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Kansas: The Prelude to the War for the Union
Counter-Moves
by Spring, Leverett Wilson


Missourians felicitated themselves upon the state of affairs in Kansas, upon a legislature unanimously, fanatically pro-slavery, upon a judiciary not at all unfriendly, upon an executive department purged of an obnoxious incumbent. Free-state men certainly found themselves confronted by a very grave question -- what course shall be pursued in the emergency? Few and beggarly were the signs of promise visible for them. Their cause seemed to have foundered. Something should be done, but what?

The line of policy adopted -- repudiation of the territorial legislature as an illegal, usurping, "bogus" concern, and organization forthwith of a state government and application to Congress for admission to the Union -- emanated from Robinson. This scheme, an outgrowth and suggestion in part of the California struggle, began to shape itself in his thoughts on the very day that Reeder handed over the territorial legislature to the Philistines. The rise of a state government, independent of the territorial government, severing all friendly relations with it and aiming to effect its overthrow like the emergence in the Roman world of a standing army of twenty-five legions from the ruins of the republic -- was an event of capital importance in Kansas history.

A preliminary step in the counter-move against Missouri was to secure a supply of Sharps rifles. The reputed "military colonies" were practically without weapons. Robinson lost no time in dispatching G. W. Deitzler to New England for arms, ostensibly to protect the polls at the special elections May 22d, but really as the first stroke in the projected scheme of anti-Missouri operations. Sharps rifles, he saw, were an absolutely essential preliminary. They would ensure the settlers respect and consideration which they might not otherwise receive. One hundred of these weapons soon reached Lawrence in packages marked "books" a species of literature that created wide interest on the border. "Sharps rifles," said the "Democratic Review," are "the religious tracts of the new Free-Soil system."

Then it would be necessary to establish in place of the disowned territorial government some political organization to serve as a rallying point for the people until the legislature could be captured or admission to the Union secured. To provide for this emergency a state government was decided upon, which would be put into actual service whenever Congress should authenticate it. In the interval the anti-slavery portion of the community proposed to do without laws as best it might. November 1st, 1855, Dr. Robinson wrote A. A. Lawrence, reviewing somewhat in detail the progress of events up to that time. "[We must be] as independent and self-reliant and confident," he said, "as the Missourians are, and never in any instance be cowed into silence or subserviency to their dictation. This course on the part of prominent free-state men is absolutely necessary to inspire the masses with confidence and keep them from going over to the enemy.... I have been censured for the defiant tone of my Fourth of July speech, but I was fully convinced that such a course was demanded. The legislature was about sitting and free-state men were about despairing.... [A few of us] dared to take a position in defiance of the legislature and meet the consequences. We were convinced that our success depended upon this measure, and the demonstration of the Fourth was to set the ball in motion in connection with Conway's letter to Governor Reeder resigning his seat and repudiating the legislature. For a while we had to contend with opposition from the faint-hearted, but by persevering in our course, by introducing resolutions into conventions and canvassing the territory, repudiation became universal with free-state men.... We conceived it important to disown the legislature, if at all, before we knew the character of its laws, believing they would be such as to crush us out if recognized as valid, and believing we should stand on stronger ground if we came out in advance.... The 1st of July forms an important epoch in our history. It was about that time that open defiance was shown our enemies.... Pro-slavery bullies were daily in the streets and insulted all free-state men who they supposed would make no resistance. This drove our people into a secret organization of self-defense, and it was not long before they were glad to cry for quarters. A free-state Missourian, a regular California bully, came among us and took them in their own way and frightened every pro-slavery man from the field. His name is David Evans, and if I had a Sharps rifle at my disposal I should make him a present of it.... To divide into parties before our admission into the Union would be ruinous and give our enemies the advantage."

Between the 8th of June and the 15th of August, 1855, not including the large Fourth of July meeting already mentioned, when Dr. Robinson delivered an address on local and national issues, seven so-called political conventions were held in Lawrence. These conventions -- one or two of the first being small, impromptu affairs -- were all except one in opposition to the federal administration and its territorial policy. On the evening of June 27th a few Democrats assembled and resolved that "the best interests of Kansas require an early organization of the Democratic party." The master spirit in this convention was James H. Lane, recently from Indiana, where he had obtained some notoriety. He participated in the Mexican war, was elected lieutenant-governor of Indiana in 1848, and appeared in Congress as representative from that state in 1852. For some cause Lane's political fortunes did not thrive in Indiana, and in the spring of 1855 he betook him self to the fresh fields of Kansas, pro-slavery in sentiment, boasting that he would as readily buy a negro as a mule, conceding the legality of the territorial legislature, and accepting it as a foregone conclusion that Kansas would become a slave state if its soil should prove to be adapted to servile labor. But the Democratic venture came to nothing. It touched no responsive chord among the people. Lane's interest in feeble minority parties was very slight, and he soon found his way to the opposition benches.

The various minor assemblies at Lawrence led up to a more pretentious convention which began on the 14th of August, and continued until the following day. The special significance of this convention lies in the fact, that it initiated measures looking toward the formal organization of a political party. It declined to attempt that task itself as being too local and unrepresentative in its make-up, and confided it to a more comprehensive assembly that should meet September 5th at Big Springs, for the purpose of "constructing a national platform upon which all friends of making Kansas a free state may act in concert."

Big Springs in the autumn of 1855 was a place of four or five shake-cabins and log-huts. To that town repaired one hundred delegates and thrice as many spectators, who took quarters out of doors on the prairie. At this convention all the anti-Missouri elements -- heretofore unassociated and without definite concert of action -- got into a kind of organic connection and denominated themselves the Free-State party.

The platform put forth by the new political clanship emphatically confirmed the declaration of "The Liberator," that no abolitionists had taken passage for Kansas. As a matter of fact, Dr. Robinson was at that time almost the only free-state man of prominence in the territory who avowed himself an abolitionist, and he did not happen to be a member of the convention. And it is a significant fact, which forcibly illustrates the absence of any general and radical anti-slavery sentiment in Kansas, that so late as the year 1858 Missourians hired out slaves at Lawrence, and received their wages.

Though recently escaped from the stranded Democratic movement, Lane intrigued himself into the chairmanship of a committee of thirteen to which the construction of a platform was intrusted.

The question of slavery brought on an all-night discussion, in which he persuaded the committee to adopt violent anti-negro principles. Only one among the thirteen stood out to the end, -- an inexpugnable home missionary, James H. Byrd. The platform branded the charges of abolitionism, so industriously circulated against free-state men, as "stale and ridiculous." With that mischievous and deplorable fanaticism it disavowed all sympathy. "The best interests of Kansas require a population of free white men."

When the time came for the establishment of a state government, negroes of every stripe, bond and free, should be excluded. The convention adopted the platform without dissent. At Big Springs assuredly the anti-slaveryism was of a diluted milk-and-water type.

The convention appointed a committee to draft resolutions in regard to the territorial legislature. Naturally that odious assembly got a vigorous and caustic handling. Such a course might have been expected in any case, but the fact that Governor Reeder wrote the resolutions made assurance double sure. After his removal from office Reeder threw himself heartily and unreservedly into the free-state cause. Widely and favorably known in Eastern States, where his defense of repudiation had great influence in the persuasion of a conservative and law-abiding public that this revolutionary measure must arise out of inexorable necessities, he was an accession of primary importance. National as well as local considerations entered into the problem pressing upon the new free-state party. Unless the country at large could be wakened; unless the few hundred men at the front could be backed by moral and material support from non-slaveholding states, it would be folly to risk a contest with Missouri. Governor Reeder's chief service lay outside of Kansas. No other man in the free-state ranks had anything like a national reputation; no other man could then command a hearing so wide or so effective.

Reeder's unhappy personal experiences undoubtedly intensified the violence of his resolutions. Five months after fitting out the territorial legislature with certificates, and couching his communications to it in the most courtly phrases of official etiquette, he describes that body as "the monstrous consummation of an act of violence, usurpation, and fraud," -- "a contemptible and hypocritical mockery of republicanism," trampling down as with the hoofs of a buffalo the Kansas-Nebraska bill, libeling the Declaration of Independence, and staining the country with indelible disgrace. Whenever "peaceful remedies shall fail, and forcible resistance shall furnish any reasonable prospect of success," -- then let the now shrinking and reluctant hostility be pushed to "a bloody issue." The resolutions scourging the legislature evoked a response quite as rapturous as Lane's negropbobia.

The first and only discord that jangled the harmonies at Big Springs occurred when a subject, incidental and subordinate to the special purposes of the convention, was reached -- the question of establishing a state government. It was stirring the community -- an uppermost theme in the public thought -- and could not be ignored. The special committee, that took it under advisement, shrank from pledging the party to the support of so novel and venturesome an experiment. They pronounced it "untimely and inexpedient." But the convention thought differently, and adopted approving resolutions.

As epilogue to the labors of the convention, and as prologue to the opening career of the new party, there was nomination of a delegate for Congress. Only one man received a moment's consideration for this honor -- Reeder. The presentation of his name called out tremendous applause. His speech in accepting the candidacy produced a powerful impression. "A steady, unflinching pertinacity of purpose, never-tiring industry, dogged perseverance, and all the abilities with which God has endowed" him -- such was the service he pledged to Kansas. Reeder's speech modulated in its closing paragraphs into the belligerent tone of the resolutions on the legislature -- "when other resources fail, there still remain to us the steady eye and the strong arm, and we must conquer or mingle the bodies of the oppressors with those of the oppressed upon the soil which the Declaration of Independence no longer protects!"

The convention secured unity and concert among the detached anti-Missouri elements, which merged into a political party as vapor-wreaths combine into the larger cloud. But the convention unfortunately exposed itself to damaging criticism. Lane's "black-law" platform and Reeder's heated declamation gave the enemy aid and comfort. The unlucky "bloody - issue" phrase was worn threadbare in Congress and out of it by the incessant service to which administration speakers put it. Douglas thundered against "the daring and defiant revolutionists in Kansas," who were plotting "to overthrow by force the whole system of laws under which they live." He professed great anxiety lest, through the inefficiency of federal processes, the insurgents should escape the just penalty of their deeds. This government, he remarked, has been "equal to any emergency ... except the power to hang a traitor!"

If the formation of a political party was a matter of too considerable magnitude for the Lawrence convention of August 14th and 15th to enter upon, reasons still more cogent and conclusive existed why it should shrink from initiating the movement for a state government. The convention met primarily and avowedly in the interest of a new political organization, and therefore could not escape charges of partisanship, whereas it was thought particularly desirable that the state government should have an origin at least technically unpartisan. During the progress of the first convention a petition was circulated and numerously signed, calling a second convention of citizens, without regard to political affiliations, to consider the state-government project. No sooner had the former body adjourned on the 15th than the latter, composed of substantially the same membership, assembled. The recent politicians now became simply citizens, and made brief work of the business before them. The resources of talk had been pretty much exhausted by the first convention, where the discussion took wide range and the expenditure of words was less than usual. Opposition to the experiment of a state organization showed little or no strength. A delegate territorial convention, to meet at Topeka September 19th, was agreed upon.

The Topeka convention subjected the straw which had been violently threshed at Lawrence and Big Springs to a fresh Hailing, with no results other than attended earlier experiments. A constitutional convention seemed feasible, delegates to which were elected October 9th. They received in the aggregate twenty-seven hundred and ten votes. On the same day Reeder was elected free-state delegate to Congress and received all the ballots cast -- twenty-eight hundred and forty-nine. The territorial legislature had also ordered an election for congressional delegate and selected October 1st as the date. J. W. Whitfield received twenty-seven hundred and twenty-one votes -- only seventeen scattering ballots disturbed the unanimity of this election and secured the governor's certificate. Reeder, backed by protests from thirty-two voting precincts, contested Whitfield's seat, but did not carry his point.

The constitutional convention continued in session at Topeka from October 23d to November 11th. Lane was elected president, and delivered, on taking the chair, a short address that sketched in outline the nobler Kansas of the future. Wide diversities of antecedents appeared among the members of the convention who represented half the states of the Union. Though convened for a purpose that did not lack much of being revolutionary, it was a decidedly conservative assembly. Nineteen of the thirty-four members reported themselves democrats, six registered as whigs, while independents, free-soilers, republicans, free state men, and nothingarians found representatives among the remaining nine. The incidental debates, which arose during the session on the merits of the Kansas-Nebraska bill, showed that a majority were friendly to it in spite of all that had happened in the territory.

The convention put together a fairly good patchwork constitution, which adopted the boundaries of the Kansas-Nebraska bill, prohibited slavery after the 4th of July, 1857, conferred the right of suffrage on ═white male citizens," and on "every civilized male Indian who has adopted the habits of the white man," and located the capital temporarily at Topeka. Lane still advocated the exclusion of negroes, pleading for a free white state, and carried the convention with him. Robinson fought the "black law" iniquity stoutly, but could make no head against it. A portion of the convention wished to incorporate anti-negro discriminations in the constitution, but the whole matter was ultimately referred to the people, who voted by a majority of nearly three to one that colored men should be excluded from the state. December 15th the constitution was ratified at the polls by seventeen hundred and thirty-one affirmative to forty-six negative votes. The election of officers for this tentative, empirical commonwealth took place January 5th, 1856, and resulted in the choice of Charles Robinson as governor. One interesting and noteworthy result followed -- whatever the philosophy of it may be -- the sudden and final extinction of black-law sentiment in Kansas. Silence fell upon its numerous and active champions with the election of an abolitionist to the governorship. That event in its effect was like some great change of climate which abruptly revolutionizes the life, customs, and habits of a people.

The elections of December 15th and of January 5th excited no general disturbance. Pro-slavery men sneered at them as silly, scarecrow performances. At two points only -- Leavenworth and Easton -- did anything like the old time violence break out. While the election was in progress at Leavenworth, on the 15th of December, a gang of pro-slavery roughs appeared at the polls and demanded the ballot-box on the ground that the election was illegal. Considering the reply unsatisfactory, the leader, followed by the whole brawling rout, crashed through the window where votes were received, and caused a great panic among the judges of election, who did not relish that style of suffrage. "I was not right well afterwards," one of them complained. The raiders captured the ballot-box and bore it away in triumph, reducing consequently the majority in favor of the Topeka constitution by several hundred votes.

Only a single affray of any importance disquieted the January election. In consequence of rumors that the Kickapoo rangers -- a pro-slavery military company of bad reputation -- were planning an attack, the election at Easton did not take place until the 7th. A few armed free-state men from Leavenworth, led by Captain R. P. Brown, were in attendance to lend their friends any assistance that might be necessary. At night there was a brief skirmish in which one pro-slavery man was killed. Nobody on the free state side received serious injury. "I found a shot in my scalp a day or two afterwards," said an Easton man, "but I did not know it at the time."

In the morning Brown and his men started for Leavenworth, but were intercepted by the Kickapoos, who had been hastily summoned to Easton and were in a rage to avenge the killing of the preceding night. Their fury burned especially against Brown, whose resolution and activity made him very unpopular among the Kickapoos. "We've got him sure," one of them chuckled. They carried him back to Easton and confined him in a store, while an attempt was being made to organize a court for his trial. But some of the savages could not brook the delays of the rudest, most expeditious judiciary. They dispersed the court and dealt Brown a fatal hatchet-stroke on the head. As he was not killed outright, they bestirred themselves to take him home a distance of several miles. I was late in the afternoon of one of the bitterest winter days ever known in Kansas before they set forth. "I am very cold," groaned the dying man, who, iced with gore, was flung upon the floor of a farm wagon and jolted homeward for hours over the roughly frozen roads. "Here's Brown," the devils blurted out as they drove up to the door of his cabin.

The state legislature met at Topeka March 4th, and Governor Robinson delivered his message a strong, sensible, cautious paper. With a mixture of shrewdness, poetry, and bathos, the legislature after a brief session adjourned to the 4th of July. It attempted nothing beyond the passage of a few laws, the appointment of a codifying committee to prepare business for the next session, the election of Reeder and Lane as senators, and the preparation of a memorial praying for admission to the Union under the Topeka constitution. Neither officers nor laws were regarded as having anything more than a conditional, tentative existence, until favorable and validating action could be secured on the part of Congress. The governor was careful to say that he "recommended no course to be taken in opposition to the general government or to the territorial government while it shall remain with the sanction of Congress. Collision with either is to be avoided."

Thus far an unbroken prosperity had attended the counter-move against Missouri, but in Washington it experienced rough weather. April 7th' General Cass presented in the Senate the memorial of the Topeka legislature, asking that the State of Kansas might be admitted to the Union. The appearance of the memorial caused a commotion. "I find," said Douglas, "that the signatures are all in one handwriting.... I perceive on inspection various interlineations and erasures. All things are calculated to throw doubt on the genuineness of the document." Senator Pugh thought the memorial appeared "as if some person who had it in charge had watched the progress of discussion in this body, and had stricken out propositions to accommodate it to the present stage of discussion." "Are we not aware," sneered Benjamin, of Louisiana, "that the men whose signatures purport to be attached to this paper are fugitives from justice?" The memorial was ignominiously bundled out of the Senate. "I ask leave to withdraw it," said Cass, "with a view to return it to the gentleman who handed it to me."

The gentleman in question was Lane, who, in no wise abashed, immediately began to plan a second effort for recognition. He resorted to the sanctities of an affidavit which rehearsed the alleged history of the memorial. It was originally the work of a special committee, was accepted by the legislature, and then sent back for revision as the phraseology needed mending. The committee delegated the editorial function to Lane, who attended to it after his arrival in Washington. The "sets of signatures," executed by members of the legislature, having been "unfortunately mislaid," Lane's private secretary came to the rescue and signed the names of these gentlemen to the memorial -- such was the substance of the affidavit.

Harlan, of Iowa, presented the memorial with the explanatory affidavit to the Senate, but the second reception of it was no more friendly than the first. The shabby, deleted, patched-up condition of the document, and the absence of original signatures, neutralized the force of all explanation however adroit and plausible.

Besides, the memorial was silent in reference to the "black law" restrictions, which, though not literally a part of the constitution, would practically have the same effect as if they had been incorporated in it -- an omission readily lending color to charges of concealment and disingenuousness. - The infelicities of the memorial afforded Senator Douglas opportunities for assailing Lane, which he improved to the utmost. You presented to us, he said in substance, an original document that had no signatures, no mode of authentication, and no date. You attempted to palm upon the Senate an imperfect copy of the constitution of the so-called State of Kansas. You suppressed a material provision of that supreme law. You withheld what you dare not defend -- the permanent legislative instructions excluding colored men from the state. In every line of your expurgated and recast memorial evidences of fraud appear!

Lane did not relish the affair, and demanded from Douglas an explanation such as "will remove all imputation upon the integrity of my acts or motives in connection with the memorial," and intimated that a challenge would follow in case his explanation should be inadequate. Douglas replied that no exculpatory facts were within his knowledge, and there the episode ended.

At the close of a long discussion the House of Representatives voted by a majority of two in favor of the admission of Kansas to the Union with the Topeka constitution, but the hostility of the Senate was fatal to the movement.

The Topeka movement could show but little backing of precedents. State governments had repeatedly come into existence without enabling acts, but never before in defiance of the territorial authorities. That was the situation in Kansas. Bayard, of Delaware, pronounced the conduct of the free-state party "incipient treason." But if their action touched, it did not cross, the line of treason. Had there been an appeal to force treason would have been committed. If the people of Kansas chose to supplement memorials to Congress with a state constitution under which officers had been provisionally elected and laws provisionally passed -- all a dead organism until federal inspiration should breathe into it the breath of life -- they were only exercising the primal rights of American citizens.

The Topeka government taking the field against the Missouri legislature -- a veritable, though hypothetical Kansas institution warring upon an interloper -- was erected, as has been already remarked, with a view to national, as well as domestic uses. It was an emphatic method of publishing the territorial assembly as hopelessly, intolerably bad, and in this way it made an effective appeal to Northern sympathy. Locally it afforded a rallying point for the anti-slavery party, and presented at least a show of aggressive activity which bespoke nerve and vigor in the leadership. The legislature never passed any laws of importance, and never put in force those which it did pass. It was a disguised mass-meeting -- a mass-meeting shrewdly and effectively masquerading as a state government. Whatever savage declarations and threats it may have uttered, it took care to do nothing illegal. The crafty scheme drew the pro-slavery fire and held the free-state men together until they could get possession of the legitimate legislature.

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