A Free White State

(Please know that this post contains racist and inflammatory language, and unfounded ideas voiced at a point in territorial Kansas history when citizens were preparing to draw up a constitution to bring Kansas into the Union as a new state.  Slavery was the  question for Kansas statehood , but by 1859 it was understood that Kansas would prohibit slavery.  This is the grand act that we remember now:  Kansas damned slavery by stamping it out for Kansas.  But at the same time, stark racial bigotry had attached itself to other potential decrees to be written into the state’s constitution. It was repugnant, and the next few posts in this blog will look back at some of these defining questions.)

Five years after Kansas Territory opened for settlement, slavery opponents had taken the helm for the final advance to Kansas statehood.  The proslavers who had swooped into Kansas Territory with the Kansas-Nebraska Act[i] in 1854 had run into a snag that eventually would keep slavery on the Missouri side of the river and out of Kansas.

Two adversaries  — those who favored  the ownership of humans and those who opposed it — had battled with ballots and firearms and laws. But bit by bit, by 1858, the slavery supporters knew it was over as they watched freestaters expanding their majority for a “no slavery” Kansas.  It had always seemed such a clean question: You were either for or against slavery, right?

Not right. In 1859 there was a third force, probably less ideological and a little less predictable than the other two.  It was, frankly, a bit of an ogre and it had been hanging around biding its time at least since 1855.  Now, this brute  rode along in the important elections leading to the Wyandotte Constitutional  Convention, the meeting  that produced the constitution bringing Kansas to  statehood as a state free of slavery in 1861.

The settlers in this quieter third force wanted Kansas to be a free white state. That meant they aligned with other freestaters and opposed the spread of slavery into Kansas, yes.  But they shoved their beliefs in a different direction and proposed banning not only enslaved people of African descent – slavery —  in Kansas, but also prohibiting  free black people  (including those of mixed black and white ancestry)[ii] from living in Kansas.

Free white state Weekly_Leavenworth_Herald_Fri__Mar_9__1855_
This newspaper clipping shows the 1855 Free White State Party platform as published in The Kansas Weekly Herald, March 9, 1855, in Leavenworth, Kansas Territory. The image above is from newspapers.com at https://www.newspapers.com/clip/29785340/free_white_state_party_platform/

 

In other words, the free white state supporters would prohibit all people of African ancestry from living in Kansas.  Some of these white staters[iii]  put a bitter cherry on top of their soulless scheme for society by suggesting that if they lost their free white state bid, slavery was the only way they could back allowing people of African ancestry in Kansas. There was precedent for this sort of thing, most famously in Oregon.[iv] Arkansas, too, had just decided to banish free black people from the state.

Economic self-interest, not benevolence for people of a different race,  was a prime reason  white-staters  opposed slavery.  They didn’t  want to have to break sod, build fences, businesses  and homes in competition with the slaveholders who could use the labor of enslaved people.  Slavery cheapened the labor of workers, small start-up farmers like those in Kansas Territory and poor whites trying to earn wages or a living from their farms.

Racism was another reason for the white-staters’ desire to keep people of African descent out of Kansas.  These settlers claimed that black people were ignorant and inferior  to whites.

Before we take up the blurred lines of  Kansas Territory political factions and their imprint on the first  Kansas Constitution,  let me explain why I am writing about this  lesser-known other political player in Kansas Territory.

When the Wyandotte Constitutional Convention convened in July 1859, these free white-staters no longer had their own political party, if they’d really ever had one at all.  They still had their “no negroes” agenda , and they had opted to keep house with the Democrats.   And, as predicted, once the convention was under way slavery was barely discussed before its banishment was written into the constitution.

The white-staters (with the proslavery Democrats) spent much more effort at the convention trying to block free black people from living in Kansas.  They snorted and harangued, but were defeated time and again by the Republican majority that controlled the convention.  Still, they refused to give up everything and managed to put their mark on the constitution in other ways that would preserve something of their white supremacist beliefs. (We’ll look at those debates in the next post.)

We Kansas Territory history writers focus a lot on the terrible strife that brought Kansas to statehood in 1861. The glorious prize at the end of that struggle, which had been  watched closely by the entire nation, was another nail in slavery’s coffin and the magnificent free-state status of Kansas.

We imply by omission that when Kansas Territory joined the Union, liberty and maybe even equal rights for all races had won the day.  Kansas would be a progressive state with further rights following soon  for women and people of color. That’s the myth.  But  some of the racist provisions from those 1850s white men stuck around for decades.

JeffCo Democrats Kansas_National_Democrat_Thu__Mar_24__1859_
These two resolutions are from the Jefferson County, Kansas, Democratic party meeting in March of 1859. At the time this appeared in the Kansas National Democrat newspaper in Lecompton, proslavery partisans had been angry about recent Underground Railroad efforts to help enslaved people move through Kansas Territory to freedom in the north.  That could explain the language of the first resolutions. The image is from newspapers.com and may be seen at https://www.newspapers.com/clip/11423032/jefferson_county_democrats_oppose/

The early Free White State Party platform (the  1855 newspaper clip from The Kansas Weekly Herald) stated its official goals point by point. But, as an official political party in Kansas Territory,  the Free White State Party never really took off.  Its racist proposals, however, stayed alive.

The white staters were less visible than the noisy, more extreme members of the proslavery and free-state blocs.  That was particularly so during the Bleeding Kansas years (1856 and into 1857) when the bigger question of slavery drowned out white staters.  Bleeding Kansas was the era when pro- and anti-slavers formed factional militia groups, shot and stole from each other, burned homes and businesses, tore down fences and destroyed crops all along the Missouri-Kansas border.  Voting frauds were so blatant in Kansas Territory that Congress sent a committee to find out what was going on. [v]

Andrew J. Francis, an Ohio man who lived in Jefferson County’s proslavery territorial county seat, Osawkee (now Ozawkie), attended the committee’s proceedings  in 1856. [vi]  At that time, A.J. Francis[vii] was a white stater, and he was asked to talk about the partisan strife he had witnessed, and to enlighten the committee about secret societies, both freestate and proslavery, that were said to be operating in Missouri and Kansas.

Mr. Francis explained to the committee that his political position had evolved in the  months he had lived in the territory.  When he had first arrived in Kansas Territory he was neither a free-state nor proslavery supporter, he said..

But within a few months he found himself helping to organize a free white state political party.

This party would promote the idea of “slavery before free negroes” A.J. Francis said.

“I took the position that slavery was just and legal, but, as a matter of expediency, I would prefer to have Kansas a free State, provided there were no negroes allowed to live in the territory.”

Salmon Brown, son of abolition extremist John Brown, was unhappy about the white staters.[viii]  In a letter to his mother in August 1855,[ix] the young Brown explained that Kansas free-state party was dividing to bad effect. Some were adamantly opposed to slavery, but others, to Salmon Brown’s disgust, wanted Kansas to be a free white state, he wrote from his new home in  Osawatomie, Kansas Territory.  He found that the white staters wanted either a rigid “black law” to keep black people out of Kansas, or, failing that, they would support slavery.

“This is just what the south wants and just what they have been crowding,” Salmon Brown wrote.  “It will answer there [sic] purpose just as well as a slave State.”

Oddly, another man  irked by the  white staters was a proslavery man, Lucien Eastin.  Eastin was editor of The Kansas Weekly Herald in Leavenworth and his newspaper had published the Free White State Party Platform , shown in the newspaper clipping, on March 9, 1855. Eastin accused the party of trying to trap voters’ support by sugar-coating and white washing their principles.

They were uniting with the ultra abolitionists [abolish all slavery, offer rights to black people] on their common desire for a free state, but ignoring their obvious differences about free blacks in Kansas, Eastin wrote

“For disguise it as they may, it is an abolition movement, to secure the cooperation of all who might favor a Free State, under certain circumstances, and with certain restrictions,” Eastin wrote.

“Thus it can be seen the abolitionists at Lawrence, and the Free White State men of Leavenworth, are making a ‘union of effect’ to make Kansas a Free State. “

Eastin chided the white staters for failing to consider where free black people would go, if states like Kansas were to prohibit them.

“Certainly not to the Slave States, for they won’t receive them. But they are for driving them out, regardless of humanity or right, caring not what becomes of them.  A Free State we should suppose is the very place for free n—–s.  And if this is made a free State despite [the free white state platform endorsers], it will be the harbor of free negroes, and runaway slaves,” Eastin wrote.

The white staters hopped between  the Free State political party (because both would prohibit slavery) and Democrats, the dominant proslavery party.  But in 1859, the Free State Party, after some bitter divisions, had become the Republican Party, a more progressive party that tilted toward liberty for all. Understanding the free white staters’ disinterest for  black peoples’ rights, the  Democrats tugged at the white-stater vote as the territory approached its fourth effort at writing a constitution.[x]   And thus, the prejudices of the white staters  accompanied delegates into the town of Wyandotte  for the 1859 constitutional convention, set to begin July 5.[xi]

As the convention neared, the state Democratic Party and county-level Democrat organizations through the territory called for Kansas to be a free white state. And in an almost annoyed tone, the state Democrtic Party released slavery from their Kansas agenda “… and whereas, the Slavery question is practically settled in favor of a Free State beyond the possibility of further controversy…”

The Democrats’ platform, adopted in May 1859, also accused Republicans of backing the impossibly radical idea of “Negro Equality.”  It was an argument they employed during the campaigns to elect constitutional convention delegates [xii] to draw more voters like the white staters to the Democrat side.

But the party’s main point was this:  “Resolved, That we assert the original and essential inferiority of the negro race, and hereby call upon the Constitutional Convention to prohibit negro and mulatto suffrage, and exclude all free negroes from the future state of Kansas,”[xiii] read the state Democratic Party platform.

The Republican state party platform opened by slamming the Democrat administration in Washington and its appointed government overseers in Kansas Territory. Those forces had oppressed freestaters and disregarding rights, allowing violence and fostering corruption. (Click here to see both party platforms.)

The Republicans resolved “…That freedom is national and slavery sectional, and that we are inflexibly opposed to the extension of slavery to soil now free.”

An abolitionist’s fiery condemnation of  white staters came from The Geary City Era in Doniphan County in Kansas Territory’s most northeast corner. His column was reprinted by The Anti-Slavery Bugle in Lisbon, Ohio, (Click here to read the full article) 

“For is it not practically denying the humanity of the Negro, yes, placing him below the level of the brute creation, to forbid him coming within the limits of the new State of Kansas, on which thousands of dollars, and thousands of human lives have been spent and sacrificed for the now empty word Freedom,” wrote the Kansas newspaper’s junior editor, Earl Marble. He continued, decrying the hypocrisy of the white staters.

“Is this Freedom?  If it is, then the world has as yet but seen the sunny side of slavery!  Was it for this that the once glorious Free State party was organized?”

“Yes! All their [white state] efforts have ended in  — Freedom for the white man, but Slavery for him whom nature has seen fit to clothe in darker skin!”

Jefferson County was allowed only one delegate to the upcoming Wyandotte Constitutional Convention and he voted with the white staters every time one of their issues came up. On June 17,1859,  Jefferson County voters  elected the  Independent  Democrat, Clark Beveridge McClellan[xiv]  to represent them at the convention. C.B. McClellan had defeated (on a vote of 278 to 249) Republican Dr. Henry B. Buckmaster.

Another Jefferson County man ably explains the sentiments of white staters. Among Jefferson County’s very earliest settlers was a group of Missourians who set up a hard-working and long-lived farming community in the east central part of the county, Plum Grove.  William John Meredith,[xv] the grandson of one of those 1854 pioneers, wrote a story about the community’s people, crops, marriages and work, including bits about the politics of the day.  Meredith didn’t offer what political party his grandfather and other settlers preferred in 1850s Kansas Territory, but if I had to guess, I would say they supported a free white state.  In painting a picture of those settlers, Mr. Meredith wrote:

“They were Southern folk, small-farmer type, from Virginia, east Tennessee and Kentucky,  who, to escape the ruinous competition of the plantation system, had journeyed by way of the Wabash valley ‘as far west as any man could then get an acre from the public domain.”  They had moved to Clay County, Missouri, in the 1830s and to Jefferson County, Kansas Territory, in 1854.

“No, they didn’t expect any trouble out there with the Emigrant Aid Yankees [for the abolition of slavery] and such. And they didn’t intend to have anything more to do with the blatherskite Proslavery politicians than they’d ever had at home [in Missouri].”

But then came the conflict between the freestaters and the Lecompton gang[xvi] of proslavery politicians, Meredith wrote.   “All around them there was fighting; night raids, personal feuds magnified into ‘border outrages,’ house-burnings, plundering, horse thieving, mobs and lynchings, each side damning the other for aggression and retaliation.”

William John Meredith’s people didn’t care to be involved in the fighting, he wrote.  His estimate was that nine out of every ten newcomers were free labor men, seeking homes.  “Just everyday common folks, easy to get along with if they weren’t stirred up by the good-for-nothing politicians.”

“Anybody with his eyes open could see that next time an election was held there’d be a landslide “that’d bury the `Lecompton gang’ so deep a coal miner couldn’t find’m”-unless the Free Staters kept up their childish policy of ‘opposing and thwarting and fomenting trouble.”

The Merediths and their Kansas Territory neighbors had friends and family back in [proslavery] Missouri.  When the Civil War opened, Meredith wrote, they didn’t join their neighbors who volunteered  to fight for the Union.  Instead they enlisted in the local militias ordered to defend their homes and counties.

“They certainly had no lust for shedding the blood of their confederate kin. But with a clear conscience they could serve the nation and the state in repelling invasion. That naturally wouldn’t be understood by their newcomer neighbors from the states so far North that all Southerners were like foreigners to them.”

(To be continued)

[i] The Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed voters in territories to determine whether a state would allow slavery or not.  The act replaced the Missouri Compromise, which had set out that northern states, like Kansas, would not allow slavery and states south could allow slavery. More information is in this Kansas State Historical Society Kansapedia article: https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/kansas-nebraska-act/15159

[ii] “Mulatto” was a race category term, back then, used for people of mixed black and white ancestry. After Kansas became a state, early censuses documented whether people were white, black or mulatto.

[iii] Sometimes the term “free soilers” comes up in Kansas Territory readings. It is possible it meant the same thing as free white staters, but making a distinction between them and freestaters.  Nationally, there were free soilers, as well as Independent Democrats, linked to the same belief.

[iv]  Read about Oregon’s free white statehood here on the Oregon Encyclopedia website.  Arkansas, in 1859, banished free people of African ancestry. See the link the Arkansas Encyclopedia of History and Culture, next. https://oregonencyclopedia.org/articles/exclusion_laws/#.XIItROhKiUk   http://www.encyclopediaofarkansas.net/encyclopedia/entry-detail.aspx?entryID=4430

[v] Congress sent three members to Kansas to gather facts about voter fraud (large numbers of Missouri non-residents were voting in Kansas elections to swing the vote for slavery) and violence in Kansas.  The congressmen produced a massive report,   Report of the Special Committee Appointed to Investigate the Troubles in Kansas : with the views of the minority of said committee. The report documented, precinct by precinct, numbers of people eligible to vote in several elections and then the resulting numbers of people who voted in the elections, numbers that never failed to disagree.

[vi] Andrew J. Francis’s testimony is contained in U.S. House of Representatives Report of The Special Committee Appointed to Investigate the Troubles in Kansas; with The Views of the Minority of Said Committee, Cornelius Wendell, printer, Washington, 1856, p 910-921.  The report is filled with examples of voting frauds, crime and violence in the proslavery versus free-state struggles.

[vii]  I wasn’t able to find out as much about Andrew J. Francis as I had hoped. Tracking his whereabouts 10 years after he testified proved fruitless.  After his 1856 committee testimony, he showed up in various Kansas Territory newspapers as a Democrat.  In 1861, during the Civil War, a bizarre story about his communicating with a secessionist in Missouri surfaced  in a newspaper. And in 1865 he had announced his candidacy for city attorney in Atchison.

[viii] “White staters” is not a political label I saw anywhere in the newspapers, periodicals, books or election returns I reviewed for this blog post.  I applied the name to distinguish between people who wanted Kansas to prohibit free people of African descent from living in the state, and the Democrats and Republicans.

[ix] The letter is held by the West Virginia Department of Arts, Culture and History. Salmon Brown to his mother, Mary Ann Brown and Family, August 20, 1855; Boyd B. Stutler Collection, Ms78-; His Soul Goes Marching On, the Life and Legacy of John Brown,a West Virginia Archives and History Online Exhibit. You can read the letter here: http://www.wvculture.org/history/jbexhibit/bbsms05-0028.html

[x] Of the three earlier proposed constitutions, the Lecompton Constitution was the most notorious because it would have enshrined slavery in Kansas (until the Civil War and the end of slavery). The first proposed constitution, the Topeka Constitution, would have prohibited slavery but also included the free white state provision of banning free people of African descent.  The Kansas State Historical Society’s Kansapedia details the four constitutions here:   https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/kansas-constitutions/16532

[xi]  Once Kansans voted (again) to create a constitution for the state, delegates were elected by the voters, based upon county populations.  The delegates, presumably, would take their constituents’ desires to the constitutional convention where the document would be written, line by line, with debate over what would be in the document.  The proposed constitution would be submitted to voters again.  If they approved the constitution, it would go to Congress where the U.S. House and U.S. Senate would act on it.  If it emerged, it would go to the president for final approval.

[xii] The June 17, 1859, elections of delegates to the Wyandotte Constitutional Convention was the first time Republicans (a new political party) faced Democrats in Kansas Territory.  The old Free State Party had been broken up and replaced by the Republican Party.

[xiii] Maybe it’s just me, but it seems odd that the party first wants to block people of African descent from voting, and then it wants to bar them from the state.  Did they think the free black people would adopt the early Missouri border ruffian strategy of popping into Kansas to cast a vote and then go back home in some other state?

[xiv] C. B. McClellan, a popular Oskaloosa merchant from Ohio, had moved to Kansas Territory in November 1857. His obituary said McClellan was an “Independent Democrat” who voted with Republicans and was the first freestater elected as county treasurer in Jefferson County. In the next post, this blog will detail C.B. McClellan’s votes and actions at the Wyandotte Constitutional Convention, where he opposed slavery in Kansas but voted with Democrats in favor of a free white state.

[xv] William John Meredith was the grandson of original Plum Grove, Jefferson County, settlers. Before moving to Missouri in the 1830s, the families had hailed from Virginia and Tennesse.  The excerpts of Meredith’s writings came from The Old Plum Grove Colony In Jefferson County, 1854-1855 by William John Meredith, Kansas History: A Journal of the Central Plains, November 1938 (Vol. 7, No. 4), pages 339 to 375. The entire piece is here:

https://www.kshs.org/p/the-old-plum-grove-colony-in-jefferson-county/12769

[xvi] Lecompton was the capital of Kansas Territory.  Its governors were appointed by the administration in Washington, which was proslavery.  The territorial officials carried out the administration’s policies, which were illegal and unjust in the eyes of many abolitionist and freestate settlers, as well as in the eyes of  more non-partisan settlers like Mr. Meredith.

 

 

Kansas Day

January 29, 1861

Forget for the moment Bleeding Kansas, fraudulent elections, Border Ruffians and murderous abolitionists. Kansas Territory, having fought off slavery from 1854 into 1859, was about to slip into the Union as the 34th state.

“HAIL! YE SOVEREIGNS!,” crowed The Oskaloosa Independent in its January 30, 1861, edition. “LATEST. – We learn from a private source that a telegraph was received in Leavenworth at three o’clock yesterday (Tuesday) announcing that Kansas is admitted into the Union as a sovereign State.”

Cause for joy, all right, but on that same page we have this: “Beyond all question, we are on the brink of a terrible chasm; it may be [our] destruction as a nation. No one can look the danger fairly in the face, and not feel a cold tremor run through the frame.  War! Bloody, relentless, fratricidal war stares us in the face!”

Not so celebratory, and here’s a refresher about why that was.

Kansas Territory voters finally sent a free-state constitution to Congress and the president on October 4, 1859. Kansans had wrangled through three other  proposed constitutions with opposing positions on slavery before settling on the Wyandotte Constitution, which barred slavery. Note that date.

In the spring of 1860, enough U.S. House of Representatives members stamped the legislation OK by them and sent Kansas statehood to the U.S. Senate.  Despite effort from northern senators, the legislation went nowhere. Southern slave states didn’t like slavery-free states and they had the votes to paralyze the legislation. The Kansas question was shoved down to a committee.  Congress adjourned.

Abraham Lincoln, the Republican, was elected president November 6, 1860. Within five days, South Carolina’s two senators dismissed themselves from the U.S. Senate, their state about to secede from the Union.

Mississippi’s two senators, then Alabama’s, then Florida’s all quit the Senate January 21, 1861,  their states having quit the Union.

With the southern senators’ departing footprints fresh on the ground, Kansas backers saw their chance and quickly brought up the Kansas bill, which finally passed the Senate. Having a pack of  “no” votes disappear with secession gave Kansas the passage numbers it needed.

The Kansas legislation make a quick flight back to the House to check a minor amendment, approved Jan. 28, 1861. The next day, the outgoing slavery-supporting president, James Buchanan, signed the bill.

Editor John Wesley Roberts and his associate John W. Day had it right in their Oskaloosa newspaper that day. Happy that Kansas was a state, they saw what the seceding southern states would bring in a Civil War. Still, Kansas had became a free state and that was cause for elation.

“The President has signed the bill, and we are now citizens of the United States,” read The Emporia News on February 2, 1861. “The joyful news was received here on Thursday afternoon, and soon was communicated to all within hearing by the booming of the ‘big gun.’ A national salute of thirty-four guns was fired – one for each State and a ‘tiger’ for Kansas.”

The Kansas National Democrat, the proslavery newspaper based in Kansas Territory’s slavery-backing HQ, Lecompton, agreed to be glad Kansas was a state in its February 7, 1861, edition. “No one can fail to notice that the admission of Kansas as a State is producing much interest among the people of the country. Our brethren of the Republican school – including editors of Kansas journals – are all at the height of glorification.”

And, finally, there was outrage from a Kansas supporter relieved at the new free state’s admission, The Evansville Daily Journal (Indiana) of February 1, 1861: “The states which endeavored to thrust a blighting institution on her, failing in their work, are now madly rushing to destruction on account of the same institution that they tried to force on her.” And, “We confidently believe that the day will come when the whole secession scheme with all of its attendant horrors will be stigmatized as the work of the maniacs of South Carolina.”

 

(Sources for this article include the U.S. Senate’s website at https://www.senate.gov/ and the Kansas State Historical Society’s Kansapedia article, Kansas Constitutions, at https://www.kshs.org/kansapedia/kansas-constitutions/16532 )