Sunday, July 23, 2017

Kansas Meeting in Petersburg - May 7, 1856

I've been on a bit of a "fire-eater" kick with my reading choices here lately. I just finished reading Eric H. Walther's William Lowndes Yancey and the Coming of the Civil War, and have just started Holt Merchant's South Carolina Fire-Eater: The Life of Laurence Massillon Keitt, 1824-1864. For those unfamiliar with the term, fire-eaters were radical secessionists, who often based their claims for Southern independence on the need to preserve and expand the system of slave labor.

During the 1850s there was not an issue more strongly argued by the proponents and enemies of slavery than the country's expansion into the western territories. Would slavery be allowed to spread into new territories, or would it be limited? That was the big question on everyone'e mind. The Missouri Compromise (1820-21) solved the issue for about thirty years, but California's admission, and then the desire to construct a transcontinental railroad promoted Kansas and Nebraska as new territories. Fire-eaters had little hope for gaining both territories as future slave states, but many Southerners believed that Kansas was vital to their interests; for if Kansas became free it was believed Missouri would not be able to retain its status as a slave state being surrounded on three sides by free states. Lose Kansas and Missouri to free labor and congressional power would weaken in the House of Representatives and Senate was their slippery slope way of thinking. In 1854, the Kansas-Nebraska Act allowed for the people of those territories to determine by vote whether they would be free or slave labor. Popular sovereignty was the watchword. As one might imagine this decision led to many episodes of voter fraud and spawned significant violence, which led the territory to become known as "Bleeding Kansas."

Meeting in cities across the South, pro-slavery advocates attempted to organize financial and practical support for settlement of Kansas by those of their political thinking. On May 7, 1856, at Mechanics Hall (shown above), which stood at the corner of Sycamore and West Tabb Streets in Petersburg, Virginia, a Kansas meeting convened which included a speech by South Carolina Congressman Laurence Keitt, who made the trip down from Washington D.C. to be in attendance. It would be less than three weeks later that Keitt would watch as his fellow South Carolina congressman, Preston Brooks, beat with his cane Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner over the head and shoulders and into a bloody mess on the Senate floor.

At the Mechanics Hall meeting the Kansas Association was formed who passed several resolution, which were printed in the Richmond Enquirer on May 13, 1856. They began by stating: "Whereas, Abolition Societies in the Northern States are now engaged in strenuous efforts to deprive the people of the South of their just and equal rights in the territory of Kansas, and with force and arms are attempting to overawe the authorities, and resist the laws thereof, now to counteract these efforts and maintain those rights . . .," and listed a number of resolutions.

The second resolution read: "That the attempts of organized Societies from any section of the Union to seize upon the territory of the United States, for the purpose of excluding therefrom citizens of other sections holding negro slavery property, is contrary to law and right, and in violation of the Constitution of the United States, and it is the duty of the citizens of the slave-holding States and all others to resist such attempts."

The next resolution called for any Virginian who emigrated to Kansas to assist in the suppression of "insurrections and rebellions." Another resolution called upon the people of the Commonwealth to give aid to the "objects of the Convention" and to "contribute promptly the means necessary thereof."

The Kansas Association called themselves "THE FRIENDS OF KANSAS." They established an executive committee of seven, who would document those willing to emigrate to Kansas, when they left, and how they were traveling. Emigrants willing to go had to pledge that they were in favor of making "Kansas a Slaveholding State" and that they would remain in the territory until it became a state in the Union. Each emigrant on reaching Kansas would be paid $50 by the association. The emigrants would receive an extra $10 for each slave they took with them to help settle the territory.

Also outlined were the responsibilities of the executive committee and its chairman. And it stated that if other Kansas associations in other parts of the state wished, they could become affiliated with "THE FRIENDS OF KANSAS" group.

The resolutions closed by requesting that all newspapers in the state publish the resolutions. The executive committee included some of the most wealthy and influential men in the Richmond/Petersburg/Southside Virginia region: Richard. K. Meade (U.S. Minister to Brazil), George W. Bolling (Gentleman), Thomas Gholson (Judge of Circuit Court), John W. Syme, all from Petersburg; and James Lyons, William H. McFarland, and James S. Seddon (Goochland County Lawyer and future Secretary of State of the Confederacy), all from the Richmond area. John R. Chambliss (Greensville County Attorney at Law) was the chairman and James Boisseau (Petersburg Commission Merchant) was the secretary of the association.

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