Governor Robinson Explains the Jones Shooting

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Lawrence Responds: parts 1, 2, 3, 4

The free state governor, Charles Robinson, lived in Lawrence. When he addressed the mass meeting condemning the shooting of Samuel Jones, Robinson spoke to the people in the room on the morning of April 24, 1856. He also addressed the Howard Committee, whether members attended or not; they had come to town only days prior. Beyond that, he surely knew that his words would go out in the Herald of Freedom and so reach the wider nation. Some of his prevarication makes sense only in that light. No one actually in Lawrence in the previous few days would believe that that Jones had received a placid, largely compliant reception. Men seized the sheriff, took his pistol from him, and helped the men he came to arrest escape. Jones in turn introduced the United States Army, in the persons of a squad of dragoons, into Lawrence with a credible claim that he required their protection to do his job.

Robinson needed a version of events which condemned the shooter, essential to the largely non-violent reputation of his movement, and exculpated Lawrence in general. He hit on the obvious idea, which he claimed he had learned the facts supported, that proslavery men planned everything in advance to discredit the antislavery cause. He had circumstantial evidence of something similar happening back in the Wakarusa War, but he offered no specific information about the latest Jones affair. Instead, he argued that in the great battle between slavery and freedom, one life counted for little. If proslavery men made him a martyr, Robinson accepted that fate in the name of his cause. Jones might have done the same, or taken a bullet from someone who made the choice for him:

If the slave power of this country, in order to possess this Territory, required that Mr. Jones should lay down his life, or be exposed to the shots of his friends, then Mr. Jones must expose his life, then those shots must be fired.

Proslavery Americans did occasionally kill their own to defend slavery, but usually only those they suspected of breaking ranks. Far more often then murdered enemies they imagined as outsiders: Yankee missionaries, immigrants, and above all the slaves themselves. Robinson’s explanation might not hold water, but it does speak to the inherently violent nature of a slaveholding society. The enslaved do not accept their station, but rather the enslavers force it upon them in an unending struggle of domination. That form of governance, so much a feature of everyday life, seems all the more natural for its ubiquity. Why wouldn’t it eventually apply to white men too?

If one didn’t believe that, one could loop back to Robinson’s invocation of war. The Governor had a record as the less violent of the prominent free state men. He counselled peace and reflection to the point of tedium. But he had come to accept martial trappings through his leadership role in the Kansas Legion. In taking office as governor, he advocated the formation of an official free state militia. In wars, people die. Leaders sacrifice the lives of their soldiers to achieve larger goals, which the soldiers agreed to when they signed on. Jones might not have rushed to make himself a martyr, but in the military framework Robinson sketched out the sheriff might plausibly have put himself into such a situation.

And if one didn’t believe that, then Robinson suggested the $500 reward from free state funds that the meeting adopted. Would he really hazard paying out good antislavery dollars to convict one of their own? He can’t have known, though he may have suspected, that posterity would never quite figure out who shot Jones.


Charles Robinson on the Jones Shooting

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Charles Lawrence Robinson

Lawrence Responds: parts 1, 2, 3, 4

We left Lawrence resolved to look seriously into who shot Sheriff Samuel Jones in the back on the night of April 23, 1856. They might have even meant it, regardless of how many free state people in the town believed Jones deserved a good shooting. On behalf of the free state government, Charles Robinson offered a $500 reward for the arrest of the guilty party. After Andrew Reeder’s speech and the resolutions, he answered the loud call to speak to the public meeting. I don’t mean to go over his speech in fine detail, but it deserves a look.

The free state Governor began on a less than conciliatory note:

We are engaged in a sort of warfare, in this State of Kansas, but it is an honorable warfare on our part, and will will never, as individuals, as a community, or as a party let ourselves down from an honorable position; we will never change ourselves from honorable enemies, to cowardly assassins. No honorable man could justify any such course.

Robinson had spoken of war before, but to do so now strikes an especially radical note.

Hugh Cameron

Hugh Cameron

These words also have more than a hint of aspiration about them. Robinson hewed to the line that someone had put this whole situation up to discredit his movement, just as he affirmed that the Wakarusa War back in November and December had resulted from proslavery scheming. He didn’t make that connection gratuitously or entirely without basis in fact. The gloriously hirsute Hugh Cameron appears to have gotten his justice of the peace commission in exchange for warrants to arrest Jacob Branson’s rescuers. Whether the inciting events came from a plot or not, Jones himself might well have gotten Wilson Shannon to make it one. Jones came back to Lawrence at the start of the late troubles to arrest Samuel Wood, the leader of Branson’s rescuers. One needn’t be a free state partisan to connect those dots.

All the same, Governor Robinson determined to get to the bottom of things. He told the crowd that he had looked into things himself and found, so far as he could determine, a proslavery plot. But since “[w]e all understand this” Robinson felt no need to “go into particulars.” The Governor then recapped the Wakarusa War anyway. Politicians always love the sound of their own voices, but Robinson had a particular audience in mind: the Howard Committee.

A committee comes here from Washington to investigate this matter, and see how we have been treated; to see who are the oppressed, who are the wronged; to see who are in the right. The very moment they plant their feet upon the soil of Kansas, that moment these outrages begin to be fomented. Everything has been quiet up to that moment.

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

This, as I have mentioned before, doesn’t quite stand scrutiny. Jones came to Lawrence at essentially the first opportunity on news of Wood’s return from Ohio. Robinson must have known better. A man of his stature in Lawrence would have had the news of an important free state arrival, from the Herald of Freedom if nothing else. The free state Governor follows up an at least misleading statement with a likely outright lie:

The people treated him civilly, so far as I know. I never happened to meet him, but I have learned of no commotion. There has been some little excitement, perhaps, but the community generally have been willing to let him goon and make his arrests.

Robinson can’t have expected that to fool anybody with the denial and the doubletalk about excitement. Something happened, but trust him it didn’t really count. Ok? It strains credulity to imagine that he didn’t know Jones’ foes resisted him to the point of violence. He passes all of that off as “[s]ome individuals” refusing arrest. And anyway, whatever happened no one could pin it on Charles Robinson. He took the opportunity to note that he

happened to be out of town last evening, and I suppose I shall not be charge with the offence committed then.


Investigation and a Reward: Lawrence Responds to the Jones Shooting, Part Four

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Parts 1, 2, 3

We left the standing room only mass meeting on the morning of April 24, 1856 passing the resolutions that such gatherings always produced. The people of Lawrence had little love for Samuel Jones, Sheriff of Douglas County, but they wanted everyone to understand that they hadn’t conspired to shoot him dead. Quite the opposite, they regarded his shooting as an attack upon them. Some miscreant put two bullets through their reputation, as well as the proslavery sheriff. Whatever went on between Jones and Lawrence, it did not justify attempted murder in cold blood. If they found out who did it, they would gladly turn the shooter over to the proper authorities.

But they did bury that commitment in qualifiers. “If possible” they would turn over the guilty party, if they found him and if they followed through. Lawrence had shielded fugitives from justice before and tipped them off when the law came. Would the good people of the town really break precedent on behalf of so infamous a villain as Jones?

G.P. Lowery must have expected people to ask those questions, as his final resolution promises more than words:

a committee of five shall be appointed whose duty it shall be to investigate the circumstances connected with this deplorable occurrence, and, if possible, to ferret out the guilty agent; and we pledge ourselves that, although no responsible as a community for this act of a depraved individual, we will use our best efforts to show to the world that we have no sympathy for crime in any shape, and are prepared to treat the perpetrators with that stern justice which shall not stop to inquire whether they are friends or foe.

Maybe they meant every word of that. Probably no one in Lawrence wanted to bear responsibility for the shooting, collectively or individually. The committee of five, Lowery, G.W. Deitzler, James F. Legate, Norman Allan, and Samuel Sutherland, did go to work, “busily.” on the question. The Herald of Freedom includes a request from them for people to come forward with information. If that didn’t suffice, the meeting added a unanimous resolution, in addition to the previous, that the free state government would give a reward of $500 “for the apprehension and conviction” of the shooter.

Sixteen decades later, we still have no idea who shot Samuel Jones that night. That doesn’t mean the committee didn’t take its job seriously. The preservation of Lawrence and the antislavery cause could easily have outweighed the loss of one hothead. But they may have also found Lawrence generally disinclined to name names. The shooter could also have left town before the public meeting convened, opting not to take his chances.


Recent Reading (Septemeber-October 2016)

Gentle Readers, I feel like a tour of the bookshelf wouldn’t hurt. We left off back in August, where I had just finished Eric Foner’s Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men. Since then, many pages have flown, and occasionally crawled, by.

I followed up Foner with Ira Berlin’s Many Thousands Gone: The First Two Centuries of Slavery in North America. Berlin made for a complicated, occasionally confusing, but valuable read. He does what he says in the title, taking us from the first enslaved arrivals to about 1800. He further does so in a regional format, separating out the Mississippi Valley, the Lower South, the Upper South, and the North for individual treatment. Berlin breaks each down into a rough sequence of generations, around which he organizes the book. The generation format proved very helpful in charting both regional differences and development over time. Berlin’s Mississippi Valley rushes through the tentative states of feeling out a slave system into an early plantation boom, which then falls apart in the face of a large slave revolt and only re-emerges as a slave society toward the end of the book. His North looks at first like it will always have only marginal slavery, only to ramp up and begin to resemble the South in the middle of the eighteenth century. It may have gone all the way, but the Revolution intervened and cut off the supply of new slaves. The Upper and Lower South chart more familiar courses, but distinguish themselves meaningfully toward the end where the less numerous free people of color in the Lower South, largely concentrated in cities, develop into something like a distinct class between black and white. In the Upper South, freedpeople find themselves instead forced to stay at the bottom with the slaves.

All of this makes for many moving parts. In doing so, it helpfully complicates a picture of slavery necessarily oriented more toward the mature late Antebellum system. The generalities largely hold, but highlighting the exceptions and nuances gives a far deeper understanding of just how slavery functioned with the constant tension between enslaver and enslaved. Berlin’s use of the term negotiation for that raised my eyebrows. He considers it problematic himself, taking pains to stress that the enslavers hold all the cards and he means nothing like a negotiation between equals. Berlin’s meaning becomes clear easily enough, all the same. The enslaved constantly want to exert control over their lives, protect their families, and secure what safety and prosperity they can. Enslavers want to eradicate that control and completely reduce their human property to the status of livestock, but the practical inability to govern or supervise every second of their lives makes that quest impossible. Looking at slavery like that does not minimize its cruelty, but does stress how real people with conflicting goals pushed against one another (and the enslaved almost always lose, but make important gains on the margins) in a constant dynamic rather than a static system of dominance.

From Berlin, I set into Elizabeth Brown Pryor’s Reading the Man: A Portrait of Robert E. Lee Through His Private Letters. Gentle Readers, I did not think I could like Lee much less than I did before I started. Pryor showed me otherwise. Please don’t read this as suggesting she wrote a hit piece. Frequently Pryor shows remarkable sympathy for her subject. His endless career frustrations and time spent away from his family clearly weigh on him. He has obvious talents as an engineer that often go neglected or wasted. He encourages loved ones to avoid the military and thus the mistakes he made. But Lee also has a petty side. His West Point cadets knew him as a martinet. He could do little for his friends, while expecting them to do much for him. He only dislikes slavery because he finds managing slaves disinclined to obey him and doubles-down on the cruelty as a remedy.

Pryor wrote a good, important work. One comes out the end of it with a much stronger understanding of Lee the man. But her format works against her on occasion. She insisted she would not write a biography, but then essentially did. Each chapter begins with a letter from or to Lee, usually in full. Sometimes full exchanges see print. They proceed in rough chronological order through his life. She does her best to make each chapter’s biographical essay and analysis about its own distinct subject, but they inevitably blend together. I might have had an easier time with it if she went with more standard thematic chapters, though it would come at the cost of understanding the arc of the Marble Man’s life. Given I don’t intend to read any other Lee biography, I can’t complain too much.

About halfway through Pryor, an acquaintance suggested that the two of us read Eric Foner’s Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 together. I happily agreed, even breaking with my usual practice to write real reading notes on each chapter. The book deserves all the praise it gets, though I feel Foner regrettably neglected to integrate the widespread violence into the story as much as he might have. Foner’s admiration of and inspiration by the twentieth century Civil Rights movement shines through on every page, to the point where one could slip and forget that politics happened as much or more with bullets, rope, whips, fists, flesh, blood, and terror as with ballot boxes and elected officials. I doubt Foner himself would write it that way today; he stresses the violence more in recent lectures he’s given. At some point I intend to revisit the era through more recent works that do highlight the violence more.

After Foner, I finished Pryor and then went on to Slavery and the American West: The Eclipse of Manifest Destiny and the Coming of the Civil War by Michael Morrison. I went into Morrison expecting largely old news, given how my studies for the blog have gone. Sure enough, I found parts where he reiterated things I already knew for pages on end. It happens to everybody once you start reading in depth about a subject. But Morrison brought an attention to party politics to bear that turned a theme of previous works into the dominant narrative thread. Doing so linked together more firmly many things I knew in general, particularly with regard to the breaking of the Democracy. That kind of history has gone somewhat out of fashion, for many good reasons, but getting a fresh dose of it proved extremely helpful to me.

Skipping ahead a few books, we come to River of Dark Dreams: Slavery and Empire in the Cotton Kingdom by Walter Johnson. After multiple books about white politics, I wanted something with a stronger slavery focus. Johnson delivered. His book concerns itself deeply with slavery, including frequent quotations from slave narratives. These form the center of the book, but on a broader level Johnson asks an unusual question. Most antebellum surveys begin at Sumter and work backwards. We know what happened, so how did we get there? Johnson focuses far more on on the world of possibilities open to the Mississippi Valley enslavers. He asks not what they seceded from, but rather what they hoped to secede to. Secession, while clearly the most important of the dreams they contemplated, comes at the end of a forest of options.

Of those, Johnson focuses the most on filibustering. That focus got me to read the book, as few historians treat filibustering as more than a sideshow. In doing so, Johnson paints a Deep South that has filled up as far as many of its boosters think it can manage. They need more something or the rising price of slaves means that white solidarity may soon crack as disgruntled nonslaveholders realize their economic mobility will never come. The Mississippi Valley defined itself on the move, improvising, expanding, lying, cheating, exploiting with no end in sight. But the might have dome to an end after all. Filibusters might open up new horizons once more. Poor whites could move to virgin land and buy slaves to work it. New Orleans merchants fretting over the railroad redirecting trade could look forward to a Caribbean empire centered on their port. Like Berlin, Johnson has a keen eye for the dynamism of the systems in play. He also has a keen appreciation for irony and symbolism. Nor, in all of that, does he for a moment let you forget that he talks about the dirty business of real lives spent for money; no amount of literary flourish obscures how Johnson writes about a world filled with horrors.

I’m on a podcast! Again!

Gentle Readers, the second half of my episode of the AskHistorians Podcast released yesterday. It picks up right where the first left off. About halfway through we get into new territory, shooting past Felix Zollicoffer and into the break-up of the Democratic party. We finish out in April, 1861. Listening back to it, I can tell that my voice was failing but I had a ball all the same.


  • The first time I mentioned Polk’s election, I said it was in 1846. It’s 1844, as I said on later occasions.
  • Houston and Bell both concerned themselves with the issue of displacing Indians, but Houston somewhat more so. Bell expected the Indians to go off west and quietly die for us. Houston held out hope they could be assimilated.
  • Celia killed her owner with a hefty stick, not a fireplace shovel. She burned her owner in her fireplace, crushed the bones she could, and got his grandson to scatter the ashes outside for her. The bones she couldn’t crush she hid under the fireplace.
  • South Carolina seceded on December 20, 1860, not December 21.

Addition: Franklin Pierce’s wife is Jane Appleton. I forgot her name in the moment.

Now what’s the appropriate time to wait and give others a chance before I pitch an episode again?

Resolutions: Lawrence Responds to the Jones Shooting, Part Three

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Parts 1, 2

Andrew Reeder continued his speech to the Lawrence meeting by abandoning the pretense that no one knew just who had shot Sheriff Jones the day before. He pointed to all the sympathy and respect they had gained in the free states by eschewing violence. Would they throw all of that away? In a political environment where antislavery Americans had seen far more vilification than their proslavery opposites, in North and South alike, he had a point. Things had gotten progressively better for them in the North since around 1848, and especially since 1854, but that shift could reverse at any time. A collision with the United States government would surely remind Americans of the recent era when they saw opposition to slavery as tending toward disunion. Shooting Jones might not have done that, but had the bullet found a United States dragoon it might have done the trick. So might an open insurrection.

Reeder made it clear that he said not a word of this out of any love of Jones or his politics, but he continued on the theme for another column and change in the Herald of Freedom. Along the way, he reminded the people of Lawrence of most of what had happened in Kansas in the past two years. According to the paper, he frequently had to stop for applause. But then the meeting had business to get to. You didn’t hold a mass meeting in the nineteenth century without some resolutions to put the assembly on the record. G.P. Lowery had a set prepared:

the attempt made in our town last evening upon the life of S.J. Jones, Esq., whilst claiming to act as the Sheriff of the county, was the isolated act of some malicious and evil-disposed individual, unexpected and unlooked for by our community, and unsustained by any portion of them.

Isolated and unexpected, maybe. Lowery probably could have found plenty of people in the room that morning who believed Jones had it coming and didn’t feel any guilt about his shooting. They might fear the dangerous consequences to the town, but can’t have shed many tears for Jones. Thus the second resolution:

notwithstanding the unpleasant relation which existed between Mr. Jones and our citizens, if the attack could have been foreseen or considered at all probable, we would have neglected no means to prevent or defeat it; we deeply sympathize with the wounded man, and will afford him all the aid and comfort of our power.

They probably would have. Even when proslavery armies nearly surrounded Lawrence, the leadership worked to avoid a pitched battle. As that work involved restraining hotheads within their own ranks, who didn’t much care for how the proslavery men took potshots at them, we know that sentiment didn’t touch every heart.

we deeply regret that the perpetrator of this deed is unknown; and if known to us, we would unhesitatingly expose and denounce him as the criminal


it is due to the reputation of our town, and loudly demanded by the deep and universal indignation which pervades our community, that the guilty author should, if possible, be sought out and surrendered to justice

These resolutions promise a great deal and nothing at all. They would expose and denounce the shooter, if they knew him, and hand him over for justice, if they could find him. Maybe they would, but Lawrence had previously ensured fugitives from the law in their community got enough advance warning to escape capture. They did it for Jacob Branson and Samuel Wood in December. They did the same for the men who helped Wood escape only days before. Indignation, deep and universal, only went so far.



Driving Out the Demon: Lawrence Responds to the Jones Shooting, Part Two

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

When someone shot Sheriff Samuel Jones in Lawrence, unofficial headquarters of Kansas’ free state movement, the people of Lawrence knew they had a real problem on their hands. Back in December, Jones had tried to destroy the town over a far less personal affront. He came to Lawrence on April 23 as a result of those prior proceedings, to arrest men who had prevented his arrest of the leading figure in his last indignity, Samuel Wood. Whoever pulled the trigger, the wrath would fall on the whole town. Maybe they couldn’t prevent that, but they tried. At a mass meeting the morning after the shooting, Andrew Reeder told the town that the attack on Jones constituted an attack on them as well. They had tried to work within the system. This broke that precedent, which alone stood between them and violence.

Proceeding on that theme, Reeder held that 

The sincere and heart-felt sympathy that they [Lawrence] have always had, has been given because they were always in the right -that blood upon our soil, that cried for vengeance, has been that of our friends- that those whose hands have been stained by murder and assassinations have been our enemies and oppressors- It was a matter of pride and congratulation, that in our ranks were men who denounced crime, murder, and assassination, though they were ready and willing, on all occasions, to shed their blood for their political rights

Virtuous Lawrence could have nothing to do with the shooting. It did not represent them, but some other people of lower character. Communities tell themselves this sort of thing whenever some violence erupts, outsourcing their dearest sins to some foreign foe. In exchange for that charity, we ask only that everyone believe it. Our wrongs belong not to us, but someone else. You can hear it whenever we have a mass shooting or act of white terrorism.

Reeder then reminded Lawrence that he had stood to vindicate free Kansas before. Back in December, when the telegraph carried the proslavery line, Reeder defended them in Washington. He didn’t know better at the time, but did it because he knew the character of the free state men. “Subsequent events” proved him right, not prior knowledge. What held true once would hold true again. Or would it?

An entirely new phrase has come over the state of things. The demon of murder, blood-shed and crime seems to be struggling to get out of the ranks of the enemy and enter ours-to enter this paradise to poison the foundations that underlay the reputation of the Free State party, of staining the flag of freedom, blackening our character, and undermining our cause. In God’s name, let it be driven out, and keep our banner unstained.

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Officially, either no one knew who shot Jones or some proslavery person did it. Maybe some in Lawrence believed that, but they can’t have numbered many. Reeder’s phrasing reveals what most everyone knew. He might say that the demon of murder struggled to get into their ranks, but he goes on to say they need to drive it out. One can’t drive out something not yet in. His appeals to the good name of the free state party speak further to the point. They wouldn’t sway a proslavery man in the audience, but might induce a murderous free state partisan to keep further bullets to himself. Nor would a proslavery listener have cared much for how

The blood of your brothers have cried from the soil for vengeance.

Nothing in this makes sense in light of an external foe. Reeder, and everyone else, knew someone on their side had shot Jones. They had that demon of murder not struggling to get in, but already within them.

Lawrence Responds to the Jones Shooting, Part One

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

Twenty-five years later, John Speer and Samuel Jones could have a nice chat about the time Jones got shot. Speer wanted to know if Jones thought he did it. Jones reassured him otherwise. They slap each other on the back, talk about the crazy old days, and part as friends. At the time, neither Jones nor the people at Lawrence had that sort of detachment. The town had paid before for Jones’ mere frustrations, coming near to destruction. The sheriff had few fans, but fewer still wanted the violent wrath of proslavery Kansas and Missouri to descend upon them. The Herald of Freedom flatly denied that any antislavery man fired the shot and insisted more plausibly that

the public sentiment of this city condemns, in unmeasured terms, the assassination. No sympathy exists for the men who thus violently undertook to deprive Jones of his life. Not that there is any particular love for him-for he is hated as cordially as it is possible for men to hate a scoundrel-but there is a love of Order, of Law, of Justice and Peace in our people-and murder and outrage, assassination and brutality, meet with a prompt and unqualified condemnation, by whoever perpetrated.

One can hate a person a great deal and not want them dead, fair enough. George Washington Brown went on in that theme for a while, inveighing against “the Border Ruffian party” for “this last stroke of villainy?” What evil would prove too much for them? The next evil firmly in mind, Brown declared that no one could hold Lawrence responsible. The townspeople had nothing to do with the shooting except the misfortune of living near to it. Furthermore, they disavowed the shooting “immediately and unanimously” and condemned it “in the strongest terms.”

For proof of all that, the paper printed the proceedings of a public meeting. Jones caught his bullet around ten on the night of April 23, 1856. The next morning notice went out for the citizenry to meet in the hall over Faxon’s store, twelve and a half hours after the attack. The Herald reports a packed room, which elected Andrew Reeder to the chair. Reeder then gave a speech. Kansas first governor and latest would-be free state senator condemned the shooting as

an outrage on the individuals of this town, upon the public sentiment and reputation of the town, and a still greater outrage upon our cause. That cause was one which sought no aid or countenance at the hands of assassins, for it was too holy, too strong, and too just to need such assistance.

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Andrew Horatio Reeder

Self-involved or not, Reeder opened up on reasonable enough grounds. No one in Lawrence could change what happened to Jones. They had to worry about what would happen to them. Reeder proclaimed that the free state party

wanted the help of the Lord, and not the devil; the help of honest, well meaning men, not of murderers and assassins; the help of orderly, law-abiding, though determined men, and not of outlaws and murders. They wanted the sympathies of their friends in the Free States, who have stood up and justified them, and that sympathy they must obtain by pursuing such a course as would not give any one cause to charge them with wrongdoing and injustice.

One can read this as a piece of political propaganda and not go wrong. What Reeder said, he said for public consumption. He calls out the audience abroad in the free states as well as those in Lawrence that April morning. But this also sends a message to whoever did shoot Jones: You have put us in danger, not helped. It further honestly states the free state strategy. They did not want, and honestly feared, armed conflict. They had militias for self-defense and may have burned proslavery houses, but in the main they adopted a peaceable and careful strategy of circumspection. Even after they established their own government, they voted not to enact any laws until they had approval from Congress. At almost every turn, men like Reeder, Charles Robinson, and James Lane tried to work within the American, if not the Kansan, system.

John Speer and Samuel Jones Reminisce

Samuel Jones

Samuel Jones

On the night of April 23, 1856 Sheriff Samuel Jones caught two bullets. The first passed through his pants. The second took a detour through him. The men he came to Lawrence to arrest must fall under suspicion, as they had a better reason to want Jones gone than anybody. Furthermore, everyone Jones had come into Lawrence to take had a history of violence against him. He first sought the just-returned Samuel Wood, who had let an armed band against Jones to rescue Jacob Branson. The sheriff assembled his second slate of victims from those men who seized him and prevented his arrest of Wood by main force.

We don’t know who fired the shot. Anybody might have done it; Jones had made enemies of any who lived through the siege back in December. But if you want to narrow it down, then the men Jones came back to arrest make a fair group of suspects. Fleeing down during the day didn’t preclude a nighttime return to ventilate Jones. Jones deputy thought John Speer might have pulled the trigger. He might have visited the homes of everyone in the group, but Speer wrote his story down.

Jones and Speer both survived Kansas. Twenty-five years later, they met up again. Jones had gone to Texas and then on to Arizona, where he would die. But he came back to Kansas at least once, visiting Leavenworth. There he saw a man he recognized at Planter’s House:

“Is not this Mr. Speer?” He was Sheriff Jones. we passed out onto the veranda, and had a long and pleasant talk over old times. I asked him if he ever imagined it possible I could have had anything to do with the attempt on his life. Most emphatically he replied: “No. I always recognized you as a gentleman; and that was a dastardly attempt at assassination. With pleasant memories, and hearty congratulations, we parted, never to meet again.

I don’t know from being shot, thank you, but I did have my wrist remodeled in a violent clash many years ago. I remember the event quite well. Though the perpetrators suffered no more than a questioning by the school principal, I put a fair bit of effort into working out just what happened. I can’t imagine Jones got shot and didn’t devote at least some energy to the question down the years. He might have excused Speer or dismissed vague suspicions in the name of politeness, but would he have done so for a man he strongly suspected had put the bullet in him? Probably not.

David Wong, Roger Taney, and Donald Trump

Samuel A. Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright

Sorry for the late post, Gentle Readers. I felt quite unwell during my normal writing time.

Ever since Donald Trump became the nominee-presumptive of the Republican Party, the media have treated us to a stream of pieces on how we must understand his supporters. They may have picked a narcissist and clown straight out of interwar Italian politics, but we need to look on them with empathy. In principle, I agree wholeheartedly. I deal regularly with people who have done worse still, though they do have the good decency to have put themselves out of our misery. Future historians will probably feel much the same about the Trump movement.

You can’t get around it. To actually understand what drives people, especially people with politics you loath, you need to treat them as rational and sensible as anybody else. Calling them dupes or fools as much removes their agency and reduces them to a stereotype one may loathe with ease but comprehend not at all. You end up like Samuel Cartwright, explaining slave resistance as a form of mental illness. What holds true for slaves also holds true for slaveholders, though historians have traditionally had far less trouble emphasizing with them than their victims. Aside from a few black historians and radicals, the academy didn’t get on board with understanding black Americans as thinking beings capable of understanding, holding values, and acting accordingly until better than halfway through the twentieth century.

My obvious political inclinations aside, I ought to be the target audience for pieces on understanding Trump Country. I have largely avoided them, except one shared with me by a friend. There are multiple reasons for that, including my general contempt for media industry multi-millionaires who tell us they understand “real America,” the compulsory ignorance of the subject one finds in reporters parachuted in without context to pretend-report on something for thirty seconds, and skimming headlines and opening paragraphs to show how devotedly they live up to my expectations. But I did read the one. Let’s pick it apart.

A few things going in, Gentle Readers. As the numerous ads and whatever lives in the sidebar when you load up the page will show, Cracked doesn’t aim for serious journalism. (Its history pieces don’t withstand casual scrutiny either.) But now and then someone writes a piece meant for serious consideration, as David Wong has. I intend to take it as such, humor site pedigree aside.

We must begin with the title. Wong suggests that half of America lost its mind. It grabs the reader’s attention, but Wong frames his article just the opposite. He does not portray Trump supporters as insane or demented. They have real grievances, which he reduces down to a rural vs. urban divide. To prove it, he hauls out one of those red vs. blue county maps. It turns out the diverse cities, shockingly, tend to support candidates who less devoted to white supremacy. The much whiter rural counties vote the other way.

I could stop right here, but Wong digs himself deeper. He paints a picture of neglect and negative stereotyping. Urban America doesn’t care about rural America. All the television and movies have to do with cities. When disaster strikes, you’d best have a major media operation nearby or don’t expect to make CNN. We all know the stereotypes of rural life, that bonanza of inbred hicks who only take their hands off the cross they’re using to beat a LGBT person to death in order to light it on fire. I don’t know about the inbreeding -none of my business- but that sounds like my neighbors. They do not like the idea of living with people of different color, sexuality, or non-Christian religion. Wong puts those up as stereotypes, but he admits to their truth:

But what I can say, from personal experience, is that the racism of my youth was always one step removed. I never saw a family member, friend, or classmate be mean to the actual black people we had in town. We worked with them, played video games with them, waved to them when they passed. What I did hear was several million comments about how if you ever ventured into the city, winding up in the “wrong neighborhood” meant you’d get dragged from your car, raped, and burned alive. Looking back, I think the idea was that the local minorities were fine … as long as they acted exactly like us.

Wong had a more charmed childhood than I did. Casual dismissal of non-whites happened every day. I can’t count the times I’ve heard family members start a sentence, stop and visibly struggle, then finally blurt out “coloreds!” with extra emphasis just so you know what they really mean. Fairness demands that I recognize the ecumenical nature of their hatreds; they had nothing nicer to say about other people who dared come in the wrong colors or religions. But of course you’d be polite to someone’s face. Small communities can’t afford a full-on white power operation, aside local government, so we content ourselves with more petty species of viciousness. Say nothing in front of your victim, but be sure it gets out behind their backs. Plain, honest folk in real America don’t need that explained to them.

Maybe that racism seemed one step removed to Wong -who is white like me; he writes under a pseudonym- but you can’t honestly put it at arm’s length. We both learned to associate minorities with dangerous, criminal behavior and took those who didn’t rape and murder people every day for fun as deviations from the norm. I can’t imagine the victims agree.

It goes on in this vein. The white racial resentment or, to use a word more familiar to its practitioners, entitlement, just boils off the screen. Wong knows as much and acknowledges it. He doesn’t pretend that rural America has somehow, double-secret, turned into a bastion of tolerance. His quest to highlight Trump Country agency has brought him that far. But he thinks it wrong and dehumanizing to ascribe white voters’ motives to either the driving force of American history, white supremacy, or to the central institution of their communities, which he considers to be conservative Christianity. What they say doesn’t actually matter. They just hurt and lash out.

I shall not sit here and tell you that white people never suffer or rural poverty doesn’t matter. But Wong refutes himself twice over by focusing on poverty as the driving force explanation. Firstly, rural America hasn’t done well, economically, in decades. Nor has it had much cultural focus in the same period of time. If neglect drives rural voters, then we would have seen a Trump-style candidacy decades back. Indeed, we did. Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan both ran white grievance campaigns. On the other side, so did Bill Clinton. Whether we look at structural factors all the way back to the Constitution or individual campaigns, nobody gets more attention. Even in the most conservative interpretation, white America has at least the whole of one political party devoted to preserving its prerogatives over the rest of the nation. These people do not lack a voice. Their politics do not constitute a wild divergence from the American norm; they are the norm. The past few decades have simply seen a shift from nigh-absolute control to a more qualified but still nearly overwhelming dominance.

Since Trump came out of normal politics, his voters don’t require a unique explanation. The same things drive them that drove the American right in 1968, 1980, 1996, or 1860. They see the United States as a white man’s country, period. Any diminution of their power counts as the most agonizing species of persecution.

But let’s turn that back around. Wong would have us believe that poverty made Trump. He admits that Trump runs on racism, which he also considers a decidedly negative personality trait. He must think the same of poverty as he casts the rural poor as a people lashing out. They can’t have acted in their actual interests, but rather poverty has driven them to it. Poverty, in other words, makes you immoral and destructive. This loops us right back to the stereotypes that Wong and I grew up believing about black people: they earned their poverty through sloth, through dependence, through crime. White people got poor for reasons beyond their control. Trust us; we have the white skin to know. For Wong to argue this, hasn’t he dehumanized the poor just as he complains that others have?

Roger Taney, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court

Roger Taney

Bringing this back to history, I consider taking what people say and granting them their agency bottom-line stuff. If you can’t do that, then you fundamentally do not believe your subjects full human beings. They must occupy some inferior order, to which one silently applies Taney’s corollary:

altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations, and so far unfit that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect

I cannot think of a more thorough way to dehumanize someone than to ignore both their words and deeds in favor of inventing some deterministic explanation that excuses them from both. To do this, you reduce them to unthinking automatons, for all the protests to the contrary. You declare that they do not know what’s best for themselves, that they cannot know. Wong’s rural poor, intended or not, are infantilized subjects. He wants us to not blame them for what they do, for the powerful hatreds they bear, because they just can’t help themselves. You don’t blame a baby for soiling a diaper, so you should not blame Trump voters for Trump.

Wong’s piece has a larger problem, though. “Poor” doesn’t begin to describe Trump’s supporters:

As compared with most Americans, Trump’s voters are better off. The median household income of a Trump voter so far in the primaries is about $72,000, based on estimates derived from exit polls and Census Bureau data. That’s lower than the $91,000 median for Kasich voters. But it’s well above the national median household income of about $56,000. It’s also higher than the median income for Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders supporters, which is around $61,000 for both.

If those statistics reflect poverty, then I imagine plenty of us would like to sign up for some. Wong says that poor people from his home town support Trump; I believe him. But his poor voters resemble the general constituency no more than the neighbors that media personalities talk to at wealthy resort communities represent ordinary Americans.