The Trouble at Hickory Point, Part Five

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

Parts 1, 2, 3, 4

As Franklin Coleman told George Douglas Brewerton, he came into Kansas from Missouri in November, 1854. There he jumped a claim held by an absentee Indianan, in keeping with the local custom that absentees could have their claims taken by those actually present and improving the land. This put him on the wrong side of Jacob Branson, who bought the same claim from that Indianan. The two men came near to firing shots over it, but agreed to an arbitrated settlement. That came out in Branson’s favor, but he refused to abide by it all the same and took to generously helping free soil men move into the Hickory Point neighborhood, presumably with an eye to their supporting him against Coleman. Then someone burned down William White’s home on a claim adjoining Coleman’s. The day after, Charles Dow squatted on that claim. William Phillips blamed Coleman for the fire. Coleman and others in the area strongly suspected Dow. Dow’s evasive answers to questioning on the matter did not help his case.


Despite the initial friction, Dow and Coleman appear to have managed a neighborly enough relationship through most of the winter. Coleman told the Howard Committee that

Dow took possession of the claim formerly belonging to a Mr. White. I moved my house five hundred yards or more from where it stood, in order to be more convenient to the timber, for fear that the lines, when they came to be run by the government, should be between me and the timber, and throw me entirely on the prairie.

Without a map, I can’t say how Coleman’s relocation would have interacted with the other line between his and Branson’s claim. Arbitration had put all the timber on Branson’s side. It sounds as though Coleman considered himself no longer obligated to follow the settlement. Given Branson also disregarded it, one can’t blame him. However, Coleman and Dow had an agreed-upon boundary:

There was a conditional line between me and Mr. Dow, which was mutually agreed upon; and it was agreed upon by the people of the neighborhood that such lines should stand until the government lines should be run. I cut timber on this claim of mine from May, 1855, until late in the fall, and had no difficulty with Mr. Dow, as regards our claims, until the Shawnee reserve line had been run.

The line, “some two and a half miles east” Coleman’s claim, had the sanction of the government. Dow and some other neighbors

run off their lines from the half-mile stones placed on the reserve line, supposing that the government survey would make those half-mile stones corners of sections. A majority of the neighbors protested against it. Jacob Branson and Mr. Dow, seeing that these new lines would be advantageous to them, surveyed their lands off so that they would run over on my claim and the claim of Mr. Hargous, which joined me on the north.

Thus passed whatever peace had tenuously existed in the area. It might never have amounted to much. John Banks testified to continued tension between Branson and Coleman:

I heard Branson say Coleman had better keep out of the window and away from about him, and that if he did not he would hurt him.

But it seems that they managed until the next fall without direct conflict.

Banks has a somewhat different story about the evolution of the claims than Coleman. The latter’s narrative describes a fairly orderly process where Dow just settled down next to Coleman and they agreed on a tentative border. Coleman moved house, but only within that claim. Banks testified:

Coleman and Dow’s claims joined, when they made their claims there first. When Dow first came there Coleman was living on a prairie claim, and after Dow had made his claim Coleman went over on an adjoining claim to Dow’s. The one that Coleman went on was marked out before Coleman went on it, and before Dow settled on his; and when Dow went on his claim he respected the lines of the claim that Coleman afterwards went on. I think it was in May 1855, that Coleman went on that claim

This sounds like when Coleman moved house and began timber harvest. Whether Coleman had the claim before Banks knew, or just imagined all the land his from the start, it seems things went well enough. Banks helped Coleman with his log cutting on the land and says no one contested his claim to it. But the official lines intervene in Banks’ story as much as Coleman’s. Per Banks, the new lines would move Dow’s claim

some two hundred and fifty yards on to Mr. Coleman’s claim. A majority of the neighbors protested against the line being altered so as to correspond with their corner-stones. Dow claimed in to the new lines on Coleman’s claim a strip of some two hundred and fifty yards wide of timber land.

Good news for Charles Dow and bad for Franklin Coleman.

The Trouble at Hickory Point, Part Four

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

Parts 1, 2, 3


Franklin Coleman told George Douglas Brewerton, that he, his partner John M. Banks, and Jacob Branson agreed to refer their land claim dispute to arbitration. The panel of arbitrators, with a proslavery majority, awarded one hundred sixty acres of the two hundred forty to Branson. His half included all the timber land that made the claim so appealing. Branson agreed to abide by that decision, thus surrendering the less valuable remainder. He then refused to cooperate in settling the property line. When told this caused ill will, Branson put on his best reality TV voice and informed Coleman and Banks that he had not come to make friends. While he had them on hand, he also said that he and a neighbor measured off the whole claim and it came to only a hundred twenty acres. Thus the arbitrators had effectively given Branson all the land.

With Branson uninterested in discussing the matter or seeing to his duties as he swore to the arbitrators, Coleman and Banks chose to mark the line themselves. This they did with the help of a man called Graves, another free soiler. In past adventures, Graves witnessed Coleman and Brason’s confrontation at Coleman’s house. According to Coleman, they gave Branson his full hundred sixty acres. that included all the timber land. Branson still would not take yes for an answer. At this point, again per Coleman’s testimony, Branson brought politics into it:

Branson then turned his attention to strengthening the Free State party-to which he himself belonged-in the vicinity of Hickory Point. This he did by encouraging Free state men to settle about him, giving them timber from his land, and informing them of vacant claims.

Did Branson have the purest motives at heart when bringing in free state men? Probably no more than anybody else. By making himself a good neighbor and giving them a hand he certainly aimed to turn the neighborhood to his politics. If he also personally benefited in winning supporters for his land claim, so much the better for him.

In pursuance of this object, he and his friends invited a man named Dow, an Ohioan and Abolitionist, to occupy a claim adjoining my own. This claim rightly belonged to one William White, of Westport, Mo., who had made some improvements on it, and therefore held it under the ‘Squatter Laws.’ The ‘improvement’ was a log-cabin, which was burnt down by the Free State party, on or about the day of Dow’s arrival at Hickory Point.

Did the free state men burn down White’s house? John Banks, Coleman’s free soil partner, doesn’t accuse the party but does find the timing suspicious:

About the time Dow first came to the neighborhood I made a claim, Mr. Coleman being there at the time. there was a house burned on a claim of William White, who was a free-State man. The day after the house was burned this Dow commenced to build another house on that claim. Some of the neighbors went up to Mr. Dow to see who had burned the house of Mr. White, being a committee appointed by the neighbors to see who had burned the house. Mr. Coleman and myself were on that committee.

Dow denied that he had anything to do with the arson. However:

He was asked if he knew who did burn it, and he would not answer. Mr. Coleman and he then got to talking about it, and Mr. Coleman remarked that if he, Dow, did not burn it, and had no hand in it, and knew nothing about it, he could answer it quietly, and also told him that if a man wanted to live peaceably in the neighborhood he would not engage in such things as that.

Dow jumped White’s claim the day after White’s house burns in a “mysterious” fire. Then he would not say who burned the building, if not him. He might look more suspicious wearing a black mask and black and white striped shirt, but just barely. Coleman’s committee pressed a bit more:

Upon being asked if he was not aware of the intention of the Free State people to destroy it, he answered that that was his business, and none of ours.

According to Banks, Coleman got understandably worked up. He and Dow quarreled and finally Coleman spelled it out:

“You deny doing it yourself, but will not say you do not know of its being done, and I think such men as those are dangerous in the country. we have come here to make our homes and settle here, and we do not want any houses burned; we want to live peaceably and neighborly here in the community.” Just as we started away, Mr. Coleman turned round and said, “Mr. Dow, we are strangers here together, and we wish to live peaceably with every person.”

Coleman’s testimony to Brewerton expresses much the same sentiment with a bit of implied threat:

I then observed to him, that as my claim adjoined his, I would be his nearest neighbor, and should be very sorry to suspect that the man who lived next to me could be guilty of such an act, but as he had affirmed his innocence […] I would (if it proved to be true), be a kind neighbor to him, and added that he was welcome to visit at my house if he wished to come. He thanked me and we parted.

The Trouble at Hickory Point, Part Three

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

Parts 1 and 2

We left Franklin Coleman and Jacob Branson in a tense meeting at Coleman’s cabin on the claim they disputed. Both men had guns in hand and made serious threats, but they ultimately agreed to settle their dispute in arbitration. This had worked out before in the area and the process did not seem, at least in November of 1854, distorted by the territory’s slavery question. A tribunal with an antislavery majority had ruled in favor of a proslavery man. Coleman and Branson’s tribunal had a proslavery majority, which

decided against my partner and myself, insomuch, that instead of allowing our claim to the whole Frasier tract, amounting to two hundred and forty acres, they awarded one hundred and sixty acres to Branson as his proportion.

The decision swung in Branson’s favor, but not completely so. Coleman complained that Branson got the timber land, but he sounds largely content. According to Coleman, Branson swore that he would mark his line and abide by it. He subsequently declined to do so. Coleman and his partner, John Banks, reminded Branson of that promise. He doesn’t mention any firearms involved in the reminder, but guns or no Branson did not take it well

He said that he did not crave our friendship, and that we should never have a single foot of the lumber which grew upon the greater part of the claim. he then stated that he had measured the entire ‘Frasier claim,’ with one of his neighbors, and found it to contain but one hundred and twenty acres-called us a set of base thieves, who had swindled him out of his rights, and with whom he wished to have no intercourse, etc.

This all makes Branson sound terrible. He agreed to arbitration, albeit after threatening Coleman and his family, got the better side of the settlement, and then ignored it anyway. Coleman naturally wants to paint himself in the best light. Branson’s and John Banks’ testimony in the Howard Report begins a year after the initial encounters, saying nothing about them. William Phillips renders events a bit differently:

The first settlers of that region were free-state men from Indiana. other free-state men, from the Western States generally, and some of them from Missouri, also settled there. After the grove had been mostly taken by the settlers, some pro-slavery men came in, took claims, and some of them jumped claims already taken. In some of the cases where these claims were invaded the persons holding them had forfeited their right to them by their absence; but in several other instances the seizure was violent and fraudulent. In the same vicinity, at the lower end of the grove, on the Santa Fe road, a town called Palmyra had been laid off, and early in the summer of 1855, a party of men from Missouri came up and ordered the settlers in the place to leave it, or they would be driven away; and serious apprehensions of violence and bloodshed were entertained. The settlers mostly kept their ground. it was with much the same spirit that the pro-slavery men who came and settled in the grove were animated. One of these men, Franklin Coleman, not only took violent possession of several claims, but stole the building materials, which had been prepared by a free-state man, from another claim, and built a house for himself with them.

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

If we had a time machine to go check, we might find either version of events actually happened. Phillips puts Coleman at Hickory point around early summer of 1855. Coleman has himself present in November, 1854. They can’t both have it right. Coleman describes a generally amicable coexistence between the proslavery and antislavery men in the area. Phillips gives them “many angry bickerings.” We can judge some of this as the same events reported through different biases. Phillips doesn’t acknowledge the Indiana absentees having their claims vacated by the community. Coleman admits to jumping one. But this only goes so far. Either the neighbors generally got on despite political differences or they did not. Either Coleman stole supplies, or he did not. Phillips has Coleman’s statement, which he quotes from, but doesn’t engage on the earlier confrontation at all. He doesn’t even dismiss it as a pack of lies.

Who told the truth about Coleman and Branson? Possibly both, possibly neither. If Coleman simply invented his past difficulty with Branson, then one would expect or Phillips to challenge the story. Branson might not, as he gave his testimony to the Howard Committee before Coleman gave his own. For my part, I suspect that the conflict did happen, but that both men engaged in a degree of brinksmanship. Branson might have done worse, as the silence regarding the first clash suggests that the antislavery party had reason to avoid raising the subject, but the sources I have don’t give enough of his side to make me entirely confident on the matter.


The Trouble at Hickory Point, Part Two

George Douglas Brewerton

George Douglas Brewerton

We left Franklin Coleman disputing his rights to a patch of timber-rich land at Hickory Point, on the Santa Fe trail. He jumped the claim of an absentee Indianan named Frasier, quite in keeping with what others in the same area had done with the approval of the community. This approval, notably, did not depend on one’s opposing slavery. Coleman did not, but he did his claim jumping with a Free State partner, John M. Banks. All might have gone well, save that the claim Coleman and Banks jumped no longer belonged to Frasier. He sold out to Jacob Branson, who Alice Nichols names a leader of the local Kansas Legion.

Here I must briefly digress. Nichols introduces Branson in Bleeding Kansas as commanding the Legion in the area. However, Coleman dates his first confrontation with Branson to November of 1854, prior to the Legion’s founding. While Branson might very well have had the esteem of his antislavery neighbors well before that date, we should not understand him initially as a man in charge of a paramilitary company.

Less than a month after Coleman and Banks set up on their claim, Branson arrived there. Coleman told Branson about his squatting and Branson informed Coleman that he had the claim from Frasier for fifty dollars. He meant to have the land. Coleman offered to put the matter before the neighborhood for arbitration, following the precedent of past disputes in the area. Branson refused, affirming instead, per Coleman’s testimony in Brewerton’s War in Kansas 

that if the laws took a man’s claim away he would defend himself and have his claim, or ‘die right where he was.’

Coleman suggested they had nothing more to discuss then and let the matter sit. Branson did not. He came up the next day to Coleman’s house with a wagon of belongings, another free state man, and found Coleman absent. Branson found two free state men present, Coleman’s partner Banks and a fellow named Graves. He may also have found Coleman’s wife and child, as Coleman names Banks and Graves “the only men” present rather than the only people.

However many people present,

Branson and his companion tried to force his property into my dwelling. Banks requested them to let their goods stand until they could send for me; he did so, and I came immediately.

Who would have gone to fetch Coleman? I doubt either party would risk having numbers against them at the moment. Coleman doesn’t name anyone in particular, which one would expect if some neighbor had come and gone to do the favor. It seems likely either his wife or son retrieved him. Coleman came home to find Branson and Farley within. He

reminded Branson that he had said that ‘he would have my claim or die upon it.’ I then drew a single-barrelled [sic] pistol from under the head of the bed and told him that I should defend myself, and if he was determined to settle the matter in that way, I was prepared to do so.

I don’t know the specifics of Coleman’s cabin, but I can’t imagine an especially spacious one for a brand new settler. A single room with five adults and a child in it seems like a terrible place to have a gunfight for everyone except the local undertaker. The participants noticed the difficulty and remembered, protests aside, their own aversion to gunshot wounds. Farley tried his hand at mediation.

During this conversation, Branson kept his hand upon an ‘Allen’s revolver’ which he had with him in his pocket, but made no motion to draw the weapon, nor did I threaten him with my pistol, further than to exhibit it as a proof of my intention to protect myself.

In this relaxing environment, Branson and Coleman finally agreed to arbitration.

Good Intentions and Antislavery

"Am I Not a Man and a Brother?"

“Am I Not a Man and a Brother?”

I write this inspired by the controversy historian Sean Wilentz caused with his editorial in the New York Times declaring slavery always a state, not a national institution. I cannot improve upon the many responses he has received, not even to say that he should know better. But arguing over whether the Constitution, the founders, or the country itself had some species of antislavery character raises the question of what one means to call something or someone antislavery.

Most often, the question probably comes down to whether or not a person expressed antislavery opinions or a policy arose from antislavery intentions. Thomas Jefferson expressed antislavery opinions; we count him as antislavery just as we would a random farmer in Massachusetts. This makes intuitive sense. We should take people at their words, at least as a starting point. Antislavery of this species, concerning itself with thought and intention as passed down to us in writing, makes for a big tent. We can include everyone who expressed a negative opinion about slavery at all, making for an appealing past where most everyone save a few degenerates knew deep down that they tolerated a great wrong. Abolition thus seems inevitable, a natural consequence of the general agreement of the white community upon it. We needed a few decades and seven hundred thousand lives to work out the logistics, but these things happen.

Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson

The intentional understanding of antislavery politics works, at least in a limited sense, for unraveling the positions of private individuals of little influence. If someone in Kansas, Illinois, or Virginia confides to his or her diary opposition to slavery then that can settle things. Most people always lack the power to greatly influence their societies one way or another and we can’t blame them for it. But we would do right to look askance at someone who preaches such doctrines, whether in public or private, whilst owning, acquiring, and exploiting slaves. Words can cost us, but actions come dearer still. When the two come into conflict, we can reasonably see the choice of action as expressing the actor’s paramount values. Thomas Jefferson freed only a small number of his slaves. Robert E. Lee freed the five slaves for which he gets undue credit because the terms of his father-in-law’s will required it and got all the work out of them that he could before doing so.

Focusing on intention alone allows us to ignore the details and frees us to bask in the joys of feel good history for white Americans. We need not inquire much about what happened to the slaves, who we implicitly deem marginal and unimportant. Instead we focus on our favorite subject: the agreed-upon virtues of white people. Here we have written ourselves a happy fable which only requires us to dismiss the lives and ordeals of black Americans as meaningless, something which we receive encouragement in every day.

We have also rendered the entire antebellum era incomprehensible. If Americans white enough to matter generally agreed on the evil of slavery and that it must end, then how did white Americans with their absolute control of the American government and all the state and local governments, preside over an era not simply where slavery endured but also thrived and expanded with the frontiers of the nation? How do we account for those decades and the remarkable sacrifice and harvest of lives that finally ended it? If such an antislavery consensus existed, surely it would not have taken decades and seven hundred thousand lives to free the slaves. Nor can such a concord explain how near half the nation spent its share of those lives not to end slavery, as if some foreign foe imposed it upon the land, but rather to preserve it.

Robert E. Lee, Virginia aristocrat, military officer, and future confederate general

Robert E. Lee

To dismiss the limits of the intentions-only approach to antislavery, we must disregard the reality of slavery as experienced by the slaves and prosecuted by the enslavers with the aid of the state the latter ordained, established, and operated. To advocate it requires tacit acceptance of all the previous. That in mind, we should consider such an approach not only dangerously misleading historiography but also inherently white supremacist. No law of nature requires us to assent to such judgments, so if we must accept them then we should give them their proper name.

Admitting the complexities and shortcomings of white Americans, rather than treating them as entombed saints, does not make for us the most comforting and celebratory history. It requires us to look at how our national ancestors stepped on others, stole their lives and labor, destroyed their families, and built an empire not of liberty or some high-toned Enlightenment virtues but rather from flesh and blood drawn by the lash. That unflattering picture ought to cause revulsion, but can also call upon us to do better and offer suggestions for roads forward.

Or we may go on as we always have, stolen lives in hand and supremely convinced of our white virtue. We don’t have to do that. If we cannot begin the world anew, then we still have the power to make it better. If we fail at that, then we can at least acknowledge our failure and admit that we chose it, contenting ourselves with the plunder we have assigned to our skin. We have done so often before, graciously allowing ourselves to forget each time. This exquisite virtue must tragically go unheralded; accepting a pardon admits to a wrong done. We took the flags and statues, among many other things, for granted for long enough that continuation seems far more in our “racial” character than doing otherwise.

The Trouble at Hickory Point, Part One

William Phillips

William Phillips

In the middle of November, the Topeka and Leavenworth conventions finished their respective business. The first drafted its constitution and called elections for ratification. The second condemned the first as treasonable and pledged its members to suppress the free state movement and support the existing laws of Kansas at all hazards. The conventions closed within days of one another. For all the violent rhetoric, political strife in Kansas had yet to claim many lives. Talk of secret military orders could fill the air, but no one had embarked on a campaign.

Alice Nichols sets the scene in Bleeding Kansas:

Hickory Point appeared, to men expert at despoliation, to hold great promise. It was a great grove of hardwood in a land hard pressed for building materials. Missourians had known of this place because Palmyra, at the southern tip of the grove, was on the Santa Fe Trail, and a few dozen serious settlers had brought their families there. Lawrence, however, lay only ten miles to the north and free-soil settlers soon predominated.

The area very much favored the free soilers, with a healthy chapter of the Kansas Legion and “Some hundred free-soil men in the community and fifteen or twenty pro-slave families.” With good timber land at stake and politics to further divide them, not everyone got on well. As William Phillips had it:

While the political sentiment arising from the slavery question had been the moving cause of all the difficulty in Kansas Territory, quarrels about claims have often been the means of precipitating them. The inefficiency of the authorities to preserve the rights of the settlers, the scarcity of courts of judicial officers, and the little confidence felt in what there was of these, prevented the people from securing their rights to their claims, or obtaining redress for any grievance upon them.

What could go wrong?

According to Franklin Coleman, he quit his Virginia home back in 1849 and made his way to Kansas via Iowa and Missouri. There he ran a hotel until September, 1855. Then Kansas called and he answered, wife and son in tow. He found Hickory Point

held by three Indianans, who occupied, partly by their own claims, but mostly as the representatives of certain friends of theirs in Indiana, who, though non-residents, claimed title by them as their proxies. Time passed on, and the absentee claimants neglected to comply with the requisitions of the ‘Squatter Laws’ thereby forfeiting their claims. Three of their claims were accordingly taken by Missourians, who learned that they were lying vacant, in November of 1854. Some few days after these claims had been entered upon, the absentee Indianian claimants arrived.

Yet violence did not erupt in November, 1854. Those concerned agreed to arbitration by a third party. Per Coleman’s narrative, which I have from Brewerton’s The War in Kansasthe arbitration committee had an antislavery majority. They decided in favor of the Missourians. Seeing good land available and both precedent and the local community in his favor, Coleman partnered with a Free State man, John M. Banks. Together they claimed their own slice of Hickory Point. They did their best to respect the privileges of the absentee they proposed to displace:

We notified this person that we had ‘jumped his claim,’ and as we did not wish to take any undue advantage of him, would give it up if he could show any legal right to the land in question.

Coleman seems very interesting in avoiding serious disputes over the land, even allowing for the natural tendency to cast oneself in the best light. The original claimant an Indianian named Frasier, might have let it go. However, he sold his claim to Jacob Branson for fifty dollars. Branson, who Nichols names a leader in the Kansas Legion, didn’t care to just let that money slip away. On learning Coleman squatted on the Frasier claim, Branson informed him of the purchase and his intention to take the land. Coleman, who knew Branson from his time in Kansas City, argued that Frasier had no rights to sell given his absentee status. He offered to put the matter before arbitration.

Resolutions of the Law and Order Party, Part Four

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Shannon goes to Leavenworth: parts 1, 2

Parts 1, 2, 3

Resolution text.

My apologies for forgetting to link to the Squatter Sovereign in the last few posts, Gentle Readers.

Fresh off delivering an officially sanctioned resolution of scorn for the antislavery press and endorsements of the Law and Order party remembered its original promise to serve as a moderating influence  and welcome Kansans of any political stripe, so long as they eschewed the brewing insurrection of the free state movement. With due consideration, they resolved:

we, the members of this convention, the Law and Order Party, the States Right party of Kansas, the opponents of abolitionism, free soilism, and all other ISMS of the day, feel ourselves fully able to sustain the Organic Law of the Territory, and the acts of the Territorial legislature, passed in pursuance thereof, and we hereby pledge ourselves to support and sustain Gov. Shannon in the execution of all laws, and that we have the utmost confidence in the disposition and determination of the Executive to fully and faithfully discharge his duties.

They had come a long way from refusing “to discuss the relative merits of the various political sentiments”. From the start, the Law and Order movement clearly saw itself as a proslavery endeavor. However, its founders also made efforts to appeal to universal values. This sufficed to draw in one somewhat prominent antislavery man, Marcus Parrott. Parrott served as James Lane’s second in the abortive Topeka duel. According to Patrick Laughlin, he also gave orders to fix the vote for Andrew Reeder around Doniphan. However, at Big Springs Parrott stood to oppose Andrew Reeder’s resolutions.

Writing a few years later, William Phillips described Parrott as a South Carolina born lawyer who came to Kansas by way of Ohio:

He is a young man of dark complexion and Southern temperament. He was an administration Democrat when he came to Kansas; but I scarcely feel safe in laying down dates for the opinions of this class of politicians after they have experienced “squatter sovereignty as enunciated under the Kansas-Nebraska Bill.” Of thorough acquirements and profound thought, he was yet paralyzed by the listless indolence truly Southern.

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Not the most sterling endorsement, admittedly, but Phillips thought that Parrott’s Ohio Democracy ties might help him with Shannon. No such luck:

Mr. Parrot, a free-state man, who had been an associate Democrat with Governor Shannon in this, tried to speak but was not permitted to do so. Shannon, as president of the convention, refused to notice him, and Stringfellow told him that “the convention did not want to hear a free-state man.”

You can’t say Marcus Parrott didn’t try. He had at least the potential connections to get a word in and if the Law and Order party really wanted to collect a few antislavery men to the banner, they had one right there. But they ultimately had little to offer and little interest in such a recruit. In light of this, the convention looks much more like the official marriage of the territorial government under Wilson Shannon with the proslavery party that he had consistently, if informally, linked himself to since he first came to Kansas.


Resolutions of the Law and Order Party, Part Three

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

Shannon goes to Leavenworth: parts 1, 2

The Law and Order convention at Leavenworth, with Wilson Shannon presiding, published the usual resolutions of such a gathering. They pronounced themselves conservative, establishment men beset by abolitionist fanatics. They had a good word for the Constitution, another for the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and a kind smile at the laws of Kansas. These, they would defend at all hazards. They had to, as no government democratic, republican, or even despotic, could endure long if it tolerated open flouting of its edicts. No one would have the freedom to judge the laws for themselves and obey only those they chose, when and how they chose, or law itself would fail before whim and caprice. The free state movement did just as they said they could not abide, setting up its own government, running its own election, writing its own constitution, and establishing its own military. This could not stand. Indeed, the movement “should be crushed at once.”

But the convention had not yet fully expressed its outrage. It resolved that the Topeka constitutional convention

called by and elected by, and composed of members of one political party, the so called “Free State Party,” and neither called nor elected by the PEOPLE OF KANSAS, would have been a farce if its purpose had not been treasonable; and any constitution presented by such a convention is unworthy the serious consideration of freemen, and if presented to Congress, as the Constitution of Kansas-should be scouted from its Halls as an insult to its intelligence, and an outrage upon our sovereign rights.

The implication that allowing antislavery politics to advance meant submission features heavily in proslavery rhetoric. Women and slaves submitted, not free men. Thus slavery’s friends, like its foes, declared that they would not tolerate their own enslavement. A white man must resist, lest he appear neither white nor a man.

Two more resolutions have good words to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, both cheekily affirming the right power of the people in the territory to decide for or against slavery for themselves free from meddling by Congress or people from other states. I imagine the men gathered in Leavenworth, fully aware that Missouri votes elected many of them to the legislature, got at least a good smirk out of those.

Then the Law and Order Party, which cast itself as a nonpartisan group and framed its concerns in at least arguably universal tones, expressed

our gratitude to the Democrats of the Northern States for their undeviating support of the true principles of Government, contained in the organic law of this territory.

The non-partisan party thus endorsed the proslavery wing of Northern Democracy. One could expect little else from a body where an appointee of that Democracy presided.

The convention disbursed “contempt and scorn” for the antislavery press for

misrepresenting the facts growing out of the organization of this Territory, all of which are calculated to mislead public sentiment abroad and retard growth and settlement and prosperity of this Territory.

Reading this, one has to remember that no one has the Howard Report to consult. Most everything a person could learn about events in Kansas came from the press and every paper in the land had an open partisan affiliation. Thus to some degree one believed what suited one’s politics. If the convention didn’t deny antislavery reports, then less committed people might take them more seriously.

Resolutions of the Law and Order Party, Part Two

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Shannon goes to Leavenworth: parts 1, 2

Territorial Governor Wilson Shannon, Speaker of the House John Stringfellow, Territorial Secretary Daniel Woodson, and other Kansas proslavery luminaries got together in Leavenworth to have a Law and Order convention. By law, they meant the law of the bogus legislature’s slave code. By order, they meant complete adherence to it. However, they had at least thin grounds to make a general appeal to moderate-minded Kansans. The proslavery party could have gone a bit too far, but the free state movement threatened revolution and anarchy:

The course pursued in this Territory, by certain persons professing to be the peculiar friends of human freedom, is at variance with all law, entirely subversive of good order, and is practical nullification, rebellion, and treason, and should be frowned upon and denounced by every lover of civil liberties and the perpetuity of the Union.

Nullification, in the middle 1850s, had yet to transform itself into the white South’s most popular dogma. If may have taken the Civil Rights Movement to manage that feat. At the time, Shannon and his fellows sat comfortably within a majoritarian tradition of proslavery rhetoric.

Free state men could argue their fidelity to the nation and its traditions of protest, but they proudly declared that they held no loyalty to the government of Kansas and pledged to disregard its laws. To proslavery men, that made for treason. Even without their commitments, the charge of rebellion looks reasonable. Kansas had a lawful government recognized by the United States and it did not meet in Lawrence.

The free soil party could further argue that the proslavery men stripped themselves of any legitimacy they might have by their cooperation with Missourians in purloining Kansas’ elections. The law and order men had heard that often enough to draw up an answer:

the repudiation of the laws and properly constituted authorities of this Territory, by the agents and servants of the Massachusetts Aid Society, and the armed preparation of such agents and servants to resist the execution of the laws of Kansas, are treasonable and revolutionary in their character, and should be crushed at once by the strong, united arm of all lovers of law and order.

Wilson Shannon

Wilson Shannon

So the central argument of the free state party, that external forces had seized and corrupted the government of the territory, turns back on it. That the blue lodges organized first and rushed across the border to threaten and eventually attack antislavery Kansans did not enter into it. People arriving on Emigrant Aid money did, especially if some found Kansas less idyllic than promised and turned back for home at once. Consistency matters in these things.

At this point, I don’t know who the Law and Order convention’s organizers expected to win over. Moderate antislavery opinion aligned with the free state movement. They offered nothing except orders to do as told and condemnation of antislavery strategy in the strongest terms short of violence. Who did they have left in Kansas to persuade? Perhaps no one, but the resolutions could reach other audiences. We can read them, with their official imprimatur and invocations of conservative order, as both a defense of the proslavery party to those abroad and an effort to ease tempers among those within Kansas. On the first count, they tell the nation just how wild antislavery Kansans had run. On the second, they imply to angry proslavery Kansans that the adults have things under control and they should wait for direction rather than take things into their own hands.

A Few Good Antebellum Political Surveys

Gentle Readers, I aim for transparency here. Where possible, I link you through to the primary sources I use. You can go and read them yourselves to see if I judge them fairly or not. I also try to quote generously so you have fullest context. There’s no reason anybody can’t just dive right into the primary sources and get history from there, but I also find secondary works indispensable. A good secondary source will not just give a narrative of events, and some don’t really do narratives as such, but also a generous helping of footnotes or endnotes to plumb for further reading. I have discovered most of the primary sources I use through these notes and hunting around the internet. A lucky search can land you free copies of even paywalled journal articles from recent decades that some kind professor put up for students’ convenience. But I advise getting some grounding in the secondary literature before diving in. This way you can learn the cast of characters, the major movements, and important background concerns that a primary source may simply assume familiarity with.

You can go to almost any bookstore and find a plethora of Civil War books, but the antebellum gets rather less coverage. So today I’d like to recommend some good survey texts, all of which I’ve used in one way or another in the course of writing. I know others exist, but I can only speak to those I have read. I have also restricted my list to books presently in print and present them in rough order of readability and friendliness to a layperson.

The Impending Crisis: America Before the Civil War 1848-1861 by David Potter.

A classic of the field, Potter’s work shows its age in some places. His dislike for abolitionist rhetoric shows through more than once. In some places, he sounds very much like a grumpy white conservative in the Civil Rights Era. In keeping with common usage at the time, he refers to black Americans almost exclusively as Negroes. Potter has a very old school approach to history with a strong focus on political actors, which I share to some degree, but the nuts and bolts narrative communicates very well just what happened when and who did it. Potter covers the whole era in good detail for such a short work, including valuable insights about the nature of state and national loyalties and the connection between antislavery politics and nativism. Furthermore, he writes well and with a minimum of jargon. If you read only one of these books, read Potter.

Disunion! The Coming of the American Civil War, 1789-1859 by Elizabeth Varon

Varon’s work only came out in 2008. She writes in a very modern, approachable voice. Don’t let her introductory words on schools of historiography and the rhetoric of disunion put you off. The opening gives the impression that one has in hand a history of ideas about disunion. While that remains a theme of the book, Varon devotes most of her attention to a general narrative. Between the greater sweep and changes in historical fashion, she spends much less time on detailed analysis of policy evolution than Potter does. However, she integrates intellectual, political, and even gender history into the narrative to a far greater degree. She and Potter will both tell you what happened and why, but Varon looks further under the hood. If gender history doesn’t sound like it has much to do with politics, then Varon’s work will prove otherwise. She has a keen eye for the use of gendered language in period sources, both by women seeking to legitimate their political involvement in antislavery causes and the counters by proslavery writers that they emasculated antislavery men. If you ever wonder what social history in its various modes has to do with more traditional approaches, reading Varon will tell you.

The Road to Disunion: Secessionists at Bay 1776-1854 and Secessionists Triumphant: 1854-1861 by William W. Freehling

Recommending a two volume work takes a bit of cheek, I know. Bear with me. Freehling’s survey of Southern politics from independence until secession does not always make for the most engaging read. Freehling can write very well, but can also turn convoluted and lose you in a forest of his personal slang. If that doesn’t do it, then the cast of characters might. Both of these criticisms apply less to the second volume than the first. The first also has slave dialog written in eye dialect, which strikes me as on the edge of good taste even by the standards of 1990.

His forward to the second volume makes it clear that Freehling understands the major issues with his first and sought to remedy them. He succeeded with the dialect and uses fewer nicknames, but I still had several points where I had to hit the index or look elsewhere to help me keep the players straight. If you stick it out with Freehling, he will introduce you to a colorful cast of characters and the ways their personal lives informed their politics. He writes a great biographical sketch. Some reviewers think he goes too far in this, reducing everything to individual eccentricities, but to my reading he generally keeps a broader perspective. That perspective comes deeply informed by social history, including many insights into the minds of slaveholders and the ways in which their authoritarian habits at home influenced both sectional and national politics. The first volume, for all its problematic writing, earns its keep in the introductory chapters alone. There Freehling gives a tour of the antebellum South right down to the number of times you have to change trains.

I understand that Freehling’s explanation of Upper South secession does not meet with universal acceptance; I don’t know that he entirely convinced me with it. However, his running argument that the fear of dissent within the white South informed a great deal of sectional politics bears consideration. It doesn’t explain the entire South or hold true to the same degree at all times, but he convinced me that we should take it seriously as a factor in proslavery thought and action. We have far too an easy a time imagining the white South as monolithic. The fear of white dissent arose out of tensions within Southern society, so attention to it as a theme helps explain just why proslavery radicals both became extreme and gained followers as time went on. Freehling confines most of his writing directed at fellow professionals to the endnotes, but they make for informative reading in themselves and include at least one moment where he graciously admits to a flaw in his own work.