Abolitionism, Vigilance Associations, and the Rhetoric of “Law and Order”

Abolitionism, Vigilance Associations, and the Rhetoric of “Law and Order”

In today’s heated political climate, only days away from a contentious Presidential election, Americans are no stranger to public threats of intimidation or violence as a mechanism for maintaining “law and order.” From Donald Trump’s frequent references to the need for restoring “law and order” in urban communities, to his pleas for poll watchers, to the Bundy brothers’ revolt in Oregon, and the state action against #NoDAPL protesters in North Dakota, this theme of restoring the rule of law is inescapable.[1] In many news outlets, and even in casual conversations across the nation, there is a sense that we have lost our way. In many cases, these statements are a reaction to the perceived loss of political power or social hegemony. As women, African Americans, immigrants, the LGBT community, and other groups continue to fight for equality, those who had previously enjoyed significant social privilege are left with a sense of powerlessness. Promises of restoring law and order are both a mechanism for taking back what has been lost and a strategy for silencing dissent.

Such concerns would have been quite familiar to western Missourians living in the 1850s. The strife of Bleeding Kansas had shaken their world. In April 1855, an antislavery minister named Frederick Starr documented the goings on in Platte County, Missouri, a center of pro-slavery sentiment on the Kansas-Missouri border (in what is now the Kansas City metro). He wrote in a letter that “we are in the midst of terrible times…. The ballot box is violated, the press overthrown, the church denounced, surely pro-slavery forces are making great advances and one victory crowds on the heels of another…. Glorious nation this.”[2] He referred here not only to the Kansas troubles, but also to a nearly year-long struggle between Missouri anti-slavery advocates, like himself, and their pro-slavery neighbors. In addition to the battle to populate Kansas, Platte County simultaneously encountered profound internal conflicts over the presence of free-soilers and abolitionists in their midst, men and women whose antislavery views challenged the social order.

image-1-frederick-starr
Frederick Starr, a Presbyterian minister in Platte County, Missouri. From Milton E. Bierbaum, “Frederick Starr, A Missouri Border Abolitionist: The Making of a Martyr,” Missouri Historical Review 58, no. 3 (April 1964): 309.

To some extent, this was a contest between anti- and pro-slavery value systems, a battle for the future of the United States. But as abhorrent as anti-slavery views might be to slaveholding leaders, it was only once abolitionist, free-soil, or colonizationist views became public, that they became a public problem, and abolitionists became public nuisances. To protect their definition of how proper slaveholding communities should function, cracking down on dissenting views was necessary to maintain law and order. In response, dissenters like Frederick Starr presented their own interpretations of law and order, critiquing pro-slavery rhetoric and offering a counter-narrative of the community’s needs and values.

Despite the fact that Starr did not preach against slavery from the pulpit, by 1854 he had become known throughout Platte County as an opponent of slavery. Starr’s primary antagonist was an organization called the Platte County Self Defensive Association (PCSDA), which formed at a public meeting in Weston on July 20, 1854, to protect the community from abolitionist threats. These groups were often known as vigilance associations or vigilance committees. They policed any “suspicious looking persons” who emigrated to Kansas, distributed abolitionist literature, or associated with slaves and free blacks. They also styled themselves as protectors of pro-slavery settlers in Kansas who might face abuse from Northern neighbors. They eventually adopted secret passwords and badges. The association had hundreds of members at its height, including such prominent figures as David Rice Atchison and Benjamin Stringfellow.[3]

Members of the PCSDA had repeatedly asked Starr to join, and he always politely declined, on the grounds that he had no slave property to protect. However, while shopping one day in a downtown Weston business, Starr found himself accosted by a slaveholder and PCSDA member, Jack Vineyard. Vineyard was frustrated by Starr’s refusal to recognize that “every good citizen, when there were certain legal institutions and interests in the community where he lived, should do all he could to maintain harmony and quiet and to protect legal property.”[4] In response to this very public disagreement, the PCSDA staged a mock “trial” of Starr. Several hundred people attended. In his vigorous defense, Starr outlined his own, competing definition of the challenge to law and order. Those who harassed citizens based on hearsay and false accusations were the true criminals, he believed, using extra-legal means and intimidation to silence citizens. When it came to Northern transplants like himself, Southerners could expect “that he will not be a disturber of the peace of the community nor disturb the legal rights of any man…. But it [the South] has no right to expect that a man will lay aside or change his opinions and principles.”[5]

image-2-weston
An early lithograph of the Weston waterfront. Courtesy of the Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, Missouri.

By the fall of 1854, the Self Defensives’ posturing had tested the Weston community’s patience.[6] On September 1, 1854, citizens of Weston who opposed the use of violence (by either faction), and who were “favorable to law and order,” met in protest.[7] Their published pamphlet referenced the community’s need for stability and protection, stating that “our rights and privileges, as citizens of Weston, Platte county, Mo., have been disregarded, infringed upon, and grievously violated within the last few weeks, by certain members of the ‘Platte County Self-Defensive Association.’” Indeed, these actions had disrupted “the domestic quiet to our families, the sacred honor of our sons and daughters, the safety of our property, the security of our living and persons, the ‘good name’ our fathers left us, [and] the ‘good name’ of us all.”[8]

What mattered above all else, for those of either orientation, was stability. For slaveholders and their supporters, abolitionists were treasonous, cowardly, deceitful rabble-rousers who disrupted the peaceful workings of these Platte County communities. In response, anti-slavery residents, whether self-identified abolitionists or not, forwarded their own definition of law and order, decrying the PCSDA’s extra-legal maneuvers aimed at white dissenters and free blacks, their embrace of violence, and their attempts to constrain the freedoms of speech and press.

We find ourselves in a much different political context today, but Platte Countians’ internal war can provide some powerful lessons. The varying definitions of “law and order” that Republicans and Democrats adopt today—and that anti-slavery and pro-slavery partisans adopted in the 1850s—illustrate how divisive politics can be, particularly when it appears to threaten the normal, predictable workings of our society. This rhetoric of “law and order” speaks to our need for consistency and structure, and our human desire for a society that fundamentally makes sense. But claims (made by anyone) to restore law and order usually hearken to the need for extra-legal resistance as a mechanism to restore that law and order; Trump’s poll watchers and the PCSDA both serve as a perfect example of such cognitive dissonance. Such assumptions also liken the rule of law to justice, a dangerous false equivalency (as we learned from President Nixon’s rhetoric in the 1970s, which led to an epidemic of mass incarceration). The American right to protest, guaranteed by the 1st Amendment, gives the lie to the idea that law and order is the answer to injustice, or that restoring some mythic past will generate stability. Indeed, much of today’s rhetoric in this regard seeks to silence those who speak out against injustice, or to limit the rights of minority communities. Regardless of where one falls on the political spectrum, this rhetoric carries weight, and those who engage in such language must bear the burden of that rhetoric if—or when—it leads to violence.

 

 

[1] For some examples, please consult “We Have to Bring Back Law and Order,” CNN Politics, accessed October 29, 2016, http://www.cnn.com/videos/politics/2016/09/27/clinton-trump-debate-hofstra-stop-and-frisk-sot-five.cnn; Trip Gabriel, “Donald Trump’s Call to Monitor Polls Raises Fears of Intimidation,” The New York Times, accessed October 29, 2016, http://www.nytimes.com/2016/10/19/us/politics/donald-trump-voting-election-rigging.html?_r=0; Maxine Bernstein, “Jury finds all Oregon standoff defendants not guilty of federal conspiracy, gun charges,” The Oregonian, accessed October 29, 2016, http://www.oregonlive.com/oregon-standoff/2016/10/oregon_standoff_verdicts_annou.html; Sam Levin and Nicky Woolf, “Protesters pushed back after mass arrests at North Dakota pipeline site—as it happened,” The Guardian, accessed October 30, 2016,  https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/live/2016/oct/27/north-dakota-access-pipeline-police-protesters-live-updates.

[2] Frederick Starr to Unknown, April 1855, Frederick Starr Papers, Western Historical Manuscript Collection, Columbia, Missouri.

[3] History of Clay and Platte Counties, Missouri (St. Louis: National Historical Company, 1885), 634-635.

[4] Frederick Starr to Dear Father and All, October 30, 1854, Starr Papers, WHMC.

[5] Frederick Starr to Dear Father, January 15, 1855, Starr Papers, WHMC.

[6] Lester B. Baltimore, “Benjamin F. Stringfellow: The Fight for Slavery on the Missouri Border,” Missouri Historical Review 62, no. 1 (October 1967): 18.

[7] At least four members of the committee appointed to draft their resolutions, George T. Hulse, Elijah Cody, A. B. Hathaway, and J. V. Parrott, were slaveholders according to the 1850 census.

[8] “Citizens Meeting,” Starr Papers, WHMC. This was published as a broadside that Starr included in his personal papers.

Kristen Epps

Kristen Epps is an associate professor of history at the University of Central Arkansas. She is the author of Slavery on the Periphery: The Kansas-Missouri Border in the Antebellum and Civil War Eras (Georgia, 2016). Her research focuses on slavery, abolition, Bleeding Kansas, and the sectional crisis.

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