By Scott Merrill
Resentment over inequities—especially for people of color—collides with a pandemic and economic insecurity leading to mob violence, and a clash of opinions surrounding theories of race.
Some variation of that could almost be the lead for a news article for both 2020 and 1856, I thought to myself, as my ten-year-old son Foster and I walked out of the Watkins Museum of History in Lawrence, Kansas, last month.
On our way to lunch, we passed a white wall, next to a toy store, where someone had spray painted the words ‘Justice for Breonna Taylor’ in blue.
An exhibit at the museum had described the role Lawrence and other towns in Kansas played in the fight to end slavery in the years leading up to, and during the civil war. Now, confronted with that dripping blue paint as we walked down Massachusetts Street, past Pappa Kenos Pizzeria, yoga studios and stores selling University of Kansas apparel, comic books and brewery supplies, what we had learned, was made more prescient considering the news of our times. Despite the difficulty imagining that this now cosmopolitan city in the middle of the country had once been sacked and then burned by pro-slavery forces, there was no denying the wheel of history.
As we walked, I found myself trying to make sense of the violent excesses in our culture that continue to resurface.
Lawrence Kansas was named after Amos A. Lawrence, whose father (Amos Sr.), was a Republican abolitionist and partner with his brother Abbott, at the A and A Lawrence Mercantile House in the early nineteenth century, which helped fuel the New England textile industry.
Lawrence was established in 1854 by anti-slavery settlers, some of whom had received aid from financers, like Amos Jr. His commitment to abolitionist causes was cemented that year by an incident in Boston involving an escaped slave from Virginia named Anthony Burns. Under the Fugitive Slave Act Burns had limited rights, and despite an attempt by lawyers and thousands of citizens to free him, he was returned to bondage.
The events in Boston moved Lawrence to write to his uncle, saying that “we went to bed one night old-fashioned, conservative, Compromise Union Whigs and waked up stark mad Abolitionists.”
In 1854, Amos Jr. donated money to the New England Emigrant Aid Society, established after the Kansas-Nebraska act had passed earlier that year—under the administration of Franklin Pierce (Amos Jr.’s cousin)—allowing the inhabitants of Kansas Territory to decide whether slavery would be legal. The mission of the Society was to support the anti-slavery movement in the new territory—but it did more than provide money. It was also responsible for sending Sharps rifles, or, “Beecher’s Bibles,” to anti-slavery forces.
During our travels, my son and I found the Beecher Bible and Rifle Church in Wabaunsee, Kansas—a town founded by Connecticut abolitionists that was part of the underground railroad.
The name for the rifles comes from a comment by Henry Ward Beecher, the anti-slavery preacher and brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, who once remarked that a rifle might be a more powerful moral agent on the Kansas plains than a Bible.
By 1856, Lawrence had become the hotbed of the anti-slavery movement and of violence on the western frontier. In May of that year, the city was attacked by 800 pro-slavery settlers who destroyed the anti-slavery newspapers and hotels, and the period that became known as Bleeding Kansas began.
After finishing our sandwiches from Einstein Bagels, we plugged Osawatomi into Google maps and made our way to the John Brown museum.
“I am Osawatomi John Brown,” Foster proclaimed from the back seat, impersonating Ethan Hawke’s depiction of Brown from the miniseries, The Good Lord Bird, that we’d watched the night before.
It occurred to me on our way to Osawatomie that I had never been taught this history we were learning and later that night I found myself reading a speech given nearly 20 years before the violence erupted in eastern Kansas, by Abraham Lincoln.
‘The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions,’ delivered to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois describes a “mobocratic spirit” recorded in the “every-day news of the times.” It is this alarming spirit that Lincoln said, carries the potential to alienate even the “best citizens.”
“There is, even now, something of ill-omen, amongst us. I mean the increasing disregard for law which pervades the country…If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher.”
Lincoln’s address was given when he was only 28, a lawyer, and member of the Illinois state legislature. At this young age, Jean H. Baker writes in Lincoln’s Narrative of American Exceptionalism, he had “little reason to suspect…that he would become a central figure in his own story.”
Lincoln’s speech touches on the threat slavery posed for the government, which he indirectly blames for the lynchings of gamblers in Mississippi, and the burning to death of a Black porter and cook named Francis McIntosh in St. Louis, that was reported in the news at the time. These scenes of brutality—people hanging from trees that Lincoln says, rival “the native Spanish moss of the country, as a drapery of the forest,”—become his visual evidence of the danger slavery has created, and he calls for an allegiance to the laws and ideals of the country.
When Lincoln gave his address in 1838, there was an outpouring of religious revivalism in churches, in essays, and under tents, in what became known as the Second Great Awakening. New religious movements were emerging and women’s rights, abolitionism and utopian social experiments such as Brook Farm, founded by George Ripley and Nathanial Hawthorne, and inspired by the ideals of the transcendentalists, were common around the country.
Today, amidst a pandemic, and the excesses of pollution, misinformation, culture wars and economic inequities, I’d like to believe we’re in the midst of another revival.
When I think about the every-day news of the times my son will read in his life, the idealist in me hopes it speaks of the excesses we see around us being spent through acts of generosity, intellectual debate, and community, rather than hatred and war.
But history reminds us repeatedly that ideals and reason alone cannot redirect our energy and bridge gaps in communication.
As the social philosopher, Georges Bataille said in The Accursed Share:
“An immense industrial network cannot be managed in the same way that one changes a tire… It expresses a circuit of cosmic energy on which it depends, which it cannot limit, and whose laws it cannot ignore without consequences…Woe to those who, to the very end, insist on regulating the movement that exceeds them with the narrow mind of the mechanic who changes a tire.”
For real change we might also need the excitement, curiosity, and appreciation of a ten-year-old.