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SPOTLIGHT
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Taking another look at a Kansas icon

Published on -9/27/2012, 8:23 AM

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I was chastised fairly severely in the seventh grade for asking why John Brown didn't get hung for killing the five people in Pottawatomie.

For those of you who didn't get this in junior high, Kansas has John Brown painted large in its Capitol building, a testament to his martyrdom to the abolitionist cause. It used to be taught with a strident voice in Kansas schools that this man had the strength of his convictions and his mettle was tested in a righteous battle against pro-slavery forces.

He wanted Kansas to be a Free State.

Here's the 10-second rundown: In 1856, Sheriff Samuel Jones, an agent of the posse sent to Lawrence to serve indictments, was not satisfied with the peaceful resolution and took his band into Lawrence, the center of free-state factions and the place he had already taken a bullet. They liquored up and sacked the town. John Brown ran a retaliation raid in Pottawatomie and killed five men he associated with the pro-slavery movement in the Kansas Territory.

Of course, there is a lot more to the story, it spans 50 years of Kansas history and travels time through to today, but this snapshot of Brown's raid captures my point: The men they killed, while they held pro-slavery views for the new state, held no slaves themselves and had no part in the Lawrence raid.

Brown and his men were just more bandits in a guerilla war of clashing ideals. The pro-slavery forces had just as much conviction and violence in them as the free state men, and the killing went around for a few more years until Kansas was admitted to the Union as a free state in 1861.

Brown was temperamentally inclined to the righteous. He had been an abolitionist his whole life, and the constant warfare in Bleeding Kansas may have undone his already volatile sensibilities. He took his fight to the next level when he and 21 men raided the Harper's Ferry, W.Va., federal armory with the idea they could arm the slaves and start a rebellion. The first guy they killed was a free black man.

The armory was accessible to 86 Marines, led by Robert E. Lee. Brown was tried for treason and hung by the neck.

Historians generally agree that Bleeding Kansas was the tinder spark to the Civil War that cost America its greatest loss of life and property. To this day, we deal with problems created by the war and reconstruction of the South.

To me, it's a history of what happens when everyone loses their heads in unison.

Emotion ratcheted up with appeals to salvation led both sides to a state of unreason. Outside interests for and against slavery used Kansas as the testing ground to force the country at large to an acceptance. Kansas was open territory, without a ratified constitution of its own or a government defined by a united citizenry.

The debates about slavery still were being decided, and there is little doubt that there would have been a war at some point, but no one can know the scope or nature of that war. Brown and Jones are the famous names we remember, but there were dozens of fighters making hell for many more people just trying to stay alive and make a life. Both sides had their butchers.

We Kansans take the civil rights movement for granted. Our history insulates us from the blood of the fight for which we are famous, and it seems that has led to a demise of proper civil understanding. I think both men, Jones and Brown, found the ecstasy of bloodlust tantalizing. The fighting fed maniacal tendencies.

I wonder if there's a different kind of slavery today, one of economic pressures influencing Kansas. Did the interests of big money make us consumer-slaves?

Kansas is now a testing ground for the Neo Conservative policy makers, who are overjoyed at the prospect of having an open field and all the money they can play with. The tea party candidates were given the advantage of corporate money, outspending opponents, running deceitful smear campaigns designed to incite moral vengeance.

Kansas was bought because the voters sold it. Will it work? Nothing to date proves the conservative theory of economics, but we know it leads to debt and unemployment, and those burdens are placed on the taxpayer. The state support on health care changes Jan. 1 to a "free-market delivery system."

We have yet to see the impact of not having income taxes to use in the budget. The implementation of the neo -onservative utopia is ours to witness first hand, since we now have a capital stacked with tea for the next two years.

Whether we love supply-side economics and believe the 1 percent is going to do right by the 99 percent, or we believe the majority should have more of a handle on that spicket that trickles, we're all still Kansans.

We can use the democratic process and debate our issues with thoughtful, informed consideration. We can keep an eye on the social pressure gauge.

Mary Hart-Detrixhe is a lifelong resident of the prairie and Ellis county. Her work can be found at www.janeQaverage.com.

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