri and Kansas had a new invasion. The territorial secretary especially asked that his friends bring “the Platte City cannon.” The letter crossed the border and came into Atchison’s hands. He read it to a mass meeting at Platte City, then took two hundred men into Kansas to join the campaign against abolitionism.

Yet Atchison’s rhetorical, and occasionally physical, militancy fell short again. When Wilson Shannon negotiated a settlement with the free state leadership at Lawrence, he and Albert Boone took the governor’s side in talking down the army that Atchison had himself helped gather. His argument then had less to do with principal than public relations. The antislavery side had maneuvered things so that if the proslavery men struck, they would appear as the aggressors. Without Governor Shannon’s blessing, withdrawn thanks to the settlement, turned an irregular militia into a lawless mob that would destroy the Democracy come election time and put “an abolition President” in power.

Horace Greeley

Not that this mattered to Atchison’s Missouri foes. Still a potential senator, they castigated him for plotting the destruction of the Industrial Luminary and voting in Kansas, the latter of which forfeited his Missouri citizenship and disqualified him. Failing reelection, the Missouri Democrat thought Atchison might forge some kind of breakaway proslavery nation. Atchison’s biographer, William Parrish, found no evidence for any of this. In the Democrat’s pages, even the convention where Atchison refused to make the affair into an election event proved his perfidy; the paper recast it as a failed attempt at the same. Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune declared that the Squatter Sovereign’s masthead endorsed Atchison for president on the Know-Nothing ticket. The paper did endorse Atchison for the presidency, until he told them to stop, but always and only as a Democrat.

With all that going on, Missouri’s General Assembly again convened to elect a senator and again failed to manage the feat. Both houses of the legislature agreed that they should hold an election, but could not agree on a time for it. Moments of legislative grace like this did much to explain why these same bodies would eventually vote to strip themselves of the power to choose their senators in ratifying the Seventeenth Amendment. Atchison’s seat in Washington remained empty until 1857.

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Finding a Speaker

We left the 34th Congress deadlocked on who to elect Speaker of the House. Until they did, they lacked a presiding officer and could hardly get any business done. Someone had to become Speaker, but the administration’s candidate couldn’t get the required majority. The opposition coalition of Know-Nothings, Free Soilers, Whigs, Republicans, and anti-Nebraska Democrats together had the votes to fill the seat, but such a heterodox group has its own problems finding the right man for the job. They agreed on not accepting Franklin Pierce’s choice of William Richardson, but little else.

Lewis Campbell (Whig-OH)

Lewis Campbell (Whig-OH)

After Richardson won a plurality and, consequently, lost the first ballot the opposition made a go of uniting around Lewis Campbell, an Ohio Whig. Campbell earned their esteem through an attempted filibuster against the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the last Congress. Things went so well back then that Campbell nearly found himself physically attacked. That had to count for something, right?

Apparently not enough. Giving it another try after Campbell also failed to command a majority, a large group of Republicans settled on Nathaniel P. Banks. Banks, a Massachusetts man, had the kind of pedigree that would inspire mixed emotions in such a fraught time. In the Bay State, he had stood as a Democrat but then combined with free soilers. Lately Banks had hopped parties again, moving over to the Know-Nothings. That made him a traitor twice over, to more orthodox Democrats, and might look shifty to his latest band of allies. But his career also spanned contentious spectrum of party politics in the middle 1850s.

Bank’s fellow Know-Nothings preferred Kentucky’s Humphrey Marshall and without them he didn’t have a majority either. When Marshall’s run ended similarly, they tried Henry Fuller. The votes went on and on, with no winner emerging. Every ballot came with a new round of recrimination. The Republicans laid into anti-Nebraska men who opposed Banks, which naturally endeared them to their targets. The southerners and administration Democrats had their own frustrations in the minority, still voting for Richardson ballot after ballot.

William Aiken (D-SC)

William Aiken (D-SC)

The 34th Congress opened on December 3, 1855. Yet on the 24th, Allan Nevins reports that with the sixty-eighth ballot,

Banks has 101 votes, Richardson 72, and Fuller 31, with eleven for minor figures.

As part of the process, congressmen quizzed the candidates. Nevins relates how a Mississippian asked Banks if he believed in racial equality. Banks

responded that it seemed to be the general law that the weaker of two juxtaposed races was absorbed or disappeared altogether. “Whether the black race … is equal to the white race, can only be determined by the absorption or disappearance of one or the other, and I propose to wait until the respected races can be properly subjected to this philosophical test before I give a decisive answer.”

Nathaniel Banks

Nathaniel Banks

The House thought that pretty funny, but it probably didn’t win Banks any votes.

With the grinding process, the constant rounds of fruitless questioning and votes, and endless speeches, one might expect tempers to flare. Congressmen had assaulted one another on the floor before, and would again. But only Horace Greeley took any lumps, and he took them away from the floor of the House. I sought further details, but haven’t found a copy of the New York Weekly Tribune for February 2 online.

The battle for the Speakership wore on through December and January, not ending until the start of February when the House voted a rule to elect the Speaker with a plurality. Nathaniel Banks at last prevailed, 103-100, over South Carolina’s William Aiken, Jr. In settling on Banks, the opposition coalition had not repudiated nativism, but the majority within had clearly chosen an antislavery nativist, from Massachusetts no less, over proslavery or indifferent candidates available to them from climes further South. A victory barely managed out hardly made for a grand triumph, and Banks would use his powers in a decidedly impartial way, but the opposition had moved at least a small step beyond single-issue rejection of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and toward a consolidated party.

The Squatter Sovereign on Butler, Part Two

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley

Robert S. Kelley’s Squatter Sovereign would not tell its readers that the editor served as ringleader for the mobbing of Pardee Butler, but took great pride in the act all the same. More such treatment awaited any antislavery man who showed his face and spoke up in Atchison and, if they had their way, everywhere in Kansas and Missouri. Missouri would supply rope and Kansas the manpower to go further than Butler got, decorating every tree if the need arose.

But it takes a village to sustain a reign of terror. If the paper’s readers beyond the Atchison area took only a smile away from the story of Butler’s ordeal, then Kelley had not done his job. Thus he reached out to remind them of their duty as white, southern men:

With confidence we appeal to the Squatter Sovereigns of Kansas, to know if our slaves shall be tampered with? Will they allow the Greelys and Sewards of the Northern States, to inundate our broad territory with the scurf and scum, collected from their prisons, brothels, and sink-holes of iniquity? Is society, composed of such ingredients as these, a proper school for the morals of your children? Are such men fit companions for your daughters? Such women fit wives for your sons?

Sarah Grimké

Sarah Grimké

Do you want a man like William Lloyd Garrison to marry your daughter? Do you want your son saddled with a wife like one of the Grimké sisters? Why, those two turned against their own father’s politics! If you didn’t want your daughters at risk or your sons emasculated, Robert Kelley knew what you needed to do. With the world watching

Your brethren of the slave holding states, have placed their case in your hands. they have declared Kansas the Thermopylae of the South, and YOU the Spartan band, that must defend it from the foul invasion of Northern fanatics. They have crossed the Rubicon, broken through all restraint, and forced us to the final issue.

Having given his readers the nickel tour of classical history, before the United States stamped its first nickel coin, Kelley proceeded to familiar themes: Proslavery men fought for nothing less than survival itself. They could claim no shelter from the Constitution. The North had broken every sectional accord. Now they must choose between compromise with the faithless Yankees and their vast majority

or we must rise, unanimously, and drive the foe from our midst. In order to accomplish this end, no mercy can be shewn, and none is needed.

Pardee Butler

Pardee Butler

This all endorses Butler’s treatment, and that of others like him, but the appeal to unanimity speaks volumes. No matter what they had to do, they must rid themselves of dissenters. Kelley told his readers that they must not hesitate, possibly mindful of how the attack on Butler lost steam at the river’s edge and certainly well aware that not every Southern man stood firm on his side:

If your self esteem is insufficient, your interests are enough to decide you. If you hesitate now, you are lost. Your brethren of Atchison have taken a bold, manly and decided stand. Unassisted they pledge themselves to purge their town, and its vicinity, from the polluted presence of Abolitionism. — Without your aid, more they cannot do. Give it us, and Kansas shall soon claim her proper place among her sister States, in a Southern Republic.

If the Abolitionists seek war, it shall come, and sooner than they wish; and if you are good men, and true, it shall be “war to the knife, and knife to the hilt.”

The Kansas Slave Code, Part Three

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Parts 1 and 2

Acts of the Bogus Legislature:

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Greeley’s pamphlet

The Assembly of Kansas had busied itself in writing a remarkably thorough code of laws to suppress antislavery activity and to preserve slavery in the territory’s bounds. They, in the words of Alice Nichols’ Bleeding Kansas, made a territory where Kansans

could be jailed for reading a paper of free-soil sentiment; they could lose their vote by refusing to take the oath supporting the Fugitive Slave Law, their property for questioning the right of slaveholding, and their lives for aiding a slave to escape.

The test oaths that the bogus legislature preferred demanded fealty to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, or rather their selective interpretation of it. Greeley highlights one stark contradiction in particular, in a law governing writs of habeas corpus:

No negro or mulatto, held as a slave within this Territory, or lawfully arrested as a fugitive from service from another State of Territory, shall be discharged, nor shall his right of freedom be had under the provisions of this act.

This ancient freedom, the great writ itself, did not extend to any slave. If it did, then slaves might petition for relief on the grounds of their wrongful imprisonment. Such devices had freed fugitives in the North. The proslavery men could not allow that, even if their grandfathers had written habeas corpus into the original Constitution. The right which secured all others could not extend to people who deserved no rights.

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow

Greeley went back into the Kansas-Nebraska Act and shared what it said on the subject with his readers:

Except also that a writ of error or appeal shall also be allowed to the Supreme Court of the United States, from the decision of the said supreme court created by this act, or of any judge thereof, or of the district courts created by this act, or any judge thereof, upon any writ of habeas, involving the question of personal freedom.

That section of the law, like the one requiring voters to actually reside in Kansas, went right out the window. With it, at least on paper, went the last hope of freedom even on the most personal scale for black Americans in Kansas.

Across the border in Missouri, Benjamin Franklin Stringfellow looked on the work of his brother John, Speaker of the House, and others with great admiration. One can imagine him rubbing his hands in delight like the black-caped villain of the proverbial silent movie did as he put the screaming woman down on the train tracks. Such comic fancies aside, he felt quite proud enough to boast of his movement’s success to the Montgomery, Alabama Register, as Nichols relates:

They now have laws more efficient to protect slave property than any State in the Union.l These laws have just taken effect, and have already silenced the Abolitionists; for, in spite of their heretofore boasting, they know they will be enforced to the very letter and with utmost vigor. Not only is it profitable for slave holders to go to Kansas, but politically it is all-important.

The Kansas Slave Code, Part Two

Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley

Acts of the Bogus Legislature:

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Greeley’s pamphlet

The Kansas Assembly did not enact a slave code under that name, but did provide special laws for governing human property within the bounds of the territory. These included making sure owners could freely whip their slaves even to death, provided they didn’t look too sadistic doing it, and castration for any black or multiracial person guilty of rape. But slaves could commit lesser crimes, often as acts of resistance.

If any slave shall commit petit larceny, or shall steal any neat cattle, sheep or hog, or be guilty of any misdemeanor, or other offense punishable under the provisions of this act only by fine or imprisonment in a county jail, or by both such fine and imprisonment, he shall, instead of such punishment, be punished, if a male, by stripes on his bare back not exceeding thirty-nine, or if a female, by imprisonment in a county jail not exceeding twenty-one days, or by stripes not exceeding twenty-one, at the discretion of the justice.

A slave who broke the law did not simply sin against those injured, but rather against the entire social order dedicated to his or her subjugation. The exercise of black agency constituted something worryingly close to open revolt. Its example could spread and so required aggressive measures to combat. The bountiful whips came out.

Every slave charged with the commission of any of the offences, specified in the last section, shall be tried in a summary manner before a justice of the peace in the country in which the offence is committed; and such justice (if a jury is not required, as provided for in the next section) shall hear the evidence, determine the cause, and, on conviction, pronounce sentence, and cause the same to be executed.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

A slave could not have access to the courts. This implied too much equality with whites. Thus a slave received only a summary trial. The justice of the peace could opt for a jury and a more proper trial, but that remained at his discretion. The court had discretion in that, but not quite so much in laying down punishments:

When any slave shall be convicted of a felony punishable by imprisonment and hard labor, the court before whom such conviction shall be had shall sentence the offender to receive on his bare back any number of stripes not exceeding thirty-nine.

One way or another, a slave must face the lash. Any misdemeanor brought it. Any felony brought it. No judge could commute the sentence. For a slave who came in contact with the justice system, so far as it went, all roads led to whipping.

The Kansas Slave Code, Part One

Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley

Acts of the Bogus Legislature:

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7. Greeley’s pamphlet

I don’t know that Kansas adopted a full, dedicated slave code. If they did, I’ve yet to find a copy. The Bogus Legislature did, however, write some laws regarding the administration of slaves like those one might expect in such a code into their ordinary criminal legislation. Horace Greeley included them in his pamphlet as well. These laws come side by side with the ordinary punishments for the same crimes, in the same sections of the code.

Homicide shall be deemed excusable when committed by accident or misfortune in either of the following cases: First, in lawfully correcting a child, apprentice, servant, or slave, or in doing any other lawful act by lawful means, with usual and ordinary caution and without unlawful intent; or Second, in the heat of passion, upon any sudden or sufficient provocation, or upon sudden combat without any undue advantage being taken, and without any dangerous weapon being used, and not done in a cruel and unusual manner.

A man just had to beat his child, his apprentice, his free servant, or his slave to death sometimes. These things happen. Slaves, one imagines, received fatal beatings far more often than the others. Lawful correction would surely include at least whipping, after all. Unless a man went around proclaiming to the world that he would kill his slave by means of the lash, he might easily pass muster.

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

Slave states did outlaw the murder of a slave, at least in some circumstances. A few masters did go to prison for it. But it seems that their fellow slaveholders rarely saw enforcement of the law as a major imperative.

If any negro or mulatto shall take away any white female under the age of eighteen years, from her father, mother, guardian, or other person having legal charge of her person, without her consent, for the purpose of prostitution, concubinage, or marriage with him, or any other negro or mulatto, he shall, on conviction, be sentenced to castration, to be performed under the direction of the sheriff, by some skilled person, and the expense shall be adjusted, taxed, and paid as other costs.

I don’t know the comparable punishment for the same crimes by a white man, but the specification that only a black or mixed-race person received castration speaks for itself.

Greeley also includes a section not directly about slavery, wherein the punishment for kidnapping a child brings the penalties of five years’ hard labor, six months in the county jail, or a fine of five hundred dollars. He adds a note on the end referring the reader back to the punishment for doing the same to a black child: death or ten years’ hard labor. Here the defense of slavery brings with it the strange paradox that an offense against, in principle, a black child seems more grave to the law than one done to a white child. Of course, a slaveholder would answer that the black child didn’t matter but the rights of the owner did. As an attack on slave property, the offense threatened the social order in dire ways that a simple kidnapping did not.

Acts of the Bogus Legislature, Part Seven

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Greeley’s pamphlet

The Bogus Legislature thought things through. They went back and forth across every possible way that one might oppose and undermine slavery. They laid down draconian punishments for the simple act of speaking against slavery, made virtually every step of helping a slave that dared steal back the life rightly owned by another into a grave crime, and bound all the territorial government to their edicts by criminalizing noncompliance by officeholders and requiring them to swear an oath to defend the Fugitive Slave Act. Lest one think that local officials might push back against all this, the Assembly reserved to itself the right to appoint every last one of them.

The Assemblymen even had juries stacked in their favor by excluding antislavery men from hearing cases on violations of the legislature’s laws to protect slavery. But that guarantee extended only to those particular laws. What about a freedom suit? Or a disputed sale? As property, slaves could become subject to lawsuits on many grounds. An antislavery jury could use those disputes to mitigate and undermine slavery, even if they could not abolish it for all Kansans. They might assign disputed slaves to owners who they thought less brutal than others, or free those who made freedom suits as a matter of course. John H. Stringfellow and his friends in the House and Council of Kansas saw the vulnerability and acted to close it. Jurors

in any cause in which the right to hold any person in Slavery is involved, nor in any case in which any injury done to or committed by any slave is in issue

could include

[N]o person who is conscientiously opposed to the holding of slaves, or who doe snot admit the right to hold slaves in this Territory

The judges had to swear an oath to defend the Fugitive Slave Act. So did the jurors. That left only the lawyers working any given case. The Assembly had a provision for them too. Attorneys at law required a license. None but white men could practice law in the territory, but even those paragons of race and sex must receive the approval of one of Kansas courts. To receive their credential, they had to take what appears to be the same oath required of officeholders to support and defend the Fugitive Slave Act. As a great many politicians, then and now, began their careers as lawyers this would help ensure that any home-grown Kansas politicos of decades to come stayed right by slavery.

Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley

Greeley calls these laws test oaths. If you’ve read the Constitution, you might remember this line:

no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.

Back in the day, this meant a great deal. The original Constitution granted very few personal rights, most famously habeus corpus, but the framers saw fit to include this as well. At the time, most colonies and states had such oaths on the books. If you wanted to hold colonial, and then state, office you had to swear obedience to the established church. The precedent runs all the way back to England, where religious tests excluded Catholics from government and the universities at Oxford and Cambridge. Now a new orthodoxy required protection and the proslavery men determined to give it the most thorough protection their unanimity could supply.

Acts of the Bogus Legislature, Part Three

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Parts 1 and 2

The bogus legislature set down laws, effective September 15, 1855, sacrificing virtually every other civic freedom white men enjoyed in the service of the one controversial freedom that many white Kansans did not want: the right to own slaves. Like the slave states, they mandated death for any who led or assisted a slave revolt. Further sections expanded the definition of assisting slave revolts to include any form of antislavery activity that extended beyond the privacy of an antislavery person’s mind. One could not speak or write against slavery in any way. One could not import writings from outside of Kansas that opposed slavery. Breaking any of these laws meant death.

These provisions, at least theoretically, targeted slave revolts. Proslavery men understood a slave revolt as inevitably leading to some kind of apocalyptic race war, so from their point of view the death penalty made perfect sense. They saw it in much the same way we might see a nuclear or biological terror attack and so worthy of the most extreme sanctions.

But the majority in the Assembly had some sense of proportionality, even if they hid it well. They conceded that not every possible antislavery action constituted supporting a revolt. An individual slave who stole himself or herself did not constitute an uprising. Absconding did not require violence against whites. It threatened slavery’s security, but one self-stealing slave did not a race war make. Likewise, neither did encouraging one to escape. Thus:

If any person shall entice, decoy, or carry away out of this Territory, any slave belonging to another, with intent to deprive the owner thereof of the services of such slave, or with the intend to effect or procure the freedom of such slave, he shall be adjudged guilty of grand larceny and, on conviction thereof, shall suffer death or be imprisoned at hard labor for not less than ten years.

The Fugitive Slave Act, in all its oppressiveness, did not condemn anyone to death or to any years at all of hard labor. Its penalties came in the form of fines. In Kansas, you would get at least ten years and might find the hangman calling…but at least the law did not mandate the execution. One need not mastermind a slave’s escape to warrant such punishment either. A virtually identical section applies identical penalties to mere accessories. Surely with a mind to their neighbors in Missouri, the legislature extended the death or minimum of a decade of hard labor punishment to those who brought slaves fleeing their masters into Kansas from without.

These offenses all assume that one knew what one did. If one helped a slave who simply might have absconded, then one might simply have made a mistake. Thus the honest mistake of aiding, assisting, harboring, or concealing a slave who may have run off without knowing that the slave had won a the guilty party a term of five years at hard labor.

Acts of the Bogus Legislature, Part Two

Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley

The bogus legislature decreed that anybody leading or assisting in a slave revolt, or doing anything to foment one, must die. In this they followed the lead of the slave states. By declaring that “any overt act” to such ends qualified for the purposes of the law, they made it so broad that almost anything might get one executed. Lest one miss that obvious inference, they went on in the third section of their Act to Punish Offenses against Slave Property to detail some of the overt acts that could earn one the hangman’s noose, as reprinted in Greeley’s pamphlet:

by speaking, writing, or printing, advise, persuade, or induce any slaves to rebel, conspire against, or murder any citizen of this Territory, or shall bring into print, write, publish, or circulate, or cause to be brought into, printed, written, published, or circulated, or shall knowingly aid or assist in the bringing into, printing, writing, publishing, or circulating in this Territory any book, paper, magazine, pamphlet, or circular, for the purpose of exciting insurrection, rebellion, revolt, or conspiracy on the part of the slaves, free negroes, or mulattoes, against the citizens of the Territory or any part of them, such person shall be guilty of felony, and shall suffer death.

John Brown

John Brown

Virtually no white abolitionist, save John Brown a few years later, preached slave revolt. The proslavery men chased phantom conspiracies, but believed them real all the same. Antislavery politics, to a great many of them, constituted in itself conspiracy to incite revolt. The paranoia inherent in knowing full well that slaves do not care to remain slaves and require force and terror to keep them in bondage demanded no less. Thus they must execute anybody who spoke or wrote against slavery.

But they did the slave states one better. Even South Carolina did not demand the death of people who brought into its bounds antislavery materials from without. Rather the postmasters in it and other southern states simply seized and destroyed such mail. The Bogus legislature proposed to kill people for the crime of no more than carrying a copy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin into Kansas or receiving for their own use an antislavery newspaper.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Provisions like this make it very clear just what the antislavery men meant when they highlighted the contradiction between slavery and white freedom. If they needed such laws to keep their slaves, then where did the slaveholders leave free white men? What freedoms did they have, save for the right to own slaves itself? They couldn’t even discuss the chief political issue in Kansas politics, lest word get out and the hangman come running. Meetings and speeches like those at Lawrence on the Fourth of July certainly could not continue under such a regime.

The despotism imposed upon the slaves would, if in a far less severe form, also come free whites who dared dissent from proslavery orthodoxy. Charles Robinson didn’t have the degree of authoritarian imposition anywhere near right in insisting that the proslavery men would enslave antislavery whites along with all blacks, but he captured the essential fact that freedom to own slaves required the sacrifice of other cherished freedoms.

Acts of the Bogus Legislature, Part One

Horace Greeley

Horace Greeley

The free state men had their Fourth of July meeting and protest. Neither warmed the hearts of the Kansas Legislative Assembly. Flush with their triumph in purging their last dissenter, confident in their ability to override each of Andrew Reeder’s vetoes, they got to work. The laws would not write themselves. Alice Nichols describes the Assembly’s remarkable industry in Bleeding Kansas:

It was a laborious task. They had to go through the whole Missouri code and substitute ‘Territory of Kansas’ for ‘State of Missouri.’

One can look at this as proof positive that Missouri controlled Kansas. The vassal territory, conquered province, or whatever metaphor the Charles Robinson and friends preferred at the moment, must naturally adopt the laws of its masters. They had a point, but territories often adopted the codes of their neighbors this way. Nobody came to Kansas with a voluminous law library. Large numbers of books do not travel easily. Those most available on the ground would naturally come from just across the line in Missouri. Furthermore, as most Kansans had until recently lived in Missouri, they knew them better. The same concerns had prompted Missouri’s first lawmakers to import their own code from elsewhere. Why reinvent the wheel?

That said, the Missouri code’s included slavery did not deter the legislators in the slightest. Slavery did, however, prompt from them a special response. In voting through the Missouri statutes one by one, they found that the Show Me State simply did not protect slavery well enough. Remarkably, their proslavery patrons had gone soft. Thus they resolved to innovate. The results of their work attracted wide notice outside Kansas. Horace Greeley published extracts from them in a pamphlet titled The Border Ruffian Code in Kansas, from which shall I take their text.

Greeley commenced by reminding his readers how these laws came into force, declaring them the work of a body

notoriously forced upon the people of that Territory, at the hands of invading ruffians from Missouri, using persuasive arguments of the Bowie-Knife and Revolver

He turned then to the obvious beginning, quoting from “An Act to Punish Offences against Slave Property”:

every person, bond or free, who shall be convicted of actually raising a rebellion or insurrection of slaves, free negroes, or mulattoes, in this Territory, shall suffer death.

John Brown

John Brown

This provision, section one of the act, runs much the same as laws in other slave states. While thus not much of an innovation, one should consider it in light of what proslavery men considered rather mundane antislavery positions dangerously close to the offense above. The slaves, they would tell you, accepted their lot in life. They even liked it, until some abolitionist put thoughts in their heads. The law would condemn John Brown surely enough, but might also condemn any prominent antislavery man. But strictly read, it applied only to leaders of such rebellions. Those who helped them had to wait for the next section to receive their punishment:

Every free person who shall aid or assist in any rebellion or insurrection of slaves, free negroes, or mulattoes, or shall furnish arms, or do any overt act in furtherance of such rebellion or insurrection shall suffer death.

In both sections, the law states that every free person who broke the law must die. That mandatory death sentence could come for the John Browns of the world, but also for “any overt act” to such ends. That could mean almost anything. What could one say or do to oppose the spread of slavery that would not look, to the proslavery men, like fomenting an insurrection?