Charles Robinson, 1818-1894
The first governor of the state of Kansas and one of the turbulent territorial era’s most active and decisive participants, Charles Robinson, was born on July 21, 1818, in Worcester County, Massachusetts, to Jonathan and Huldah Woodward Robinson. Robinson attended Amherst Academy, taught school, graduated from Berkshire Medical School, and practiced medicine in Belchertown, Massachusetts, before striking out for the California gold fields in 1849. Traveling to California with a caravan of other prospectors, Robinson passed through what would become Kansas Territory and was impressed with the fertile prairie in the vicinity of the site of his future home of Lawrence. Robinson championed the right of American settlers in California, and they elected him president of their squatter’s association. He supported John C. Fremont and the effort to keep slavery out of the new west coast state, and was elected to the California House of Representatives (1850-1851). In 1851, Robinson returned to Massachusetts, married Sara Tappan Doolittle Lawrence, and edited the Fitchburg [Massachusetts] News.
After the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, with its repeal of the Missouri Compromise, Robinson became alarmed by the prospect that the new territory of Kansas might become a slave state. So he joined and helped the New England Emigrant Aid Society, “an organization with a moral mission that intended to make a profit through real estate speculation,” locate its first free-state settlement in a place they soon named Lawrence. With Robinson serving as president of the town company, Lawrence, of course, soon became the focal point of free-state resistance to the proslavery Missourians. Robinson represented the “radical” or abolitionist wing of the movement, but he was also a coalition builder, and thus became a founder and leader of the Free State Party established in the summer of 1855. Robinson’s cool, detached leadership provided a stabilizing influence on the party—a counter balance to the much more volatile Jim Lane—and he was subsequently elected governor of Kansas Territory under the “extra-illegal” Topeka Constitution. Robinson helped negotiate a truce that ended the “Wakarusa War” in December 1855 but was arrested on treason charges in May 1856, along with several other free-state men, because of his leadership role in the rump government that challenged the legitimacy of the proslavery territorial government recognized by the Pierce administration. It was during Governor Robinson’s four months of confinement that many of Bleeding Kansas’s most violent incidents occurred: the sack of Lawrence, the Pottawatomie Massacre, and the battles of Black Jack and Osawatomie, to name only a few.
Robinson also participated in the founding of the free-state port of Quindaro, Wyandotte County (a speculative investment and an effort to promote the cause of free Kansas), and the organization of the Republican Party in Kansas. Although not a delegate to the Wyandotte Convention of 1859, when state elections were conducted under the new constitution in December, Robinson was elected the state’s first governor. He assumed that office once the Kansas admission bill became law in 1861, just two months before the outbreak of the Civil War.
Governor Robinson was preoccupied with wartime concerns, as well as the machinations
of his chief rival, the volatile and flamboyant James H. Lane, during his single
term of office (1861-1863). This bitter rivalry culminated in impeachment proceedings
against the governor, Secretary of State J. W. Robinson, and State Auditor
George S. Hillyer. Robinson ultimately was acquitted of all charges, but the
other two executive officers were convicted and removed from office. Despite
these political difficulties, one early biographer heralded Robinson “as
the strongest character in the history of the State. . . . Under his leadership
the battle was won for the North, Kansas entered the Union a Free State, and
the prestige of the South was crushed and broken forever.” An overstatement,
no doubt, but from the beginning, until his death at age 76 on August 17, 1894,
Charles Robinson remained an active and influential force in Kansas affairs. “His
greatest achievement,” wrote historian James A. Rawley, “lay in
his moderate and persevering work toward quelling violence in Kansas and making
it a free state.”
Rawley, James A. Biographical sketch of “Robinson, Charles.” In American National Biography. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Sokolofsky, Homer E. Kansas Governors. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1990.
Wilson, Don W. Governor Charles Robinson of Kansas. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1975.