The Speech that Settled Kansas: Eli Thayer's Rousing Lecture

About the Project

       Welcome to the digital edition of Eli Thayer’s (1819-1899) influential 1854 lecture. Thayer’s public talk, delivered on December 5, 1854 in Franklin Hall, Rhode Island, mobilized East Coast abolitionists to emigrate to Kansas during the historical moment known as “Bleeding Kansas.”[1] Bleeding Kansas defines a series of violent civil confrontations of proslavery and antislavery groups in the Kansas and Missouri territories between 1854 and 1861. Thayer was a reformer, agitator and key figure of the nineteenth-century abolitionist movement. One of the founders of the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company, he agitated to bring the cause of freedom to Kansas. The “Digital Thayer” project provides a diplomatic transcription of and scholarly annotations for Thayer’s 1854 lecture alongside images of his draft manuscript.

Thayer’s 1854 Lecture:
       Thayer’s manuscript papers are housed at the John Hay Library at Brown University, Rhode Island. Brown University was Thayer’s alma mater. His draft of the important lecture delivered on December 5, 1854  is kept in the “undated manuscripts” (call number: MS 78.1 B10. 8/) folder. The digital Thayer lecture is composed of eight surviving manuscript pages that hold 1629 words in total. The first and last pages are significantly smaller than the six standard-size pages that define the core of the manuscript. In average between 29 and 31 handwritten lines fill a standard manuscript page, whereas only 11 and 13 lines sit on the shorter front and back pages. It looks like Thayer recycled scrap paper to compose his handwritten draft of the lecture. Papers of various sizes and shapes serve as writing material for the draft, and the first, and eighth pages differ most dramatically in size.
       The objective of the digital “The Speech that Settled Kansas,” archive is to recover as accurately as possible Thayer’s forgotten lecture and stress its relevance for the history of abolition in the Midwest and the nineteenth century at large. Thayer’s Rhode Island lecture was never printed during his lifetime. Franklin Pierce Rice (1852-1919), a self-taught publisher from Massachusetts and co-founder of the Worcester Society of Antiquity, donated Thayer’s papers to the John Hay Library sometime between 1900 and 1919.[2] In Spring 2020, I was able to visit the Thayer archive at the John Hay Library in person thanks to an Arts, Humanities, and Social Science Small Grant fellowship from Kansas State University. Preserved in box 10, folder 8 of the Thayer papers, the manuscript draft clearly holds Thayer’s handwriting. Housing materials created between 1843 and 1903, the Eli Thayer Papers hold more than 5,000 documents. The collection includes Thayer’s correspondences with significant abolitionist groups, letters addressed to Thayer, historic newspaper articles about Thayer and the New England Emigrant Aid Company, a detailed list of Company shareholders, an unpublished book manuscript about Thayer by Franklin P. Rice, and various miscellaneous documents related to the Freedom Plan of Kansas. The library inventory emphasizes that “this collection is almost totally devoid of any comments on Thayer’s personal or familial affairs.”[3] 
Clearly, Thayer was interested in preserving the history of the New England Emigrant Aid Company but carefully erased records about personal and family life.

Composition date of Thayer’s manuscript:
          A major challenge in working with Thayer’s surviving manuscript was to determine its actual date of composition. In fact, it is impossible to confirm with certainty that the draft was written before December 5, 1854 as a preparation for Thayer’s lecture at Providence. Though the almost illegible inscription of 1854 on page one looks like the date of composition, there exists  an additional reference to the year 1854 in the past tense on page seven.Due to the contradictory evidence, I was unable to determine the exact date of composition. Similarly, unable to define date of composition, the John Hay Library houses Thayer’s manuscript in an undated miscellaneous folder. In my view, Thayer belatedly numbered his manuscript draft on top of the first page to indicate that the text was composed sometime in 1854
What is more, Thayer’s original lecture on December 5, 1854 might have been longer than the draft reproduced here. The incomplete first page of the manuscript is a reminder that other materials may have been removed, and that the original opening might be missing.  

Scholarly Responses:
       Quickly, Thayer became the public voice of the New England Emigrant Aid Company. A charismatic speaker, he effectively persuaded people to leave their friends and comforts behind and move to the Midwest. Thayer’s 1854 speech marks a turning point in the antislavery movement. On December 8, 1854, the antislavery newspaper The Freeman, subtitled “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor and Free Man,” published in Providence, Rhode Island, celebrated Thayer’s December 5 lecture, emphasizing that:

Franklin Hall was filled with people on Monday evening, to hear Eli Thayer’s address on the subject of Kansas emigration. We have seldom listened to a more effective speech on any subject. Mr. Thayer is certainly no common man. To have originated and perfected, as he has done, a scheme of such vastness and utility, requires something more than talent and knowledge, it demands genius of a high order.[4]

The article praises Thayer as a prophetic genius and “no common man” and fervently supported the settlement plans. Many listeners arranged personal meetings with Thayer after his lecture to discuss emigration to Kansas—one of them was Isaac Goodnow.
       “We met in the city of Providence, in December, 1854, and listened to a rousing lecture by Eli Thayer, the founder of the New England Emigrant Aid Company,” Isaac Goodnow recalls Thayer’s speech that changed his life thirty four years later.[5] Goodnow, born in 1814 in Vermont, was one of the earliest settlers of Manhattan, Kansas. Inspired by Thayer’s lecture and vision of freedom from slavery, he emigrated with his wife Ellen Goodnow from Rhode Island to the Kansas Territory. Kevin Olson in Frontier Manhattan emphasizes that “it was Thayer’s speech and a one-and-a-half-hour private conversation that followed that ultimately convinced Goodnow to support the movement by immigrating to Kansas Territory.”[6] As a result, in March 1855 Isaac Goodnow led the second colony of New England Free-Staters to Kansas on a perilous sixteen-day journey by train, boat, and wagon. Four years later in 1858, Goodnow helped establish Bluemont Central College, which later became Kansas State University.
       Given the impact of Thayer’s December lecture, the elusive absence of his speech from current scholarship is all the more surprising. Manisha Sinha, for example, mentions Thayer in his role as founder of the New England Emigrant Aid Company. She emphasizes his importance to the Kansas wars as prelude to American Civil War and explains that the Company “funneled money and provisions to free-state emigrants” but glosses over Thayer’s larger contributions to the antislavery movement.[7] Similarly, Kevin Olson, who recovers the history of Manhattan, Kansas, mentions Thayer’s influential speech but provides little information on the actual arguments.[8] One reason for this absence of the lecture from critical discussions is that Thayer’s December speech was never printed even though Thayer massively recycled his talk and delivered revised versions in Boston, Worcester, and New York. In fact, during the following three years, Thayer delivered more than seven hundred public lectures and travelled more than sixty thousand miles to promote emigration to Kansas.

Political Background: 
       With the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, congress declared the problem of slavery a responsibility of every new territory determined by popular vote.[9] The decision turned the Kansas Territory into a battle ground between Free-Staters and proslavery Missourians. Groups from both parties migrated to Kansas to be able to vote on the fate of slavery in the territory. When Thayer recognized that abolition through a political decision in congress was impossible, he designed the plan of “organized migration” to Kansas.[10] Originally the abolitionist Benjamin Lundy (1789-1839),who founded the antislavery newspaper The Genius of Universal Emancipation in Ohio came up with the idea. Lundy recruited William Lloyd Garrison as assistant editor in 1829.[11] Lundy travelled and lectured in different parts of Mexico and Haiti in order to establish an “organized and assisted emigration,” eventually to abolish slavery in those areas.[12]
       In the lecture Thayer responded to the political tensions following the Kansas-Nebraska Bill, passed in congress on May 30, 1854. The Kansas Nebraska Bill overturned the decision of not expanding slavery beyond the latitude fixed by the Missouri Compromise in 1820. The Missouri Compromise was meant to solve ongoing conflict as a result of Missouri’s request for admission to the Union as a slave state.  Missouri’s request was granted but also Maine as a free state prohibiting slavery was admitted. 
       Thayer’s ambition was to gather East Coast abolitionists and organize their resettlement to the Kansas territory, so they could take part in the vote of March 30, 1855. In collaboration with activists like Henry Wilson, and Otis Rich, Thayer established the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company to organize settlement across Kansas, including Manhattan and Lawrence. The charter of the Company was signed on April 26, 1854.[13] Immediately, Thayer started a series of promotional lectures in Boston, New York, and Worcester. The Company also opened subscription and within a few months Thayer collected over a hundred thousand dollars in New York City alone.[14] However, a name change from Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company to New England Emigrant Aid Company was required in 1854, when the initial charter was cancelled due to withdrawal of shares after rumors of impending failure. Amos A. Lawrence and J. M. S. Williams, two wealthy Boston businessmen, helped Thayer reinstall the renamed Company with a capital of two hundred thousand dollars.[15]

Kansas is Free:
       On March 24, 1855 the first official party of New England settlers reached Kansas territory. The group immediately started their westward journey from Kansas City in order to take part in the election of March 30,1855. Isaac Goodnow, who reached Kansas a week ahead of the large group, established his camp at present-day Manhattan. Thirteen men from Goodnow’s settlement were eligible to vote. The area fell under the Blue River precinct of the Tenth Election District in the first territorial legislature. The election was held for thirty-nine representatives divided into two groups: the Territorial House of Representatives and the Territorial Council. Free-Stater Samuel D. Houston contested for the Territorial House of Representatives, and Martin F. Conway, another Free-Stater, fought for the Territorial Council.[16] A majority of Kansans eventually voted against slavery in the election of March 1855. Houston and Conway were the only Free-Staters in the entire territory who were elected among the thirty-nine-man Territorial Legislature.[17] Ultimately, the migration of New England abolitionists like Isaac Goodnow paid off. On April 3, 1855 Isaac Goodnow called a meeting of all Free-State settlers and proposed that they would establish a town named Boston and a town company to run it. On April 6, 1855 the constitution for the Boston Town Association was signed by twenty-four members. Boston became Manhattan on June 4, 1854.[18] The establishment of the Bluemont Agricultural College is also related to this significant event as Kevin Olson writes, “On April 18, 1855, George S. Park delivered a speech to the Boston Town Association suggesting the establishment of an agricultural college in the town the germ of the idea for the future Kansas State University.”[19]
       After the 1855 March election in Kansas, Thayer believed the victory of the Free-Staters was in sight. George Washington Brown (1820-1915), the editor of The Herald of Freedom, wrote to Thayer to congratulate his success:

“The slave power in Kansas does not exist, it cannot exist only in particular sections and there in isolated eases. Kansas is free! The God of Heaven has made it such! Nature everywhere proclaims it! Her voice is jubilant for freedom! […] I have been over the Territory and seen the people at their toil and conversed with them in their cabins, and find but one sentiment, and that is, Kansas is and shall remain free![20]

G.W. Brown’s letter gives Thayer an idea of the political situation in the Kansas Territory as he reports on the overall public sentiment of the Kansas settlers. Thayer’s plan for Kansas included the clause that after establishing the Kansas Territory as a free state the directors would “select a new field, and make similar arrangements for the settlement and organization of another Free State of this Union.”[21] In fact in the summer of 1856, Thayer started looking for a possible site for his second slave-labor free colony. By December of the same year he decided to send Free-Staters to Virginia to ensure there freedom from slavery modeled on his immigration plan for Kansas.[22]
[1] Eli Thayer. New England Emigrant Aid Company and its Influence, Through the Kansas Contest, Upon National History (Published by Franklin P. Rice, 1887), 13.
[2] John F. Ingram and Clifton H. Jones. Inventory of the Eli Thayer Papers, Archives/ Manuscripts, (Brown University Library, MS 78.1), vi.
[3] Ingram and Jones, i.
[4] “Kansas Meeting at Franklin Hall.” The Rhode Island Freeman, 8 December 1854.
[5] Isaac T. Goodnow. “Personal Reminiscence and Kansas Emigration, 1855.” Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, Vol IV (Kansas Publishing House 1890), 245.    
[6]  Kevin Olson. Frontier Manhattan (University Press of Kansas, 2012), 29.
[7] Manisha Sinha. The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition (Yale University Press, 2016), 545.
[8] Olson, 28.
[9] Olson, 19; Encyclopedia of World Biography, 168.
[10] Oliver Johnson. The abolitionists vindicated in a review of Eli Thayer's paper on
the New England Emigrant Aid Company
Published by Franklin P. Rice, 1887), 9.
[11] “Benjamin Lundy,” Ohio History Central. Accessed 13 March, 2020.
[12] Johnson, 9.
[13] Thayer, 16.
[14] Thayer, 24.
[15] Thayer, 25.
[16] Olson, 45
[17] Olson, 46
[18] In June 1855 a group of seventy-five settlers from Cincinnati arrived in Boston who had a plan to establish a town named Manhattan in Kansas. Boston officially became Manhattan as the leaders of the Cincinnati and Boston companies signed an agreement on June 4, 1855 (Olson, 61)
[19] Olson, 49.
[20] G. W. Brown, Eli Thayer Papers, 1843-1903, Archives/ Manuscripts, Brown University Library, MS 78.1 Box 1 Folder 7.
[21] Thayer, 17.
[22] O. K. Rice, Eli Thayer and the Friendly Invasion of Virginia, The Journal of Southern History, Vol. 37, No. 4, 576.

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