From Sacramento to Bleeding Kansas: The Struggles of Doctor Robinson

May 21 marked the anniversary of the 1856 invasion of Lawrence, Kansas. This attack was a turning point in a conflict that was serious enough in its own right: Rival governments engaged in an escalating struggle that lasted nearly a decade. The territory’s bloody struggle over whether it would be a free or slave state – a key episode in America’s slide toward the Civil War – is known as “Bleeding Kansas.” It is a day of national importance.

But May 21 should be a moment of reflection especially for Sacramento, which played an essential role in setting the stage for Lawrence. Events in Sacramento during the California Gold Rush had honed the organizing skills of Dr. Charles L. Robinson of Massachusetts, who had played a central role in both tumultuous episodes.

The Sacking of Lawrence was a key moment of escalation at the hands of orchestrated mobs of “border ruffians” from Missouri. The Free State Hotel was destroyed, along with two abolitionist newspapers and many businesses and homes. Yet although attacked by a sheriff’s posse of 800 men – many intoxicated – the community in Lawrence presented a nonviolent response that limited the raiders to pillaging and destroying property. Despite tremendous physical damage to the town, there was only one fatality that day; one of the invaders was killed by falling masonry. Although their leaders had been captured, the people of Lawrence were still able to stand down in an organized way.

The attack on Lawrence was (almost) bloodless because its residents were organized, with Dr. Robinson heading the Committee of Safety.

The Lawrence committee had much in common with the Sacramento Settlers’ Association, which had sought to protect its members’ homesteads in a conflict that sparked the August 1850 uprising known as the Squatter Riots. Sacramento’s unrest grew in response to the city’s failure to provide for the health and sanitation needs of a booming community, as well as the city’s minimal legitimacy. Here the government favored land speculators like Sam Brannan, who purchased from Johann Augustus Sutter land that didn’t really belong to Sutter, and then sold it to many others, who profited in various ways from the massive influx of immigrants seeking their fortune.

This massive scheme encompassed five square miles that are now the heart of California’s state capitol. As the city government and various mobs evicted homesteaders from the Brannan land, the community’s outrage grew. More than 1,000 people reportedly joined the Settlers’ Association, which set up a rival surveyor and title office and openly encouraged residents to ignore law enforcement. Although Robinson apparently favored peaceful tactics, hotter heads prevailed and he lost control of a militia formed to prevent evictions. The resulting bloodshed claimed the lives of eight Sacramentans including the sheriff, assessor and mayor. Martial law was established and the economy and population collapsed.

Robinson was wounded in the fighting and thrown in jail, but won election from prison that fall to represent Sacramento in the first California State Assembly. Robinson later returned to New England, where he built a thriving medical practice until 1854. Then he was recruited to lead the New England Emigrant Aid Society, settling abolitionists in Kansas in order to prevent its adopting slavery and tipping the national balance of power toward the South.

Robinson was obviously chosen for his experiences in Sacramento rather than his bedside manner. Although there are many differences in detail, Robinson’s efforts in California and Kansas are part of the same struggle – for liberty and against oppression – using similar elements of extralegal democracy and mutual aid.

The adversaries were also similar. In Sacramento, Robinson faced a cabal of merchants led by Brannan, whose tactics were both legal and extralegal, including his mob of “destroying angels” who would tear down the homes of settlers who did not submit to the scheme.

In Kansas, Robinson’s enemy was even more powerful, and often enjoyed support from Washington. Wealthy supporters of slavery organized agitators from Missouri to repeatedly invade Kansas and engage in elections fraud. Although the ruffians shared few of the benefits of slavery (which mostly accrued to the wealthy landowners who were crowding out settlers on both sides of the slavery issue) they were stirred to action by a combination of propaganda and bribes of land, cash and booze.

So Kansas got its pro-slavery “Bogus Legislature.” The Free State opposition was banned, but then organized a rival government that was declared an insurrection by President Franklin Pierce, and despite growing threats of detention and violence. Robinson was elected governor of the insurgent state, but spent much of 1856 imprisoned after his arrest at Lawrence.

In the end, the border ruffians were overcome and Kansas got a legitimate government and statehood. Robinson was again elected governor.

Unfortunately, Sacramento has forgotten this great leader of popular struggle. He is nearly absent from the card catalogs and indexes of this city’s historical resources. I have not found any of his reflections on his time in California. However, both the Settlers’ Association and the fight for Free Kansas were rooted in the American revolutionary tradition. We might pick out some clues of his perspective from his words in a speech given on July 4, 1855:

“I seem to hear the millions of freemen, and the millions of bondsmen…the patriots…the spirits of the revolutionary heroes, and the voice of God, all saying to the people of Kansas, ‘Do your duty.’”

In Sacramento as well as Lawrence, the community lacked government protection, and was indeed threatened by government. So the people improvised an extralegal but democratic response.

Both rebellions were led by the same person using strategy and tactics developed in one arena and improved for better results in the second. But in Sacramento, Robinson is nearly unknown. The insurgency was crushed after Robinson’s nonviolent tactics were overwhelmed by others’ growing despair that working with the system would ever be rewarded.

As history is written by the victors, Robinson has been nearly eliminated from Sacramento’s memory. That’s unfortunate, as he was an extremely gifted leader of national historic importance.

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