Kansas Territory: Crucible of American Experience

"The question of human slavery has been a topic of partisan discussion ever since our government began; but it is in relation to the territories of the Union that it has presented itself in the most complicated and dangerous form."

"The Issue Fairly Presented"
Democratic National Committee, 1856

The establishment of a luxurious Garden of the World in the middle of the North American continent is, in Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land, a powerful myth which infuses most-- if not all-- facets of American culture. From the country's first European colonies to 1893, when Frederick Jackson Turner declared the frontier officially closed, Smith traces the pastoral metaphor and its influence upon American life. Drawing evidence from sources as diverse as dime novels and Congressional records, he builds his new frontier thesis with its foundation firmly set in the earth. However, one area of pre- twentieth century American/agrarian culture he significantly overlooks is that of slavery. A popular rationale for this omission is that the ordeal of African slavery, which could arguably be as all-encompassing as Smith's Myth of the West in its impact on America, is in many ways incompatible with the locus of experience his book represents. For whatever reason, hardly any pioneers or settlers owned slaves, and that is pretty much that.

There is one episode in America's history where these two powerful experiences collided. The events in the Kansas territory which led to its acceptance as a state of the Union represent the superheating of the symbols of Garden and Whip, and their inseparable fusion.

The rhetoric of the Garden figures prominently in documents published by the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Society. Incorporated in the aftermath of the Kansas-Nebraska Bill and Stephen A. Douglas' 'popular' or 'squatter sovereignty', the Society's sole purpose was to assist anti-slavery families settle in Kansas and thereby vote for its freedom when the time came for it to be organized as a state.

The seductive language of the Emigrant Aid Society was surely in the hearts and minds of those anti-slavery individuals who committed their adventures to paper. It seems as if almost every genteel abolitionist who emigrated to the territory published their memoirs of this period. Dr. Charles Robinson, the founder of Lawrence, Kansas and later the first Free State governor, and his wife each wrote books on their experiences; clergymen who published similar documents include the Reverends Richard A. Cordley and H.D. Fisher. The Robinsons' books are interesting for their vivid and impassioned accounts of the turmoil produced by rival governments in LeCompton and Topeka. These governments each claimed legitimacy: Topeka on the basis of popular vote, and LeCompton on the basis of (pro-slavery) presidential endorsement. It goes without saying that the partisans of each regime enforced their own versions of justice. Reverend Cordley made his way to the territory in 1858, after most of the initial violence had taken place. Pioneer Days in Kansas therefore focuses on the effect of the Civil War on the fledgling state. He was instrumental in the harboring and organizing of 'contrabands' who escaped the Missouri plantations at the outset of the War; his adventures are related in such a manner that thoughts on slavery frequently rest side by side with those of pastoral spirituality. Reverend Fisher's book, with the wonderfully evocative title of Gun and the Gospel, is also centered on the border conflict after 1861. A unique feature of his volume is that it contains biographical sketches of many of the major actors in drama. His facts are neither entirely correct, nor consistently interpreted with an objective eye, but the combination of this distorted method with classic anti-slavery moralism makes Fisher's account very much a product of its times.

The majority of those who went to Kansas, regardless of their political affiliations, did not share the abolitionist community's idealism or charity. Most of the Free State settlers were anti-slavery, but also very much anti-black. The aforequoted Democratic National Committee pamphlet includes an excerpt from the Free State Party's 'Topeka Constitution' in which the fascinating psychotic Hero of Free Kansas, General Jim Lane, announced:

"And I do further proclaim and make known, that of the votes cast at the aforesaid election for and against the passage of a law. . .providing for the EXCLUSION OF FREE NEGROES FROM THE STATE OF KANSAS. . . a majority are in favor of exclusion, as ascertained by the results of said election. . ." (original publisher's type/emphasis)

In addition to being racist, most of the new settlers were violent and imperialist in their motives. Many of the pragmatic, consumption-oriented attitudes that characterized the modifier 'squatter' in 'squatter sovereignty' can be found in the second section of the memoirs of R.H. Wilson, which focus on his adventures in Kansas from 1855-1859. His pro-slavery sentiments align him with the Border Ruffians from Missouri who drunkenly engaged in skirmishes with the Free Soilers during this period. These isolated and invariably savage assaults occurred on both sides. One of the earliest and most famous examples is John Brown's 1856 massacre of pro-slavery settlers at Pottawotamie Creek; this vendetta-oriented style of guerilla warfare climaxed in William Quantrill's bloody raid on the abolitionist mecca of Lawrence in 1863. While Wilson's accounts carry a deprecating and dissmissive tone towards his exploits in the border wars, his narrative is significant in that it provides an example of anti-Garden symbolism, from the point of view of a man who is firmly grounded in the philosophies of land-grabber and slave-owner. His boisterous account provides a striking contrast to the abolitionist writers' and Emigrant Aid Society's harmonious Natural metaphor.

The chaos that reigned over the territory of Kansas has been aptly described as a prologue to the Civil War. It could also be seen as a miniature version: the opponents were still politically divided by the issue of slavery, and with the same savage intensity. Unlike the Civil War, however, the conflict in Kansas was principally fixed upon the issue of applying slavery to land that was being opened up for settlement. Without the incessant, driving urge to occupy and cultivate the interior of the continent, as outlined so dramatically in Virgin Land, the question of whether the Garden should be tended by slaves or free men might never have been an issue. But when the issue became big enough to kill for, it was debated first in Kansas.


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