The Herald of Freedom on Patrick Laughlin, Part One

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

The Squatter Sovereign, as one might expect, greeted news of Patrick Laughlin’s killing of Samuel Collins with apparent glee. The death of a free state man at the hands of a proslavery man warranted celebration, even if the editors chose to give Collins twelve companions against whom Laughlin struggled almost alone. I hoped to find a proslavery paper less keen on the affair to examine for contrast, or to learn that the Sovereign’s public joy spread to other papers, but haven’t had any luck. My access to the Leavenworth Herald falls off in early September of 1855 and much thereafter has even survived, it seems the Library of Congress doesn’t know of it. The Kickapoo Pioneer does survive, but in libraries states away. We’ll survive the lack, but it does mean that the only contrast comes from George Brown’s Herald of Freedom.

The October 27 edition has nothing to say about Laughlin, Collins, or the Kansas Legion. Given that the fight happened on the 25th and some distance away, one can hardly blame Brown for not knowing or not having the time to set the type and still meet his deadline. Owing to uncertain paper supplies, Brown elected to go skip a few weeks, so the next paper did not come out until November 17. That issue includes several interesting pieces, some of which may appear in future posts, but on the Collins killing, Brown had little to say. He offered up no excited headline, only “Murder.”

We see in the St. Joseph Cycle, that a fatal rencounter [sic] occurred a few days ago at Doniphan, between Pat Laughlin, the perjurer-according to his own confession-and SAMUEL COLLINS, a Free State man, and late Delegate to the Big Springs’ Convention, growing out of Pat’s exposure of a secret organization said to exist in the Territory. The Cycle represents Pat as acting in self-defense, but nobody believes the statement. COLLINS had resided about a year in the Territory, and was a man of intelligence and much personal worth. We shall have further information as regards the facts in a few days.

As a person who answers to “Pat”, I find Brown’s use of it as a kind of slur deeply amusing. I suspect that he intended to play on anti-Irish sentiment by stressing it, given the frequent overlap of antislavery and nativist sentiment.

Brown confesses to lacking the necessary facts for a larger piece, which seems unlikely weeks after Collins died. From context, Brown means that he lacked trustworthy antislavery witnesses to tell him what “really” happened. We suffer the same lack today, though I suspect we would find more of actual events by comparing those missing accounts with the proslavery version than by taking either at face value. His defense of Collins involves recourse to Collins’ reputation. This suggests to me that Brown knew they stood together for a free Kansas and little else about Collins. I’ve read him vouch personally for men he knew in the past, but he makes only a token and decidedly impersonal effort here. Most likely Brown only knew Collins by reputation and politics, but took the latter as sufficient to guarantee the former. A good man opposed slavery and a good man would not go spoiling for a fight. Therefore Laughlin, who he knew as a bad man for breaking his oath of secrecy, could not possibly have acted in self-defense.

The Squatter Sovereign on Patrick Laughlin

Patrick Laughlin killed Samuel Collins in a dispute over his published revelations on the Kansas Legion, which I’ve taken some time to examine. I found them reprinted in the Squatter Sovereign for November 6, 1855. The killing itself justified the printing, which consumed most of the Sovereign’s second page. The Sovereign customarily used its first page for short fiction and poetry, this amounted to front page news in the estimation of John Stringfellow and Robert Kelley. After the usual endorsement of David Rice Atchison for President, the Sovereign printed a paragraph on the turning season and then progressed to the matter at hand.

It transpired that not every proslavery paper in Kansas much cared for Laughlin. The Sovereign reports

The “Kickapoo Pioneer,” a Know-Nothing paper published in this Territory is the only pro-slavery (?) Journal that has had the temerity to question the veracity of Mr. Laughlin’s exposition of the midnight order of abolitionists in this Territory. It should be remembered that its editors are Know-Nothings, and that Mr. Laughlin is an Irishman, and therefore in the opinions of these scape-graces, his statements are “not worth much.”

The Know-Nothings dreamed that their anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant movement could save the Union by uniting the sections against the fruit of Rome, Ireland, and Germany. Knowing how things went at the end of the decade, we can easily forget that for a brief time they formed a significant force in American politics. Here we have both a reminder of that and at least a point of tension within the proslavery party. I’d very much like to see what the Pioneer said in its own words, but no one seems to have digitized it.

After dismissing the Pioneer’s editors a bunch of anti-Irish bigots and casting aspersions on their commitment to slavery, Stringfellow and Kelley pressed on to the main event:

GREAT EXCITEMENT AT DONIPHAN! AN ABOLITIONISTS KILLED!!

GREAT EXCITEMENT AT DONIPHAN! AN ABOLITIONISTS KILLED!!

I couldn’t do the glee with which the Sovereign reported the killing justice without including the headline. The news so pleased them that their grammar fell over. For the most part, the paper tells the same story as the witnesses did. Collins confronted Laughlin and demanded a retraction. However:

In accordance with this determination, he and some TWELVE brother Abolitionists proceeded Wednesday last to seek out Mr. Laughlin, and demand an unqualified retraction of his recent confession

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

John Stringfellow, Speaker of the House of Kansas

Collins had relatives with him and they did involve themselves, but nothing in the witness testimony suggests a band of thirteen abolitionists chasing after Laughlin. Accurate news probably had time to reach the Sovereign before printing, but word of these things can grow in the retelling. Or John Stringfellow could have lied to paint the antislavery party in a darker light. He could say to the South that his party had done so much on their behalf in Kansas but now they had monstrous legions arrayed against them. They desperately needed all the help they could get to hold the line. Should that help not arrive, then Kansas’ proslavery men could go down overwhelmed by numbers or prevail against all odds, valiant specimens of white manhood either way.

The Constitution and Ritual of the Kansas Legion, Part Five

Cyrus K. Holliday, Grand Vice-General of the Kansas Legion

Cyrus K. Holliday, Grand Vice-General of the Kansas Legion

Parts 12, 3, 4Squatter Sovereign article

Patrick Laughlin published the constitution and rituals of the Kansas Legion, but his article included more information still. It appears that when the Grand Encampment had their first session, on February 8, 1855, they passed a resolution that offers a useful reminder that their movement did not consist entirely of twenty-first century egalitarians, but rather nineteenth century white Americans. In April, the legion’s founders wrote their constitution. In February, they had this to say:

Whereas, while we regard the Freedom of Kansas Territory as the highest of all political considerations which may now or hereafter engage our attention as a free and intelligent people, we at the same time regard it as impolitic and wrong to adopt any line of policy that may in any manner interfere with the domestic relations of our neighboring States or Territories–therefore,

Resolved, that we hold it to be just and proper in our relations with our sister States as a fundamental principle of action, and most promotive of the public good of the Territory, that laws preventing the emigration of either Slaves or Free negroes be enacted by our coming General Assembly and eventually engrafted in the constitution of the State.

Andrew Francis wanted to join the free state movement because he understood its goal as largely the same as his free white state party: no black Americans in Kansas. Missouri need not worry, as Kansas would let Missourians come and take back their absconded slaves. Kansan whites need not worry, as they would not let any black person free or slave remain long in their territory. Every black person would lose if they had their way, and therefore every white person would win.

David Wilmot

David Wilmot

Not every antislavery Kansan went along with that, as recurrent debates over Jim Lane’s black law demonstrate, but they could not carry the state on their own. For every Charles Robinson, who would make black men and women of all races into voters, the United States had at least dozens of David Wilmots bent on constraining slavery only as a way to make the continent whites only. The egalitarians could grumble about it and write protests, but without the numbers they could accomplish little else. Worse, if they insisted too forcefully they might break the tide of resentment that repeated theft of elections had engendered in white Kansans and send some of the black law men back over to the proslavery side. I don’t know that we could say which course would have led to a better outcome any easier than they could have.

James Henry Lane

James Henry Lane

Laughlin concluded his exposure of the Legion with suitable fireworks:

Now that I have shown the foul, treasonable and murderous plottings of a party in which preachers of the Gospel stand pre-eminent-it is my duty to give also to the world, in order to make my statements more perfect, the Grip, Signs, and Passwords of this modern army, made up of the chivalrous sons of darkness.

Thus Laughlin told Kansas, and anybody in Missouri who cared to read it as well, not just what he knew or the contents of documents. He also provided the means to infiltrate a meeting. They need not take his word for it, but could go see for themselves. While present they could note the faces, then return home and tell their friends.

The article concludes with a statement of Laughlin’s character. Seven men swore to having known Laughlin since he came to Kansas and

take pleasure in saying that his demeanor has been that of a gentleman, and that they consider his statements perfectly reliable in every respect.

The seven worthies included James Forman and James Lynch, both of whom took part in the Laughlin-Collins clash. I suspect we know now just how Collins came to see Lynch as his enemy. Two other Formans, John and A.P. signed as well, likely relatives of James.

 

The Constitution and Ritual of the Kansas Legion, Part Four

Cyrus K. Holliday, Grand Vice-General of the Kansas Legion

Cyrus K. Holliday, Grand Vice-General of the Kansas Legion

Parts 12, 3Squatter Sovereign article

 

You had to swear twice to join the Kansas Legion. The first time, you swore not to reveal what you would learn of the group and its business at the meeting where they planned to induct you. Then, reeling from the stunning revelation that this secretive group of antislavery men constituted a secretive group of antislavery men, must swear a more binding oath. The Constitution and Ritual of the Kansas Legion set this down word for word and Patrick Laughlin published it with the rest of the Legion’s secrets.

The Howard Report also contains a version of the oath, as remembered by Andrew Francis. Francis uses the Kansas Regulators. He joined after Laughlin’s original publication, some time shortly after October 11. At his induction, Andrew Reeder impressed on Francis that the Regulators had nothing to do with the Kansas Legion that Laughlin exposed. Other witnesses, notably Martin F. Conway, also testify to two organizations. Given the similarity between the groups, their identical politics, the short timespan between the fall of one and the presumed rise of the next, I don’t take this claim very seriously. Francis’s testimony suggests that he tended to take people very much at their word. That considered, I see the Regulators as unlikely to differ substantially from the Legion. Most likely, the members changed their name and altered a few habits rather than founded an entirely different group.

The oath that the Legion specified might not perfectly match the oath Francis recalled, even if he originally swore the same words. That could come down to actual changes, imperfect memory, or local variations in usage, but the two bear examination together all the same. The official oath begins

I, _____, in the most solemn manner, here, in the presence of Heaven and these witnesses, bind myself that I will never reveal, nor cause to be revealed, either by word, look or sign, by writing, printing, engraving, painting or in any manner whatsoever anything pertaining to this institution, save to persons duly qualified to receive the same. I will never reveal the name of this organization, the place of meeting, the fact that any person is a member of the same, or even the existence of the organization, except to persons legally qualified to receive the same.

The Howard Committee

The Howard Committee

This substantially matches Francis’ oath. He references “the Almighty” instead of “the presence of Heaven” and phrases the obligations differently, but captures the same meaning. Francis adds that the oath required him to obey, to the cost of his own life, the commands of his superiors. The Legion’s oath has nothing like that. Instead, one must

support, maintain and abide by any honorable movement made by this organization to secure this great end [a free Kansas], which will not conflict with the laws of the country and the Constitution of the United States. I will unflinchingly vote for and support the candidates nominated by this organization, in preference to any and all others.

One could take the obedience unto death part as read, but the text doesn’t really suggest that. Someone could have added it in accord with local usage, but one wouldn’t expect local variants to have much traction in the immediate surrounds of the men who wrote down the original. A more severe version of the oath might have gone out after Laughlin put the Legion in the papers. Francis might have remembered things told to him informally as part of the oath. Or he might have resented the Legion/Regulators for letting him think Wilson Shannon supported them and added it out of spite.

Francis’ oath also bound him to commercial non-intercourse with proslavery men, to whatever degree he could manage. The Legion’s oath has no such provision. Nor does it require, as Francis claims he swore, that one must bear arms. However, the Legion’s constitution provides that encampments of thirty or more must form military companies and the prescribed rituals consistently refer to members as soldiers, so I don’t think he went far off script in reading that between the lines.

The Legion’s oath concludes

To all of this obligation I do most solemnly promise and affirm, binding myself under the penalty of being expelled from this organization, of having my name published to the several Territorial Encampments as a perjurer before Heaven and a traitor to my country-of passing through life scorned and reviled by men, frowned on by devils, forsaken by angels, and abandoned by God.

Frnacis didn’t call these lines out as such, but if they appeared in the oath he swore then they might well have discomfited him on religious grounds. He mentions such scruples in his testimony, as well as concerns about swearing to oppose the legislature’s work conflicting with his oath as a lawyer.

The induction ritual continued with a recitation of the familiar free soil grievances and the insalubrious effects of slavery upon the prosperity of the land. The Colonel would then teach the secret handshake, knocks, and passwords. The new member must not forget to whisper the latter. It wouldn’t do for every Atchison, Stringfellow, and Kelley to learn them.

 

 

Jim Crow Restored in Florida

The Warren Court in 1953

The Warren Court in 1953

If a man burst into your house, seized your belongings, and carried them off for his own enjoyment, you would call him a thief. He not only took things you had from you, but denied you the future enjoyment of them. We have laws against this sort of thing. Everyone would expect some kind of punishment to ensue. If a man seized your child and beat him or her so severely that it caused brain damage, so the child might never be the same again and never able to do all the things that we once dreamed, we would call the perpetrator more than a thief. He stole not just things, not just future pleasures, but a life. The child might live and there may still be happy times and sad times. I will not argue that a life fully ended beats a life disabled; people must make those choices for themselves. But if not for that beating, the child could have grown into a healthier, more successful adult. A monstrous crime like this should make the news. We should hear about the man’s history of mental illness, real or imagined. We should look forward to hearing that he will spend decades in prison. Someone would make a joke about rape. Others would argue that through his crime he had exited the species and concerns about human rights no longer applied. Whatever the guards and fellow prisoners wanted to do, we should look on with delight. We should cheer the execution of righteous violence against the embodiment of evil.

Perhaps the small crime of stealing one life cannot excite. I have known people for whom that sufficed, but people known to a history blogger do not constitute a representative sample of Americans. Imagine that a group of people broke the skulls and wounded the brains of hundreds of children. Imagine they did this for years on end, putting their victims in the thousands. Coming up on fourteen years ago, Americans responded to this scale of misdeed with enthusiastic vengeance against not merely the guilty, but against anybody who so much as looked like them. We accomplished even the remarkable feat of attacking an unrelated country in response. Patriotic commercials hit the airwaves. On the internet, everyone posted cartoons of an eagle calmly sharpening its talons. A general told us that we had no responsibility to reconcile the guilty to their god, only to arrange the meeting. A decade later, we did.

I don’t think we should admire the lust for vengeance, but I can understand it as well as anybody. When pricked, we bleed. When wronged, we revenge. Few things unfetter the more vicious side of our nature than the heady drug of righteousness. This does not make us a singularly evil people any more than it makes us singularly virtuous. Humans of all nations feel the same impulses and struggle to contain them or release them as much as we do. But if Americans have not earned a reputation as a singularly forgiving, restrained people, then the world has judged us unfairly.

Consider that in 2007, the Pinellas County School Board voted to re-segregate its schools. As various Supreme Court decisions have left Brown vs. Board of Ed. with only slightly more weight as precedent than Dred Scott, they could do this. John Roberts told the nation that year that integration schools constituted a racist offense as great as segregating them. When the Pinellas Board voted to re-segregate, it knew precisely what would happen. It promised that all manner of aid would go to predominantly black schools so that they could remain equal while becoming separate. It would all work out.

The aid never arrived. Instead, according to the Tampa Bay Times:

In just eight years, Pinellas County School Board members turned five schools in the county’s black neighborhoods into some of the worst in Florida.

[…]

Then — as black children started failing at outrageous rates, as overstressed teachers walked off the job, as middle class families fled en masse — the board stood by and did nothing.

Today thousands of children are paying the price, a Tampa Bay Times investigation has found.

They are trapped at Campbell Park, Fairmount Park, Lakewood, Maximo and Melrose — five neighborhood elementary schools that the board has transformed into failure factories.

Every year, they turn out a staggering number of children who don’t know the basics.

Eight in 10 fail reading, according to state standardized test scores. Nine in 10 fail math.

Ranked by the state Department of Education, Melrose is the worst elementary school in Florida. Fairmount Park is No. 2. Maximo is No. 10. Lakewood is No. 12. Campbell Park is No. 15.

The victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

The victims of the Birmingham Church Bombing

The board turned average, middle of the road high schools into conspicuous failure. It took from the children consigned to them whatever futures they might have enjoyed with better conditions, conditions entirely within the Board’s reach to deliver, and made failures of them. The Board took from them education, the ability to improve themselves, chances for a better life. It took these just as surely as if it had gone around with a van to every home in the district, rounded up all the black children, and dispensed lobotomies. Pinellas might not have had the of best schools before, but it had at least average ones. The Board chose to make them worse. The bureaucrat’s pen can do the work of the billy club, bomb, and gun far more efficiently and no less destructively.

The reporters spent years investigating, reading thousands of documents. They checked Pinellas against other districts and learned that the Board had manufactured literally the worst place in Florida to commit the egregious crime of attending public school while black. They found:

Ninety-five percent of black students tested at the schools are failing reading or math, making the black neighborhoods in southern Pinellas County the most concentrated site of academic failure in all of Florida.

The usual excuses come at this point. People who insist they are not white supremacists will say that black Americans have a culture problem, the fashionable way to say that they’re just inferior to whites. Or they have a poverty problem, which somehow adheres to their skin color through means beyond our understanding. Who knows how these things work? Not the school board:

“This is a nationwide thing, not just us. You hear school districts everywhere talking about this,” said Peggy O’Shea, who also voted for the plan in 2007. “It’s an issue that’s everywhere, unfortunately.”

“We only talk about it in black schools,” she added, “but we resegregated white schools as well.”

It all sounds plausible enough if one cannot bear the burden of thought. Just how do cause and effect work? By what strange alchemy could one connect isolating black children and depriving them of the resources necessary for them to get an adequate education lead to their failure to do so? The white kids left and the test scores went into the sewer. We can’t explain it. Nor can we explain why the white schools do better. These things just happen. Then comes the meaningful silence that we must fill with the unspoken truth: the black kids can’t do better because their nature makes them into the inferiors of whites.
But the Times burdened itself with facts and committed an act of journalism:

All of this is a recent phenomenon. By December 2007, when the board ended integration, black students at the schools had posted gains on standardized tests in three of the four previous years. None of the schools was ranked lower than a C. Today, all the schools have F ratings.

School districts everywhere don’t manage worst in state performance. That takes a rarefied gift. One has to work hard at it. Fortunately, the Pinellas Board had that kind of effort in them. Animated by the best American can-do spirit

After reshaping the schools, the district funded four of them erratically. Some years they got less money per student than other schools, including those in more affluent parts of the county. In 2009, the year after resegregation, at least 50 elementary schools got more money per student than Campbell Park.

One can’t say that they did not know how to do well, since the Board did better until 2007. Nor can one say that they lacked examples of how to do well elsewhere from which they could have learned, had they curiously forgotten the art:

Other districts with higher passing rates are doing far more to aid black students, including creating special offices to target minority achievement, tracking black students’ progress in real time and offering big bonuses to attract quality teachers to high-minority schools. Pinellas does none of those things.

This does not happen accidentally. This does not arise from ignorance or indifference. The Board knew precisely what course they chose, what it would accomplish, and have stood in the way of all attempts to undo it. As Board member Carol Cook had it:

“We’ve looked at just about everything we can and put things in place,” said Carol Cook, who also voted for resegregation in 2007. “I think we’re on the right track.”

Roof's victims, via the BBC

Dylann Roof’s victims, via the BBC

She means every word of that. They set out to plunder the lives of black children and have had a rousing success at it. They have not made mistakes; they have achieved goals. It would not do to admit that, just as it doesn’t do to hoist the Confederate battle flag, don the white hood, and go off a-lynching. Nobody wants to look like Dylann Roof when one can reach his ends without such gauche accoutrements. Better to play ignorant:

Linda Lerner, who voted for the plan that resegregated the district in 2007, blamed the schools’ problems on “the cycle of poverty,” not on actions by the School Board.

Lerner has may not have learned that the connection between poverty and skin color did not arise naturally, but rather people like her created it deliberately. We could blame her schools for that. Or she could have learned the connection, correctly understood her traditions, and carried them on happily. Florida has places where poverty, however constructed, and violence, however encouraged, impede education. But those places do better than Pinellas. Once more, the Times had facts:

In St. Petersburg, the crime rate is 12 percent lower than in Orlando, 15 percent lower than in Daytona Beach and 21 percent lower than in Panama City.

The poverty rate among blacks in Pinellas is 32 percent, compared to 33 percent in Escambia County, 35 percent in Alachua County and 36 percent in Volusia County.

Yet the black neighborhoods in Pinellas are home to schools that are doing far worse than schools in any of those places.

At West Jacksonville Elementary — in a neighborhood so violent it’s nicknamed Lil’ Baghdad — black students are passing reading at twice the rate as at Fairmount Park.

In Palm Beach County, at Belle Glade Elementary — in one of Florida’s poorest places — black children are passing reading at three times the rate as at Melrose.

[…]

There were 1,664 regular elementary schools tested in Florida in 2014. Students at 1,650 of those schools passed reading at higher rates than children in Pinellas County’s five most segregated schools.

Poverty doesn’t explain Pinellas’ problems. One hundred eighty-four elementary schools are as poor or poorer than Pinellas’ worst schools. All but seven outperformed the Pinellas schools in reading and math.

If Pinellas managed typical performance for a Florida school in similar circumstances, then the Board might evade some of the blame. They could paint themselves plausibly as victims of larger trends outside their control. But Pinellas’ achievements in excellence beat those of places that have it worse.

The rate of failure in the five elementary schools is unlike anything that occurs elsewhere in Florida.

The Board could see a light at the end of the tunnel if they wanted to. They could undo all they have done. They need only want to. But why should they? Carol Cook said she thought the district on the right track. She knew the numbers when she said it. She heard the complaints from parents. She could see how other districts did. None of those things mattered to her, or the rest of the board, because they had the opposite goals from other districts. They wanted not to help black students improve, but rather to ensure their failure. The designed a program to achieve that and it has worked. Where we see defeat, they celebrate victory. They have stolen the futures available to black children and put them in the hands of white children in accord with the American Dream:

“They won’t even consider what other school boards have done,” said the Rev. Manuel Sykes, pastor of Bethel Community Baptist Church in St. Petersburg. “They refuse to accept that there are people who are doing things better.”

In the Board’s eyes, other districts have not done better but rather worse. No one can beat Pinellas’ performance. For this, for pillaging the youth of their county, we do not damn the Board. We do not have cartoons of the eagle sharpening its talons for them, no matter how many lives they destroyed. We forgive them the children taken away from all they could have achieved. No angry mobs gather at their doorsteps. No burning crosses adorn their lawns. The nation does not cry out for vengeance. We do not speak of scheduling meetings with their god. It takes a remarkably broad-minded nation to suffer such crimes.

This magnanimity ought to serve as a beacon in a dark world. Americans forgive. We have a great nation and when it does wrong, we forgive it. We always forgive it because we consider it ourselves. The Pinellas School Board, like the other segregationists and like the slaveholders before them, we see as part of ourselves. Forgiveness always comes easy in such cases. When the people do our actual bidding, instead of what we tell ourselves we have bid them to do, we don’t even feel it necessary to consider such things. Why forgive the absence of a wrong?

Peter from Louisiana

Peter from Louisiana

If black Americans suffer, then why would we deem that wrong? We belong to Club White, from which we have forever excluded them. Therefore the most horrific wrongs done unto them at best amount to an idle curiosity. We might feel a pang of conscience here or there, like we do for the victims of a natural disaster somewhere across an ocean. More often we know, even if we do not admit it, that we have not heard the miseries of the victims of hurricanes and floods, but the victims of our own designs. We have black America right where we want it. If we call ourselves innocent, then we mean not that we have not done these things but rather that we count them no crimes. They express what we honestly understand as our virtues, not our vices. Vices belong to other people, warmed in the light of different suns. Those children of lesser gods cannot help themselves, so we must subject them to discipline. If a few, a few hundred, a few thousand, or a few million suffer for it, so much the better. They serve as an example to others. These creatures, which we begrudgingly call people, simply must learn their place.

As a slaveholder told Frederick Law Olmstead a century and a half ago:

After “strokes had ceased” and “choking, sobbing, spasmodic groans only were heard,” Olmstead asked if it was “necessary to punish her so severely.’ … ‘O yes sir,” answered the lasher, laughing at the Yankee’s innocence. Northerners ‘have no idea how lazy these niggers are …”They’d never do any work at all if they were not afraid of being whipped.”

We tell ourselves that we have consigned these things to the past. America, born perfect, became better still. We made slavery past tense, even if half the country fought a bloody war to save it, fought another to undo its abolition, and then fought again to preserve its newer forms of subjugation. We keep telling ourselves that even as those new forms shift ever so slightly and continue along, almost unimpeded. We continue on, free from the burden of any facts, pretending that we have won one battle even we we pop the corks on the champagne to celebrate victory in another. We have only ourselves to congratulate.

I do not propose that we should turn the panoply of racial violence against the members of the Panellas School Board. No one should steal their property or their children. No one should terrorize them. No one should take from them the basics that human decency insists we grant to everyone. We need not end them to end this. But so long as we let it continue, we make ourselves accessories in their crimes. When we learn of things like this, everyone declares them not of America. We live in some different country. If our mail still reaches us at addresses in this one, if we vote in its elections, if we insist on using the same name as that strange place where all the virtues we pretend to count as vices live, then civility demands no one call the assertion into question. We have another, better country and we keep it that way by keeping the wrong sorts of people out. We made black and white so we would know which people deserved admission and which had to live in rude shacks down the hill.

We did not have to do this; no law of nature demanded it. Nor did we start this way. We chose our path beside the Chesapeake long ago and we have made ourselves its faithful inheritors. The brute facts dictate we could do otherwise. We could do it tomorrow just as we could have done it today and all the yesterdays sailing upstream on whip-cut rivers of blood and screams of agony across a continent, over the ocean, and through the centuries. We could do it, but confessing that means confessing also the harder truth: We have for all that time in a multitude of ways chosen to stay our course. We have chosen to call plunder right and justice wrong. We have not made a nation that celebrates civil rights martyrs and cherishes their legacy, but rather the nation that killed them.

The Constitution and Ritual of the Kansas Legion, Part Three

Cyrus K. Holliday, Grand Vice-General of the Kansas Legion

Cyrus K. Holliday, Grand Vice-General of the Kansas Legion

Parts 1 and 2Squatter Sovereign article

Once a new Kansas Legionnaire swore that he would not reveal what he saw in the Legion’s meetings, his regiment’s Aid would pass him on to the Colonel for instructions. These instructions began with some flattery:

Sir, it is with joy we welcome you to this place, to these scenes and to this sacred alliance. We trust you will find in us that purity of purpose, and we will find in you such nobleness and truth, that this union may result in constantly increasing regard, confidence, and love between us. This country is yours by adoption, and as belonging to you and your children, you feel a deep interest in its prosperity, its honor, and its destiny.

But one had just petitioned to join a secret antislavery paramilitary group. If the postulant missed the significance of this, the Colonel went on to narrate the plight of an antislavery man in Kansas

where slavery intends making its next innovation; already we have had a foretaste of its contaminating touch, and knowing that strength lies in union-feeling that our country and our God demands of us in this emergency that every man should do his duty

The Quartermaster’s oath of secrecy insisted nothing learned would put a burden on a man’s conscience or come between him and his god. The Colonel’s speech suggests that failure to join would accomplish the latter. A good, Christian man had a duty to his god. The Legion would inform him of it, if necessary, and guide him in accomplishing it. This entailed that he throw together with other antislavery men, forging “solemn bonds” through which they would learn their “strength” and “act in concert throughout this whole Territory.”

This all bent toward the end of a free Kansas, of course, but the Colonel impressed upon the postulant that matters political and matters personal came together. The Legion would work to free Kansas, but also to

exert an influence, possess an efficiency, and enjoy personal and civil protection, which as mere individuals we could not obtain.

Here we find reference to personal danger, just as George Brown had described. That Kansas did not erupt in quite the advertised level of bloodshed did not make it entirely safe. Back in April, when the founders of the Legion set down the constitution and ritual, no white men had yet died. But they had the threats and violence, however non-lethal, that had attended the March polls to consider. If men could burst into a polling place and demand the election judges give over at gunpoint, then they could do more in the future.

George W. Brown

George W. Brown

Brown and others may have exaggerated the danger, but the extent of his fear came out in a private letter that he did not appreciate seeing published. If he had reason to exaggerate for the public, he had less reason to do so in personal correspondence. I don’t have that letter, but Brown admitted writing it and, at least by implication, that it encouraged someone not to come to Kansas. This runs against the grain of his publications and contrary to his political interests, so we should take it as less burdened by a desire to keep up appearances and more indicative of his honest beliefs at the time of writing.

Furthermore, we should keep in mind that even if Brown and others knew they exaggerated proslavery violence then did not know, as we do, just how far the proslavery men would and would not go. What appear exaggerations to us might have seemed to them quite reasonable projections of the way Kansas would progress even if they fell short of perfectly accurate reporting.

With all these things to consider, the Colonel then offered up a second oath. The first only promised secrecy enough for a man to learn what the Kansas Legion entailed. It took another to make him into a proper member. More on that Tuesday.

The Constitution and Ritual of the Kansas Legion, Part Two

CK Holliday

Cyrus K. Holliday, Grand Vice-General of the Kansas Legion

We left off with a high-level view of the Kansas Legion’s organization, as exposed by the turncoat Patrick Laughlin. That exposure outraged Samuel Collins, who he implicated as a member, and in short order led to Collins’ death at Laughlin’s hand. Collins had instigated the confrontation gave Laughlin a serious stabbing wound, but Laughlin finished him in trade. On the occasion of the fight between the men, the Squatter Sovereign reprinted Laughlin’s piece.

The Grand Encampment of the Kansas Legion ran the militia as a whole, but its day-to-day workings took place in subordinate regiments. They could claim the title with as few as five men, but the legion expected actual military service out of groups that boasted thirty or more. Even, perhaps especially, with genuine danger to their persons and property, a nineteenth century boy’s club needed its rituals. Laughlin’s document laid them down, starting with the opening of meetings. The Colonel of the regiment would address his men:

Fellow Soldie[r]s in the Free State Army, the hour has arrived when we must resume the duties devolving upon us. Let us each with a heart devoted to Justice, Patriotism and Liberty, attend closely to all the regulations laid down for our government and action, each laboring to make this review pleasant and profitable to ourselves, and a blessing to our Country. Aid, are the sentinels at their posts with closed doors?

The Aid would then declare that the sentinels had their places, one inside the doors and one without. The Colonel would then give leave for the Aid to ,make the rounds, quizzing men on the Legion passwords. Given everyone closeted together and no instructions to draw the examined apart from those waiting, this probably served more to catch the forgetful and the napping than any who somehow infiltrated.

When everyone remembered their passwords, a typical meeting would go on to review applicants for membership. The Aid would present nominees one by one to the Quartermaster. That officer had the job of fully explaining the Legion to new recruits. However, as a secret society they couldn’t just tell all. In order to know the details, one had to swear an oath on one’s “honor as a man” to reveal nothing he learned of the Legion or its members. Only so preapproved could a postulant legionnaire learn these startling revelations:

This institution is temporary and local in its character and nature. it is designed for the Territory of Kansas, and is to continue at least until the vote shall have settled the question as to whether Kansas shall be a FREE or SLAVE State. The requirements of this institution will not interfere with rights of conscience, or the duties you owe yourselves, your families, your country, or your God. They will conflict with no law of the land. We seek, in a noble, honorable and just manner, to accomplish two things. First: To secure to Kansas the blessing and prosperity of being a Free State; and, second, to protect the ballot box from the leprous touch of unprincipled men. Such are our principles. Do you still desire admission?

I don’t know how one could get so far and miss the details revealed, but they might have constituted the first time a postulant had the Legion’s purpose from the horse’s mouth rather than rumor and vague explanations from his sponsor. The emphasis that the Legion’s dictates would not interfere with one’s conscience, religious, or family duties reads a bit defensive, but probably reassured men who wondered just what all the ceremony really meant. The postulant would then agree and the Aid would convey him on to the Colonel “for instructions.”

The Constitution and Ritual of the Kansas Legion, Part One

CK Holliday

Cyrus K. Holliday

Sorry for the delay on this post, Gentle Readers. I had everything done properly, but WordPress declined to publish as scheduled.

With Dale Watts’ article and the Laughlin-Collins fight fresh in mind, I went into the papers to see what I could find reporting both Laughlin’s exposure of the Kansas Legion and the altercation that ended in Collins’ death. I hoped to compare accounts in the Squatter Sovereign, Herald of Freedom, and Leavenworth Herald. Along the way, I unexpectedly found Laughlin’s original article exposing the Legion. It went out in the St. Joseph Gazette, to which I lack access, but the November 6, 1855 Squatter Sovereign helpfully reprinted it

Laughlin began with an introductory note, explaining his pure motives and progressive disillusionment with the free state movement. All of this runs substantially the same as his testimony in the Howard Report, closely enough that I suspect Laughlin either referred to the text then or had memorized it. Laughlin then goes on to share the “Constitution and Ritual Of the Grand Encampment, and Regiments of the Kansas Legion, of Kansas Territory. Adopted April 4th, 1855.”

The constitution provided for the governance of the legion by a Grand Encampment, drawn from representatives of each regiment of fifty or more. They would meet “on the third Wednesday of January and July, at such hour and places as shall be selected by the Encampment at the previous semi-annual session.” The Grand Encampment would have an equally grand General, Vice General, Quartermaster, Pay-master, Aid, and Chaplain. Two Sentinels did not warrant the grand style. The constitution of the Grand Encampment dealt mostly with administrative details, but ended by naming names. I only recognized Cyrus K. Holliday, Grand Vice General, founder of Topeka and frequent delegate to antislavery conventions.

The Constitution of Subordinate Encampments had more everyday details. To join, a man twenty-one or older had to prove loyal to the free state cause. Those as young as eighteen could join, but only if three members vouched for them. Three negative votes of the regiment would reject any member. Once in, one who wanted out had to receive a certificate “signed by the Colonel and countersigned by the Quarter-master, upon the payment of 10 cents for such certificate.” The same applied if one wished to transfer between regiments. This would keep the quartermaster in the loop as to personnel changes, and probably also keep some men from resigning to avoid the trouble.

Subordinate encampments had the same officers, with largely the same duties, as the grand encampment save that they had to settle for the title of Colonel. The constitution charged the Aid

to examine the members, at the opening of the Regiment, and report any who are incorrect to the Colonel

I don’t know if we should read that in a strictly military light or as an injunction to scrutinize members’ politics, but I suspect both. Members could face “reprimand, suspension or expulsion” if two-thirds of a meeting agreed to it. Cause expulsion included “revealing the secrets of the Order or militating against the interests of the future freedom of Kansas.” Word of such an expulsion would be sent around so everyone would know the expelled “as a man destitute of the principles of truth, honor, and integrity.”

A regiment might not form much of a paramilitary band. The constitution contemplates groups too small to make much of a militia still counting as regiments. A quorum required only five. Given this provision:

As soon as each and every regiment shall number thirty members upon its muster roll it shall proceed forthwith to organize an efficient regular Military Company.

You could join a group of fewer people and have a club, with the right to send delegates to the semiannual meetings, but once the roster topped thirty one had to get serious. Then the Grand Encampment expected soldiering, at least now and then, as well as talking.

 

How Much Blood for Kansas?

Pardee Butler

Pardee Butler

Bleeding Kansas, at least into November of 1855, has turned out less sanguine than advertised. Its first election, back in November of 1854, produced only violent threats.  The second, to populate the Assembly, managed rather better but still passed without fatalities. Many of the fistfights might have shed some blood and the attacks on William Phillips and Pardee Butler could have turned into deadly altercations, but neither did. Cole McRea, a free soiler, killed proslavery man Malcolm Clark back in the spring but their dispute involved competing property claims at least as much as political differences. Disputes over land that resolved themselves through the death of one party left the person just as dead as any fight over slavery, but they also happened all across the frontier. They speak more to Kansas’ unsettled state and weak governance than to its specific political turmoil.

We should not discount the impact of non-fatal attacks upon one’s peace of mind, and certainly not upon the general increase of tensions that they both indicate and facilitate. People who know themselves liable to attack take precautions. They go about more often with friends. They arm themselves more heavily. They develop an interest in having a violent reputation to deter attackers. All of this comes with a great deal of fear and paranoia, adding a constant psychological strain. All these facts press toward further escalation. If the other party has friends, you need friends. If you don’t have any, then the best way to get them might involve declaring for a cause. They have knives; you need knives. If they have guns, then you must as well. The other side can see the same. Defensive decisions become new provocations. Something must give.

The tension finally boiled over while the free state men convened at Topeka to write their constitution. On October 25, Samuel Collins fell to the ground on the streets of Doniphan in the first clear case of political murder in Kansas. Depending on who one asks, he had as many as two hundred or as few as fifty fellows. This past weekend I read Dale E. Watts 1995 article (PDF) on the body count, which discusses the difficulty of arriving at a precise number. He offers fifty-six clear cases. This is rather less than contemporaries on either side would have us believe, but he rightly points out that both sides had every reason to exaggerate:

Both sides tended to overestimate the level of carnage, sometimes to gain sympathy because of their losses, sometimes to convince themselves and the world that they were destroying their enemies in great numbers and thus were winning the contest. One proslavery Atchison newspaper reported that fifteen proslavery men had been killed at the Battle of Black Jack in Douglas County in June 1856. In reality no one on either side was killed during the battle. The antislavery papers were not any more accurate in their reporting. The Lawrence Herald of Freedom took the proslavery newspapers to task for exaggerating free-state losses at the Battle of Osawatomie in Lykins (Miami) county in August 1856, but in the same article the Herald made the wild claim that thirty or forty dead proslavery men were hauled from the battlefield. Only two of these proslavery casualties can be documented.

Even if one could get around the exaggerations, and the incomplete record in general, what motivated a killing comes down to a question of interpretation. People can do things for multiple reasons, so when we have evidence of multiple motives we must weigh them and decide which ultimately prevailed. With the Collins-Laughlin fray, we have witnesses who told us clearly that the men worked together until Laughlin betrayed the Kansas Legion. Collins confronted Laughlin and demanded he recant what he had published about the group. Laughlin refused and the guns came out. The Clark-McCrea killing doesn’t provide such a clear record, though Watts considers it the second documented political killing in the territory. He counts the first as the killing of an unidentified black man stealing himself from slavery.

Where does one draw the line, though? Until I saw Malcolm Clark in Watts’ roster, I had written his death off as only incidentally political and more about land. I had missed reference to the absconding slave entirely. Thus I considered Collins the first confirmed political death, which I have cause to now reconsider.

If we have trouble including slavery as a causative factor, then we can have similar trouble excluding it. Must agitation over slavery form the dominant reason for violence in order for us to consider the violence an extension of politics or can we also consider it as a necessary, but possibly not alone sufficient, cause for violence? Watts explores this tension in the case of a later murder, allowing that the parties did differ over slavery as well as land claims. He places slavery in a secondary role, while allowing that it may have made peaceful resolution more difficult. In that situation, I would take politics as an especially relevant contributing factor to the death. Would the men have come to blows without politics separating them? We can’t know.

Ultimately, Watts says

A careful search of representative sources reveals a total of 157 violent deaths during the territorial period. Of these, fifty-six may be attributed with some confidence to the political conflict or the slavery issue. The remaining 101 killings i fifty-two resulting from personal conflicts such as fights or brawls, seventeen stemming directly from land disputes, eleven from lynchings, and five occurring during robberies. In sixteen cases information is insufficient to determine a primary motivation. Of these 101 slayings, twenty-five may have had politics or slavery as a significant contributing cause, but primarily they were the result of other factors.

Slave “mistresses” and the Slaveholder’s Lexicon

Julian Bond (via Wikipedia)

Julian Bond (via Wikipedia)

My copy of Between the World and Me arrived Friday. I read it at once, as we all should. If you know Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing, then you know to expect powerful, direct prose. A book allows him to deploy more of it than any magazine feature, but he does more than that in the slim space between the covers. Coates uses the epistolary format to address the reader directly. We all get to stand in for his son, more hearing him speak than reading words on a page. Even when I know what an author sounds like in person, I rarely read their writing in that voice. Coates had me doing it before the end of the first page. I hoped to share some insights of his here, but I think the work ill-served by easy excerpts. It has only three chapters and reads more like a single speech with brief pauses for breath than a conventional piece of non-fiction. The experience of reading it reminded me more of hearing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl performed, a beautiful eruption of thought and emotion rather than tamed sentences and paragraphs. I can’t do it justice. I considered just writing a review and moving on.

Then Julian Bond died. Via twitter, I learned how the New York Times chose to report on Bond’s ancestry in an otherwise decent obituary:

Julian Bond’s great-grandmother Jane Bond was the slave mistress of a Kentucky farmer.

This line, brought to mind several passages from Between the World and Me. “Slave mistress” sounds almost like a strange sort of job title. The law of white Kentucky, enacted and enforced by white Kentuckians, made Jane Bond a slave, but something else made her a mistress. Nobody forces anyone into an extramarital affair, but rather the principals engage willingly and as partners. The harm done falls on someone else, an absent spouse. But as a slave, Jane Bond did not have the luxury of any such consent. The law of Kentucky took that from her and placed it in the hands of the man who raped her. It did this not by some accident or oversight, but with the knowledge that he and others would do exactly that.

To call Bond a mistress requires one to read from the slaveholder’s lexicon. It literally whitewashes the whole affair, to the point that it can slip past an inattentive or uninformed reader. Much of our language does that, with conventional phrasing chosen to obscure rather than reveal. Coates began with a consideration of such things:

The destroyers are merely men enforcing the whims of our country, correctly interpreting its heritage and legacy. It is hard to face this. But all our phrasing-race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy-serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.

In obscuring these ugly facts we may slave our consciences, but we do so at the cost of making common cause with those who broke the bones, whipped the backs, and exercised the full power the law gave them over black bodies of both sexes. I say at the cost and not at our cost, as we have ensured that we do not pay the price for such things. As Coates says:

“White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive power to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, “white people” would cease to exist for want of reasons.

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

Ellen Craft, dressed as she did when fleeing to freedom

We can imagine Bond’s owner as a farmer. In a strictly literal sense, he might have owned a farm. But Thomas Jefferson owned a farm too. When he praised those who worked the earth, he imagined a very different set of people than those who worked the earth outside his window. He may as well have lived on a different planet from them, except when he called them in to cook his meals, do his laundry, clean his house, and satiate his lusts. Those people, in Coates words, “born out of mass rape, whose ancestors were carried off and divided up into policies and stocks” did not share in Jefferson’s sometimes fleeting prosperity. He experienced slavery as a wellspring of pleasures: status, wealth, and power. With a few hundred on hand, all of Jefferson’s slaves must have run together. How many of us could keep so many people straight? But

Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods, who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, as a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dressmaking and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone. “Slavery” is this same woman born in a world that loudly proclaims its love of freedom and inscribes this love in its essential texts, a world in which these same professors hold this woman a slave, hold her mother a slave, her father a slave, her daughter a slave, and when this woman peers back into the generations all she sees is the enslaved. She can hope for more. She can imagine some future for her grandchildren. But when she dies, the world-which is really the only world she can ever know-ends. For this woman, enslavement is not a parable. It is damnation. It is the never-ending night. And the length of that night is most of our history. Never forget that we were enslaved in this country longer than we have been free. Never forget that for 250 years black people were born into chains-whole generations followed by more generations who knew nothing but chains.

Maybe some slave mistresses felt genuine attraction to the men who owned them, but even if they did they could not go entirely willingly to those men. Their owners held the power of life and death over them as surely with whip or gun in hand as they did with pen poised over a contract to sell away their loved ones or with a mere crooked finger. To refuse meant not vicious words or a dirty look, but death and destruction. The slave, made from the ruin of a person, could still have all the normal thoughts and feelings of a person, but rarely dared express them in full. Even if she did, they meant nothing to the man the law said owned her body. The enslaved fled from that reality when they could and dared, William and Ellen Craft specifically to spare their children such a fate. Knowing this, antislavery northerners declared the entire South a giant brothel. Mary Chesnut reports that the high society women of Charleston gossiped about it. One need not plunge deep into the history to know this, but only think about the most basic, brutal facts of slavery.

These hard facts all vanish in the Times’ obituary. It concerns Bond and not his great-grandmother, so we should not expect it to plumb the depths quite as Coates did. But if Jane Bond mattered enough to deserve a mention, than she mattered enough to deserve an honest one. It would have taken no more than an extra word or two to write instead that she served as the sex slave of a Kentucky enslaver. No one would misunderstand that or miss its significance. It would only have broken the rules of the white American syndicate.