“They will kill you if you go” The Capture of Charles Robinson, Part One

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

The Hunt for Andrew Reeder: parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6

Reeder’s diary is in Transactions of the Kansas State Historical Society, Volume 3

We left Andrew Reeder on the lam in Kansas City. A proslavery mob had come to his hotel in search of George Washington Brown, editor of the Herald of Freedom. They didn’t seem to know that Kansas’ free state delegate to Congress hid out under the same roof, though some thought to look for him all the same. A mob narrowly missed both men and lingered around the building for some time before dispersing. They must have thought Brown and/or Reeder still present, as they set watchers on the building before leaving. Reeder spent the night without so much as a candle in his room.

Tuesday, May 13, 1856 brought bad news. Charles Robinson and his wife, Sara, had left Kansas ahead of Reeder. Neither took the precaution of a disguise. According to the Governor’s Kansas Conflict they carried with them, on the advice of Howard and Sherman of the Committee,

the testimony already taken by the Congressional Committee as there was great danger that it might be seized and destroyed.

The Robinsons assumed that, since no indictment had yet come for them specifically, they could probably get clear of Kansas without trouble. They left by way of Missouri, which brought them to trouble. It happened that a proslavery convention had lately finished its work at Lexington, which Robinson believed involved planning for a new invasion of Kansas. The convention knew or suspected that Robinson would soon have an indictment against him.

The free state’s first family made their way through Kansas city without incident, boarding a steamboat there. The Governor took a nap and

was thus occupied when on arriving at Lexington he was aroused by loud raps at the door of his room. On opening it he was confronted by some gentlemen, who informed him they were appointed a committee to notify him that he must leave the boat at that place.

Robinson had come as far as Lexington, Missouri but would go no farther. They believed him a fugitive and intended his arrest. The Governor protested that he knew of no indictment against him and had not traveled under any subterfuge. Fugitives simply don’t behave like that. Improvising, Robinson tried to get up a mob. He learned that the boat housed many people “drinking freely” and asked to plead his case to them. Should the Governor convince the mob, then they would protect him.

That asked a great deal of a mob in Missouri’s slave country, but Robinson had few options. The committee come to arrest him refused to let him try, claiming that mobs would listen to no reason and the reason of a known antislavery man least of all.

It appearing that force would be used if necessary, Robinson referred the matter to Mrs. Robinson, whether use such means of defense as he had-one revolver-or to go with the committee, when she promptly replied, “They will kill you if you go, and you may as well make a stand here.”

 

 

Jim Crow Comes to Michigan

Gentle Readers, the triumphant story of the Civil Rights Movement ends in 1965 with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Jim Crow died there, stabbed through the heart by Lyndon Johnson’s pen. Black Americans henceforth had protection against state governments that acted more as their jailers than their servants. Their laws did not say, in so many words, that no black person could cast a vote but the men who wrote them made sure it worked out that way. To grant the vote to subhumans would degrade actual people who, our most ancient creed holds, come exclusively in white skin. The Supreme Court has gotten at the law, cutting away many of its substantial protections. We must now believe that some states with a history of racial discrimination -a trait all fifty share- do not require special attention. As a result those same states have rushed to erect numerous obstructions to casting a vote, closing more than eight hundred polling places and writing laws against the phantom of voter impersonation fraud which they design to ensure black Americans don’t vote. The laws will not catch every black voter, of course, but they can swing close elections. Furthermore, their mere presence serves as a deterrent.

My state has had voter ID on the books since the Nineties. I disagreed with it then, on the grounds that the fraud it’s claimed to protect happens so rarely that these measures clearly constitute a solution looking for a problem. Even if someone went around to multiple polling places to cast votes under assumed names, complete with the correct addresses remembered on the spot and the person they posed as didn’t show up before or later and cast suspicion on the ballot by doing so, microscopic vote margins happen so rarely and unpredictably even in local races that they amount to statistical noise. An individual could cast no more than a handful of fake votes. As soon as you get enough people to really make a difference, things look more like territorial Kansas. Everybody who knows anything about elections already knows this.

But Michigan requires you to have identification so every time I go with my driver’s license in hand. I present it to one of my father’s old coworkers, a man who used to live less than a block from me. We know each other by sight. He passes it to his wife, who knows me just as well. They scan the license and compare my address and name with their records to discover, quelle surprise, I am who they thought I am. Then they mark my name off and hand me a ballot. The license adds no great security to the rest, but it does cost money and one has to go out and get a new one every now and then. If I lost my license or it was damaged and I could not get a new one before election day, I would have to swear an affidavit that I had the right to vote in my precinct and then proceed. More than eighteen thousand of my fellow Michigan residents did that this month. While not ideal, and clearly intended to deprive people of less means of their chance to vote, they state government hasn’t gotten all it paid for from this system. Black Michiganders still vote.

The Republicans who control the state government have had quite enough of that. The Party of Lincoln, founded in this state, has decided to throw in with Jefferson Davis and George Wallace. They insist that if you don’t have your ID, even if you have the right name and address and the risk of someone impersonating a voter is astronomically rare and unlikely to ever matter without being obvious to the dullest observer, you should have to cast a provisional ballot. They will cast it in the trash, only to rescue it if you provide your ID within ten days. In other words, if you have the misfortune of lacking an ID on election day you have less than two weeks to get fortunate enough, find out where and how you can prove your bona fides, and then get your vote counted long after the outcome has been announced.

Maybe people will do that, but the Michigan GOP hopes they will not. They have dug this law out of a drawer somewhere, in the lame duck session immediately after the election just as they did when they voted to eviscerate the right to unionize in our state. Now they rush to get it passed before opposition can mount. I suspect that, while their gerrymandering will keep them in control of the legislature, they worry about the governor’s race in 2018. Their incumbent poisoned thousands of black people, after all. Those people have families and friends who will vote, probably not for whoever they run for the top spot in the state.

This should remind us that Jim Crow disenfranchised black Americans by the millions because of their race, but also because of how they would vote. The Democratic party that erected the whole edifice knew full well that the freedpeople and their descendants would remember what party freed them and stood up for their rights. In much of the postwar South, if black men could vote then they would decide elections. In still more areas, they would have numbers enough to force white politicians to court their support or see it go to an opponent. We must remember segregation as a racial injustice, but we should not forget that racism doesn’t come down to pseudoscientific theories about superiority. Rather we invented white supremacy to justify an existing political and economic order against challenges to it. In suppressing the vote so they can keep winning elections, Republicans in Michigan and across the country have not departed from our most deadly creed; they have renewed it.

Trouble in Kansas City: The Hunt for Andrew Reeder, Part Six

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

With news of proslavery forces preparing for another march against Lawrence, and word that complying with the subpoena that Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury issued for him might end in his death, Andrew Reeder had quite enough of Kansas for the nonce. His planned escape changed routes repeatedly over the night of May 9-10, 1856. In the end, Kansas’ first governor and present free state delegate to Congress hid out in a house a mile south of Lawrence. He remained closeted there on the tenth, receiving news that whatever posse meant to take him had not appeared.

Reeder and three companions finally got going at nine at night, hoping to get past Westport, Missouri, before daybreak. Showing his face there would surely cause him trouble. Running late, they stayed the night at the home of a man called Fish and took the additional precaution of hiding the horses and carriage. The next day, Sunday,

Many persons passed, through the day, and stopped; among them Milt. M’Gee, who would have given his whole team to know who was up stairs.

I can only imagine how nerve-wracking Reeder must have found that. Sit up as silently as you can, hearing people come and go and knowing one misstep might put him into the hands of men bent on his murder. But he endured, set out again that night, and made it to Kansas City around two in the morning. There G.P. Lowrey and a Colonel Eldridge had a room ready, though Reeder says they had “dangerous neighbors across the passage.”

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

A boat arrived at Kansas City on Monday, the twelfth. George Washington Brown came on it, fleeing his own arrest for running the Herald of Freedom. They had word that a mob might form to take Brown, though if they wanted him then they probably wouldn’t mind Reeder as a bonus. Reeder changed rooms to avoid them.

A mob of 30 or 40 assembled, headed by Milt. M’Gee, who came into the hotel, and going by mistake to O.C. Brown’s room, they dragged him out and took him down town-discovered their error and let him go. Col. Eldridge came up and informed me, that I might be prepared. Sent out for about 50 Michigan emigrants, who had come up to-day and camped near town.

A marshal involved himself then, forming a posse against the mob. Reeder gives frustratingly little detail on that. His marshal sounds like local constabulary rather than a federal marshal. Given he held a public position in Westport, he probably didn’t lean antislavery. He may have intervened on the grounds of public order, particularly if he knew in advance that the mob had the wrong Brown.

Eldridge told Reeder that the mob didn’t know about or suspect they had him near to hand; they just wanted Brown. The delegate doesn’t seem so confident of that. At one point

Looking out of my front windows, however, I saw and heard M’Gee, H.C. Pate, —– Winchester, —– Brockett, and another, in conversation, and Pate was instructing a man to go in and look for someone, and describing me, so that from what I heard I recognized the description.

Regardless, the mob didn’t care to pick a fight with the marshal’s posse, “suddenly” departing. Yet

In the evening it was found that men were posted all around the house to prevent any escapes – all over the hill back of the house and in the hacks and wagons in front, besides those walking up and down the street.

“With a borrowed overcoat and cap” The Hunt for Andrew Reeder, Part Five

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

On Thursday, May 8, 1856, Andrew Reeder met with some friends in Lawrence. He had planned to accept his arrest while Charles Robinson bolted Kansas to raise money and arms for the free state government’s defense. Kansas’ first governor changed his mind on learning that if he went to Lecompton, he might not make it out alive. He wrote to Governor Shannon and Judge Lecompte asking that they guarantee his safety in exchange for cooperation.

Reeder’s concern for his life must have grown still further when a new rumor came in

that the enemy were ordered to muster at Lecompton, and had scouts out over the country, and that men were prepared to come from Kickapoo and Atchison, most of them Missourians, of course.

The Missourians at arms would have stronger resolve than the small posse that had tried to take Reeder before. Lawrence could outnumber a dozen or so men without trouble, but not thousands as might come over the border again. Particularly as Reeder learned that Lawrence had a mere “ten kegs of powder … and only 200 Sharps’ rifles.” Five thousand cartridges on hand meant that those rifles wouldn’t soon go silent, but they still numbered only two hundred, with three cannons to back them.

Friday, May 10, Charles and Sarah Robinson quit Lawrence “openly,” leaving the free state government to Lieutenant Governor Roberts. Reeder got word from Shannon and Lecompte. He found Shannon’s answer “unsatisfactory.” Lecompte wrote only to say he would give no answer. With that news, Reeder decided he had best get out of Lawrence before it fell under siege. He

left in a buggy with Lyman Allen, and with a borrowed overcoat and cap, drove to the ravine and walked down its bed to E.W. Clark’s, where [he] remained secreted all day.

While Reeder hid, the free state militias gathered around Lawrence and posted guards on the road to Lecompton. Three hundred had come by the evening. Friends called on Reeder at Clark’s, including William Howard of the Committee and Lieutenant Governor Roberts. The luminaries visited Reeder in hiding apparently to convince him to get out of Kansas, arguing that his absence would avert battle. G.P. Lowrey offered the use of a skiff and horses to get Reeder to Nebraska, but he decided to go by way of Topeka. Further consultation prompted Reeder to opt for a westerly route. About midnight he went back to Lawrence to make the necessary arrangements. The delegate spent the remainder of the night in a house a mile south of town.

 

“If he arrested me, he did so at his peril” The Hunt for Andrew Reeder, Part Four

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Parts 1, 2, 3

A Mr. Fain, late of Georgia, had a grand jury subpoena for Andrew Reeder, Kansas’ first governor and present delegate to Congress under the free state government. He took it to Reeder on the evening of May 7, 1856. The delegate decided that he didn’t care for an arrest just then, pointed to irregularities in the warrant, and sent Fain on his way. The next afternoon, he saw Fain in Lawrence. Reeder’s “Georgia friend” came to town with an armed posse. He went upstairs to speak with Mordechai Oliver, the Howard Committee’s lone proslavery member.

He soon came into the room and informed me he had an attachment for me.

The room in question housed the committee’s proceedings. They had gotten to their fourth witness of the day and eighty-seventh overall, Joseph Steward. He had information for them on the elections for the Kansas legislature. Reeder declared, as he had the day before, that he had privilege from arrest thanks to his status as Kansas’ delegate to Congress and asked the committee to protect him. The Howard Committee had that power and Congress had sent them to Kansas with a sergeant-at-arms specifically so they could arrest anybody who tried to interfere with their business and haul the guilty party off to Washington for contempt of Congress proceedings.

But Reeder tells that the committee felt otherwise:

They decided they had no power to interfere, but Howard and Sherman expressed a positive opinion in favor of my privilege from arrest; Oliver differing from them on that point. I then stated how I was privileged, made a full explanation, and declared that I would protect myself, and warned the officer that if he arrested me, he did so at his peril.

That sufficed; Fain took Reeder at his word and departed. He had a posse with him, but may not have wanted to seize Reeder in front of the congressmen. Given how well Sheriff Jones’ arrest attempt had gone for him not that long ago, and Fain’s previously-expressed concern for his safety probably played a major role in his decision. Jones got shot while in the company of United States soldiers and Fain lacked such an exalted bodyguard.

Reeder’s travail did not end there. He and the free state leadership agreed that Reeder should submit to arrest in time, which would put him in Lecompton without bail for at least six months. The delegate got word that if he went, he would be “in danger of nightly assassination and daily insult.” Given the option between fighting the good fight, either in Kansas or Congress, and risking his life “in some miserable dog-hole”, he would rather pass on the latter. That evening he wrote to Governor Shannon and Lecompte promising that if he had their guarantee of safety and ability to return to his work on the committee at the end of his questioning, he would come before the grand jury as required. He did that on the advice of unnamed friends and likewise mulled with them whether he should wait on an answer, ready to fight it out if the posse came, or quit Kansas.

Reeder’s friends came to no consensus for him save that if the US military got involved, as they had on Jones’ behalf, he must submit.

“I was not yet ready to be arrested for treason” The Hunt for Andrew Reeder, Part Three

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Parts 1, 2

We left Andrew Reeder, Charles Robinson, and probably the antislavery members of the Howard Committee. They had news of indictments handed down against Reeder, Robinson, and most everyone else who held office in the illegal free state government of Kansas territory. They agreed that Reeder should submit to arrest, as his national reputation would make him an ideal rallying point for the free state party’s friends abroad. Robinson should get out of Kansas and set to work raising money, men, and guns. It might come to armed rebellion at last. If it did, the free state men resolved to fight it out and hope for the destruction of the proslavery territorial government. They had to act soon, or Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury would have the entire leadership imprisoned before the fall elections.

Reeder’s diary puts this all as happening on May 7, 1856, a Wednesday. Next, “toward evening” a Georgian named Fain called on Reeder and “very politely” told the delegate that he had a subpoena for him.

I requested him to let me see it, and he handed me a copy. On looking at it I discovered that it was very irregular in form, and, as I was not yet ready to be arrested for treason, I determined not to obey it. I accordingly so informed the officer, giving, as the reasons, my privilege as Delegate in Congress, and the informality of the subpena.

The Congress itself hadn’t decided on whether or not Reeder had any privilege as delegate, but he persuaded Fain not to make an issue of it. Instead the Georgian took his leave and came on Reeder’s grand jury informant, James Legate. Fain asked Legate where he might find Charles Robinson. Legate told him that Robinson had gone off to Topeka. Fain felt sure enough in Tecumseh, but Topeka worried him. He asked if he could go and conduct his business there in safety.

Legate mischievously told him he did not know, that he must run his own risks, which so alarmed the Georgian that he at once turned back to Lecompton. The same evening we went back to Topeka; stayed till after breakfast the next day.

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

Reeder doesn’t say it in so many words, and Robinson declines to note his movements in detail, but it sounds like Legate told Fain that Robinson had gone while the governor remained nearby. Reeder’s “we” might or might not include the governor, but he says that Fain “was told” Robinson had gone rather than that the governor actually had.

Possible Delegate Reeder found himself back in Lawrence later on May 8. There he continued his work representing the free state side before the Howard Committee, starting at two in the afternoon. He didn’t shake Fain for long, though. He reports that he

saw my Georgia friend of yesterday come in and go up stairs for a consultation with Major Oliver, and some friends; had a small posse with him, all armed.

How to be a white supremacist

Gentle Readers, let’s talk white supremacy. We do that almost all the time here, but usually in the context of other things. That makes it easy to let some details slip through the cracks. I think most Americans get the most basic idea: whites come first, everyone else possesses debatable humanity. I realized a few weeks back, in the course of talking with others, that I ought to pay more attention to the myriad ways that simple idea wends its way through our lives.

Most people would probably agree that an individual who expresses belief in the racial superiority of whites or the inferiority of non-whites to whites counts as white supremacist. The guy in the brown shirt with the red armband and the other guy in the white hood believe things like that. We have agreed, at least in mixed company, that this makes them monstrous. They believe in horrible things and countenance historical atrocities and present injustices which we righteously condemn. They have no fit place in polite society and we have an obligation to do what we can to contain them and limit the harm they do, so far as we can do so and remain faithful to other vital principles. If they wheel out racist pseudoscience, whether vintage nineteenth century or the more recent sort, that makes them a hard case. Sometimes they receive a kinder hearing than they should, but mostly the convention holds. We should call those people out and keep to our norms. Such clear expressions of racial hatred serve as calls to action and precursors for new horrors. People may do harm with or without our saying so, but they will understand silence as permission.

We do not, however much we may wish otherwise, live in a world where villainy so eagerly announces itself. Admitting that puts us in a bind. In making those who express open racial animus into pariahs, exiled by their deplorable ideas, we easily slip into a second corollary. Something we consider so vile, we cannot imagine occurring with any great frequency. We imagine racists as freaks, so different that we can’t imagine knowing them. We have made racism into a crime near unto murder, yet with no victims. Someone far away or long ago did horrible things, but we finished that and now we have sad, hateful remnants who don’t really warrant our attention. Racism simultaneously counts for a great deal and doesn’t matter at all. It then makes no sense for us to go looking for it.

By we, I must clarify, I mean myself and other white Americans. We have the luxury of these conventions written on our skin. Their costs we carve into the lives of others. I have done it myself more times than I care to remember. We have arranged our civilization to let us do it without thinking, but even when we choose thoughtlessly, we still choose. Suffer me this story to illustrate:

The worst physical injury I have yet endured came when two boys pushed me down on the playground. I landed with my left hand forward. Rather than catching myself, the radius and ulna both broke. My hand drove up between them and one of the bones lay lengthwise across the back of it. The doctors told us that I had one of the worst fractures they ever treated without operating. It still hurts when it gets cold sometimes, almost a quarter century later. I can’t imagine many people I have actually met whom I have cause to like less than those two boys, who suffered no punishment for doing it. But I have known since the day it happened that they did not come at me thinking that they would break my bones and leave me with occasional pain for decades after. They set out to shove me away, perhaps to the ground, but not to rearrange my skeleton.

Some part of that day will always be in the present tense for me. Others have suffered far worse with a grace I can’t muster; I don’t write this to ask your sympathy for childhood pains. Rather hope you can understand that what those boys meant to do on the playground didn’t matter. Their not meaning to hurt me did not preserve me from harm. No amount of good intentions saved my bones and spared me fleeting pain. Even had they simply bumped into me in the hall, not meaning to lay a hand on me, the bones got broken. I felt, and sometimes still feel, the pain of the moment. That matters. We live with the things done to us in flesh and blood far more than we ever will the intentions that drove them.

We can perform white supremacist actions without conscious intention to do so; I know I have. We can say, perhaps honestly, that we didn’t mean it. People get hurt all the same. I maintain that we do so more often than not, habitually privileging the interests, concerns, and ultimately the lives of white Americans above those of anybody else. The people of Flint have poison coming out of their faucets because white people chose to allow it. They suffer not an iota less if we meant otherwise. The government of Michigan, my state, poisoned them all. It has lately appealed a court ruling that the state must deliver that water to residents, rather than make them come to collect their daily rations. No one made the state file that appeal; they chose it, knowing that the less accessible they make drinking water the more likely they are to force the residents to use the poison flowing from their taps all the same. Flint has a majority black population. A mostly white government with a mostly white constituency prefers poisoning them to supplying them with basic necessities, even when that government has only itself to blame for the poisoning.

Say that the people of Michigan did not vote for this. (We didn’t, though when we voted as we did we could reasonably have expected a cavalier attitude toward black lives.) Say that the state government did not mean for it to happen or didn’t know it could. (They knew.) It doesn’t matter. Flint’s residents of all ages got to drink poison all the same. Pleading good intentions will not change that, though it does an admirable job of distracting us from white supremacy in grotesque operation.

Keeping on the theme of water, an oil company wants to build a pipeline through North Dakota. It would have run right by Bismarck, the state capital. The people there believed that this would put their drinking water at risk. Oil does tend to spill; pipes do fail. In response to the concerns of Bismark’s people, which we can all understand, the pipeline got rerouted through a Sioux reservation, Standing Rock. The Sioux, who know something about living on the business end of genocide for the past few centuries, objected too. They would also prefer that they and their children did not drink poison, as well as that an oil pipeline not run through their sacred lands. For some time now they have conducted a large, peaceful protest against the construction, to which the police have responded with violence. That includes spraying water on the protesters at night, in November on the high plains, which ought to count as lethal force all by itself.

I understand that many people stand to make a great deal of money off this pipeline, including the man who lost the late presidential election. But when the people of Bismarck objected to the route endangering their water, plans changed. Ninety percent of the people who live in that city can boast white skin, which goes a long way. The Sioux cannot, so they get to have their children poisoned and their holy places despoiled. Their resistance, not that of Bismarck, brought down the heavy hand of the law. Here, as in Flint and as we do in countless other times and places, people made a decision. White children don’t deserve poisoned water. No one will drive a pipeline through one of Bismarck’s churches. The Sioux have no such immunity. Their concerns, lives, and culture don’t count any more than the people of Flint do.

It may be that some of the people who made the decisions for Flint and North Dakota exulted at the thought of afflicting minorities. If I have learned anything from the research I do for this blog, I have learned to never underestimate the power of pure malice. But it doesn’t matter if they acted with depraved hearts, they did what they did. We can’t know fully the minds of others, however much we try, but they write their actions on the bodies of their victims. The rest of us must make our own choices then. Even if we can’t follow every issue and understand each controversy, we decide when they come before us. We can refuse to allow such things to happen in our name or we can turn away and tell stories about well-meaning mistakes and oversights, reducing those genuinely harmed to an irrelevant detail. A band of neo-Nazis or Klansmen might harm people by the score, but all of us standing by play our part in far greater crimes. A gang can kill dozens or hundreds; policy, silent assent, and willful blindness reach millions.

“We will wipe out the damned Territorial Government” The Hunt for Andrew Reeder, Part Two

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

James F. Legate served on Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury. After they voted to arrest the free state leadership and destroy the Free State Hotel and suppress Kansas’ antislavery papers, he went to warn Kansas’ former governor and present free state delegate to congress, Andrew Reeder. Reeder and the leadership put their heads together at Lawrence and decided that they might soon need to fight with guns as well as words. They made emergency plans to call together the state legislature to bulk up their institutions and endow them with a stronger legal basis. Governor Charles Robinson would go East “to raise men and arms”. Except for the travel plans, Robinson already did that job as the Emigrant Aid Company’s agent in Kansas. Reeder would stay behind and submit to arrest, his high profile making him the ideal choice for public relations.

They talked about organizing the militia and how armed resistance might soon come, but what came next seems less clear:

We did not determine what we would do as a last resort in case the General Government took the field against us, and gave us the alternative of backing our or levying war against them. This would not be the silly sham treason for which indictments are found now, but actual treason at least in the latter, although as holy and glorious in spirit as the dawn of the Revolution of ’76. Robinson declares that at least we will wipe out the d—-d Territorial Government absolutely and effectually, and to this we all assented.

In one respect, this demonstrates a shift in free state thought. They might actually go to war with the United States, a course they had refused to consider in public or private. To hear it from Robinson, the most peaceable of the group, speaks volumes. His own version, which includes Sherman and Howard in the discussion, differs slightly:

there was a possibility of a general conflict of arms; that should it be impossible to avoid such conflict without a surrender of the Free-State cause, it must be met, and if met the Free-State men should take issue rather in defense of the State organization than offensively against the territorial.

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Robinson stresses the contingency of the choice for arms more than Reeder does, but he agrees in substance. The free state governor might prefer peace, out of conviction, disposition, or circumstance, but he had asked the legislature to vote up an army and stood high in the ranks of the Kansas Legion. Battle with the United States would put them on new and much more dangerous ground, but free state militias had already mustered to fight border ruffians. In contemplating the Union itself, at least in Kansas, as an instrument of the slave power deserving forcible resistance they put themselves in line with the rescuers of fugitive slaves and diehard abolitionists in just the way they had vigorously denied only months before.

 

 

“Perhaps I should better be arrested” The Hunt for Andrew Reeder, Part One

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Samuel Lecompte’s grand jury ordered the arrest of the free state leadership, which brought their plight to a new low. Mobs had come to destroy them back in December, but that time Governor Shannon brokered a peace. He ought to have done, considering he did his best to get the border ruffians to Lawrence to start with. Now the free state men faced down the territorial judiciary. They had long feared such a confrontation, probably all the way back to the passage of the laws against antislavery politics. According to Andrew Reeder’s diary, which may benefit from some hindsight, they had the sense that the chances of legal action had lately increased. Reeder reports that on May 6, after seeing witnesses with the Howard Committee, he had tea and then returned home alone through the woods. He considered that a “rather imprudent” choice. The arrest orders went out on the day previous, though he didn’t know at the time.

The next day, Reeder again attended the Howard Committee. They adjourned at four in the afternoon and Reeder

Learned from the best authority (a grand juror and others) that the plan we had so often heard of was about being carried out, to paralyze the Free-State party; that the grand jury now in session at Lecompton had been charged by the court [….] that not only all the officers of the State Government, but all the judges of election, were indictable.

Reeder says that similar things had happened previously, but no one had pressed the case and drunken jurors lost the indictments in the street. Lecompte, who Reeder calls “a man of frivolous mind, little ability, less integrity, great perversity and indolence, and limited knowledge of the law” had presided over that court as well. Fortunately, grand juror James F. Legate, went to warn Reeder.

Armed with the news, Reeder met with Governor Robinson and Lieutenant Governor Roberts to decide how to respond. Recognizing a decapitation strike when they saw one, they resolved to move against it. Reeder tells of plans to summon the free state legislature before the proslavery men could arrest the lot. The legislature could then establish a court to order the other territorial court to release any men taken. On the more plausible and practical front, this likely presaged a clash of arms. Thus

It is agreed also that some one shall go East to raise men and arms to prepare for this emergency, and for several reasons that Robinson would better go, after issuing his proclamation for the Legislature to assemble, leaving Roberts to act in his place. I suggested that I would like to have them try one of their indictments for treason on me, and that perhaps I should better be arrested.

Samuel Lecompte

Samuel Lecompte

As the former governor, Reeder likely had the name recognition to make political hay out of his captivity. He aligned with the free state party now, but had come to Kansas a regular National Democrat bearing a commission with Franklin Pierce’s signature. No one could mistake him for an antislavery radical or a tool of New England abolitionists, both descriptions that applied justly to Robinson. They could damn Kansas’ first governor as an aggrieved spoilsman bent on revenge, but that accurate charge only made Reeder an ordinary politician. The fact that proslavery men would come for him along with the radicals would do much to prove that they had, in fact, taken it on themselves to trample the rights of all white men.

Further Action from Lecompte’s Grand Jury

Samuel Lecompte

Samuel Lecompte

Samuel Lecompte, the slaveholding Chief Justice of Kansas Territory, instructed his grand jury about treasonable behavior. If anybody in Kansas did something so wild as placing themselves in opposition to and resisting the laws of the territory, then they resisted the laws of the United States too. That made them traitors and the jurors must act even if they had no evidence that treasonable action had occurred. Organization and intent to resist counted just as much. The judge went so far as to practically order his grand jury to indict free state leaders by name, running down a list of the offices they occupied in the wildcat government. They acted accordingly, ordering the arrest of the free state leadership.

In itself, that made for a tremendous attack on the free state movement. Jailed leaders would have a difficult time leading anything. They would face considerable personal danger, both from the results of legal process and any convenient accidents that might transpire. The mere fact of their imprisonment might deter support from elsewhere in the nation, as it would then necessitate collision of a kind with the authority of the United States. But the grand jury did one better than that. It found

that the newspaper known as The Herald of Freedom, published at the town of Lawrence, has from time to time issued publications of the most inflammatory and seditious character, denying the legality of the territorial authorities, addressing and commanding forcible resistance to the same, demoralizing the public mind, and rendering life and property unsafe, even to the extent of advising assassination as a last resort

George Brown’s paper had done all of that, with the possible exception of the assassination business. So had The Kansas Free State, with whom he often feuded. The grand jury advised “their abatement as a nuisance.” In other words, the law should shut them down. The nineteenth century didn’t have our First Amendment scruples. People across the political spectrum agreed that speech of certain sorts did not suit public order and deserved suppression, much as some of us still believe of what we consider obscenity. Under that theory, southern states had often acted to keep antislavery publications from circulating.

Furthermore:

we are satisfied that the building known as the ‘Free-State Hotel’ in Lawrence has been constructed with the view to military occupation and defence, regularly parapeted and portholed for the use of cannon and small arms, and could only have been designed as a stronghold of resistance to law, thereby endangering the public safety, and encouraging rebellion and sedition in this country; and respectfully recommend that steps be taken whereby this nuisance may be removed.

I don’t recall seeing that claim except in proslavery sources, but given that the free state men had erected earthworks in Lawrence and used the hotel as a redoubt back in December, it sounds reasonable.

All of this comes together for a comprehensive program of suppression. The proslavery party would arrest the leaders of the opposition. In the nineteenth century, newspaper editors served as important agents for political parties too. Thus the papers must go as well. Then the proslavery side would take even the means of armed resistance away. A majority of Kansans might still oppose them, but without leaders or a voice to organize that resistance they could not hope to prevail.