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

Thayer's Rhetorical Style

Eli Thayer’s lecture of December 5, 1854 gives an overview of the antislavery movements in the United States prior to the Civil War. Through unusual similes and metaphors, he explains the failure of the antislavery organizations to fight slavery in Kansas due to their indifference and lack of direct actions. At the same time, he informs his audience about the success of the scheme of freedom designed by the New England Emigrant Aid Company. Through the rich vocabulary, use of references from poetry, theology and history Thayer explains how his plan is appropriate to fight slavery in the Kansas Territory. The goal of the following section is to analyze Thayer’s lecture indicating the rhetorical devices he uses. Furthermore, this segment also investigates Thayer’s qualities as an orator.      
“There was a country (now Kansas) marked on our old maps as the “great American desert,” Eli Thayer begins his lecture at Providence. He continues, “It was contended by many that the rains were so infrequent & the prairies so parched that no considerable population could be sustained by such land in such a climate.”[1] Old maps and traditional assumptions, Thayer cleverly suggests in this opening, are not necessarily truthful representations of reality. But this also means that Thayer wasn’t a man given to easy introductions. Instead, he preferred to challenge his audience right away delivering an exposition that literary scholars would call a conceit or unusual simile. The implied argument here is, of course, that just like the “parched” Kansas prairies that often have been wrongfully identified as an un-inhabitable “great American desert,” so has Thayer’s plan to settle Kansas with East Coast abolitionists been dismissed as un-realistic and impossible.
Thayer—consciously or not— returns here to and updates the logic of an early American radical and reformer, “Perhaps the sentiments contained in the following pages, are not yet sufficiently fashionable to procure them general favor;” Thomas Paine speculated in his famous opening of his 1776 pamphlet Common Sense. “A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong, gives it a superficial appearance of being right, and raises at first a formidable outcry in defense of custom.”[2] Tradition and unquestioned habits of thought are enemies to reform and independent thinking –Thayer argues just like Paine. Thayer, like Paine’s argument to rebel against British tyranny, desires to stir up a rebellion. It is important to remember here how outrageous and unconventional Thayer’s idea was to form the New England Emigrant Aid Company that organized the large-scale migration of east coast anti-slavery activists to the Midwest.
Thayer’s speech of December 1854 starts dramatically by referring to three general (mis)conception about Kansas – that Kansas is a desert, that freedom from slavery in Kansas is impossible, and that the slaveholders’ strength would cause the failure of Emigrant Aid Company's mission. People thought it was impossible to “sustain” in Kansas because of “infrequent” rains and “parched” prairies.[3]  He then proves these three general notions wrong throughout his speech. In fact, at the turn of the century, when Thayer died, 1.1 million people had settled and were living in Kansas. In addition, people thought that Kansas could not be free because Missouri “bounded the entire eastern side of Kansas,” as Thayer put it and thus “slaveholders had every advantage” over the abolitionists.[4] There was another misconception that the Emigrant Aid Company would be a failure because “Congress & the administration” would put every possible obstacle for the East Coast settlers.[5] Even Mr. Colt who reported in favor of the charter of the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company that later became New England Emigrant Aid Company thought that the idea of organized migration is “futile” as the battlefield (Kansas) is fifteen hundred miles away. He was also worried that Thayer would not be able to gather enough people willing to leave their lives in the East.[6] In his speech Thayer gives strong evidence against these three concepts and proves them wrong.
To motivate people to move to the Midwest, Thayer’s speech does not turn to easy populist arguments but rather employs complex literary and intertextual references. For example, Thayer’s rhetorical art is evidential when he critiques antislavery politicians who want to abolish slavery through legislation rather than action. Here Thayer maintains that the commitment to passive legislative abolition is idealized like a god. Thayer refers to Wilmot Proviso by the word, god here. Wilmot Proviso was a proposal placed by David Wilmot from Pennsylvania to prohibit slavery in the territory acquired by the United States at the conclusion of the Mexican War.[7] Indeed Thayer includes a quote from Edgar Allan Poe’s  famous poem “The Raven” to draw a connection between the concept of Wilmot and Poe’s narrator of the poem.[8] Like Poe’s man Wilmot Proviso, which he calls “deity,” was also pushed harder when no one in the congress paid heed to the idea, and eventually the repeal of Missouri compromise made the idea futile as there was obstacle to continue slavery in the United States. Published in 1845, just nine years before Thayer’s rousing speech,  “The Raven” was Poe’s most popular work.[9] As a result, Thayer could be confident that his audience was able to recognize the quote and identify its source and context. Thayer argues,
                            Every year it became more and more apparent that this deity was being pushed
                             harder & harder like Poe’s man.

                           “Whom unmerciful disaster
                             Followed fast and followed faster.”
                            Till at last he was utterly destroyed by the repeal of the Missouri compromise.[10]
Thayer here reads the black raven, as a symbol of slavery. Specifically, he focuses on a passage from the 11th stanza of “The Raven” where the narrator develops a revealing origin hypothesis about the bird. He imagines that the raven must have had an “unhappy master whom unmerciful Disaster/ Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore—/ Till the dirges of his Hope that melancholy burden bore --/ Of ‘Never—nevermore’.”[11]
That is, Thayer cleverly adapts Poe’s verses to the context of Missouri compromise and links the “unmerciful disaster” to the misdirected strategies of William Lloyd Garrison. Garrison was a prominent social reformer and journalist best known for his abolitionist newspaper The Liberator. Garrison decided to fight slavery through non-violence, moral suasion and passive resistance. In contrast, Thayer was a man of action. He believed Garrison’s methods were unpractical and even hostile to the cause. Thayer’s argument is that passive legislative abolition will put an end to slavery “nevermore” – only action, especially the purposeful migration of abolitionists to the new territories will create change. Those abolitionists, who were the followers of Garrison, like raven always said, “nevermore” to direct actions of Thayer. Thayer uses this reference from Poe to portray his anger towards the inability of other antislavery organizations in the nineteenth century to fight slavery in direct manner.
Thayer also seeks to convince his audience by quoting the Bible. He argues, for example, that freedom is a God-given birth right. A right that does not need any “bulwarks for protection” according to Thayer.[12] Here Thayer’s rhetoric sounds like a verse from the Bible, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. / Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”[13] Not surprisingly then, Thayer over and again calls slavery a “devil.”[14] He also compares freedom with a giant figure and the American country with a patient.[15] In fact, Thayer sees the whole country as a dying patient who needs immediate care. He argues, “there were not a great many people who had any faith in Mr. Garrison’s method of casting out a devil by splitting the nations in two lengthwise, for one reason, because the devil would live for another, because the patient would die.”[16] Here, Thayer criticizes Garrison’s radical idea of splitting the United States in two parts to get rid of slavery. Garrison proposed that the North and South would form two different nations where the former would depend on free labor while the latter would continue slave labor. Clearly, Thayer thinks that the devil, or slavery, will never end in this fashion, and the method will kill the patient, that is, United States.    
Thayer’s rich dramatic speech is filled with personifications and analogies and it is not surprising that his lecture left a solid paper trail in historic newspapers, such as the Rhode Island Freeman and the New York Daily Times. As a matter of fact, The Freeman summed up Thayer’s “rousing speech”of 1854 with the following words, “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.”[17] The objective of my DH project is to remember and honor Thayer’s genius of a higher order by carefully preserving the speech that settled Kansas delivered with certainty and not by a common man.
[1] Eli Thayer, “There was a country (now Kansas) marked on our old maps as the ‘Great American Desert,’ “ Eli Thayer Papers, Brown University Library, MS. 78.1. Box 10 Folder 8, 1. 
[2] Thomas Paine, “Common sense” in The Writings of Thomas Paine, ed. Moncure Daniel Conway, Volume I (1774-1779), (G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1894), 67.
[3] Thayer,“There was a country (now Kansas),” 1.
[4] Thayer,“There was a country (now Kansas),” 1.
[5] Thayer,“There was a country (now Kansas),” 2.
[6] Eli Thayer,  A History of the Kansas Crusade: Its Friends and Its Foes, (New York, Harper & Brothers, 1889), 26.
[7] “Wilmot Proviso,” Ohio History Central. Accessed 08 Sep, 2019.
[8] Edgar Allan Poe, “Raven,” lines 63- 65 in Edgar Allan Poe: Poetry and Tales, ed.  Patrick F. Quinn (The Library of America, 1984), 81-86. 
[9] Isaac T. Goodnow, “Personal Reminiscence and Kansas Emigration, 1855.” Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, Vol IV (Kansas Publishing House 1890), 245. 
[10] Thayer, “There was a country (now Kansas),” 3. 
[11] Poe, 84.
[12] Thayer, “There was a country (now Kansas),” 3.
[13] Galatians 5:1
[14] Thayer, “There was a country (now Kansas),” 5.
[15] Thayer, “There was a country (now Kansas),” 3.
[16] Thayer, “There was a country (now Kansas),” 5.
[17] “Kansas Meeting at Franklin Hall.”The Rhode Island Freeman, 8 December, 1854.

This page has paths:

This page references: