The proslavery party in Kansas wanted Andrew Reeder gone. They said as much in their main paper, the Atchison Squatter Sovereign. Franklin Pierce did too, even if the president appointed him in the first place. The governor’s commitment to the integrity of elections did not help him in the slightest. Nor did his plan to profit off making Pawnee, in all its splendor, the site of Kansas’ legislature. But they counted Reeder an enemy and threatened his life almost from his first day in Kansas. Forced to work with him or face his veto pen, would they decide that getting things done trumped holding a grudge? Reeder came into all of this avowing his neutrality and commitment to popular sovereignty, not doctrinaire abolitionism. He had not set aside all their stolen elections. They still had a majority when they met. Even if they hated the man personally, they had things they wanted to do and had their way almost all the time. Surely they could find some way to compromise?
They could sprout wings and fly away nearly as easily. Right after the stolen elections of March, the April 3 Squatter Sovereign declared victory over
The entire forces of Abolitionism, Reederism, Free-Soilism, and other isms combined, completely Routed. Kansas declared in favor of Slavery.
We have the satisfaction and pleasure of recording one of the most brilliant political victories ever accomplished by any party.
By this point, the Pennsylvania Democrat who started telling people that if not for the cost of slaves, he’d buy one and take it to Kansas himself had transformed, at least in the minds of many, into the personification of Abolition. Thus victory was not simply a defeat for Reeder, but for all he stood for. Why should they compromise? They won the elections. Nobody had elected Reeder, and probably no “true” Kansan cared for him. John Stringfellow, editor of the Sovereign and member-elect of the Kansas House, doesn’t sound like a man eager to cooperate.
Under the heading Governor Reeder’s Popularity, the Sovereign continues:
We venture the assertion, that out of the three hundred and forty-six votes polled at the precinct in this District, not five out of the number could be induced to endorse Gov Reeder. We have never seen in any community, such a feeling against an executive officer. What is the hardest, we have have no means of redress. Unlike the citizens in our neighboring States, we have no say-so in the selection of our officers, and have to put up with any broken down politician the President may saddle upon us. We look upon Gov. Reeder as the tail end of a miserable broken down set of politicians, who have been boring the President for office since his inaugural, and who was sent here to Kansas, to be killed off, and his supplications for office put an end to. Pierce looks upon Kansas as a political slaughter Pen, and free soil candidates for office of long standing, are assigned the Governorship of this territory with the understanding that the Administration is not responsible for life or limb. If the feeling against the Governor is not soon lulled, the storm will raise to such a pitch, that a vacancy in the Gubernatorial chair of Kansas will result.
This from the proslavery men in the full glow of their March victories, before Reeder even set aside an election. The illusion of near unanimity about Atchison faded fast, though. The very next item proclaims that the district’s free soilers
as a general thing, acted wise and kept away from the polls.
Two items down
Free-soilers are getting too numerous in our neighborhood. They must be “smoked out.”
Another telling admission appears in the next column, under the heading Reeder Beat at his own Game:
Mister Governor Reeder, after gerrymandering, swindling, cutting out, taking off, putting on, throwing in, and taking out of this District, has succeeded in getting his forces handsomely whipped.
To beat Reeder at his own game, in their own words, the proslavery party would need to engage in gerrymandering, swindling, and all the rest. And just in case Reeder missed the direct death threat previous, the Sovereign emphasized that his presence alone made him so obnoxious that they could barely help themselves. If Pierce would not free them from Reeder, then
God only knows what the consequences will be. We hope; we pray that we may be spared the necessity of such desparate measures; but, if we are left with the alternative of living under a despotic government or choosing a more honorable mode of freeing ourselves, we are plain to admit that we shall choose the latter course. In the language of Patrick Henry-“Give us liberty, or give us death.”
Preferably the death of Andrew Reeder, of course. One can’t read things like this and not see the winter of 1860-1861, or April 14, 1865. On the second of July, the man who published these words would even find himself in the same room with Reeder. What could go wrong?
When Andrew Reeder convened the legislature of Kansas at Pawnee on the second of July, 1855, in the middle of nowhere and in a building that lacked windows and doors, he can’t have expected manly hugs and mutual affirmations to define their working relationship. Almost everything Reeder had done in the territory alienated the proslavery party, which considered him an abolitionist. They had not shied away, at least in private but in ways that soon reached Reeder, threatened his life. Reeder took the matter seriously enough to have armed guards when he announced setting aside some of the stolen March elections and to leave his family in Pennsylvania when he returned to Kansas. But he had a job to do, and might have hoped that plying legislators with discounted shares in the Pawnee town association would sufficiently lubricate things. The proslavery men did, after all, still have an overwhelming majority in the Kansas Council and House of Representatives.
If Reeder had any such hopes, he can’t have taken seriously much of what reached his ears. For that matter, the Atchison Squatter Sovereign, under editors John H. Stringfellow (Benjamin’s brother, and a member-elect of the Kansas House.) and Robert Kelley (Who liked to tell people that he learned printing and hatred of Yankees in Boston.), devoted part of their April 3 issue to Reeder and celebrating their victories. The paper, boasting circulation over two thousand and declaring both “The Union – It Must Be Preserved” and “The South, and her Institutions” had this to say about the governor:
In forwarding to the Judges of the Election the names of the legal voters in this District, Gov. Reeder was careful to put on the list the name of no person south of Independence creek. Out of two hundred citizens of Atchison, we could not find one recorded upon that paper. Even we, who have not been out of the territory since the election of Whitfield, were not honored with a place on that precious document; but, through the kindness of the judges, we were allowed to deposit a vote in the same box that received the tickets of those whom the Governor appointed to do the entire voting of the District.
That all sounds very partisan and corrupt but, even if true, the paper reports that the facilities in place to fix the problem worked just fine. Given that the author knew that very well, this scans as more like a preemptive defense of the election stealing: of course the list of votes doesn’t match the census or poll books, Reeder cut them off the rolls! Nobody in Atchison would require such excuses, or fall for them, but people elsewhere in the country might. Immediately after boasting about their circulation numbers, the editors asked for support from the South at large for a year or two. A newspaper man has to eat, after all.
Lest anybody think the Squatter Sovereign took this imagined partiality as the cost of doing business, or endured it without complaint, the article immediately shifts to direct condemnation:
Such partiality in the Governor of a State or Territory is of too serious a nature to be permitted to pass unnoticed. if the present Administration does not look into the actions of this WORTHY official-judge him according to his works, and mete out his punishment accordingly, we shall be forced to admit, as has been charged, that it is as UNJUST and DISHONEST, as Reeder is ROTTEN and CORRUPT!
One wonders what the Pierce administration could possibly have done to make proslavery men feel betrayed, after handing them the Missouri Compromise repeal. Possibly Stringfellow or Kelley held a torch for Cuba. They might have also recalled the administration’s early embrace of keeping the compromise in place and resistance to the repeal plan, but those positions came and went quickly over the course of barely a week a year prior and ended with an outcome that the Sovereign’s editors personally enjoyed every day. People have held political resentments for less, if often in the course of expressing other and more serious grievances.
Andrew Reeder called Kansas territorial legislature to meet at Pawnee. The overwhelmingly proslavery body, stolen fair and square by the Missourians, did not particularly want to meet so far into Kansas and so far from Missouri. Nor did many of them thrill at the chance to heed Reeder’s summons and develop good working relationships with the man. By his own admission, some had threatened his life. That tends to make further interaction with people difficult.
Reeder earned their ire by not letting them have elections before any free soilers arrived in Kansas. He saw how they pick-pocketed the territory and made off with its delegate to Congress in the one election he did call early and so issued firm instructions to the judges of legislative elections back in March to exclude non-residents from voting. When those measures did not suffice, Reeder set aside some of the elections the Missourians stole and called new ones. Then he went off to Washington in hopes of getting support from Franklin Pierce to resist Missourian dominance of Kansas.
And now he had come back, without any real help from the president, and called the legislature to meet in the middle of nowhere. Reeder defended his choice on the grounds that distance would mitigate against Missourian intervention. Considering that the legislature wanted to meet virtually on the Missouri border at the Shawnee Mission, one can’t argue with the idea in principle. But Reeder had his personal interest in Pawnee. According to his testimony, the town association gave him a few shares in their venture when he toured the territory. Robert Wilson, who sold him some shares, thought him one of the original stockholders. Either way
Prior to the time that the seat of government was located at Pawnee, Governor Reeder tried to get an interest in the real estate property about there, and made several claims for his friends in Pennsylvania.
Those efforts paid off:
Governor Reeder had a claim of about eighty acres near Pawnee, and was interested in one or two other claims. His nephew, Col. Hutter, had a claim near town. It was some time in February, 1855, that I first heard Governor Reeder speak about locating the capital at Pawnee. I had heard that spoken of before then, but not by him. He spoke of it after he had become interested in the town, and the real estate near there.
Wilson also told the Howard Committee that Reeder coveted the claim of a Mr. Dickinson. The association raised $1,200 to buy him out. As a shareholder in the association, some of that money probably came straight from Reeder’s own pocket. He expected to see it back with the business and settlement that the territorial capital would draw out to the middle of nowhere. But the legislature might not oblige. Reeder had a plan to grease those wheels:
Governor Reeder said to me that we ought to sell shares to the members of the legislature for less than we would to other persons, so that the capitol might remain at Pawnee. I sold Judge Johnson five shares in that way, and with that understanding. I sold Governor Reeder some twenty shares, but I cannot say as it was with any such understanding as that.
Reeder might have bought those additional shares with the intention of selling them at the discounted rate himself. Absent access to his papers, I can’t say. The fact remains that he very clearly chose Kansas capital with an eye to his personal profit. Wilson describes Pawnee very clearly as not an obvious place to locate a government:
Pawnee is a little south of west from here, some 125 miles on the extreme western borders of the population of this Territory, and will not be the center of population unless we get a railroad.
A railroad could change many things, and Kansas had to look like a good spot for one, but no one could miss that the Pacific railroad languished in Congress for years by this point.
Reeder argued that he had to seat the government at Pawnee because the town, meaning himself and his partners, had spent a lot of money preparing the place. When the legislature arrived, Reeder said, they found
The building in which they assembled was of stone, two stories high, about forty feet by eight, well provided with seats and writing-tables. Ample accommodations for boarding and lodging existed in the town
He went on to name four boarding houses which together could serve as many as a hundred and ten people, though he admitted one of these stood two miles from town.
Wilson told a different story
The house of the association has never been finished, and has no windows or doors in it; that is the house the legislature met in.
I don’t know about Reeder, but I suspect that most people then and now would feel the presence of seats and writing tables did not much distract from the absence of windows and doors. Even in summer one might want those, and one certainly would come winter.
Andrew Reeder’s real estate dealings have hung over a few posts without further explanation. I hoped to find a better source than those I have on hand, but have so far failed. I’ve got a copy of Alice Nichols’ Bleeding Kansas in the mail that may shed more light, but it might not arrive until the middle of November. What follows comes from Reeder’s and other testimony in the Howard Report, Etcheson’s Bleeding Kansas: Contested Liberty in the Civil War Era, and Nevins’ Ordeal of the Union, Volume Two.
Reeder himself begins the account with his visit to Franklin Pierce. The president
stated that the most pertinacious complaints of me had been made to him, and the most urgent demands had been made for my removal upon every ground that could be got up; that Gen. Atchison pressed it in the most excited manner, and would listen to no reasoning at all.
Atchison’s involvement speaks volumes. Bourbon Dave had no trouble stirring up others to go steal elections, and even coming with them to watch, but corrupt land deals? There he drew the line. One had to have some standards. To hear Reeder tell it
As to the charges of purchasing Indian lands and interests in towns, he said he was entirely satisfied as to the former, that it was all fair and honorable, and that hundreds had done so before me-ridiculed Mr. Manypenny’s objection to it, and said he had rebuked him when he talked to him of it; he was, nevertheless, sorry under the circumstances of this case, that I had many any purchases, as they made a pretext for my enemies to annoy him with demands for my removal.
Manypenny served as Indian Commissioner. He had negotiated the cessation of Indian lands back in 1853 which helped grease the Kansas-Nebraska wheels and drew controversy then due to his close relationship with prominent southerners and how he managed, surely by pure accident, to not extinguish Indian title to lands in Nebraska suited to a Pacific railroad. He had the job of reviewing purchases like Reeder’s, and in the governor’s case made
a most violent and high-tempered report against them upon the grounds of unfairness, as well as of technical want of conformity to the rules of the department.
This all happened back in January, by which time Atchison had let everyone know that he wanted Reeder gone. Reeder certainly looks bad in all of this, but Manypenny likewise looks short of disinterested and innocent. It sounds like Reeder tried to improperly buy Indian lands reserved, in the language of the time, to the “half-breed Kaw.” He apparently examined the land in the guise of his official business, which may have made the corruption harder still to deny. The War Department later found his partner in the deal, an officer, guilty of “irregularities” in buying the land. Manypenny’s objection probably came on both material and political grounds.
Which brings us to Pawnee. Aside the investments in building the place up for the legislature, which Reeder had an interest in, the governor cited its distance from Missouri as the chief appeal. This prompted considerable controversy:
as soon as it was ascertained or suspected that I would call the legislature together at that place, it was at once assailed through the press and otherwise to break it down; that a free-State population recently had commenced settling in and around it; that it was obvious its natural advantages would attract emigrants; that its distance from Missouri would constitute a great objection to the projectors and friends of the foreign invasion of our Territory, whilst the same reasons would,l in a few years, make it a rallying point for northern men, and draw about it a large settlement; that this was foreseen by the Missourians, and hence their hostility to it and their determination to break it up; that I had been informed by a reputable and credible citizen of Missouri that General Atchison had written to General [Secretary of War Jefferson] Davis on the subject, and that difficulties had been started in regard to the military reserve of Fort Riley, and as to a dispute between the commanding officer there and a couple of intruders, which had so resulted that the War Department had declared it, wrongly as I believed, within the military reservation, that after a number of houses had been erected, besides a large hall for the meeting of the legislature, and after it was known throughout the States that my proclamation had convened the legislature there.
Reeder paints this as a kind of convoluted misunderstanding. He designated Pawnee the seat of government, knowing it had a fort nearby. Fort Riley had a military reserve which nobody had yet surveyed. Some settlers, before all of this, had come in and received permission to set up a town near to the fort but on land not within the unsurveyed reserve. Much the same had happened previously with Leavenworth, the military reserve’s boundaries running around the town but not quite intruding thereafter. Reeder had nothing to do with it until he arrived in the area on his tour of the territory. He and his party then received shares in the Pawnee town association as a gift. He hadn’t meant to speculate in federal lands; mistakes happen.
Conflicts over land, especially land still waiting on a proper survey, recur throughout the American frontier. Abraham Lincoln’s father removed from Kentucky to Indiana in hopes of getting more secure title to land than he could hope for south of the Ohio. The question on Pawnee seems to come down to whether Reeder made a mistake, or a “mistake”. He came to Kansas as a first-time participant in such matters, which argues for the former, but his education as a lawyer argues for the latter. His continued insistence on Pawnee rather than another settlement distant from Missouri, further argues that he had his personal profit in mind. More on that tomorrow.
Andrew Reeder set off for Washington, hoping to secure proclamations against election-stealing Missourian border ruffians, instructions for federal officials in Kansas to oppose them, and publicity for their outrages on the white man’s democracy. If he could get it, he would also take orders for the military to step in and preserve order. Two weeks of consultation produced from Franklin Pierce only condemnations of antislavery agitation and a promise that if he fired Reeder, he would do it on account of Reeder’s land dealings rather than his stand in favor of clean elections. Pierce’s response came from his own disposition, his likely personal impotence within the adminstration, the hard political environment it faced given the Democracy’s losses in the 1854 elections, and deep-rooted ideological commitments. Reeder might not have known that at the time, given his own political inexperience, but he asked far more than most presidents would care to give in such circumstances.
Reeder left his family behind in Pennsylvania and returned to Kansas, arriving on June 24. While the Kansas-Nebraska Act designated Fort Leavenworth as the territory’s temporary capital, Reeder had the authority to call the legislature where he liked. The law also granted him the finances to make his decision a reality:
That there shall hereafter be appropriated, as has been customary for the territorial governments, a sufficient amount, to be expended under the direction of the said Governor of the Territory of Kansas, not exceeding the sums heretofore appropriated for similar objects, for the erection of suitable public buildings at the seat of government, and for the purchase of a library, to be kept at the seat of government for the use of the Governor, Legislative Assembly, Judges of the Supreme Court, Secretary, Marshal, and Attorney of said Territory, and such other persons, and under such regulations, as shall be prescribed by law.
That revenue would go a long way out on the frontier, and draw other money along with it when the legislators all arrived and needed lodging, food, and facilities. The value of any nearby land would wax accordingly. The people of Kansas’ various towns thus had an intense personal interest, completely aside any political concerns, in where Reeder would locate the seat of government. They had lobbied accordingly, as Reeder testifies in the Howard Report:
About the time of the decision of the returns of the election the members elect then assembled requested that I should convene them at the Shawnee Mission, which I could not consent to do, inasmuch as the Pawnee Association had already expended considerable money in the erection of their building, and because I did not consider the Shawnee Mission a suitable place for their meeting.
Reeder doesn’t say, but one wonders if they asked him at that tense meeting where he announced setting aside some of the elections from March. He then resided at Shawnee Mission and there
had frequent conversations with them, and they strenuously denied my right to go behind the returns made by the judges of the election, or investigate in any way the legality of the election. A committee called upon me and presented a paper, signed by twenty-three or twenty-four of them, to the same effect. Threats of violence against my person and life were freely afloat in the community, and the same threats were reported to me as having been made by members elect in their private caucus.
One can’t blame Reeder for a reluctance to transact business there, especially as almost anything he would likely do with the overwhelmingly proslavery legislature stood a strong chance of only further aggravating them against him. Did he want to end up like William Phillips? The Mission did not sit all that far from Westport, after all. To reach Pawnee, one had to traverse the settled length of Kansas. This had to seem like a better choice.
That said, many other communities in Kansas could have served just as well. Reeder insisted on the thriving metropolis of Pawnee instead, which a year later receives this stirring recommendation in the Howard Report:
There are about three houses in Pawnee now; two of them owned by me, and one by the association. Two of them are not occupied, and one is occupied by the chaplain of the military post there.
Even without foreknowledge that Reeder involved himself in land speculation, on would have to find his fixation on Pawnee decidedly odd.
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.