Two weeks of consultation in Washington got Andrew Reeder nothing more than a promise that if Franklin Pierce dismissed him from the governorship of Kansas, he would claim Reeder’s shady real estate dealings as the reason. That concession looks perverse to us, but Pierce may have meant well by it. Nineteenth century politics involved corruption at least close to the point of self-parody. That Reeder used his post in an attempt to enrich himself may have painted him as a crooked character, but crooked characters might have enjoyed a brighter future in the Democracy of the 1850s than antislavery men. This spoke to the centrality of the slavery issue at the time, unlike past decades, but also to the deeper nature of the Democracy’s ideological commitments.
The antebellum Democracy upheld, per John Ashworth’s The Republic in Crisis: 1848-1860: states rights on the national level, limited government on the local level, popular control of all government, and resistance to projects of moral reform dictating choices to private individuals. These ideals, and others, did not demand an adherence to slavery. Nor did one necessarily have to read proslavery politics into them, even if the party’s heroes, Jefferson and Jackson, both owned slaves. The simple fact that black people, their lives and freedom, counted for precious little to most white Americans went a long way toward enabling slavery on its own. The Democracy’s ideology never demanded from the national party a full-bore defense of slavery as necessary or good. Attempts to require the national party to sign on to such a platform led, by design on the part of some of its proponents, directly to its split in 1860. If the Democracy had a specific ideological commitment to slavery, it may never have risen as a national party at all. Had it, in some strange world, managed both the proslavery platform and national political success, one struggles to imagine a homely nobody from Illinois taking up residence at the White House in 1861.
But Ashworth draws an important distinction here. While the Democracy did not adopt slavery qua slavery, each of its key ideals served to implicitly protect slavery. The party mainstream might have thought John C. Calhoun a dangerous crank. Those outside the hard core of proslavery southerners certainly chafed over the way in which that powerful, often the most powerful, faction exerted its influence. Despite these complaints, and dissenters of the David Wilmot and Salmon P. Chase stripes aside, the Democracy as a whole functioned as a proslavery institution. Each key point of Democratic ideology had its proslavery consequences, something Ashworth remarks “was no random effect.”
Thus limited government and state’s rights, if strictly adhered to, removed the threat to slavery from Washington and as a consequence from any potentially hostile northern majority that might be formed. The insistence upon individual autonomy in the moral sphere allowed Democrats to demand that individual white males be allowed to decide whether or not they should own black slaves without any legal coercion from government. The Democratic doctrine that all should be left undisturbed by government in the enjoyment of the fruits of their labour was invaluable to slaveholders, since, as we have seen, it ignored the existence of the slave and simultaneously removed from view the inequalities generated by slaveholding.
One could add that if states’ rights took threat to slavery from Washington off the table, then limited government in the states further removed it from state legislatures. Who then remained to enact emancipation? For some, this remained the purview of the Almighty. They may have genuinely believed it possible that divine intervention would remove slavery, and of course the slaves, but one doesn’t imagine them holding their breath waiting for it.
The result was that the Jeffersonian tradition operated not directly or explicitly to promote slavery but rather to disable antislavery. Slavery was an unrecognised or invisible underpinning, an unacknowledged condition of Jeffersonian and Democratic thought. In consequence, the northerner who had no interest in slavery but who accepted this creed was likely to end by defending southerners’ rights to hold their slaves, unmolested by the federal government and unchallenged by abolitionism. Such at any rate was the situation until the advent of the territorial question in the 1840s.
Even as slavery became the dominant issue, northern democrats often returned to this well. They grew up believing it. They bought into the party that preached it, wagering their futures, their fame, and their fortunes on its tenets. Franklin Pierce did not need the deep ideological underpinnings of the Democracy’s implicit proslavery agenda to refuse Andrew Reeder any help with the Missourians marauding about Kansas, stealing elections and lynching people. But his actions make more sense in light of them. So also do those of many Democrats, from Stephen Douglas on down, trying to navigate the increasing political confusion of the 1850s. Even a person who decided on the moral abhorrence of slavery could, through orthodox reading of the Democracy’s doctrines, adopt a strong position against opposing it in the political realm.
Andrew Reeder went off to Washington to get help from Franklin Pierce’s administration in quelling the unrest in Kansas. Surely he could do something. Reeder suggested firm instructions to Pierce’s appointees on the ground against the Missourian filibusters who authored the strife. Furthermore, he should make a proclamation that declared their sins to the country and castigated them. Then he should pledge the administration’s full support to the preservation of Kansas for the Kansans, by calling out the Army if necessary.
Pierce declined to help. We should understand this as coming in part from his personal disposition. Pierce seems to have wanted to please everybody, quite ready to tell them all they wanted to hear and then fail to follow through. Thus Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and David Rice Atchison and the others from the F Street Mess demanded his commitment to the Kansas-Nebraska Act in writing. But one can take historical psychoanalysis too far. Between fairly calamitous reaction to the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and the ongoing struggle and embarrassment over Cuba Pierce may not have had much influence left to spend. If his proclamation did nothing, it would put Pierce in the position of having to use the military to impose order and look like a tyrant. Failing that, he would expose his impotence. Furthermore Pierce only agreed reluctantly to support the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the first place. One could even argue that Douglas, Davis, and Atchison deceived him, as they promised only to go forward with the bill and Pierce’s declaration of support if they also had the blessing of Secretary of State William L. Marcy. He might not care to preserve popular sovereignty in its name.
On top of all this, with his party taking great setbacks in the North, Pierce would feel ever more beholden to the Democracy’s Southern wing. They would not look kindly on their Yankee president taking the side of a band of filthy slave-stealers and other scum of the earth, especially not at Reeder’s bidding. It seems surplus to requirement to go off on a hunt for additional reasons that Pierce might have refused, but for Foner’s class I’ve lately read John Ashworth’s The Republic in Crisis: 1848-1861 and he sheds more light on the ideological reasons that Northern Democrats would consistently lean, by and large, in a proslavery direction. As this has far broader significance for developments in the late antebellum era, I think it worth digging a bit further.
All the way back to Jefferson, whom the Democracy claimed as something like its patron saint, down through the modern party’s establishment under Andrew Jackson, the party had a distinct pro-Southern slant. While the Democracy and its ancestors remained viable in the North, they generally saw more and more consistent success in the South. They attached themselves to the fabled agrarian interest, that of Jefferson’s farmers who worked the Earth and so were God’s chosen. By this, Jefferson meant his own class rather than the people who actually worked the Earth, but the fiction allowed for a common interest between white males and a kind of united white male populism relatively alien to both the more elitist Federalists and Whigs.
Beyond that, Ashworth identifies the Democrats as especially interested in states’ rights on the national level and limited government at home. Neither of these ideas had to defend slavery. Neither drew their appeal solely from the circumstances of a slaveholding society. Ashworth points out antecedents in the era of the English Revolution who had no experience with slavery at all.
To those, the Democracy added a strong resistance to the state dictating one’s choices in what they considered the moral realm. The state could and should make laws regarding property, but it should not seek to impose temperance. It should not appoint itself the religious tutor of the populace. It should not care what country one’s ancestors came from. (Though, of course, it should have very definite opinions about what continent they came from.) It should not impose, from outside and above, its own vision of society. This makes for enlightened-sounding rhetoric, the kind of thing we still hear today.
At times it worked out to something we would recognize as enlightened. I doubt many of us are all that sympathetic to the temperance movement, given how swimmingly Prohibition worked out. We have yet to cure ourselves of nativism, which seems to return every few decades when the grandchildren of people from the wrong part of the world entirely decide that the newest arrivals hail from the wrong part of the world entirely, but I don’t think many of us view it as a very enlightened sentiment.
A resistance to the state imposing a moral vision on society involves such generalities that a coherent account must always come with a particular context. Laws against murder and theft impose such a vision, but most of us don’t see them as such because we take those things for granted. In fields of active controversy, one could argue for either side but more often inaction seems to manifest as at least passive support for the status quo, for better or worse, and resistance to its change.
That last point has obvious relevance when it comes to antislavery politics, but we could turn it around. Salmon P. Chase and his Independent Democrats pronounced themselves outraged at and betrayed by the attack on the status quo embodied in the Kansas-Nebraska Act, after all. In doing so they went against the choice of their party leadership, and at variance with its traditional localism, but completely in line with its resistance to a moral reform movement on the part of the proslavery men who viewed the Missouri Compromise’s slavery ban as an affront and indignity which they ought not bear.
Andrew Reeder, who Franklin Pierce appointed governor of Kansas Territory, apparently had quite enough when he announced that he would set aside some of the fraudulent election returns of March 30, 1855. That he did so in a room filled with two armed mobs, the proslavery members-elect of the legislature and group of his own friends speaks volumes about how far things had gone, even before the Parkville Industrial Luminary’s (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) press hit the Missouri’s bottom and William Phillips (parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7) acquired his coating of tar and feathers. Proslavery men had made serious threats on his life going all the way back to his arrival in Kansas. He prudently left the territory soon after announcing the special elections of May 22:
I left the Territory about the middle of April, and came east for the purpose of taking out my family and attending to private business, as well as for the purpose of consulting with the President in regard to the state of things in the Territory.
Reeder’s testimony to the Howard Committee did not share the details of what passed between him and Pierce. Etcheson cites a letter from J.M. Fourney to James Buchanan on the issue, dated May 12, 1855. Regrettably, the letter didn’t make it into my copy of Buchanan’s collected works. She also cites James A. Rawley’s Race and Politics: “Bleeding Kansas” and the Coming of the Civil War on the subject. I acquired a copy of that book to check up on the matter of what Stephen Douglas said to that Chicago rally. Rawley did not cite his sources, except for direct manuscript quotes, but he gives this version:
The President, more anguished by the Kansas troubles than anything since the loss of his son, spent two weeks in earnest conversations with the governor, trying to thrash out Administration policy. Reeder sought to impress upon Pierce the need for executive action to protect the actual settlers from the Missourians. Pierce asked what action he could take; and in response Reeder outlined a three-point program. The President should let all his appointees understand they were to set their faces against out-of-state interference; he should issue a proclamation reciting and disapproving of the lawless acts, and pledging the Administration against outside interference as violations of the organic act; and, if necessary, he should use troops.
This would all go over famously with the Missourians. Already Reeder had made himself notorious to the proslavery party in Kansas and Missouri. Furthermore, some shady land dealings on Reeder’s part that will warrant some discussion later had come to light and painted him as shifty in addition to polarizing. Even a principled antislavery president might not have rushed to Reeder’s aid. The pliable, eager to please Franklin Pierce would do no such thing.
Pierce countered this policy with his condemnation of the “illegalities” of the emigrant-aid society, not the Missourians, with objections to issuing such a proclamation, and with doubts about his authority to support a proclamation if he did issue it. His manner, Reeder asserted, “made me very distrustful of any sincere intention … to give adequate protection to our [Kansas] people. …”
A group of Emigrant Aid Society settlers had arrived on the day of the March election and apparently voted, but at the time they also appear to have intended to stay. This wouldn’t make their participation look very different on the ground, but would have put them within the bounds of the law in voting. The Missourians who fully intended to come, vote, and go home again could claim no such thing. Given the way Pierce’s cabinet seems to have used him more than the other way around, one can’t argue too much with his doubting of his own authority. But that still leaves him with an intensely partisan take on the issue: the Missourians did no wrong worth mentioning but the Emigrant Aid Societies had. Even if they had broken the law, they numbered between sixty and a hundred to the Missourians’ thousands.
Reeder claimed later that Pierce agreed with him, but he apparently missed just how much of their conversation involved Reeder’s resignation. The president went so far as to offer him a new posting. Possibly the governor’s inexperience led to him missing the tacit order to resign in that, but Pierce must not have pressed too hard. Reeder returned to Kansas in June with nothing more than a promise that if the administration fired him, the governor would have earned it through his those land dealings rather than his handling of the great issue of the day.
Resolutions: part 1
The Public Indignation Meeting of April 30, 1855 affirmed the right to drive abolitionists, by which they meant any antislavery person, from Kansas in the name peace and quiet. In doing so, they affirmed their understanding of popular sovereignty: they constituted the populace and they exercised sovereignty. Slavery existed in the territory until the legislature passed laws barring it. The proslavery party, with great help from Missouri, then ensured that it would dominate the legislature. Attempts to redress the obvious fraud got William Phillips taken over to Missouri, tarred, feathered, and sold at auction for a quarter of a cent by a black man. Such efforts also made Andrew Reeder still more obnoxious to the proslavery men.
But the indignation meeting did not conclude its resolutions with a general affirmation of slavery, and an endorsement of driving Phillips from Kansas that also reserved the right to do the same to others. They also had a few kind words for their future victims:
Resolved, That in the present state of public excitement there is no such thing as controlling the ebullition of feeling, while material remains in the country on which to give it vent. To the peculiar friends of northern fanatics, we say, this is not your country, go home and vent your treason, where you may find your sympathy.
We just can’t control ourselves in these wild times. If you remain, you’ve asked for it. The invocation of treason has some irony given events at the end of the decade, but from where the proslavery party sat abolitionists attacked the very foundation of the Union. The founders, to their minds, built the nation on accommodation of slavery. Beyond that, to nineteenth century Americans one could commit treason against a state or a section as well. John Brown hanged for treason against the state of Virginia. Likewise people who fought enforcement of the fugitive slave law found themselves branded traitors.
Having threatened virtually everyone except proslavery southerners, the indignation meeting then had some kind words to offer.
Resolved, That we invite the inhabitants of every State, north, south, east, and west, to come among us and to cultivate the beautiful prairie lands of our Territory, but leave behind you the fanaticisms of higher law and all kindred doctrines, come only to maintain the laws as they exist, and not to preach your higher duties of setting them at naught; for we warn you in advance that our institutions are sacred to us, and must and shall be respected.
Everyone can and should come to Kansas, from anywhere in the country and with any beliefs, so long as they set those beliefs aside and became proper proslavery men at the border. Kansas belonged to them, not to the nation at large. But in the unlikely event that a reader missed the point, or didn’t quite parse the general references to institutions and condemnation of Higher Law, they hammered it further home:
Resolved, That the institution of slavery is known and recognized in this Territory, that we repel the doctrine that it is a moral and political evil, and we hurl back with scorn upon its slanderous authors the charge of inhumanity, and we warn all persons not to come to our own peaceful firesides to slander us and sow the seeds of discord between the master and the servant, for as much as we may deprecate the necessity to which we may be driven, we cannot be responsible for the consequences.
Rights? Freedom? The proslavery men cherished each one and affirmed it in another resolution.
Resolved, That recognize the right of every man to entertain his own sentiments in all questions and to act them out so long as they interfere with neither public nor private rights, but that when the acts of men strike at the peace of our social relations and tend to subvert the known and recognized rights of others, such acts are in violation of morals, of natural law, and systems of jurisprudence to which we are accustomed to submit.
You could have all your rights as an American citizen, the rights patriots died for and which all sections celebrated, but those rights did not extend to dissent from slavery. People uttering such sentiments placed themselves beyond the law, surrendered all rights, and freed the community to do with them whatever it liked. They would most likely make a considerable fuss.
John McNamara ends his version of William Phillips’ May 17, 1855 lynching with the man himself returning to Leavenworth at once and the men who lynched him waiting a few days for the popular indignation to cool off. Phillips did remain in Kansas, though I haven’t learned if he also remained in Leavenworth. Men involved in his lynching spoke freely of it in that very town to the Howard Committee a year later, but Phillips gave no testimony himself on the matter. Did the mob constitute a well-connected minority of Leavenworth’s people, while the rest silently fumed at their aggression?
Maybe, but it doesn’t take an overwhelming majority in favor of any sentiment to control on a larger population through terror. It takes only a committed minority, though powerful majorities have often engaged in similar tactics. Clichés aside, the powerful and weak both find uses for terrorism. Adam Fisher and Matthew France got the message come the special election on the twenty-first of May, even if the latter chose to ignore it. In fact, they could hardly miss it given that the mob published two sets of resolutions against Phillips and threatening attacks on others. The first appear in the Howard Report under the heading Public Indignation Meeting and date to the day that the mob told Phillips he must quit Kansas. A. Payne, the witness who provided the papers, presided over the meeting. James M. Lyle, of special election judge fame, served as secretary. They commence with this remarkable statement:
Resolved, That we regret the death of our esteemed fellow-citizen, Malcolm Clark, and most bitterly condemn the cowardly act by which he was murdered; but we would deprecate any violation of the laws of the land by way of revenge, and stand ready to maintain and defend the laws from any violation by any mob violence; that we do not deem the time has arrived when it is necessary for men to maintain their inalienable rights by setting at defiance the constituted authorities of the country.
They had yet to do the lynching when they voted on this resolution, but had clearly threatened Phillips in telling him to get out of Kansas or else. For that threat to have any credibility, it had to have force waiting in the wings. They did not then propose to violate any laws or rebel against lawful authority, but they reserved the right to do so when the time came.
And what might occasion such drastic action?
Resolved, That no man has a right to go into any community and disturb its peace and quiet by doing any incendiary acts or circulating incendiary sentiments; we therefore advise such as are unwilling to submit to the institutions of this country to leave for some climate more congenial to their feelings, as abolition sentiments cannot, nor will not, be tolerated here-and while we do not say what may be the consequences, for the peace and quiet of the community we urge all entertaining and expressing such sentiments to leave immediately, claiming the right to expel all such as persist in such a course.
Stephen Douglas hardly meant that by popular sovereignty, but it encapsulates the very reason the idea could never work: with the status of slavery undetermined, proslavery men would understand it as sanctioned until excluded by law. Antislavery men would understand it as excluded until sanctioned by law. The Kansas-Nebraska Act gave no consideration to this problem, nor even any guidance on how to resolve such a dispute. If the mob would not even permit discussion of the subject, and they could not as they believed just as B.F. Stringfellow did that
The security of our slave-property was not alone involved; our very lives were endangered. The negro-thief, the abolitionists, who induces a slave to run away, is a criminal of a far more dangerous character than the house-breaker, or the highway robber, — his crime of a far higher grade than that of the incendiary — it ranks, at least, with that of the midnight assassin. To induce a slave to escape, involves not merely to the master the loss of that slave, of that amount of property; but it brings in its train far more serious consequences. Other slaves are thereby induced to make like attempts; a hatred for their masters, whom they begin to regard as their oppressors, is thus begotten; and this, too, often is followed by arson and murder.
On the seventeenth of May, 1855, William Phillips finally got his lynching after weeks of waiting. It involved real tar and real feathers, despite his earlier suggestion that they use molasses. He probably could have waited longer, decades even, but the mob would not. Phillips had not left Leavenworth as ordered, after all. Furthermore, they had an election coming up on the twenty-first. They had Phillips to blame for that so they might as well use him to set an example for others.
Matthew France and Adam Fisher both had Phillips example in mind when they went to serve as judges of the special election. Avoiding it would have required fairly heroic measures considering only a few days had gone by. Both reference it in their testimony. If they did not go along with J.M. Lyle, their fellow judge and a member of the lynch mob, things could go very badly for them. France would take the risk, but Fisher demurred.
But one could draw a different lesson from the proslavery terrorism. It took weeks for the mob to work up to seizing Phillips and working their will. He twice before faced simple notice that he should leave, and once got out of trouble thanks to a shortage of tar and feathers and a promise that he would go eventually. When the mob did strike, they had to carry him over to Missouri to do their work and a marshal in Leavenworth tried to get together a rescue party to come save him.
McNamara reports that after his lynching
Phillips returned to Leavenworth, but the editorial corps dare not go back for some days, the indignation at Leavenworth was so great against them.
The Mayor of the city of Weston called a meeting to consider the steps, if any were to be taken, with reference to the disgraceful proceeding. The Mayor declared that he would resign, if such riotous conduct was approved by the citizens generally. A large meeting was held, and a most exciting debate took place, but the proceedings were finally disapproved of by the majority of the people.
Even in the town where the lynching finally happened, plenty of discontent apparently existed. The same area had refused to chase out Frederick Starr not that long ago. One could favor slavery, even strongly favor it, and not approve of lynching whites. Phillips himself had lived under threat for weeks without threat turning to reality. France doesn’t tell us that he took that risk by calculating from Phillips’ example, but he did have those facts before him.
The official reaction in Leavenworth leaned heavily toward approval. George F. Warren
saw Phillips the next morning. He had just finished getting tar off him and was running bullets. One side of his head was shaved. These men were never punished for this offence. They were at one time brought before Judge Lecompte and bound over to keep the peace. He said it was his duty to remove the clerk and prevent the lawyers from practicing at the bar, but he would not do it for that time. To my knowledge they were never indicted or tried. Most of them are still living in the Territory and holding office.
One can imagine Lecompte, chief justice of the territorial supreme court and speaker at one of the anti-Phillips meetings, wagging his finger at the the mob and telling them that next time he would have to pull the wagon over and come back there. They would then act properly chastised and take him out for drinks later on. A. Payne practically bragged about having impunity on the matter:
To my knowledge, no one has been arrested, tried, or examined for the mobbing of Phillips [...] These acts were done by persons well known, and no effort was made to conceal the persons or the acts.
Secrecy would have defeated their purpose. If one did not toe the proslavery line in Leavenworth, one now had named protagonists who would come and punish as they liked. No law would save you. Making a stand meant taking a serious risk, whatever McNamara told his readers about other people objecting to vigilante terrorism. Lynching would abuse, terrify, and possibly kill the victim but lynch mobs had the larger goal. Through the fear of violence they would control those would who not otherwise comply, in far greater numbers than they could ever lynch.
The Leavenworth proslavery men took William Phillips over to Weston, Missouri. There they tarred and feathered him, shaved half his head, rode him around on a rail, and then staged a mock auction where a black man sold him for a quarter of a cent. He earned their immediate opprobrium back at the end of April for an imagined role in the shooting of Malcolm Clark by Cole McRea, though that concern clearly fell by the wayside quickly. The more serious threat, in the eyes of Leavenworth’s proslavery party, came from simply having in their midst a man they fancied an abolitionist. Already he had caused Andrew Reeder to set aside the election that Missourians stole for the proslavery party fair and square. What would he do next?
But John McNamara’s In Perils by Mine Own Countrymen suggests a further complication. He reports that The Platte Argus, the paper of David Rice Atchison and the Platte County Self-Defense Association, expressed considerable displeasure that after their men stole the election
they found a Yankee Lawyer bold enough to run up and spike their gun! The charge of the light brigade at Balaklava was child’s play compared to this! Everything was to be done over again.
Artillery crews had the responsibility to spike field pieces they couldn’t save to deny their use to the enemy. A cannon will fire for whoever loads and shoots it, and in the nineteenth century most artillery saw use as direct fire against the enemy. Consider that artillery batteries would form part of the line, or sit closely adjacent to it, and you can see the urgency of ensuring they could not quickly or easily convert cannons to their own use. This usually involved a literal spike shoved into the breech. I haven’t examined any spiked artillery myself, but I had a teacher who did and declared that a hundred and forty years after, the spike would still not budge.
“The Platte Argus” generated, and shot its lightning, and rolled its thunder weekly against the cowards of Leavenworth City. When its battery would be too highly charged with electricity to hold a week, it was obliged to let off in “extras” against the devoted of Leavenworth! “The Argus” “doubted whether there was a true friend of ‘the goose’ in Leavenworth.” “If there are any of the faithful there, why is the traitor Phillips permitted to live!” It continually harped against “the Leavenworth Herald.” “The ‘Herald’ must not call itself the advocate of ‘the goose’ while that traitor Phillips lived in the same town in which it was published.
The “goose” meant slavery, of course. Asking if one stood “all right” by it served as a password during election stealing, as did “all right on the hemp.” Nichole Etcheson explains the reference in Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era:
To Missourians, Kansas-Nebraska was a “gift,” a special treat like a “Christmas goose.” Missourians preserved that sense of delighted receipt of an unexpected present in the term they used for the Kansas issue, “the Goose Question.”
The Herald, paper of the editors who signed on to the resolutions against Phillips, published apologies and insisted that it had no control over whether William Phillips lived in Kansas or not. The Argus wouldn’t accept such excuses:
Come, “Mr. Herald,” stir your stumps, the Diplomats of the Army of Occupation in Kansas, “The Weston Regency,” the “Self-Defensives” are after you with a long pole! Give an account of your stewardship.
I don’t have access to the Argus archives to check, but these sound more like genuine quotes or close paraphrases than the dialog that McNamara imagines elsewhere. He credits this with inspiring the Herald’s editors to stage Phillips’ lynching. It might have. In some districts, Kansas’ proslavery men agreed to set aside their own choices and vote for men that the Missourians nominated for public office. They may very well have feared for their own safety, since failure to deliver something might easily come to look like cooperation with the hated abolitionists.
But I think McNamara oversells this, and not just because his account invites some skepticism in general. The Missouri papers could not predict the murder of Malcolm Clark. That did not constitute all of the grievance against Phillips, or even the most important part, but it did prompt the proslavery Kansans to their first direct action against him. It reads to me more as an additional factor among the others. The Herald editors did not lynch Phillips and may not have driven the movement to do so at all. But if the lynching got the Argus and its mob across the river off their backs then so much the better for them. It paid off; McNamara reports that after Phillips received his tar and feathers the Argus endorsed the Herald as sound on the goose.
We left William Phillips crossing the river into Missouri as a prisoner of the Leavenworth mob. Unfortunately, Howard Report testimony falls silent here. Nobody who took part in Phillips’ lynching or witnessed it personally cared to tell them about it. George F. Warren saw Phillips taken and volunteered for a posse to rescue him, but by the time all of three men got together, the mob had Phillips on the water and out of reach. Etcheson’s account in Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era refers to some New York Times articles I don’t have access to, so I can’t draw on them to fill in the details.
Etcheson also cites a book with a remarkably nineteenth century title In Perils by mine own Countrymen: Three Years on the Kansas Border, by a Clergyman of the Episcopal Church. One can’t fault John McNamara, who Etcheson outs in her endnote, for the anonymity. He published in 1856. I couldn’t find anything about him online, given his common name, but he may very well have still lived in Kansas at the time. That said, he cheekily included on the title page the following line from the Merchant of Venice:
What judgment shall I dread, doing no wrong?
McNamara answered his own question in part starting on page 50, where he takes up Phillips’ story. Before getting into this, I should add that reading McNamara requires some caution. He tells a significant part of this story through dialog. This makes for dramatic reading, but I have my doubts that he ever witnessed any such conversations. They scan as a narrative device, not straight reporting.
McNamara begins with the editors of the Herald, William Rives Pollard and William Adams. Each had put their signatures on the notice for Phillips to leave Leavenworth. The mob took Phillips to their office on discovering he had not actually quit Kansas:
“I tell you what we will do,” said each to the other, “let us betray Phillips to cross the Missouri; we shall have the tar and feathers all ready for him on the Missouri side. “We will strip him, over there, on the solitary river-bottom, clip his hair off, coat him with tar, and apply the feathers. we shall then ride him on a rail through the streets of Weston, while a drum shall be beaten, and the chivalry will cry out ‘victory'”
One struggles to read this without imagining the editors rubbing their hands together and also contemplating putting a woman on some train tracks. Whether Pollard and Adams took the lead in the plot or otherwise, it came to pass:
Phillips was enticed over the river. They did to him all that was desired. He was brought to Weston in that awful plight. They cut off the hair of his head, but his strength did not fail him-he was a Samson still. His body looked contemptible, but the soul of the man was there; they could not tar and feather that!
From Warren’s testimony, we know that Phillips received his enticement at gunpoint. Once they had their way with Phillips, shaving half his head, applying the tar and feathers and riding him around town on a rail, the mob had further plans:
Col. Lewis Burns now approached him, and tried to wheedle him to sign a paper declaring that he would leave the Territory of Kansas.
“No, sir,” said the hero, “I am in your power, you can put me into the Missouri, if you please, but I will not voluntarily leave the Territory!”
A negro was now brought forward, and commanded to sell Phillips at auction.
“How much, gentlemen, for a full-blooded abolitionist, dyed in de wool, tar and feathers, and all?”
A quarter-of-a-cent was bid, and Phillips was sold!
The auctioning may seem just strange to us, but think about what it said to the men involved. A black person was fit only for slavery, bought and sold at will, beaten and raped at whim. By having a black man auction Phillips off as a slave, even if only rhetorically, the mob told all who learned of it that they saw abolitionists as less than property. A black person might occupy so inferior a position in their minds as to deserve and even require enslavement, an almost infinite gulf between that person’s value and that of any white, but Phillips stood so low in their esteem as to open up a similar gap beneath him and a black man. A slave could do work for the owner’s profit, but Phillips would not serve even for that.
At most generous, this affair paints Phillips as a pest. They may not have killed him that day, but they might easily enough graduate from trying to shoo him away to swatting him dead. A committee in Leavenworth gathered after all this and unanimously passed resolutions submitted by A. Payne thanking the lynch mob and declaring
That we heartily endorse the action of the committee of citizens that shaved, tarred and feathers, rode on a rail, and had sold by a negro, William Phillips, the moral perjurer.
In their eyes, Phillips perjured himself by swearing an affidavit that Missouri men stole the Leavenworth election back in March. By this point, weeks later, dead Malcolm Clark no longer entered into things at all.
William Phillips earned the wrath of his proslavery neighbors for working as a correspondent for the New York Tribune, convincing Andrew Reeder to set aside the fraudulent election returns from Leavenworth, serving in some way that no one would testify to under oath as some kind of accessory to the murder of Malcolm Clark by Cole McRea, or some combination of all three. A meeting of Leavenworth’s proslavery party, including many men of power and influence, gathered the night of Clark’s murder and resolved to order Phillips gone by the afternoon of Thursday, May 3, 1855.
Phillips left. When the mob came to see if he did as told, they found his brother but not Phillips himself. Their chosen victim had not, however, abjured Leavenworth like a properly chastised man. Instead he and George F. Warren just left town for most of the day, returning in the evening. If Phillips hoped to avoid a confrontation by just dodging the mob when it arrived at his doorstep, he underestimated their dislike of him and, one imagines, also his value to them as an object lesson in what they would do to antislavery men in their midst.
Warren remained with Phillips after they returned to Leavenworth and so witnessed the immediate response firsthand:
An hour or two after we arrived in town some one wanted to speak to Mr. Phillips in the Herald printing office.
Phillips must have known full well that the editors of the Herald put their signatures on the notice telling him to get out of Leavenworth and that this could go very badly. But according to A. Payne’s testimony, six or eight men took Phillips then. He probably had no real choice in the matter and so
[h]e went there, and I remained part of the time on the outside where I could see in and hear him them talk. They asked him to sign that paper to leave the Territory the next day at noon, at the same time holding a pistol at his head. He would not sign it. A man asked him then if he would fight. He reached his hand to him and told him yes. Some one spoke then and said the man who proposed to fight should not do so, and thus throw away his valuable life for that damned abolitionist. They then proposed to tear and feather Phillips. They could not find any tar and feathers. He told them that molasses would do just as well.
A. Payne reports the same meeting in rather more general terms, as apparently he didn’t take part himself:
Various modes were suggested as to what means should be used to carry out the resolutions, none of which were adopted, and Mr. Phillips was released by partially promising that he would leave as soon as he could wind up his business; that is all I know of it.
The empty-handed mob did let Phillips go, but with that promise. After that he lived on in Leavenworth until May 17, 1855. Warren then tells us
Some days afterwards, while I and Phillips were helping to raise a building, there was a company of thirteen came there. They were J.M. McAlear, William Hughes, Boyle, Burnam, Pollard, Adams, Moore, heath, Lyle, Johnson, Posey, Mr. Blair, deputy marshal, and one other.
The same men, more or less, involved in the two previous meetings concerning first Phillips and then other presumed abolitionists in Leavenworth.
Hughes came close to Phillips and told him he must leave the Territory and go with him. McAlear put his hand on Phillips’ shoulder and told him he must go. All of them had revolvers. Phillips was unarmed, and only three or four of his friends were around, who were all unarmed except myself, and I had a revolver. There were but few persons in sight. Phillips made no reply to McAlear. Myself and Mr. Gould rushed towards him and was pushed back, and my pistol was taken from me by a friend of mine from Tennessee who wanted to fire, but I prevented him. They then took Phillips to the river, put him on a flat boat, and all got in and crossed the river. While they were crossing, a magistrate ordered a posse out with arms to rescue him. Only three of us appeared, and they were then crossing the river.
A mob in Leavenworth decided that William Phillips, a lawyer, correspondent for Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, and antislavery man, had to go. They made that decision during the night of April 30, 1855, apparently just after an altercation between Cole McRea and Malcolm Clark that ended in McRea shooting Clark. The mob imagined that Phillips had encouraged McRea to shoot, perhaps even giving him the gun. But witnesses to the event would not tell the Howard Committee that they saw any such thing. They “supposed” and believed “a general rumor”, according to A. Payne, who attended both the meeting where Clark and McRea had their dispute and the later meeting concerning what to do with Phillips.
This all sounds very sketchy, but given the mob gathered and made their resolutions to get Phillips out of Leavenworth that very night I don’t think one can deny that they considered themselves provoked by something Phillips had done then, whether they had facts or not. Per the mob’s resolutions, he had to make himself scarce by afternoon of the following Thursday, May 3. That same day, they would meet again to discuss what to do with the other “abolitionists” about. Phillips probably earned that title by writing Andrew Reeder to contest the March election results, if not before.
George F. Warren testified that the notice held the signatures of a virtual directory of Leavenworth’s proslavery luminaries:
William Hughes, now a clerk in the land office of Mr. Calhoun, surveyor-general; H. Rives Pollard, associate editor of the Kansas Herald at Leavenworth; William Adams, publisher of the same paper; D. Scott Boyle, then and now a clerk of the territorial court under Judge Lecompte; Eli Moore, deputy city marshal of Leavenworth: J.M. Lyle, chief clerk of the Shawnee legislature; D.J. Johnson, lawyer; Bennett Burnam, city surveyor; J.M. Alexander, a lawyer from Pennsylvania; J.C. Posey, a surveyor. I do not remember the names of any more.
The copy of the resolutions in the Howard Report has more names, but does not undertake to identify them. Lyle served as a judge of the special election on May 22. A. Payne, one of the committee’s witnesses, also signed it and at the time considered himself a member-elect of the territorial legislature in right of his election during the frauds of March. Whether one can pin down each name from the report or not, it’s clear that a substantial amount of influence backed the notice. These men had it in their power to make life difficult for him, lynching or no.
Per Warren, he and Phillips left on the third. Payne testifies that after the meeting where they decided how to deal with abolitionists in their midst that day, they
went to Mr. Phillips’ house again, and was told by his brother that he was not there. The committee retired, being satisfied that such was the fact.
That doesn’t make for much of a lynching. Phillips just left town and the mob considered their work done. Warren further testified, however, that in the evening he and Phillips came back to Leavenworth. He gives no reason other than the mob for their departing, so one imagines they hoped that by simply ducking the confrontation, Phillips would defuse things and thenceforward continue with his life. He can’t have expected to go unnoticed on his return, given his late notoriety and Leavenworth’s small population.
Payne, among others, spotted him:
I next saw Mr. Phillips the evening of the adjourned meeting, about dusk, in the city, near the Herald office. Some person, I don’t know who, remarked, in my hearing, that Phillips had deceived us, that he was now in town.