Last December, President Obama gave a speech in Osawatomie, Kansas. He gives a lot of speeches, so I didn’t pay much attention. But, I keep coming across references to that one. Initially, a relative of mine mentioned it over the holidays – the name of the town stuck with me because: a) it’s unusual; and b) the relative said the name of the town in a slightly derogatory fashion. That relative, in all likelihood, got the news from Fox News or talk radio.

But, I keep hearing the name pop up, usually from conservative leaning sources. So, I figured it was a talking point on right wing radio, but never looked into it. What I’d gleaned through osmosis was that Teddy Roosevelt had given a speech there and that both speeches had populist themes.

In every wise struggle for human betterment one of the main objects, and often the only object, has been to achieve in large measure equality of opportunity. In the struggle for this great end, nations rise from barbarism to civilization, and through it people press forward from one stage of enlightenment to the next. One of the chief factors in progress is the destruction of special privilege. The essence of any struggle for healthy liberty has always been, and must always be, to take from some one man or class of men the right to enjoy power, or wealth, or position, or immunity, which has not been earned by service to his or their fellows. That is what you fought for in the Civil War, and that is what we strive for now.

At many stages in the advance of humanity, this conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess is the central condition of progress. In our day it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will. At every stage, and under all circumstances, the essence of the struggle is to equalize opportunity, destroy privilege, and give to the life and citizenship of every individual the highest possible value both to himself and to the commonwealth. That is nothing new. All I ask in civil life is what you fought for in the Civil War. I ask that civil life be carried on according to the spirit in which the army was carried on. You never get perfect justice, but the effort in handling the army was to bring to the front the men who could do the job. Nobody grudged promotion to Grant, or Sherman, or Thomas, or Sheridan, because they earned it. The only complaint was when a man got promotion which he did not earn.

Roosevelt predicted that his detractors would paint him as a Communist agitator. That’s certainly the kind of response Obama has gotten — well, not necessarily “response.” The “socialist” accusations have been flying since Day 1. We’re still fighting Roosevelt’s “central conflict of progress” – the destruction of special privilege; a conflict between the men who possess more than they have earned and the men who have earned more than they possess.

Now, Obama’s detractors as with Roosevelt’s before him, would contend that our system compensates people according to what they earn. But, I don’t figure any man ever earned $57,000 per day (using Romney’s currently disclosed income) unless it was, say, the soldiers storming the beach at Normandy – and we paid them considerably less than that. And, I doubt any single person created value at the sustained rate of $57,000 per day. There may be some few exceptions, but I harbor enormous doubts that Mitt Romney was one of them. What he was doing, I suspect, was breaking up value – liquidating it – and appropriating pieces of that value, created by someone else, while it was being moved about.

Obama’s speech echoed some of Teddy Roosevelt’s themes, highlighted in the person of Romney:

Today, we’re still home to the world’s most productive workers. We’re still home to the world’s most innovative companies. But for most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded. Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefited from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and their investments – wealthier than ever before.

But, I don’t think that Roosevelt’s prior populist speech was the only attraction of Osawatomie for President Obama. Not being up on my Kansas history, I hadn’t been aware that Osawatomie was a major site where John Brown fought pro-slavery forces five years prior to the Civil War. President Obama didn’t bring up John Brown, but “Osawatomie Brown” was the reason for Teddy Roosevelt giving his speech there. And, the symbolism of Osawatomie in that context might be useful to President Obama and inconvenient to, at least, the Southern conservatives who oppose him.

The time of John Brown’s activity in Kansas are inconvenient to the mythology of the Lost Cause which we see reflected today in so much of the “state’s rights” rhetoric favored by Southern conservatives. Brown was an abolitionist by inclination before it had much juice in the North. But, the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 fanned anti-slavery sentiment in the North. Mostly content to let Southerners do as they would after the Missouri Compromise, where southern states were admitted to the union with slaves and northern states were admitted free; the apple cart was upset when slave states were committed to allowing slavery north of the Missouri Compromise line, resisting, for example, formation of the Nebraska Territory, necessary to the creation of a trans-continental railroad unless the Missouri Compromise provision restricting slavery in the northern territories was specifically repealed. The Compromise of 1850, furthermore, contained a more draconian Fugitive Slave Act which paid no heed to the “state’s rights” of Northern states, required northerners to more actively participate in efforts to return escaped slaves to their southern owners. Among other things, it nullified northern state laws requiring jury trials before allegedly fugitive slaves would be returned to the south. Law-enforcement officials everywhere now had a duty to arrest anyone suspected of being a runaway slave on no more evidence than a claimant’s sworn testimony of ownership; leading to many free blacks being enslaved and shipped to the South. Far from being state’s rights proponents, a good number of the Southern states’ declarations of secession cite as a reason, Northern states’ failure to knuckle under to this federal law.

On the populist front, the issue of slavery illustrates clearly how the wealthy can use the machinery of the law to appropriate to themselves wealth created by the labor of others. Just because slavery has been outlawed and the mechanics of wealth transfer are necessarily more subtle does not mean that people in our country inevitably earn what they possess and possess what they earn. Obama’s opponents readily, even eagerly, concede that the looters on the low end of the economic scale don’t earn what they possess; but it’s “class warfare” to suggest this might be the case on the high end of the scale.

But, back to Osawatomie in particular. John Brown, along with other abolitionists, had been spurred by the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act to head to Kansas to fight slavery. The Kansas-Nebraska Act had created a sort of land rush where pro-slavery activists and free-soil activists were hurrying to establish themselves in Kansas since the status of Kansas as slave or free would be determined by popular vote. The slavery activists engaged in the more egregious voter fraud wherein 6,000 votes, many of which coming out of the nearby slave state of Missouri, were cast in a population consisting of about 1,500 voters. The pro-slave territorial legislature immediately set about institutionalizing slavery, including draconian penalties for agitating against slavery. Since a lot of the votes came from pro-slave Missourians, the free soilers considered the Kansas Territorial Legislature illegitimate.

Enter John Brown. He stirred other free soilers to militancy after the pro-slave forces sacked the free soiler stronghold of Lawrence, Kansas. About six free-soilers had been killed by the pro-slave activists. On top of this, South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks had beaten Charles Sumner with a cane following an anti-slavery speech given by Sumner. From Brown’s perspective, Southerners were committed to violently imposing their will against their opponents. That such bullying violence should go unopposed was intolerable to Brown. He organized a violent raid of his own. Violence escalated until the “Battle of Osawatomie” where 400 proslavery forces were engaged by a band of about 40 free soilers led by Brown – after the slavers had killed one of Brown’s sons.

Brown is far from a purely heroic figure, but at Osawatomie, he was badly outnumbered but standing up against the superior forces of future Confederates who were attempting to violently impose their will that some humans should be compelled to have the fruits of their labor stolen from them by the wealthier men who owned them. Bleeding Kansas and the Fugitive Slave Act shows that seceding Southern states were not just seeking to be left alone to do as they would in their own states; rather they were actively seeking to spread their corruption far and wide. The white southerners (I’m sure they didn’t consult the black residents of their States) voted to secede because they didn’t get their way in a Presidential election; the first Republican President, Abraham Lincoln, having won.

Having become aware of this history, the sounds of southern conservatives grumbling about Osawatomie seems like something larger than discontent over a single speech by President Obama. Maybe I’m giving in to the hyperbole of President Obama’s detractors, where a mere policy disagreement over a small increase in the marginal tax rate becomes “OMG! SOCIALISM!” But, when I now hear discontent over Osawatomie, I’ll likely hear it set to the background of the song John Brown’s Body which became the Battle Hymn of the Republic.

John Brown’s body lies a-mouldering in the grave,
His soul’s marching on


  1. says

    Certainly, lawyers are overvalued relative to soldiers. But this is an interesting bundle you tie together here. So, it’s wrong for people to take the fruits of one’s labor from others? Here I thought that was the price of being within a society. I’ve certainly heard that rationale a lot lately. While nobody can claim that taxation is slavery, any rise in the marginal tax rates is a greater claim on the fruits of one’s labor- regardless of how others look down their noses to value it, and a move away from economic freedom. Scale and relativism matter, of course, but I’ve always been in favor of all people keeping more of the fruits of their labor, not less.

  2. says

    Your analysis is excellent. There are three layers of history through which you have delved.
    TR was right on some things and wrong on others (foreign policy comes to mind), as is any human being. By accident he was President of the United States. The Republican Party shuffled him into VP to get him out of New York. As a member of the elite class, he was better able to make progress in the fights against that class. In junior high and high school, we were taught that he was a “progressive”—a term not used in a pejorative sense. Good blog.

  3. Mary says

    Doug, is this one of your longest posts ever? I wonder why there are so few comments on this long and complex post — I expected more because commenters are usually so opinionated and prolific here. But I guess it’s hard to refute your research and the startling historical parallels. Anyway, this is really, really interesting, and I am recommending it to several people who will find it fascinating as well. I read it aloud on a long car trip so my husband could hear it while driving. Thank you for taking the time to make it so complete. Thank goodness your blog is not limited to 144 characters!

Leave a Reply