‘Stark Mad Abolitionists’ is a dramatic and gripping account of the battle over slavery fought in Kansas

David Hugh Smith in The Christian Science Monitor:

BookThe words “Bleeding Kansas” trigger memories from high-school history. Those who paid attention in class recall the violence had something to do with the issue of slavery in America. Robert K. Sutton brilliantly brings academic memories to life in Stark Mad Abolitionists. Furthermore, readers of this thoroughly researched and passionately recounted story will come to understand the profoundly significant history of Lawrence, Kan., and care deeply about the drama of its founding. It’s a drama that involves blood, slavery, and people willing to sacrifice everything to oppose it. The story begins in late spring 1854. “Boston was in an uproar,” Mr. Sutton writes, because an escaped slave named Anthony Burns had been captured by his “owner.” Two thousand federal troops escorted Burns to a boat that would take him back to Virginia. Wealthy businessman Amos Adams Lawrence was among those who were angry. He wrote to his uncle that when he awakened one morning, he had become a “stark mad” abolitionist.

Lawrence quickly involved himself in the Massachusetts Emigrant Aid Company, an organization created to encourage and enable people opposed to slavery to move to the territory of Kansas. It was hoped that sufficient antislavery advocates would settle there to vote for it to become a “free state.” Far from being “stark mad,” Lawrence himself was a generous man of quiet temperament. Ironically, he and his family “made their fortunes from buying, selling, and producing textiles, mostly made of cotton” picked by slaves in the South. Sutton tells how Lawrence, as treasurer of the Emigrant Aid Company, paid a large portion of company costs, to the point where his own resources were dangerously depleted. Under his direction, a promising tract of land was found “near where the Wakarusa River entered the Kansas River, about forty miles west of the Missouri line.” On Aug. 1, 1854, the first settlers camped there. In recognition of Lawrence’s enormous contribution, the new town was named “Lawrence.” Early on, “[t]he Emigrant Aid Company clearly had not prepared for the settlers it was encouraging to emigrate to Kansas.” Many quickly returned to home, dismayed by the rigors of a community where homes initially were made from straw.

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